The Cat, a Bell and a Few Strategists
Many arguments about the best and most effective way of defeating
or suppressing armed Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka have been
ventured in earnest since the beginning of the Eelam War almost
fourteen years ago.
The latest of these can be stated thus:
‘The LTTE’s recruitment base is showing clear signs of
diminishing such as the fact that they are relying more and more
on women and children for new recruits. This is an irreversible
trend given the social and economic realities of the northeast,
whereas the army can continue to draw recruits from a population
which is at least sixty percent larger than the one on which the
Tigers have to depend. Furthermore, the total strength of the
Tigers being one tenth or slightly higher than that of the army,
manpower losses which they sustain in battles will have ten
times the impact such losses can have on the security forces.
Therefore, ‘manpower’ shortages will, in the foreseeable future,
impel the LTTE to abandon the military option or reduce it to an
insignificant and marginal guerrilla organization.’
There were some who were inclined to view this assertion rather
as a manifestation of wishful thinking and despair following the
fall of Mullaithivu and the setbacks in Paranthan, Pulukunavi etc.,-
an embarrassed fumbler’s tactical refuge, than a sensible prediction
of the Eelam War’s trajectory in the coming years.
However, I thought it necessary to examine the merits and faults, if
any, of this line of thinking after hearing slightly different
versions of the argument from security affairs specialists on both
sides of the Atlantic - and also at the prestigious International
Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), according to a
recent publication, had estimated in 1995 that there were fourteen
thousand fighting members in the Liberation Tigers. A senior member
of the LTTE, however, disputed this estimate, saying that it is
higher. But he was not ready to divulge the actual figure. But I
think that it might be reasonable to assume that the DMI assessment
is not flagrantly off the mark with respect to the number of troops
the LTTE has stationed in its camps in the northeast.
The Tamils of the north and east including those who came from the
hill country and settled down there following the pogroms of 58' and
77' were approximately 1,429,942 according to the ’81 census. There
are currently about 1.7 million Tamils in the Northeast. Of these,
around 958,643 people live in areas controlled by the LTTE or where
the army is not present.
The total population, both permanent and internally displaced of
what are officially categorized as the uncleared areas of the four
districts of the Vanni (Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaithivu and
Kilinochchi) was 681,358 as at 28.2.97 according to an official
assessment. There are some who are inclined to think that there are
no more than four hundred thousand people in the Vanni. This,
however, is a very impressionistic view which has no basis even in
the assessments ‘unofficially’ made by the government.
And approximately 207,285 (calculated from 94-95 mid year estimates)
live in the uncleared areas of the Batticaloa district. (Seventy six
percent of the district’s population according to an official
estimate are in the rural parts. At least 65 percent of Batticaloa’s
population - 207,285 - are in the uncleared areas, which are
controlled by the Tigers).Then there are about 70,000 scattered in
those sectors of Trincomalee (35,000), Ampara (15,000) and Jaffna
(20,000) districts where the security forces are not present.
This means at least fifty-six percent of the Tamil population in the
Northeast is not under the government’s direct supervision. And
approximately 888,643 ( this is a minimum figure which is 52 percent
of the Tamil population in N-E) live in areas dominated by the
The LTTE raised its present strength between 1991 and ‘95 from the
population which lived in areas controlled or dominated by the
organization during that period. This, if we deduct the populations
that were in the cleared areas of the East and the Vanni (114,097)
at that time amounting to about five hundred thousand, was about 1.2
million. Recruitment in cleared areas was negligible during this
period. Hence the LTTE’s recruitment ratio as a percentage of the
base population was 1.1
The Sinhala population is about 13.4 million (According to the
demographic survey conducted by the Dept. of Census and Statistics
in 94 there are 12,556,328 Sinhalese in the country excluding the
northeast. If we add those presently living in Trincomalee, Ampara,
and Weli Oya and the annual growth rate, we get an approximate
figure.) The army’s current strength is estimated at 110,000 which
is .82 percent of the Sinhala population base. We have witnessed
several attempts in recent years to take in a large number of young
people into the army from the south, combined with a growing number
of incentives and the removal of some standard criteria for military
recruitment. The majority which was recruited thus has gone to
replenish the ranks. The maximum degree to which the army can raise
its manpower, other things being equal, may not therefore go much
beyond .82 percent of the Sinhala population.
(Though not substantial, the Muslims who were 7.1 percent of the
island’s population in 81' also form part of the government’s
recruitment grounds. And the up country Tamils have been a potential
but very minor recruitment base for the Tigers despite the
speculations of some Cassandras. In my computations both are taken
as negligible components.)
In this connection, the work of the military sociologist Stanislav
Andreski might be mentioned. His is the only academic treatise
(‘Military Organization and Society’) on the connection between
populations and the quantum of organized fighting men they can
produce and sustain. He is best known among defence specialists for
introducing the concept of Military Participation Ratio (MPR), by
which, when other factors are taken into account, the degree to
which a society is militarised may be measured. Andreski cites the
example of Trek Boers and Cossacks who were characterized by high
MPR. According to the caste based census of the Tamils in South
India taken by the British in 1891, twenty six percent of the
population belonged to the traditional military castes. (The British
army’s recruitment handbook on the ‘Madras Classes’ of 1938 is a
remarkable historical document on drafting Tamils into a modern
army.) Some military historians argue that a ten percent MPR is
about the maximum a society can tolerate while continuing to
function at normal levels of efficiency. The American Civil War in
which the South and the North between them raised three million out
of a pre-war population of 32 million-10 percent, is cited as an
Such high MPRs which began with the levee en masse in France in 1793
and have been witnessed in some revolutionary or anti-colonial
upheavals since World War II appear almost impossible in this era
due to a number of social and economic reasons. (William Mc Neil,
however, argues in ‘The Pursuit of Power’, his widely quoted classic
on comparative military history, that very high MPR in eighteenth
century England and France helped avert population pressure and the
attendant phenomenon of mass poverty.) The military historians who
consider ten percent the maximum generally tend to ignore some
social and economical factors which externally or indirectly helped
maintain normal levels of efficiency in situations they have
The role of the black slaves in the American economy during the
civil war is not reckoned with for instance. And more importantly,
there is a vast difference between the basic conditions which
ensured ‘the normal levels of efficiency’ in a nineteenth century
society and those required for the purpose in an economy rapidly
integrating into the global dynamics of late twentieth century. I
think that a maximum force level that may occasion anything close to
five percent MPR can upset the minimum equilibrium required to
efficiently run a democratic state in our times. Attempting to
extract exceedingly more than a settled peace time society’s
‘normal’ MPR, which in modern states has to be induced anyway, in a
particular situation - in this case the need to fight the Eelam War
- can inevitably create economic and political instability. This is
why the practice of universal conscription which gave rise to very
high MPRs in the West from the late eighteenth century until World
War II was abandoned in modern times.
On the other hand societies subjected to nationalist and
revolutionary upheavals since World War II have, in many instances,
shown remarkably high MPRs. Even in the war torn northeast, as we
shall see later in a case study, the districts most affected by
acute conflict conditions have high MPRs.
This is the basic difference we have to keep in mind when
considering recruitment levels in the northeast and rest of the
The south, despite the Eelam War, remains socially, politically and
economically undisturbed. (The JVP insurrection came and went. The
equilibrium was not upset for more than two years.) The .82 MPR in
the South can be taken as standard - it was increased from .12
percent in 1983 to its current level and has remained steady.
In contrast, the various disturbances in the socio-economic
equilibrium among Tamils since 1977 in the context of militant
nationalism have impelled the Military Participation Ratio among
them through several phases as we shall see later. It shot up from
.06 before July 1983 to more than 2.8 by mid 1985, was then brought
down to .3 in 88-89, and went up again almost overnight in 1990 to
1.5, coming to level around 1993 at 1.1. A scrutiny of these phases
will show that no one can rest assured that war weariness can induce
a permanently low MPR in the northeast or that the geographical
limits of the recruitment grounds would remain static under all
conditions of the conflict.
Recruitment to the armed Tamil separatist movement in the Northeast
peaked in 1984 and 1985. The PLOTE, which was the largest
organization at that time, had six thousand cadres in its military
training camps in south India.
In addition to this it churned out approximately twelve thousand
mostly male cadres in what were known as 'local training camps' who
could be automatically co-opted into regular units which were to be
formed by the Indian trainees.( district commanders were expected to
train an average of thousand five hundred drawn from or through the
political wing. Jaffna exceeded the quota by five hundred.)
The TELO during this period had in its training camps in Tamil Nadu
about four thousand members. It had two thousand local trainees in
the Northeast. The EPRLF, according to Douglas Devananda who was the
organization's military commander until 1986, had more than seven
thousand in its military wing (PLA) including 1500 girls. There were
1800 members in the military wing of the EROS. The LTTE had less
than three thousand full time trained cadres at that time.
We have to also take into account the membership of the political
wings of the PLOTE, TELO, EPRLF and the EROS, part of which could
have been turned into militias on short notice. The fully trained
and armed cadres of the minor organizations such the NLFT, the
Thamilar Paathukappup Peravai, the Liberation Cobras of Thamileelam
and the Tamil Eelam Army which were militarily active at that time
should be also included in this calculation.
If we grant another three thousand (which is a minimum figure) to
both of these categories, the total number of militarily deployable
youth in the Northeast in 84-85 would amount to approximately forty
four thousand eight hundred. It might be noted, incidentally, that a
large number of Tamil youth in the provincial towns and the rural
parts of Tamil Nadu and even in places such as Bombay and Bangalore
who wanted to join the Tamil groups for military training to fight
the Sri Lankan army were discreetly turned back for fear of
repercussions. (Some, however, managed to join and rose to high
positions. One of them so excelled in his work that he was sent to
Lebanon for training by his organisation. The splinter group he
formed in 1987 remains active in Europe )
On the basis of this rough calculation, it can therefore be said
that, at its peak, recruitment into the armed Eelam movement was
more than 2.8 percent of the Sri Lankan Tamil population in the
northeast in 1984-85. In 1983, before the July riots, the full time
membership with basic military training in all the armed Tamil
separatist groups did not exceed 800 - .06 percent Military
Participation Ratio (MPR). This, as we saw, in less than two years
grew to 44,800.
The recruitment level among the Sri Lankan Tamils which peaked in
84-85, from .06 to 2.8, is down to 1.1 percent today - twelve years
The decline is significant. We have to remember here that the MPR
among Tamils went down steeply in 1988 and 89 when the Indian army
was deployed against the Tigers in the northeast. The MPR for this
period takes into account the troop strength the LTTE was able to
sustain in this period after the initial losses and depletion in the
war with the Indian army and the size of the TNA, excluding the
numbers raised through the ill-fated conscription drive of the EPRLF.
Though it is difficult to quantify this downturn with precision -
only a tentative figure of 6000 is available, of which 4000 is
claimed for the TNA- we can certainly say that it fell well below
0.3 percent. This very low MPR suddenly shot up, in the course of
six months (Nov 89'-May 90') from .3 percent to at least 1.5,
enabling the LTTE to establish the basis of its base troop strength
for Eelam War II and Eelam War III. It came to level at 1.1 percent
by 1993 mainly due to the settled conditions in the Tiger controlled
areas of the north, and Jaffna in particular.
We have to consider two questions at this juncture.
a)What are the reasons for this downturn in the MPR among northeast
Tamils which occurred between 86 and 90?, or to put it differently,
Why didn't LTTE achieve the 2.8 MPR of the peak years in 1990 ?
b)What has been the impact of this downturn on the Tamil separatist
movement's military capability ?
Let me first enumerate the reasons for the decline of the Military
Participation Ratio among the Tamils of the northeast from 2.8 to
1) the disintegration of the groups which recruited the vast
majority of Tamil youth during the peak years, namely the PLOTE,
TELO and EPRLF and their complete exclusion from most parts of the
northeast following the withdrawal of the Indian army. Their role in
assisting the army in the 'cleared' areas since 1990 put severe
limits on their recruitment needs, access to former recruitment
grounds and above all on the ideology of national liberation which
had propelled their recruitment drive during the peak years.
2) the disappearance of extensive networks built by the large
political wings of these and other organizations such as the EROS
and the NLFT which were able to attain a very high degree of
politicization at the grass roots level.
3) the highly restrictive and selective training policy of the LTTE.
4) the closure of south India as a rear base where it had been
possible until 1990 to draw resources and maintain a large number of
people. The heavy recruitment in 1984-85 was partly induced by the
availability of this rear base. If not for it most organizations
would have had to turn back the thousands who were eager to join up
the armed groups. The Tigers limited the number of those who
recruited for training in India at that time mainly, I presume, for
financial and logistical reasons. The MPR would have been higher in
84-85 if the Tigers had expanded their training and administrative
facilities in Tamil Nadu, as the PLOTE and TELO had done, to
accommodate the majority of those who were desirous of going for
'Indian training' through them.
5) the belated entry of the LTTE into some very fertile recruitment
grounds in the north, and particularly in the east, which had been
dominated, sometimes exclusively, by the other Tamil groups.
6) decline in Tamil population levels in some parts of the northeast
due to large scale displacement and depopulation carried out in a
systematic manner with the State's full backing or ,in the case of a
few places, acquiescence . About eighteen Tamil villages were
evacuated of their populations in the Ampara district. About ten in
Batticaloa, twenty in Trinco including the large and prosperous
villages of Thiriyai, Kumburuppiddy, Aalenkerny and Thennamaravaady
and about sixteen villages in the southern parts of the Mullaitivu
district including Kumulamunai and Kokkuthoduvai. The majority of
these appear to be permanently destroyed and depopulated.
7) migration to the southern parts of the island and western
countries. According to the demographic survey conducted by the
Dept. of Census and Statistics in 1994 in all parts of the country
except the north and east, there are 774,166 S.L Tamils living in
the south. The majority are those who moved out of the conflict
areas in the northern and eastern provinces since 1987. Though we
have no way of finding the exact number of the S.L Tamils who moved
out thus, it may safely be assumed that the figure is at least
400,000. Furthermore it is estimated that about 324,900 Tamils from
the northeast are living abroad. (Canada alone has about 100,000).
There about 110,000 (of which 95,000 are in refugee camps) in south
India. This means that the actual SLT population in the Northeast
today is at least 800,000 less than what it ought to have been.
8) the alienation and disaffection of considerable sections of those
Tamils and their families who were associated with the non LTTE
And now to the second question. What has been the impact of the
downturn in MPR on the Tamil separatist movement's military
Here it is important to consider the idea of 'optimum force level'
that the LTTE applies to its manpower policy.
An optimum force level is the number of troops that can most
effectively be used against a state's security forces which is
compatible with a rebel military organization's financial resources,
administrative efficiency, political cohesion, logistical capability
and the extent of safe terrain available for training and stationing
troops in secrecy.
Whereas these are the necessary conditions for creating an optimum
force level, sustaining it until achieving the strategic objective
is predicated upon the minimal, and hence long term, MPR which
satisfies the maximum number required periodically to replenish the
shortfalls in the Optimum Force Level. (OFL).
At this point we have to consider the degree to which the LTTE has
been able to inflict damage on the SLG's military assets with the
OFL it has been able to sustain since April 95.
There has been no significant change in the LTTE's OFL after that.
But the military damage inflicted by the LTTE with this OFL based on
the 1.1 MPR has increased dramatically. For example the destruction
caused by the LTTE in eight months between July 96 and March 97,
when tentatively quantified, amounts to about 2,500 soldiers dead,
at least one thousand permanently injured, two large and three
medium camps wiped out, and the loss of hardware, including planes,
tanks, artillery pieces and naval craft, worth billions.
When recruitment among the SL Tamils peaked in 1985 at 2.8 MPR, the
damage that the Tamil armed separatist movement could inflict on the
SL Army which at that time was only twelve percent its current size,
less trained, not well equipped and backed neither by the
international community nor India, was less than fifty soldiers
killed along with a few jeeps and vehicles destroyed which was not
more than a million rupees worth in hardware losses.
In hindsight it appears that the LTTE's adherence to the concept of
OFL was one of the most important reasons for its survival and
emergence as the exclusively fittest from the armed Tamil separatist
For example, the PLOTE which was the largest organization during the
peak recruitment period imploded into insignificance in less than an
year because the degree of political cohesion, administrative
efficiency and logistical capability which the organization was able
to achieve was utterly incompatible with its large membership base.
Things had got quite out of hand by the time the leadership of that
organization realized that streamlining was essential. The
disintegration of the TELO the moment it was hit by the LTTE, which
at that time was smaller and had less weapons is a very illustrative
case in point.
The decline of the other non-LTTE groups can be attributed to this
Another important development in this respect is that the
destructive potential of the LTTE's current OFL has increased
although, as we observed, there has been no patently significant
rise in the number of its troops.( In 85' while the MPR among the
S.L Tamils was reaching the maximum force level, the weaponry
available to the whole Tamil separatist movement did not exceed two
hundred assault rifles and some light machine guns acquired mainly
from the Indians most of which by design or accident had some
component missing in the breech blocks.)
Barring the acquisition of nuclear weapons, increasing the
efficiency of an army has generally been associated, among other
things, with a related rise in its troop strength. "The generals
always ask for more men" goes the saying.
But the destruction of the Mullaitivu base clearly showed that the
LTTE had greatly augmented its capacity to inflict damage on the
government's military assets without significant increases in its
Optimum Force Level or the infusion of a weapons system capable of
significantly altering the military balance which obtained at that
time. The Tigers, of course, used the MBT they seized in Pooneryn.
But one tank, like the swallow which doesn't make the summer, is not
equal to the kind of weapons system that we are talking about here.
The acquisition of artillery at Mullaitivu and Pulukunavi certainly
constitutes a new weapons system which has pushed up the potential
of the LTTE's OFL to another dimension )
This may sound like one of those solemnly phrased truisms that are
not uncommon to academic discourse; but its implications, one may
see upon closer scrutiny, are anything but platitudinous. The
following are some of them:
a) A decline in recruitment ratio can be equated to a proportionate
fall in an organization's military efficiency, over a period of
time, only in a situation where that efficiency has been built and
sustained on a maximum force level and expectations related to, or
arising from it.
b) The decline of Tamil MPR was to some degree induced by the
concept of Optimum Force Level in the LTTE's method of war making.
c) The decline was also partly due to the closure of several fertile
recruitment grounds as a direct result of the LTTE's fratricidal
actions which led to the reconfiguration of the Eelam movement
militarily. As such this closure cannot be taken as a permanent
feature of the Tamil political landscape. With the fading of old
grievances and hatreds and the rise of new and perhaps sharper
contradictions with the state, the reopening of these grounds is a
very real possibility. Some EPRLF and PLOTE recruitment grounds
which resisted the LTTE's intrusion for many years are now counted
among the organization's strongholds.
d) The MPR among Tamils was brought down in 1988-89 by denying
recruitment grounds to the LTTE through the Indian strategy of
military saturation. It is incorrect therefore to refer to it as a
decline. This is why recruitment shot up as soon as the IPKF left.
And again in the east, during the peace talks from Sept 94 to April
95, recruitment went up when the army, under a cease-fire, relaxed
its hold on the population in the east. It was estimated that at
least three thousand boys and girls joined the Tigers during that
period in the Batticaloa district alone. However, a severe limit on
the maximum number that could be drawn in was imposed by the closure
of the rear base in Tamil Nadu. The degree to which actual war
weariness among the population has affected the MPR is, therefore,
not 'statistically' significant if we concede this limit which was
imposed due to the closure of the rear base and consider the fact
that the vast majority of the 324,900 who went west were economic
refugees representing a trend which began long before the war
escalated and the 400,000 in the south are to a large extent the
natural and inevitable effect of the peninsula's traditional money
order economy .
e) The political exigencies and strategic perceptions of the Sri
Lankan state inexorably compel it to desire a maximum force level as
a solution to most of the problems it faces in the Eelam War.
Capturing and holding on to MSRs and population centres is the main
reason for this compulsion which is bound to be quite powerful as
long as the LTTE is able to keep the military pressure up at the
current level. The army's quality has to fall over the years if this
is going to be the case. Furthermore, this compulsion will place the
army in a position where it will not have the initiative of deciding
the time and place of attacking a real target. Its strategic
perceptions, in other words, have enmeshed it in the role of a
sitting duck. Whereas the LTTE, which has this initiative, can
hence, according to one of its senior members, have a general idea
of the maximum number of troops it can afford to lose in an
operation and adjust it accordingly to suit the maintenance of its
f) Very high recruitment levels need not necessarily imply military
efficiency. The case of the PLOTE is the example most illustrative
of this. The decline from 2.8 to 1.1 has actually contributed to
immensely raising the LTTE's capability to inflict damage on the
SLG's military assets by creating the conditions for an exclusively
controllable and effectively deployable force as opposed to the
confusion that prevailed during the peak recruitment period in
military matters due to the presence of more than ten active armed
groups in the field . Therefore, there isn't enough ground to assert
that a decrease in MPR among Tamils if there really is one, will
lead to the eventual fall of the LTTE.
g) Lastly, in the light of trends in recruitment among the SL
Tamils, it might not be judicious to claim that the MPR among them
will not go up in the future, but will only decline inexorably.
The question relevant to the current conflict in the northeast
therefore is not 'What has been the impact of the marked decline in
MPR (from the high of 84-85) on the LTTE's military capacity to
inflict damage on the Sri Lankan government? ' but 'Can the LTTE
sustain its optimum force level until such time that it can make
significant and irreversible gains in the Eelam War ?'
The army’s next major step is the establishment of a Main Supply
Route to Jaffna.
If this is possible, the manner in which it is going to be secured
(particularly the heavy artillery barrage) and maintained will most
probably push the civilian population into the hinterland - which is
anyway not too concentrated along the highway now.
Therefore it can reasonably be assumed that there would not be any
significant shift in the population level of the territories
currently dominated by the LTTE which, as we saw earlier, is at
The political, economic and social conditions which among other
things have contributed to the 1.1 percent Military Participation
Ratio since 1991 remaining the same as a consequence of the
political and military nature of the conflict, the LTTE should be
able raise a force of 10,450 from this population.
One has to digress here briefly to consider the question of girls
and children. It is said that their high number in the LTTE is a
manifestation of a fall in recruitment in the northeast. In 1990 the
force raised by the LTTE from scratch was called ‘the baby brigades
of Prabhakaran’ on account of the large number of children who had
joined up. But that represented a massive spurt in the recruitment
ratio - from almost .3 percent to 1.1 percent.
Therefore how valid would it be for one to argue now-seven years
later- that the recruitment of children - the impressionistic
evidence for which is prejudiced in most cases by extreme political
hatred or cultural disdain - is a manifestation of a severe fall in
recruitment levels in the north east ?
Is the recruitment of girls a manifestation of problems in
Girls have been recruited by the armed Tamil separatist movement
since the late seventies. The case of Urmila is well known. The
EPRLF began recruiting a large number of women for military training
since 1983. This was followed by the PLOTE which in early 1985
established five military training camps for girls in Oraththa Nadu
in the district of Tanjore in Tamil Nadu. The LTTE began its first
military training program for girls in a camp at Dindigul in Tamil
Nadu on March 11, ’85 under Major Selvarajah, a retired Tamil
officer of the Indian army. There were ninety girls in this first
batch. Their first attack on the army was in July 86' at Vankalai in
Mannar. A women’s unit took part in the EPRLF’s abortive attack on
the Karainagar navy camp that year. (this was planned and commanded
by Douglas Devananda). The EROS also developed a large women’s wing.
Selvi was one of the most senior and active members of the PLOTE.
(She was arrested by the Tigers in Jaffna in 1991 and is believed to
have been killed by them). Now this took place when recruitment to
the armed Eelam movement was at its peak. Did this mean that the
movement was short of recruits ? The recruitment of women is
therefore the effect of a trend which began in the early phase of
Tamil militancy and cannot be taken as a manifestation of ‘manpower’
shortages. In fact, if we are to go by the statistics of their dead
cadres released officially by the Tigers, the number of girls who
have died in action between 1982-96 is 1,079 whereas the male Tigers
who died in this period number 8,222. The female recruitment ratio
in the LTTE, though high by any standard, is still below the goals
which the PLOTE and the EPRLF were trying to achieve in 1985.
The Tigers have officially claimed that 9,301 of their cadres have
died between 1982 and 1996.(according to an official statement
released by the Political Committee of the Liberation Tigers on
Jan.3, 1997). At least six thousand of these died between 1990 and
The LTTE on the average has lost one thousand members every year if
we are to go by this account. To this we have to add those who
retire, are sacked and who drop out, which means that the LTTE
should be able to find at least two thousand new recruits annually
to replenish its ranks to sustain its Optimum Force Level.
Can the Tigers annually recruit this number?
The districts and areas which are dominated by the LTTE today have
some of the highest population growth rates in the country. The
annual growth rate in the Mullaithivu district in 1981 was 6.0 and
that of Vavuniya 4.9. A foot note in a recent unofficial Census
Dept. report on the Vanni observes that the growth rate of the
region is very much higher than the national growth rate because of
the large number of people who moved in from the hill country
following the anti-Tamil riots of 1983. This, however, is not the
whole explanation. The imposition of draconian economic restrictions
on the Vanni and the hinterlands of the east has contributed in no
small measure to a great expansion of subsistence level farming
which promotes large households. Many of these have provided more
than one recruit to the LTTE. (The annual population growth rate of
Jaffna, in contrast, is the lowest in the country.)
A brief socioeconomic survey of the Batticaloa district would reveal
to some degree that the conditions that are partly responsible for
the high recruitment rate here would change little until there is
complete peace and some form of substantial regional autonomy which
alone can redress these problems. The majority of the observations I
have made on this district apply to the other four districts which
are currently dominated by the LTTE in the north. Many conditions in
fact are worse in the Mannar, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu
I have chosen this district because its recent official statistics
are available and accessible.
And also because it was possible to conduct a sample survey of
recruitment patterns in a certain part of the hinterland dominated
by the Tigers. The district is divided into 12 D.S divisions. Four
of these and more than ninety percent of the land areas of two more
D.S divisions lie in LTTE dominated areas. Tiger recruitment centres
which cover these six divisions average at least one girl or boy per
day for each division.(this is a minimum figure because I am
ignoring the fact that it is extremely rare for a girl to come alone
to join up. Girls generally come in pairs or small groups.)
Local Grama Sevakas say that there are more recruits in the month of
December when farming households are under a lot of economic
Let us assume for the moment that there are no recruits to the
Tigers from the other three Tamil majority D.S divisions. Hence we
get a monthly figure of 180 for the whole district. Annually this
means 2,160 recruits from Batticaloa. If we allow for a five percent
drop out rate during the training period, there would be at least
2,000. This is about one percent of the rural population which lives
in the LTTE dominated parts of the district. To get the correct
picture, however, we have to add the number of boys and girls who
join the Tigers from the other D.S divisions which are partly or
fully controlled by the army or the STF. Some senior school teachers
in these areas estimate that at least a thousand run away annually
to the LTTE.
However, it is difficult to determine an approximate figure mainly
because people in these parts are scared to speak about it. The
parents of a boy or a girl who has run away to join the LTTE from an
area that is dominated by the army, and more particularly the STF,
lodge a complaint as a rule with the local Police or report to the
STF camp in the village that their child has been forcibly taken as
a recruit by the LTTE. This is done to avoid harassment or
punishment, particularly in areas dominated by the STF. Parents
whose children have run away are sometimes beaten up by soldiers or
by local paramilitary personnel. Some discreetly move out of the
village, giving the impression that the child has been sent
outstation for education. The majority of parents do try their best
to get their son or daughter out of the organization. They go from
pillar to post worrying all the time that the village, and hence
possibly the local STF, might come to know. This is what mainly
gives rise to the general impression that children are being
conscripted by the LTTE. There was only one attempt at conscription
in the history of the Tamil separatist movement. The EPRLF which,
instigated by India’s external intelligence establishment, foolishly
dragooned a large number of children into the ill-fated Tamil
National Army, is still paying dearly for the sin.
The drop out rate among male school children in the Batticaloa
district is 8.2.
The national rate for male dropouts is only 4.4. The female drop out
rate of 6.9 is also much higher than the national rate which is 3.5.
The school drop out rates in the four districts of the Vanni is much
higher than this, although no exact figures are available. The
latest situation reports by the Government Agents of these districts
would give one an idea of the conditions. Harsh government policy on
the closure or occupation of schools has also aggravated the
problem. Those who filled the ranks of the armed Tamil movement from
72 - 83 were A.L students who had been denied university admission
due to standardization. The aggrieved students today are largely
from rural primary schools which have been most affected by the
government’s war policy. This mainly accounts for the minors in the
LTTE. Five schools in the uncleared areas of Batticaloa have been
closed down by the authorities following the attack on the
Vavunathivu camp. No alternative arrangements have been made for the
education of the thousands of children who were schooling there.
Schools in Vakarai have been completely destroyed by the Air Force.
Nothing has been repaired or rebuilt. Things are much worse in the
Wanni. In a monthly situation report, the G.A of Kilinochchi
recently gave a statistical overview of the dire conditions in which
school children in his district carry on with their education. In
conclusion he prudently states "If the adverse condition continues,
it is feared, that the student population are inclined (sic) out of
frustration, mental agony, deprivation etc., to detract themselves
from merit, value, excellence etc., that are essential to the
discipline of the society."
The per capita income of Batticaloa was 221.50 USD in 1986 (Central
Bank statistics) when its economic condition was fairly stable. But
this was the lowest per capita in the country at that time (the
highest was 712.53 of Gampaha) The economic condition tremendously
deteriorated since then as a consequence of Indian army operations,
Tamil - Muslim violence, the activities of the army in the initial
phase of Eelam War II, the counter-insurgency program between 1991
and 1994 and the current military restrictions on agriculture and
fishing. More than 65 percent of the district lives below the
poverty line and there are more than ten thousand young widows with
All this is most manifest in the severe under-nourishment among
children and teenagers in the district. Batticaloa has the highest
prevalence of concurrent, acute and chronic under-nutrition (the
severest form of under-nutrition) in Sri Lanka among pre-school
children. 4.5 percent of the primary school children in the region
are under nourished and 15 percent are in a state of "concurrent,
acute and chronic under-nutrition. A report by the chief secretary’s
office of the northeast provincial council notes, "The prevailing
conflict situation caused further deterioration in the status of
protein energy malnutrition in the district". This is the reason why
some teenagers among the Tigers look much smaller then their actual
The LTTE, however, says that recruits from the district have
performed exceptionally well in the battlefields of the north,
particularly the pitched battle in the Nithikaikulam jungle with the
elite Gurkha commandos of the Indian army in 1988. (The Gurkhas were
routed in close combat. Very few managed to escape, leaving behind
the body of Major Bakshi who was their commander).
Does this mean that poverty plays a key role in impelling boys and
girls to join the Tigers ?
In this connection I did a survey in the village of K in the
Pattipalai DS division which lies in the uncleared western
hinterland of the Batticaloa district to determine the various
economic and social backgrounds from which Tiger recruits are drawn.
(K was once a PLOTE stronghold.) Out of the nine who had joined the
Tigers recently from K, seven were from middle level farming
households. Only two were from families of agricultural labourers.
These are formal recruits. On the other hand, however, the
deteriorating economic and social condition of the region is
definitely one of the causes for indirect recruitment - by which I
mean the process whereby a boy becomes a helper and eventually
evolves into a full time fighter. The very high-school drop rate is
also a primary factor in indirect recruitment. But more importantly,
we cannot ignore the fact that the condition of the district induced
by the war and deliberate government policy contribute to the
overall sense of grievance and further entrench the perception of
the state as an inveterate enemy bent on doing harm to the Tamil
population and who, therefore, has to be defeated. Another general
condition which impels recruitment is the silent hostility nurtured
by sizable sections of the Tamil population in areas controlled by
the army and police remain silently hostile due to the harassment
and abuse encountered almost daily at checkpoints, forced labour
(sometimes youth are taken as far as Ampara to chop firewood for
some camps), extortion in cash and kind - all of which are further
exacerbated by the population’s ignorance of the Sinhala language -
ban on cultivation in some areas and the nefarious activities of the
The brief socioeconomic survey of the Batticaloa district shows very
clearly that the Tamil population there is living under the most
trying and adverse circumstances. The Eelam War has mercilessly
taken its toll in four phases since 1983. A large number of innocent
civilians were massacred here during Eelam War II. Friction with
Muslims has left many villages partially destroyed. Entire
populations were moved out by the army from certain parts in the
interior where forty four camps were actively involved in systematic
counterinsurgency operations. The Indian army was here for three
years trying to crush the Tigers. The EPRLF’s Tamil National Army
wreaked havoc before the Indians moved out. And in Eelam War III the
interior is being regularly shelled and bombed.
Now all this, in theory, should ‘naturally’ induce war weariness in
the Tamil population of the district - and it appears that that is
exactly what the government is trying to do both in the north as
well as the east. War weariness in turn is supposed to turn the
local population away from the guerrillas and thereby lead to a
severe shortfall in the recruitment rate.
Many governments have systematically and successfully induced war
weariness among hostile or restless peoples as the basic condition
for suppressing rebel organisations. India did it in its
northeastern region. The US did it in many parts of South America.
The term ‘counter insurgency operation’ is often a technical
euphemism which stands for inducing war fatigue in a target
population. And as such it goes hand-in-hand with bloody massacres,
torture of vigilantes, mass displacement, destruction of agriculture
etc. The thesis that the LTTE would eventually run out of recruits
is essentially underpinned by the inclination on the part of India
and some western countries which back the government’s war effort to
believe that war fatigue can be induced in the northeast over the
But it is very obvious from our analysis of recruitment patterns in
the district of Batticaloa that the current MPR in the uncleared
parts of the region is higher than one percent - which alone is
enough to annually replenish the LTTE’s Optimum Force Level.
Furthermore, as we saw earlier, at the end of both ‘Indian Peace
Keeping Force War’ and Eelam War II during which the district
population saw much blood letting and was subjected to severe and
unprecedented hardship, recruitment to the Tigers in the region shot
Does this mean that the Tamil population of the district is immune
to war weariness ?
Here I have to touch on the current thinking among some of the
leading military theorists in the west such as Van Creveld and John
Keegan. The nature of the small wars of the post cold war world has
contributed in no small measure to the line of thinking advanced by
them. They aver that war making differs in nature from population to
population due to a number of historical and cultural reasons and
that war does not conform universally to the Clausewitzian paradigm.
The corollary of this which has been developed at length by Keegan
is that some cultures are better attuned to chronic war than others.
The Afghans, Chechens, Somalis and Serbs come to mind in the post
cold war world. In other words, the strategy of inducing war
weariness and thereby a proportionate decline in the intensity of
conflict does not work for some populations. For example the Tamil
separatist movement which was heavily battered and substantially
crushed by the overwhelming strength of the Indian army emerged in a
more virulent form characterized by the suicidal Black Tigers as
soon as an opening was made available. This would not have been
possible if the population had been truly hit by war fatigue at any
In conclusion the following observations can be made on the question
recruitment to the Liberation Tigers.
a) The minimum number required to maintain the LTTE’s current
military power can be recruited indefinitely.
b) The basic conditions for raising and maintaining the LTTE’s
Optimum Force Level such as financial resources, administrative
efficiency, political cohesion, logistical capability, the
extent of safe terrain available for training and stationing
troops in secrecy remain largely intact despite the heavy
investments made by the government in the war effort since 1995.
Of these, the extent of safe terrain available to the Tigers for
training and stationing troops has in fact expanded by almost
2500 square kilometres in the east.
c) Tamil Nadu remains a potential recruitment ground. A large
number of recruits, as we mentioned earlier, were available
there in the mid eighties.
d) War fatigue in the Tamil population cannot be taken as a long
term factor in bringing down recruitment to the LTTE in the
north and east .
This study is only a further assertion of the fact that the Eelam
War is not a military textbook cake walk that many, including some
western defense specialists think it has to be.