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Selected Writings by Nadesan Satyendra
- நடேசன் சத்தியேந்திரா

Sri Lanka's Unwinnable War

December 1993

"....Instead of reading out chunks of Robert Thompson to his restive Parliamentary colleagues, Prime Minister Wickremasinghe may have more usefully heeded the words of his own Cabinet Minister, Savyamurthy Thondaman in March 1992: ''If you mean defeating the LTTE, it could in my opinion be equated to defeating every single Tamil in the North-East. One thing is clear. You cannot isolate the LTTE from the rest of the Tamil people. Wiping out the LTTE means wiping out the Tamils. Until there are Tamils there will be a LTTE hard-core. Remember that the LTTE... is seeking to express the aspirations of the Tamil people..'' That is why Sri Lanka's war against the LTTE is unwinnable. It is unwinnable because the Liberation Tigers are seeking to express the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people. It is unwinnable because the armed resistance of the Tamil people emerged as a response to decades of oppressive, alien Sinhala rule.  It is unwinnable because the growth of that resistance has been fertilised and consolidated by the thyagam of thousands of Tamils who have given their lives so that their brothers and sisters may live, as a people, in equality and in freedom. It is unwinnable because no people may conquer and rule another; because every people have the right to freely choose their political status; because self determination is the inalienable right of every people; and because the exercise by the Tamil people of their right to self determination will neither violate the rights of their neighbours nor infringe on their neighbours security. "

[see also 

  SL Government's speak soft, hit hard policy - D.Sivaram, 10 June 1992
Insurgency, Counterinsurgency, & the Marines In Vietnam - Major Frank D. Pelli, 1990
Instruments of Statecraft - US Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism 1940 - 1990 Michael McClintock , 2002 and
What is really wrong with the counter insurgency methods? D.Sivaram, 2004 "..Sri Lanka is easily the only country in the world to fight its insurgency with the undivided support of the international community, the backing of all the important nations across the global political spectrum. It is the most advantageous external environment that any country may have ever had in fighting an insurgency. And yet something is obviously going wrong. There are three reasons that may be attributed to the apparent failure of western counter insurgency - CI - methods in Sri Lanka... Firstly, the LTTE has developed over the years a fairly sophisticated counter-counter insurgency system. Secondly, it has consistently focused its resources on building a conventional force and on preserving the minimum required territory to sustain such a force. And thirdly it never lets itself be inveigled or coerced into the political space that is so necessary for diluting and mystifying the basic cause fuelling the insurgency..."]


First it was the Janakapura debacle. Then it was the Kilali misadventure. Thereafter we had the Parliamentary Select Committee fiasco. And, now the Pooneryn disaster. But perhaps, Pooneryn too may be called a debacle. After all the dictionary meaning of 'debacle' is a 'confused rout' or 'stampede'.

The confused rout at Pooneryn left over a thousand Sinhala soldiers dead and another five hundred injured. The Liberation Tigers captured more than 300 million rupees worth of arms and equipment including five water jet in shore patrol boats, two battle tanks, eleven 50mm guns and one 120mm artillery mortar that has an effective range of 8 km.

It seems that even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer. India Today, which is no friend of the Tamil struggle for self determination, commented on 15 December :

'The storming of the strategic base bore the stamp of audacity, daredevilry and meticulous planning that has made the LTTE the most successful guerilla group in the world today. 'It was not the normal hit and run attack. It conformed more to conventional warfare' said a military official who has seen action in the north..' Pooneryn was the sixth military camp to fall to the militants since the latest phase of the conflict after the collapse of the peace talks between the Government and the LTTE in June 1989''

The Sinhala opposition was ofcourse quick to use the Pooneryn debacle to attack the Sri Lanka government on its conduct of the war. Lamented Sinhala Opposition leader, Mrs. Srimavo Bandaranaike:

''What are you doing with all the money that is passed? ... the morale of the army is low . It is at times like these that we feel acutely the loss of Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Vijaya Wimalaratne.''

The Sinhala owned Sri Lanka Sunday Island commented editorially on 14 November 1993:

"We have been attempting to win this conflict by outdoing the enemy with sheer numbers but this has led to flocks of sheep being led to slaughter. All these are matters which have to be considered in depth by the best minds of this country for this is not merely a conflict in the sands of Jaffna and the jungles of the Eastern Province. What happens in the battle fields often surface in international fora and foreign ministries of big powers and vice versa. The LTTE it appears has a think tank coordinating these activities quite successfully. In comparison are we using the best available talent... In any country the muscle of the armed forces is reinforced with the best brains available in the country. Are we doing so?''

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe rose to defend the Government in Parliament presumably in an effort to show that the muscle of the armed forces was indeed reinforced with the best brains available in the country. On 5 December, the Sri Lanka state controlled Sunday Observer gave centre page prominence to his speech under a feature entitled: ''PM unveils the overall objectives of the Government''.

Prime Minister Wickremasinghe at first expanded on the elements of guerilla warfare to his restive Parliamentary colleagues. He explained:

''We are not fighting a conventional war like Word War II, or the Six Day War, or the Bangladesh war where one side seeks to defeat the other militarily... The LTTE does not seek to win a victory in the battlefield like the Arabs were defeated in the Six Day War or the Pakistanis were defeated in the Bangladesh War. What they seek is to prevent the other side from winning. Dragging out the conflict so that the other side is weakened, the population is tired and finally a majority is willing to agree to (their) political demands... When France had to fight in Vietnam, the Grid System enabled them to dominate the Mekong Delta. But they did not have political strategy. They lost one battle, Dien Bien Phu which demoralised the whole nation. They finally agreed to the demands of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese. We must not allow the (Pooneryn) setback to demoralise the nation.''

And then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe came to the centre piece of his speech. Referring to Malaysia as a country which successfully countered a guerrilla movement, he unveiled the Government's overall strategy.

Said he:

''I happened to be reading  the book written by General Thompson who handled the ground operations (in Malaysia). For the benefit of the House, I will read some extracts regarding the different facets of an overall plan:

'This plan must cover not just security measures and military operations. It must include all political, social, economic, administrative, police and other measures which have a bearing on insurgencies. Above all, it must clearly define the roles and responsibilities to avoid duplication of efforts and to ensure that there are no gaps in the Government field of action. It is essential that there should be a proper balance between the military and the civil efforts with complete coordination in all field. Otherwise a situation will arise in which military operations produce no lasting results, because they are unsupported by civil follow up action. Similarly civilian measures, particularly in areas disputed with the insurgents are a waste of time and money if they are unsupported by military operations to provide the necessary protection.' This is what the Government is doing - an overall objective and an overall plan.''

That which Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe did not tell the Sri Lanka Parliament was that the so called 'Malaysian approach' that he was 'unveiling' was nothing new but had been followed by the Sri Lanka government for 10 long years.

As long ago as July 1983, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe's uncle, then President J.R. Jayawardene, in his celebrated interview with Ian Ward of the Daily Telegraph had wondered aloud about a 'Malaysian ' type solution. And, nine months later, on 1 April 1984, the newly appointed National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali declared in an interview reported in the Sinhala owned Sri Lanka Island:

''Q. Can you tell me one country where tough measures have arrested (guerilla) activities? A. One of the best examples is Malaysia where there was a fight against Communist infiltrators and commandos. The Malaysians won.

Q. But that was against Communists? A. Yes, but the majority of these (guerillas) are trained in Marxist ideology. So it is the same format."

Again, it appears that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe was rather selective in his readings from Robert Thompson's book. If he had been inclined to be more forthcoming, he may have read out to his Parliamentary colleagues some further extracts from the book that he 'happened to be reading'. If he had done so, his Parliamentary colleagues may have found Robert Thompson's advice on tackling insurgencies somewhat familiar - and similar to the methods adopted by the Sinhala Special Task Force and the Army in the East during the past several years:

"...the first requirement is an identity card system throughout the country..this makes it easy to check absentees and visitors...Dusk to dawn curfews outside hamlets should be imposed and strictly enforced. Bulk supplies of food and other articles of value should be convoyed between towns and villages and no individual should be allowed to take such articles outside the hamlet...Check points should be established to enforce all these regulations, and snap checks should be carried out on all roads, rivers and tracks ..There are many who will criticise the harshness of the measures which may have to be used. This is a mistaken attitude.

What the peasant wants to know is: Does the government mean to win the war? Because if not, he will have to support the insurgent. The government must show it is determined to win. Only in that way will it instil the confidence that it is going to win...The blame for the harshness of the measures can be placed squarely on the insurgent.. There should be in the whole of the government's approach an adroit and judicious mixture of ruthlessness and sympathy..

As an example of a ruthless measure it is worth quoting the case of a village in Malaya of about 3000 inhabitants. This was a very bad area...Having given the inhabitants a choice between the government and the communists, and having failed to make any headway by appealing to or persuading them to cooperate, the government surrounded it with several battalions at dawn one morning and moved the whole village out. Everyone in it, men, women and children, went into detention. All the houses were razed to the ground and crops destroyed. This did not cause a public outcry because the effectiveness of the result...silenced all criticism.''

That Pooneryn happened after nine long years of Sri Lanka persevering with an 'adroit and judicious mixture of ruthlessness and sympathy', should have shown Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe that something was hopelessly wrong with the Thompson formula. That Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe should solemnly read out Robert Thompson to his Parliamentary colleagues in the year 1993, and declare that 'this is what the Government is doing' is a telling commentary on the political bankruptcy of the Sri Lanka government.

The question that the Sri Lanka government should be asking itself is that perhaps, after all, Tamil Eelam is not Malaysia and the 'format' is not quite the same.

In Malaysia, in 1948, the British launched a campaign to counter a communist insurgency. The British campaign lasted several years. The communist insurgency failed but at the same time the Malaysian national struggle succeeded and the British handed over power to an independent Malaysia in July 1957. The British successfully prevented the insurgency from fusing with the national struggle for independence by promising and then granting independence to Malaysia in 1957. This was the major political plank of the campaign and it was this which was crucial to its success. The British quit Malaysia.

If they had sought to continue to rule in Malaysia, the insurgency would have developed into a full fledged national liberation struggle to oust the foreigner from the soil of the people. This was the political lesson of the Malaysian campaign. It was a lesson which British Adviser, Robert Thompson, presumably, did learn when he went to South Vietnam in 1961, after the successful completion of his tour of duty in Malaysia. In Vietnam, the 'Malaysian style' approach failed and the liberation movement strengthened and succeeded.

In Sri Lanka, the Government has adopted a 'Malaysian style' approach, without the Malaysian style political solution. Unlike the British who quit Malaysia, the Sri Lankan Government has as yet failed to see the need to recognise the existence of the Tamil nation and quit the Tamil homeland.

During the past ten years and more, every act of Sinhala 'ruthlessness' however adroitly mixed with 'sympathy', has served to increase the togetherness of the Tamil people and consolidate their resistance to an alien Sinhala army and to alien Sinhala domination.

That which Sinhala chauvinism prefers not to understand is that in the island of Sri Lanka, the resistance of the Tamil people is a resistance to continued alien Sinhala rule. It is a national struggle for self determination and so long as the alien Sinhala Government has no intention of relinquishing its alien rule, the struggle will continue.

That is why Pooneryn happened. And that is why, after ten long years of applying the methods of Robert Thompson, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe was driven to calm his Sinhala constituency at a recent meeting in Nivitigala:

''...there is no reason for us to panic. Colombo was half empty on November 26. Attendance in offices and schools was very poor. We panicked because of our own rumours and we had a holiday on Pirabaharan's birthday.. What is the result? Pirabakaran becomes 100 feet tall.''(State Controlled Sri Lanka Sunday Observer, 5 December 1993)

Instead of reading out chunks of Robert Thompson to his restive Parliamentary colleagues, Prime Minister Wickremasinghe may have more usefully heeded the words of his own Cabinet Minister, Savyamurthy Thondaman in March 1992:

''If you mean defeating the LTTE, it could in my opinion be equated defeating every single Tamil in the North-East. One thing is clear. You cannot isolate the LTTE from the rest of the Tamil people. Wiping out the LTTE means wiping out the Tamils. Until there are Tamils there will be a LTTE hard-core. Remember that the LTTE... is seeking to express the aspirations of the Tamil people..''

That is why Sri Lanka's war against the LTTE is unwinnable.

It is unwinnable because the Liberation Tigers are seeking to express the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people. It is unwinnable because the armed resistance of the Tamil people emerged as a response to decades of oppressive, alien Sinhala rule.  It is unwinnable because the growth of that resistance has been fertilised and consolidated by the thyagam of thousands of Tamils who have given their lives so that their brothers and sisters may live, as a people, in equality and in freedom. It is unwinnable because no people may conquer and rule another; because every people have the right to freely choose their political status; because self determination is the inalienable right of every people; and because the exercise by the Tamil people of their right to self determination will neither violate the rights of their neighbours nor infringe on their neighbours security.

These were the considerations which led 15 Non Governmental Organisations consisting of the International Organisation for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, International Educational Development, Centre Europe Ties Monde, International Indian Treaty Council, Fedefam, Association paur la Liberte Religiose, Codehuca, World Christian Community, Pax Christie International, International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples, Movement contra le Racisme, International Association of Educadores for World Peace, International Association against Torture, World Confederation of Labour, and International Movement for Fraternal Union among Races and Peoples to declare on 8 February 1993 at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights:

''We are of the view that any meaningful attempt to resolve the conflict should address its underlying causes and to recognise that the armed struggle of the Tamil people for self determination, arose as a response to decades of an ever widening and deepening oppression by a permanent Sinhala majority, within the confines of an unitary Sri Lankan state...

During the past several years the Sinhala dominated Sri Lankan government has attempted to put down the armed resistance of the Tamil people and has sought to conquer and control the Tamil homeland. The record shows that in this attempt, Sri Lanka's armed forces and para military units have committed increasingly widespread violations of the rules of humanitarian law.

In the East whole villages of Tamils have been attacked by the Army and by the so called Home Guards. Many Tamil residents in these villages were killed. Others have been tortured. Those Tamils who were detained by the Sri Lankan authorities have had little or no hope of coming out alive. The attacks on the Tamil homeland have been coupled with the declared opposition of the Sri Lankan Government to the merger of the North and East of the island into a single administrative and political unit.

However, despite the sustained attacks of Sinhala dominated governments over a period of several decades, the territorial integrity of the Tamil homeland in the North and East of the island has remained. The Tamil population in the North and East, who have lived for many centuries within relatively well defined geographical boundaries, share an ancient heritage, a vibrant culture, and a living language which traces its origins to more than 2500 years ago.

A social group, which shares objective elements such as a common language and which has acquired a subjective consciousness of togetherness, by its life within a relatively well defined territory, and its struggle against alien domination, clearly constitutes a 'people' with the right to self determination.

Today, there is an urgent need for the international community to recognise that the Tamil population in the North and East of the island of Sri Lanka are such a 'people' with the right to freely choose their political status. It is our view that such recognition will prepare the ground for the resolution of a conflict which has taken such a heavy toll in human lives and suffering during the past several years.''

It seems that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe is bent on giving fresh proof of the correctness of Velupillai Pirabaharan's assessment in December 1991 that ''it is the Sri Lanka government that has failed to learn the lessons from the emergence of the struggles for self determination in several parts of the globe and the innovative structural changes that have taken place.''

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