Defeating the LTTE: The Worldwide Significance of This Achievement

Serge De Silva-Ranasinghe, in Asia-Pacific Defence News, Vol.5/5, May 15-June14, 2010, where the title is Defeat Of The LTTE And Its Significance” …. with the difficult & painstaking task of conversion being handled by Darshanie Ratnawalli in Sri Lanka ... while the highlighting emphasis in the article is the work of The Editor, Thuppahi

The month of May 2010 marks the first anniversary of the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE), which was widely considered to be among the most formidable insurgent-terrorist organisations in the world. In what was universally thought to be an unwinnable war, Sri Lanka emerged victorious in one of the most remarkable counter insurgency campaigns in the history of modern counter-insurgency(COIN) warfare, says Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe

Victorious Sri Lankan troops

As the only military in recent times to have defeated a formidable and sophisticated insurgency, the Sri Lankan military has further discredited the idea that intractable and established insurgencies cannot be militarily subdued. Since the Second World War, there have been very few examples which resulted in the military defeat of an insurgency, the most obvious that come to mind are the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya (1952-1960), Dhofar Rebellion in Oman (1962-1975) and Punjabi Insurgency in India (1978- 1990). But in comparison to Sri Lanka’s LTTE-led Tamil insurgency, the significance of these comparatively smaller counter-insurgency victories diminishes when one considers the scale and sophistication of the LTTE, “whose standard of fighting is about the best compared to any other insurgency movement in the world”, according to General AS Kalkat, the onetime commander of the IndianArmy occupation force in Sri Lanka,which fought a bloody counter-insurgencycampaign against the LTTE andlost over 1,500 troops.

Most Ruthless

Indeed, with each passing phase of Sri Lanka’s conflict from 1983-2002, including the era of Indian military intervention from 1987-1990, the LTTE progressively grew in strength, influence and capabilities to a point where it had developed a formidable hybrid conventional capability. In addition, the LTTE had a reputation for being one of the most ruthless insurgent organizations in the world and was viewed by the US government’s key law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) as a successful model among aspiring insurgent-terrorist groups worldwide to emulate: “As terrorist groups go, it has quite a résumé: perfected the use of suicide bombers; invented the suicide belt; pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks; murdered some 4,000 people in the past two years alone; and assassinated two world leaders—the only terrorist organization to do so. No, it’s not al Qaeda or Hezbollahor even HAMAS. The group is called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. the Tamil Tigers are among the mostdangerous and deadly extremists in the world…its ruthless tactics have inspired terrorist networks worldwide, including al Qaeda in Iraq.”

The capability of the LTTE to thwart all attempts by the Sri Lankan and Indian militaries to seek its destruction eventually convinced many analysts and observers in Sri Lanka and overseas that the secessionist civil war was militarily unwinnable. “There is no armed resolution to the conflict. The Sri Lanka Army cannot win the war against the Lankan Tamil insurgents,” said veteran General AS Kalkat in an interview with Gulf News in 2006. At its military zenith, the LTTE controlled around 15,000 sq km; fielded a large and well equipped hybrid conventional army; a sophisticated maritime force capable of challengingc onventional naval forces and raised a nascent air wing.

 Master of the IED

The LTTE also perfected the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and refined the art of suicide terrorism on land, sea and air. As such, what makes Sri Lanka’s experience so unique is that no military in the world has faced such a diverse array of threats and emerged victorious. Sri Lanka is also one of the few COIN campaigns where there was a major maritime dimension, which according to a report commissioned by the RAND Corporation emphasized “The LTTE maritime organization is the most formidable, non-state navy in the world.” The significance of the defeat of the LTTE maritime wing, the Sea Tigers, by the Sri Lanka Navy was affirmed by Jane’s Defence Weekly, which claimed was “the first naval force in the modern era to defeat a well-armed insurgentgroup at sea.”










Map marking SL Navy’s outreach to sink LTTE logistics ships …. one being the “Seishin” on 10 September 2007  … with these two illustrations beeing Thuppahi additions to Serge’s item

Western Underevaluation

However, regardless of the significance of Sri Lanka’s COIN success, the sentiment expressed by many Western observers has been in stark contrast to that of defence commentators in the South Asian region, which one retiredSri Lankan military official summed up: “Some foreign experts have no idea of the ground realities with Sri Lanka’s successfulmilitary campaign. They just donot want to acknowledge the capabilitiesof our armed forces or keep ignoringthem.” In line with this, when illustrating the significance of Sri Lanka’s COIN achievement, American journalist Robert Kaplan stated in his article To Catch a Tiger: “Clearly, then, the US Army and Marine Corps should be studying the Sri Lankan civil war for valuable lessons about how to win a counter insurgency,right? Actually – no. In fact, there are no useful pointers to be gleaned from the Sri Lankan government’s victory.”

In contrast, B. Raman, a political commentator and former senior intelligence official from India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, argued: “In any history of counter-terrorism, the way the entire Sri Lankan counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency machinery under [President] Rajapakse fought against the LTTE and prevailed over it would form an important chapter.” Similarly, Major General Ashok Mehta, a veteran of the Indian Army in Sri Lanka and a prominentdefence commentator, told The Los Angeles Times: “A military precept the world over is that you can’t win militarily against an insurgency, which is essentially a political struggle. They turned that on its head.”

“Indeed, with each passing phase of Sri Lanka’s conflict from 1983-2002, including the era of Indian military intervention from 1987-1990, the LTTE progressively grew in strength, influence and capabilities to a point where it had developed a formidable hybrid conventional capability.”

Stabilising Effect

Apart from the stabilizing effect the defeat of the LTTE has had on Sri Lanka, its demise has had the added benefitof considerably reducing the subversivethreat it posed to the region. The threat posed to India’s internal security by the LTTE has also diminished markedly, leaving India less susceptible to the influence of secessionist activities in its southern states, which until recently was of serious concern: “A civil war in Sri Lanka is not in India’s interestsand nor the division of Sri Lanka or forming an independent Tamil state. The next thing that the LTTE could be expected to demand is a Greater Eelam comprising Northern Sri Lanka and the Indian state of Tamil Nadu,” stated Dr. Subhash Kapila, an Indian foreign policy and defence commentator. Similarly, The Times of India reported that an official with India’s Narcotics Control Bureau claimed, “The complete annihilation of the LTTE is definitely going to affect the dynamics of the drug trade in this part of the world in a big way. The group was a major player for decades and only time will tell how its sudden collapse is going to change the modus operandi of local gangs in India.” Such evidence reinforces the view expressed by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to the United Nations: “The Tigers were among the best known brands in the terrorist universe and by defeating them so completely and utterly Sri Lanka and its armed forces have made a contribution to regional and global security and stability.”

Lessons in Counter-Insurgency

Since the defeat of the LTTE, there has been growing international interest in learning from Sri Lanka’s COIN experience. The BBC News reported in August 2009 that Pakistan had requested to send military cadets to Sri Lankan military training institutions to learn from its counter-insurgency experience. “The next thing that the LTTE could be expected to demand is a Greater Eelam comprising Northern Sri Lanka and the Indian state of Tamil Nadu,” stated Dr. Subhash Kapila, an Indian foreign policy and defence commentator.

Similarly, in the same month the Sri Lankan daily, The Island, reported that the UK and India had approached Sri Lanka to share its experience in small boat operations and a team of US military advisors in their first visit after the conflict, conducted joint training exercises with Sri Lanka Navy elite forces. The Filipino daily, The Manila Times, reported in September 2009 that “the LTTE over there equates as the Moro Islamic Front over here” and that the Philippines demonstrated serious interest in military exchange programs with Sri Lanka. It also reported that a decorated Sri Lankan Major General, who attended the Philippines National Defense College (and won the prestigious gold medal prize for his thesis), had briefed senior officials from the office of President Gloria Arroyo and the Filipino military. In October 2009, The Bangkok Post stated: “The [Thai] government is considering adopting techniques used by Sri Lanka in dealing with the Tamil Tiger rebels in its efforts to contain the insurgency in the South. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday held talks with his Sri Lankan counterpart, Ratnasiri Wickremanayaka, on the Sri Lankan government’s success in putting down the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement.”

More recently in March 2010, a senior Bangladeshi military delegation arrived in Sri Lanka to study its COIN strategy with a view to using transferable lessons. Perhaps equally interesting has been the tendency of some South Asian politicians, namely in India and Nepal, to use the example of Sri Lanka to warn Maoist insurgents of consequences, as exemplified earlier this year by Nepalese Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal.

Given the evidence presented,it is indisputable that Sri Lanka’s COIN success is historically significant andhas potentially useful transferable lessons for countries engaged in intractable conflicts. Already, a number of countries such as Bangladesh Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand are now aiming to use transferable lessons from Sri Lanka’s experience to deal with their own entrenched insurgencies. Western countries which continue ignore the lessons from Sri Lanka’s COIN success are inadvertently undermining the potential lessons from Sri Lanka that may apply to their present circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is why militaries around the world should aim to analyse Sri Lanka’s COIN strategy with a view to better understanding the fundamental principles of engaging and winning a COIN campaign.



NB: The two photographs (one at the start and the other at the end) were those presented in the APDN article; but Thuppahi has added a few illustrations of the land-war theatre to underline the import of De Silva-Ranasinghe’s analysis. The fuller pictorial tale (with exegesis) can be found in Michael Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2014. The illustratiions below are taken from this book.

62a: makkal padai — the LTTE’s mobilisation of the Tamil peopl as militia in 2004 …. & 67: Map of Thamililam in late 2007 when a stalemate prevailed









73a & 73b: Bund and water ditch system of defence perfected by the LTTE to thwart the SL Army and to nullify its armed corps weaponry

90a = Situation  Map, 20 March 2009  



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One response to “Defeating the LTTE: The Worldwide Significance of This Achievement

  1. Sachi Sri Kantha

    Thanks for posting this so-called “World wide significance” of defeating the LTTE item. My pensive question is ‘at what cost to Sri Lankans?’
    Here are my brief thoughts. In addition to providing citations to specific individuals (including handful of phony experts on terrorism, such as Robert Kaplan, B. Raman, Subhash Kapila and Dayan Jayatilleka), this commentary would have gained much weight, prestige and educational value, if it has included some authenticated numbers such as,
    (1) casualties in combatants from Sri Lankan armed forces and LTTE, from 1983-2009.
    (2) causalties in non-combatants, from 1983-2009.
    (3) annual military expenditure (direct and indirect), from 1983-2009.
    (4) ecological damage to the Northern and Eastern provinces.
    (5) costs of physical and mental care of the injured folks (military and non-military), from 1983 until now.
    (6) how many individuals from Indian and Sri Lankan societies died due to irrational and sloppy decisions made by the so-called ‘two world leaders’ (Rajiv Gandhi and Ranasinghe Premadasa) during their respective tenures in office, from 1984 to 1989 and 1988 to 1993, respectively.

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