Sri Lanka News and Information Portal

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Have we crossed a watershed? Reflections on the transformation of the LTTE’s military organisation

Article Index
Have we crossed a watershed? Reflections on the transformation of the LTTE’s military organisation
Categories of left misconception
All Pages
The Sri Lanka Armed Forces (hereafter SLAF, not to be confused with the air-force alone) may, after Pooneryn and Mankulam, take Kilinochchi and push onwards to Mullaitivu, but the slow progress in the last three months – the army has been within "2km of Kilinochchi" and its fall imminent for eight weeks (!) – and the gridlock on all other fronts except north of Mannar must give us pause. The interesting question is how shall we characterise the LTTE’s military organisation? Shall we no longer depict it as a guerrilla force and shall we describe it hereafter as a full-complement armed force? If so what are the implications?

Armed forces

There is a lot of stuff in cyberspace and recently I found something that helped consolidate thoughts I was groping towards. Allow me to quote.

"The LTTE is an all-arms combat outfit; it has artillery, ships and aircraft. But more important it is able to stand up to and fight a well equipped army of 150,000 along a 150km front; which at the time of writing it has held, albeit with some retreat, over a period of two years. Thus the LTTE, as we should understand it and view it, is a cohesive comprehensive military force, with specialised arms and its own command and control network which is able to plan and prosecute a conventional war on a multitude of fronts in a rational considered manner".

"The LTTE began by robbing banks and raiding police stations, like other Tamil armed groups. Then it moved to unconventional or guerrilla warfare. Given the military superiority of its opponent it used small groups, stealth and surprise to attack isolated and vulnerable military camps; asymmetrical warfare in other words. Although it is still not generally accepted, the army’s failure to take Killinochchi will gradually change the perception of the LTTE as a guerrilla force. It is doing what a conventional army does and doing it effectively. Killinochchi may or may not fall, but that is immaterial; over the last three decades, the LTTE has evolved from a guerrilla force to what a rational observer will see as no different from an all round armed force".

I am inclined to agree with this argument as far as it goes, but to my mind there are political and a technological implications that go beyond the purely military. First, it is behaving like the armed forces of a proto-state defending the borders of a proto-nation, reminiscent of the proto-state entities into which Yugoslavia initially disintegrated, or the organised forces that prepared the way for the two breakaway regions of Georgia. If the SLAF defeats the LTTE in some battles, it does not mean very much, the future simply portends battles in other locations. Those who envisaged the LTTE quickly reverting to guerrilla tactics (the army commander is a recent convert to this view) have been too hasty in their prognosis. Yes, this is a possibility, but still some way off. Instead, Sinhala polity, in refusing to solve the national question for 60 years, has created its own nemesis, a formal army in a neighbourhood proto-state.

Second, the LTTE is building a human resources capital base, or technology, just as conventional armed forces and nation states do. Some observers speculate that LTTE pilots acquired night-vision capability before the Sri Lanka Air Force did, and others think the future acquisition of missiles to challenge jet aircraft cannot be discounted. Readers may laud or decry the LTTE’s military evolution - that is a separate matter – my point is that the changes that have taken place are transformative.

Victory and defeat

Schematically there are three possible short-term scenarios, battlefield victories for one or the other side, or a prolonged seesaw stalemate. In reality, however, all three options reduce to one; stalemate. The paragraphs above have emphasised that even if the SLAF takes Kilinochchi and progress beyond nothing fundamental will change well into next year; positional warfare will continue, at best large planned engagements will change to unconventional combat of high intensity attrition. If on the other hand the LTTE turns the tables, as at the end of Jayasikurui, and inflicts a defeat forcing the SLAF to withdraw, this too will be but a temporary remission. The LTTE can never storm Colombo and capture such vital localities as Cinnamon Gardens and the Colombo Golf Club! Seriously though, given the Sinhala to Tamil demographic ratio, a complete, comprehensive and across-the-board LTTE victory is pure fantasy; and Thamil Eelam an infeasible dream because of Indian and international opposition.

The Achilles’ heel of a conventional army is the need for a good supply chain for armaments, fuel and funds and the importance of an international diplomatic and political support network. This is more important in the long run than losing ground as it now is. The LTTE has, over the years, squandered its international support in India and the West and is making strenuous efforts to repair the mistakes. The longer it sustains a credible ground war at home, and the more the government’s political folly (non-devolution) or military errors (pushing the military into unproductive actions to fit political or electoral timetables), the more time the LTTE buys to influence international opinion but I am in no position to judge how much longer the LTTE can sustain large scale conventional warfare against the SLAF.

Categories of left misconception

Forget the formal left ensconced in government; the less said of its self-serving obfuscations the better. There is however another category of upright radicals, both left inclined and liberal, which nevertheless suffers from two strange mental blocks. First, having eviscerated the regime for its anti-democratic and anti-human rights record and having flayed Sinhala chauvinism with an eloquence that is beyond the likes of me, with what flourish do these worthies conclude? What is their punch line? The President "must do such and such" they say; the regime must make "such and such constitutional changes, grant devolution, do away with the unitary state" they insist; and so on, they preach their catechism to the state.

I don’t get it. Aren’t they asking this regime to do precisely that which by its very nature it cannot? Aren’t they calling upon the regime to be exactly what it is not? Don’t they see the oxymoronic plight of their pleadings? If it is only a rhetorical device, still, public discourse has long passed that stage. Better pick up some version of Oakum’s Razor, sharpen the mind, and get down to the intellectual grind of thinking things through.

The second point is that these worthies nearly one and all – soft-left and liberals, except, that is, the ‘hard-left’ – lambaste the LTTE as an abomination that must be eradicated. There are two versions; blessed redemption will come to the Tamils thereafter, or let’s eradicate it in parallel with granting concessions "to win the Tamils away from the LTTE" (a favourite line and motive). I will repeat in just one sentence something I have said before ad nauseam; I couldn’t care less if the LTTE is roasted in pluperfect purgatory after the Tamils have won federalism or some similar dispensation, but if it is destroyed prior to that, it will be curtains for the Tamils – or to borrow indomitable Doric de Souza’s inimitable idiom, "they will get bugger-all after that".

Distressing examples of left stupefaction also come from two people who have earned reputations for their steadfastness on democratic and minority rights issues. Since they are personal friends I will name them; they will not deny me the right to public dissent. Victor Ivan calls for the destruction of the LTTE because he thinks Tamils will breathe more freely once this jackboot is lifted; he also believes that horrors of 1983 were in part the fruits of Tamil nationalism. I have replied to him in two previous Sunday Island pieces, but the coup de grace came from Kumar Rupesinghe who alluded, pithily, to "Victor Ivan’s somersaults". There is no need to add to these three words.

The second much respected person who has got himself rather befuddled is Jayadeva Uyangoda. In the October 25 issue of India’s Economic and Political Weekly, in an otherwise refreshing article that bears some affinity to my Indo-Lanka integration thesis, he says:

"I now know that ethnic majoritarianism is not necessarily coercive. It has a strong element of consent of the minorities, or at least their political leaders. Majoritarianism is completed when the political representatives of the minorities accept, with happiness and even in intense competition with each other, the condition of inequality. They do so in exchange of other benefits which are usually couched in the respectable language of development assistance to our community."

Of course it is clear what kind of minority political organisms Uyangoda has in mind; the Sangarees, Douglases, Pillayans and Karunas. The total following of the former can be packed into one three wheeler, mostly Sinhalese; the latter three have one armed battalion apiece, squatting behind SLAF guard-posts. Uyangoda knows better than I do that these are not Tamil nationalists in any sense of the word; does Vidkun Quisling impress him as an example of the Norwegian resistance movement relishing the Nazi embrace with intense happiness? He claims that he arrived at this profundity after deep thought; some gear is slipping!

I can only conjecture that these various mental blocks arise because the complexities of modern nationalisms and civil wars are not easy to fit into received models, sociological or old-world Marxist. It is time to think sui generis and be theoretically uncompromising on fundamentals, but Victor Ivan, Jayadeva Uyangoda in this instance, and many good people on the left, and among liberal democrats, are not finding the ugly world of ethnic civil-war intellectually pliable or theoretically easy to digest.

~  The Island ~


Featured Articles

Defeating LTTEterrorism | How the country could face the threat of UN war crimes inquiry

LLRC told of President Rajapaksa’s right to take military action Senior lawyer Gomin Dayasri says the Sri Lankan government can justify its war against LTTE terror on the basis of...

Sunday, 31 October 2010


Will there be a Violent Resurgence of the LTTE soon?

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) was virtually demolished in May 2009  by the Sri Lankan armed forces in a series of battles in the Karaithuriapatru AGA division of  the...

TUSEDAY, 16 November 2010


More in: Politics, Sri Lanka, Defence, LTTE, International

Latest Articles