26 October, 2020

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

By Simon Akam

Pen And Sword, pp.184, £19.99, ISBN: 97817781591536

A strain of hawkish thought maintains that if armies were unencumbered by weak-willed politicians, pinkish concerns with human rights and above all the intrusions of the media they could rapidly snuff out the kind of insurrections that, in reality, needled them for years. In the American experience this line of thinking is wheeled out most often in relation to Vietnam — where television pictures did mould domestic public opinion. In the British case, Northern Ireland, with the controversy over the existence or otherwise of a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy’ is the usual test bed.

In this book Paul Moorcraft, whose career has variously encompassed teaching at Sandhurst and roving war zones as a correspondent, suggests a recent historical juncture as an example of just the kind of sledge-hammer counterinsurgency approach vetoed in Northern Ireland and Vietnam. In 2009 the Sri Lankan government ended, through force of arms, almost three decades of rebellion by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who sought an independent homeland in the north and east of the country.

The denouement played out on Nandikadal lagoon, and the last Tiger enclave came to be known as the ‘Cave’. Moorcraft writes that in Sri Lanka between 2006 and 2009 5,224 security personnel and around 22,000 Tigers died.

The war may have ended only four years ago, but the Sri Lankan experience has already become a kind of Rorschach test for outside observers of very different stripes; it is held up by some as an example of the efficacy of full-on military force, and appals others who believe the government’s approach led to widespread violations of human rights. In a telling fact that Moorcraft does not mention, the Sri Lankan military in 2011 invited delegates from 54 countries to a seminar to explain just how they defeated the Tigers. Human Rights Watch called that junket an attempt to ‘whitewash war crimes’.

Moorcraft’s book generally steers clear of these polarised judgments in favour of a narrative approach, tracing the Tamil uprising from its origins all the way to the Götterdämmerung of May 2009. However, the text, not least through its generally martial tone and slightly hagiographic portrayal of the military leadership, does seem to suggest that there are takeaways from the Sri Lankan experience for armies elsewhere. It quotes an Indian ‘defence expert’ who defines Colombo’s approach in the last years of the war as follows:

Political will
Go to hell (Ignore domestic and international criticism)
But keep important neighbours in the loop
No negotiations
Control the media
No ceasefire
Complete operational freedom
Promote young and able commanders

The problem with this idea is that, while the crushing of the Tigers in 2009 was a major military victory, it was not the concrete end-point that Moorcraft suggests. Peace has held subsequently in Sri Lanka, but it is maintained by an enormous garrison of government troops in the north (up to 200 per every 1,000 inhabitants) and by the continued presence of senior Tamils in government custody. In contrast to the absolutist title of Moorcraft’s book, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Sri Lankan think-tank, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, suggests that as things currently stand 2009 was the end only of the war, not the conflict.

The simmering idea that permeates this book, that ultra-violence is a way, albeit a bloody one, effectively to conquer insurgency, is therefore predicated on a false idea that the Tamil issue is now resolved. The actions of the Sri Lankan state have sowed bitterness. Garrisoning can postpone the outbreak of further violence, but it is unlikely to prevent its fermentation. Moorcraft’s narrative suggests that robust military action can obviate the need for a political settlement to insurrection, when the Sri Lankan experience in reality indicates it can merely delay it.

There is another — stylistic — problem with this book. Military history, for better or worse, now exists in a post-Antony Beevor age. The shadow of Stalingrad is long. Beevor’s innovation, as a former novelist, was narrative panache, moving smoothly from the movements of whole divisions to the individual infantryman’s diary.

Moorcraft likewise attempts a narrative approach but lacks finesse; there are too many acronyms here, too much listing of the calibre of weapons systems and too many clichéd quips (‘a modern day Scarlet Pimpernel,’ ‘they now believed their stars were in the ascendant’). This book is a thorough examination of an important issue, but the tone is pedestrian.

* Courtesy The Spectator. This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy
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    One of the important facts this reviewer overlooks, but the book points out in detail, is the fact that for 30 years the Sri Lankan government tried countless attempts to negotiate compromise solutions to their differences with the Tamils in the north of the island. Only after repeated failures to negotiate a settlement and in the face of unambiguously uncompromising provocations from the Tamil Tigers did the Sri Lankan government decide to end the conflict once and for all. In other words, the so-called Sri Lankan solution entailed first completely exhausting, during three decades, every possible compromise solution. They did this despite clear evidence over many years that a huge proportion of the Sri Lankan Tamils from the north had become psychologically infected with a fanatical death-loving political ideology. As others with deeper knowledge of the conflict than Simon Akam have pointed out, the surprising thing is that the rest of the Sri Lankan people were so patient for so long.

    However, Akam right to say the northern Tamil issue for Sri Lanka is not yet resolved. There’s still much to be done but compared, say, with Iraq or Afghanistan, or even Northern Ireland, there are encouraging signs of progress. The centre of gravity for Tamil nationalism now seems to have shifted decisively to southern India, and the Indian government is not dealing with it very well.

    By the way, the reviewer has got his facts about the Vietnam war mixed up. The “insurrection” was from the Western-backed south of the country. It was the government in Hanoi that had to implement a counter-insurgency strategy, because it was the French and then the Americans who inspired the insurgency in the south.

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      do not distort history after 35 years failed Negotiation that is from 1948 onwards after the killings by state sponsored terror in 1956,1958, 1966, 19977, 1981, 1983. LTTE took to arms. In the thirty years its i Sr i Lankan government that was hoodwinking. Millitary crsuhing was possible because Sri Lanka was an island and Idiot of president was in Bush Nunior and Bitchy Leader was in Sonia.
      LTTE battle may have won. But Tamil was is continung. Not the reviewer but the author has missed the points. It crsuhing defeat for a liberation movement and Victory for State Terrorsim

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        Blame the whole world except yourselves.

        The bottomline is Tamil nationalism is as horrible as any other forms of ethno-nationalism in the world. If not worse.

        That is a fact. Whetehr you like it or not.

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          By your own words so is the “ethno-nationalism” practiced by the Govt’s of SL since so-called independence that resulted in reactionary Tamil ethno-nationalism. The fundamental fact is that all ethnic groups are humans with basic though more than animalistic-human needs. By belonging to a majority or minority it does not vary or differ in the real basic Bio-psycho-social needs and wants of each and every human barring some of the aberrant and malformed ones like the excessively narcistic sado and/or masochistic types.

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          There is difference between Sinhala Buddihst Nationalism and Tamils right to live respctfully which was denied from 1956. Do not hide bhind labels

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            Tamils right to live respctfully is a struggle for me as well. As a Sri Lankan. I would fight for that right on behalf of any Sri Lankan citizen. Unlike you, who only keep whining about Tamil rights. I do not discriminate among Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims. Sri Lankans are Sri Lankans. All citizens in one country. Equal before the law.

            Further, please note Tamil rights do not include a pure ethnic Tamil State covering 1/3 of Sri Lanka’s land mass and 2/3 of her coastline. If that is your real aim, be honest about it. Do not hide behind a Tamil rights slogan and think we Sri Lankans are idiots.

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              Gutless & cowardly Ben Hurled over,

              Don’t put the cart BFO the horse and not take responsibility for the greed and avarice and wanting a life of ease and plunder from time to time of the minorities by a poorer breed of ill and miseducated majority chauvinistic majority and its parochial and mostly self serving leaders since so-called independence for the present parlous and horrendous state of affairs.

              Aafter first slaughtering its own poorer breed in not wanting to share the spoils evenly even amongst themselves. What chance in hell do the minorities ever have let alone your silly proportions, fractions and percentages where you and many others of your gutless pseudonymous ilk are missing the trees for the woods when more seriously thinking people are addressing the more fundamental issues that are stake.

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    The last lines in above encapsulated advice should be – “Do not worry about civilian casualties” and “Shoot/kill all who surrender”.

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    Kudos to Simon Akam: “The simmering idea that permeates this book, that ultra-violence is a way, albeit a bloody one, effectively to conquer insurgency, is therefore predicated on a false idea that the Tamil issue is now resolved,” Simon couldn’t have said it better!

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    Once when the Harvard Kennedy School was discussing “The Way Forward” after the war in Sri Lanka I shared my comment that “insurgencies are born out of grievances not being addressed for decades: it stems from persecution and discrimination, marginalization and violence perpetrated against a community that produces a need to fight back when all peaceful means are exhausted. The seeds are planted when ‘military might’ is used to quell freedom of expression and assembly; it grows when one community imposes its will over the other, where one community has a stranglehold on power and dominance over the other; where inequality prevails, where one community enjoys self-determination and the other doesn’t; where the need for self preservation of a nation’s identity and the defense of its homeland becomes the overwhelming priority of a community and survival becomes its foremost pre-occupation. Google and Read “Dream of Tamil Eelam” by Usha S Sri-Skanda-Rajah
    http://www.eurasiareview.com/04102012-the-dream-of-tamil-eelam-oped/

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      USHA:

      The grievance was that Sinhala Leaders in the South was cooperating with the Jaffna elite and allowed Caste-based politics to thrive in those so-called Tamil areas. The caste-based politics of tamil politicians played a double game while oppressing the tamils one street-thug who suffered that injustice took the affairs into his own hands and ruined the country, Tamils and everyone else.

      To date, Tamils are not talking that problem. Instead, they talk every thing else and they deny there was such thing as Tamil oppression by Tamils because those oppressed were from a lower caste.

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      Dear Usha

      Quit looking at Sri Lanka through your glasses of Tamil tribalism. Outdated philosophy.

      Your real grievane is your dream of an ethnically purfeid separate state for Tamils only. In one part of our country. It is an ethno-nationalistic dream. Not a grievance.

      If you have learnt anything from the bloody insuregency you employed to force it on Sri Lankans through highly uncivilized VP, Ealam will never happen on Sri Lankan soil. But, dream on, if you got nothing else to do.

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      Hey Usha, If you are a monority living with a Majority, try to mix with the majority, Majority will never adjust according to the minority’s wishes. this applies to all diaspora living in overseas countrys like canada, us, australia and europe. problem with you guys is highly inflated egos never wanted to mixing up with the majority.

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      All theory. No reality. Colonize Canada as a Tamil Kingdom if you have any substance.

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    The British government followed ‘Shoot to Kill’ policy but did not bomb and strafe the civilian population like Sri Lanka did. This resulted in the mature progression to resolve the Northern Ireland conflict peacefully.

    In Sri Lanka the legitimate government forces gave callous disregard to the suffering of the civilians. Since the early 1970’s, Tamils were treated inhumanely for militants actions. What we experienced in the final war is the end product of the systematic campaign against the Tamil population in the name of fighting LTTE terrorism.

    If any one country wants to follow what Sri Lanka did, the very purpose of the UN and responsible governance has no meaning.

    The UN is only for the politics of the powerful nations. What happened in Sri Lanka for nearly 30 years must have been in the UN agenda from the beginning and if so catastrophe experienced could have been averted.

    UN has entered into the Sri Lankan violation at the end of the war whilst witnessing colossal human losses for three decades.

    Four years have passed since the end of the war and the matter has not reached the Security Council or the General Assembly. Even Ban Ki Moon is maintaining silence for some reasons.

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      While those Tamil militants kept on robbing govts banks, killing innocent soldiers who guarded against Tamil-smugglers to Sri Lankan shores, when those militants were killing boarder villages and destroying govt properties all those educated tamils peaceful tamils and the so-called moderate tamils were chanting the same manthra of political solution. They all dreaming their own country until the last moment of the war. They never talked and do not talk hither to date “the role of tamils in the demise of tamils.”

      Even at the peak time of the war, most tamils were talking about political solutions and they simply did not care about the fate of the tamil relatives who were suffering there.

      That is a long story if we start righting again.

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        Dear jim sothy,
        Dont try to change story, u sinhala modays never going to change. i never beleive u change, After ltte gone nearly 4 yrs…u modayas ever used u r damn top of your neck. never do i beleive u will use it future noooooooooooo. full stop, do i want to argue with u dumps, nooooooooooooooo…only way tamils need own nation, it will happen sonner better…

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          j.muthu

          “u sinhala modays never going to change. i never beleive u change”

          They are your brethren genetically speaking and share M20 marker.

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        You are another gutless person who wish to hide your identity behind the smokescreen.

        LTTE is the baby of the failures of Sri Lanka to politically addressed the deep rooted issues. Until such time problems are not solved politically, what happened in the last leg of the war will haunt Sri Lanka. The process is going through another phase now that may lead to a new Indian intervention that will be a step forward from the failures of its past experience.

        Sri Lanka thinks that the world it is spinning around the island nation and attempts to make vitriolic charges on everyone without addressing the issues. LTTE saw its end with such attitude as it could realise the changing world politics.

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        In fact one TNA Tamil parliamentarian threatened to send 30,000 soldiers in body bags to the South. That’s what they thought their boys could do till the last moment. Now all of them have re-borne as human rights champions laundered by USA & the West.

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          Hela, the Anonymous

          Who buried the body bags of the soldiers in the mid sea during the peak of the war. The sea buried are the countless soldiers missing in action. If you are a true Hela, you must fight for their rights, instead straying into making unnecessary prop ups.

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          Hela

          “Now all of them have re-borne as human rights champions laundered by USA & the West.”

          This can only happen among the Sinhala/Tamil Lankies.

          Once a human rights champion reborn as the war monger president and war criminal.

          Sinhala Tamil affinity is striking and clear.

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          Hela

          “In fact one TNA Tamil parliamentarian threatened to send 30,000 soldiers in body bags to the South”

          Well remembered.

          Do you remember any other threats, such as JR’s followed by Dutta Gamini just after 1977 and 1983 riots?

          By the way these threats were aimed at Tamils in general and TULF in particular.

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    To kill an LTTE force of 4,000 the Sri Lankan military also massacred more than 40,000 unarmed civilians. You don’t need political will, control of the media etc, etc, but you just need pure evil in yourself to do such an atrocious crime against humanity. Such evil is resides within the Rajapaksa brothers and the Sri Lankan military and that is how they defeated the LTTE and committed mass murder. The Sri Lankan military may have won the war but the conflict lives on and that is not the end of the problem.

    The same evil within the Rajapaksa brothers is creating problems for the Sinhala people in the south. Dictatorship is in the making and all opposition brutally suppressed. Sri Lanka won the war but with victory it created a monster that is destroying Sri lanka.

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      Piranha, 40,000 is a white lie that everybody know including USA, EU & India. The castle you try to build on such lies (when you failed it with monstrous violence against a country’s people) will crumble.

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        Hela the masked commenter,

        It is not too late to undertake a count of the dead. Get in touch with your Hela head Champika to influence the government to undertake this important count.

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        Hela

        “Piranha, 40,000 is a white lie that everybody know including USA, EU & India.”

        Let me ask you two simple questions;

        The number of innocent people who had lost their lives since 5th April 1971 and break down by each category of perpetrator.

        If 40,000 is white lie please let me have the true figure and the source of your data.

        Please bear with me as you know I am bit thick and find it difficult to reconcile all those figures even with rudimentary form of Abacus, pebbles.

        I would be most grateful for a response.

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    Good book.

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    Looks like Srilankans have adopted nice European names to make their argument look good for the English news readers.:-)

    Talk of Tamil nationalism or Eelam as if it is new is ironic. As if Tamil nationalism in Ceylon is new. North America itself is an example of a European immigrants coming, population growing and the land of natives taken over. Likewise, Tamils have a longer history and nearer geographical association to the island of Ceylon than Sinhala immigrants who came to the island. Tamil history is one of the oldest dozen in this world, accepted by world historians. Not to alienate Sinhala from the island. After all, it has been home to all for long.

    The Western world and China merely toys with Srilanka’s tall claims and lies for political purpose. The world at large has been always like that. Frankly, the best thing for all Srilankan people is for bigger nations like China and Pakistan to take a bigger part. China’s administration will lead to better treatment for even Sinhala and Pakistan can help in the muslim front. Tamil community needs to be more open to China’s involvement in the country, and let the island be aided to growth by a true superpower of Asia.

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    Thank you, Simon Akam for writing this.

    Sri Lanka is a story of an island where 65 yrs of post-independence internal colonialism has nearly finished off an ethnic group and is in the process of trying its hand on another ethnic group.

    Dear Simon Akam, please continue to ”review” the last 65yrs of Sri Lanka:

    ‘’Paradise Poisoned is the principal product of a seventeen year project, devoted to understanding linkages between deadly conflict, terrorism and development, by viewing them through the lens of Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, from 1948 through 1988. ….. Sri Lanka provides a lens for viewing many challenges with which development practitioners and leaders of developing nations have grappled in the post-World war II era – and for learning from them. My intention is to provide answers to the question, ‘how did we come to this’ that will help craft more humane, peaceable, sustainable future development scenarios. Such scenarios could make it unnecessary for future generations to contemplate protracted deadly conflict’s legacies – suffering, devastation and hopelessness – as Sri Lankans, Rwandians, Bosnians, Ahghanis and many others have had to do. My vision is of a day when no citizens in today’s developing nations will have to ask ‘how did we come to this? …..‘’My vision is of a day when no citizens in today’s developing nations will have to ask ‘how did we come to this?’ Paradise Poisoned will have achieved its purpose when that day comes.”

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    The reviewer is guilty of the same action he is accusing the author of committing. The US troops committed more than enough violations of international humanitarian law in Vietnam – as they are now doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. They know very well that terrorism cannot be fought adhering to rules of conventional warfare.

    Their sanctimonious human rights stand is only a cover for trying to install either a compliant national government or a subservient provincial government that will help them with facilities to monitor the Indian Ocean. Given the budget cuts in the US military maintaining carrier based task forces is unsustainable. So the alternative is sophisticated intelligence. Can be done with a small footprint – for instance UAV bases or electronic ‘listening posts’.

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      Criticise what the author writes, not the author.

      Different authors are writing about different issues all over the world all the time.
      Colombo Telegraph has reproduced what the author wrote in another website – a review of a book.

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