Colombo Telegraph

Total Destruction Of The Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory Of Sri Lanka’s Long War

By Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Paul Moorcraft, ‘Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War, UK, 2012.

The author, a visiting professor of Journalism at Cardiff, has written several books on recent wars. This work (hereafter, TDTT) is short but contains a wealth of information and detail. Moorcraft has read on Sri Lanka, visited sites, and conducted interviews including with army commanders, the Permanent Secretary (Defence), the President, Kumaran Pathmanathan (“K.P.”), Colonel Karuna and others.

“To see beauty in victory is to rejoice in the killing of others” (The ‘Art of War’ by Sun-tzu, BCE 380-316). Altering words from Gray’s ‘Elegy’ (1751), one should not “wade through slaughter” to power and domination, shutting the gates of compassion on humanity. But TDTT is “not a moral tract” (page xviii) and, therefore, it cannot be reproached for not dealing with issues such as ethics and human-rights. For example, when he says the government acted “correctly” (page 165) he means it in military and political (not in ethical or humane) terms. Objectively and dispassionately, Moorcraft records that the government and its army functioned like a steamroller (page 168) flattening everything before it. TDTT, therefore, is a Machiavellian work. “Machiavellian” is used here not pejoratively but neutrally. ‘The Prince’ (circa 1515) focuses on how power can be secured and retained: When and how should one be cruel? In politics, it is better to be feared than loved, and so on. (Cf. Kautilya’s ‘The Arthashastra’ written over 1500 years ago.)

With objective circumspection, Moorcraft reports, rarely adding his personal opinion. For example:

Many Sri Lankans think the charges against General Fonseka “were trumped up”.

Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan said that the persecution and disappearance of Sri Lankan “human rights activists, journalists and political opponents” was horrific.

International critics claimed that “the rights of the defeated Tamils in the north and east were being ignored”, etc.

A very ugly war was waged in a geographically beautiful island. “The air force […] dropped leaflets telling civilians to seek shelter in places of worship. Jets bombed St Peter’s and St Paul’s Church at Navali” (page 35). The author does not express an opinion as to whether this was deliberate or accidental. As with all modern conflicts (see Daniel Goldhagen’s ‘Worse Than War’, 2009) by far the greater number of those killed or wounded consists of civilians. Concentrating on the “end”, and indifferent to the impact on civilians of the “means” chosen, a “Go to hell” attitude (page 78) was adopted to internal and international humanitarian concerns. The foreign press was excluded, and “the government controlled much of the [local] press” (page 85).

In tracing events that led to conflict, Moorcraft (page 7) notes that to Tamils the early example and inspiration was Gandhi and his non-violent campaign (satyagrapha = the force of truth), and so Tamils tried “periods of mourning and fasts” (page 15). There followed “Tamil suffering [in] 1958, 1961, 1974, 1977, 1979 and 1981, culminating in the horrific pogrom of 1983” (page 90). All this leads to the book’s title. The conclusion of the war was a “rare victory” because in the modern period internal armed conflicts have been settled not on the battlefield but through negotiation.  That the Tigers could never be defeated militarily had become a “mantra”, believed in by many – disastrously, by Prabhakaran himself. The sudden and total collapse of the Tigers was a surprise: “victory was far from certain […] even late into 2008” (page 126), even though by the end of the war, government forces, including Civil Defence personnel were around 471,000 (page 77) while Tiger cadres were down to their hundreds. (With reference to Sri Lanka’s heavy militarisation, army officers, when asked by the author to “guesstimate” the size of the UK armed forces, “all opined that it was much larger than theirs. They were stunned to discover that it was just over 100,000 and being reduced to 80,000: page 49.)

Moorcraft impartially takes cognizance of both Tiger positives and negatives. In reading his observations one must bear in mind that he is also a senior instructor at the prestigious Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

On the positive side, he states that the Tigers were disciplined and effective. Prabhakarn “built up probably the most effective and disciplined insurgent force to appear in the world since 1945” (page 91). Towards the end of their campaign against the Tigers, the Indians had 160,000 soldiers (page 24), and their failure was “a major humiliation for a power which had one of the world’s largest armies” (page 22). The “attack-defence ratio is reckoned to be 3:1” but during what is known as the Second Eelam War (1990-95), a maximum of 5,000 insurgents almost defeated a defending force of 10,000 (page 31). Small units of female Tigers are said to have driven away army units “ten times their size” (page 37). Tiger boats were “a triumph of ingenuity, often built in jungle workshops using off-the-shelf materials” (page 97).  The same can be said of the planes they assembled. Prabhakaran refused the offer to send his wife and two younger children to a safe western country (page 145), insisting they share the common lot. They were wiped out. Some will compare the last stand of the Tigers with that of the Spartan-led Battle of Thermopylae (BCE 480), “except that the Greeks triumphed” after their defeat (page 142). Within Tiger-controlled territory, the pernicious caste system did not exist; women feared no sexual molestation, were emancipated and free. Three paragraphs further down, I take up Moorcraft on Tiger negatives and errors.

So why did they fail? In my article, “A great military victory?’ (25 October 2009), I suggested, inter alia, the great numerical asymmetry, and the fact that the Tigers did not have a single jet fighter or helicopter. My specialisation was not history, much less military history: Moorcraft explores with expertise. (I thank him for his communication of 17 May 2013.) The ‘case’ he makes can be divided into (a) government attitude and conduct (already mentioned), (b) external factors, and most importantly (c) Tiger negatives and mistakes. These are not watertight but mutually influencing factors.

There are also the elements of chance and Tiger failed attempts. The tsunami (26 December 2004) killed over 2,000 Tiger cadres (page 44). If the Tigers had succeeded in assassinating “Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa” (page 165), or if they had succeeded in sinking the ‘Jetliner’ laden with over one thousand troops, then the war effort may [emphasised] have also been sunk.

Where external relations are concerned, the government with great skill and care brought on board countries such as China, India and the US: no mean achievement when one considers that two of them see the third as a competitor, if not a potential threat. Indian support was most important; indeed, decisive: the Defence Secretary acknowledged to the author, “Unless we had won the support of the Indian government, we couldn’t have won this war” (page 78). In contrast, the Tigers killed nearly 1,200 Indian soldiers (page 22) and assassinated Rajiv Gandhi on Indian soil. “9/11” (11 September 2001) fundamentally changed attitudes to groups using violence as a means but, fatally, Prabhakaran did not grasp ‘the wider picture’ and immense significance of “9/11”. Darwin (‘On the Origin of Species’, 1859) drew attention to the survival of the fittest – “fitness” includes adaptability. The world had changed but Prabhakaran didn’t.

Moorcraft succinctly states that the Tigers were the architects of their own downfall. Paulo Frere in his ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ (dedicated to the oppressed) says that in fighting oppression, one must be careful not to become like the oppressor – Nelson Mandela comes to mind –  but Tiger ferocity was unleashed even against the people they claimed to champion and defend. Sinhalese villagers were massacred and, as a part of “ethnic cleansing”, Muslims living in Jaffna were ordered to quit (page 28): “At least 30,000 were driven out at just three hours’ notice”. (As elsewhere, I merely report from TDTT.) Prabhakaran built a Stalin-like cult of personality (page 167), one which brooked no divergence of opinion, let alone opposition. As with Napoleon and Hitler, early military success proved fatal. He had “humbled a superpower”, India (page 24), and so could take on the Sri Lankan army. He “overestimated his own resources and underestimated his new rivals, the Rajapaksas” (page 168). If Prabhakaran had read ‘Art of War’, he certainly did not profit by it. Self-confidence shaded into over-confidence. “Mahinda Rajapaksa won the November 2005 presidential election – in the closest margin in the country’s history – partly because the LTTE had ordered its people not to vote” (page 109). It was one of Prabhakaran’s “biggest strategic errors, perhaps on a par with killing Rajiv Gandhi”. (General Carl von Clausewitz, author of the famous treatise ‘On War’, in a less well-known work, ‘The Campaign of 1812 in Russia’, notes that Napoleon’s military defeat was due more to non-military miscalculations.) The assassination of President Premadasa, 1993, was “another strategic error” (page 33) because Premadasa was “probably the most accommodating leader the LTTE was likely to face”. (As with much else, I leave this assessment of President Premadasa to the reader.) Whatever the opinion Sri Lankans may have of  Lakshman Kadirgamar; whether it was indeed the Tigers or some other murky force which killed him, the Oxford-educated, suave and persuasive Foreign Minister was known and liked internationally, and his murder increased the “international marginalization of the Tigers” (page 45). It appears to me that many of these murders were prompted by the personal pique of Prabhakaran, rather than being based on careful, political, long-term calculation.  He was no chess-player weighing up different choices and their consequence – consequences both immediate and eventual. He may have been brilliant in tactics but seems to have been poor in strategy. Colonel Karuna who had led several successful attacks against the army broke away from Prabhakaran, taking “around 5,000 to 6,000” (page 42) of his fighters. Whatever his grievance, they should have been recognised, addressed and the Colonel retained within the fold. His departure and the information he was able to give the government were a severe blow to the Tigers, albeit unacknowledged by them. In summary, the “LTTE’s defeat was the result of cumulative internal and external forces” (page 165).

As I have written elsewhere, negative peace is merely the absence of war; positive peace, the presence of harmony. Should Prabakaran, as Moorcraft suggests, have settled for some form of devolution (page 167)? To answer that question, one must ask whether inclusion and equality were ever seriously and sincerely on offer. Under the majoritarian system obtaining in Sri Lanka, the main Sinhalese political parties appeal to the Sinhalese electorate; and the parties being prime enemies of each other (page 40), they misrepresent and sabotage any attempt at a just political settlement.

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