In Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War, Paul Moorcraft recalls a Buddhist saying: “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.” In Sri Lanka, if history is to be written by the victors – President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his followers – then the island has arrived at butterfly status. This book is less one that describes the price paid for this (though the bill is presented for inspection), more one about how it arrived at that status.

Wars of counter-insurgency (COIN), such as those (now) fought in Afghanistan and (previously) in Iraq, frequently get cast as battles which pit those with the watches against those with the time. Briefly, this amounts to the non-indigenous side leaving the theatre of war before defeating the indigenous side, simply because the pressures on them to do so are greater than the imperatives that caused them to become involved in the first place. Indigenous forces stay put.

In describing Sri Lanka, Moorcraft offers us a thought-provoking perspective when those with the time are pitted against those also with the time, bringing in to focus something so rarely achieved but dearly sought after by various powers: the absolute defeat of an insurgency, an uprising, a rebellion or whatever term is used to describe it.

Ultimately, Sri Lanka’s narrative is about the costs involved of defying the conventional wisdom that counter-insurgencies cannot be won militarily, set against the (Long) War on Terror discourse which offers little outside evidence that wars today are winnable.

The author quotes an Indian defence expert summarising the ‘Rajapaksa model’ of COIN:

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

Naturally, this neat wish list could never be quite so neat when being played out in a real scenario. But for the Sri Lankans prosecuting this war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Tigers (LTTE), certain elements came together at the right time, meaning that when final victory was sensed, the President felt secure enough to inform a very concerned Indian ‘top-level security troika’: “Even if you invade my country, I will not stop this.”

By this stage of the game, Sri Lankan leadership was tight and almost impenetrable: President Rajapaksa had one brother, Gotabaya, as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, and another one, Basil, as a senior and advisor and then Minister of Economic Development.

By contrast, the LTTE, despite being adept at using the media and Diaspora networks for support and funding, committed some serious strategic errors and was led by a dictatorial leader who believed his own hype. Using the fanatical Black Tigers, the suicide attack division, they assassinated Rajiv Ghandi of India, the regional powerhouse who through the state of Tamil Nadu had some constituent sympathy for their cause. While the Tamils alienated India, Sri Lanka kept good relations with Pakistan and China, through whom they had a friend on the UN Security Council. On the ground, profiting from armed peace during periods of supposed ceasefire bled the Tamils’ local support.

Matters reached a head in ‘The Cage’, an internationally-brokered no-fire zone which only really served to concentrate combatants and civilians into one area so that opening fire could most conveniently be undertaken. In fact, by this stage, the only shots fired in anger were fired in The Cage. No rear bases in neighbouring territory were possible. Despite the outcry resulting from the civilian loss of life, the Tamils were in effect pushed into the sea, a bellicose figure of speech used on the eve of battle that on this occasion was enacted.

Since then, peace seems to have paid dividends: the state of emergency has been lifted, the growth rate of the economy has been 7-8%, and the tourist industry is rebounding strongly. But this is the time when you find out just how ‘total’ the victory was. Given the dominant presence of the military in so much of Sri Lanka’s history, its peacetime politics are inevitably militarized.

Still, as Moorcraft muses, what would a political settlement have achieved? “Another North-South Sudan at worse or a divided Cyprus at best?” This is undoubtedly a difficult question, one which runs counter to the moral sensibilities with which we tend to view and discuss conflict today. Certainly, no outside observer or diplomat could be willing a total victory – but their influence was deflected at the crucial times.

In discussions about whether the ends justify the means, the formula rarely features an end quite so definitive as that experienced in Sri Lanka. The net result, which the author leads us to, is that when there are so few voices decrying what they see as the end of the world, observers, unaccustomed to victory, are left wondering quite how they arrived at the butterfly they are presented with, in places agonising over the costs – but nonetheless, it is still a butterfly.

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8 Responses to Winning a War in the Era of Unwinnable Wars: The case of Sri Lanka

  1. P.Selvaratnam says:

    ‘Rajapakse Model’ has been possible because Sri Lanka is
    a a small island and non-state actors cannot get any resources from outside
    b. in a geopolitically strategic location, thus successive governments have been able to control damage on international arena:
    i.Sri Lanka: Twenty years of make-believe. Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry, 11 June 2009,
    ii. no foreign state or intergovernmental organisation is pressing this President to release the reports of:

    • P.Selvaratnam says:

      Many Sri Lankans knew that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was appointed for gaining time to bring about demographical change in the North and the East in the last four years. None of the LLRC recommendations have been implemented (not even the singing of the national anthem in Tamil which was stopped by the President after he was prevented from addressing Oxford University) and the LLRC website was hacked a few months ago. Last month the parliament was told that they do not concur with the US-sponsored UNHRC resolution afte the government appointed two PR firms in the US ”to work with the US government.”
      When the very elaborate Action Plan was presented to the international community it was evident to the Sri Lankans that that is meant to fool the international community.

    • P.Selvaratnam says:

      Had it not been an island, there would have been mass exodus over land border in the 50s/60s to escape state terrorism.

  2. Geoff Santini says:

    The Tamil diaspora which financed decades of terror, kidnapping, child soldiers, torture and genocide will not be pleased with this book. Having lost the war they have to console themselves with trying to prove human rights abuses from an alleged single incident at the end of a thirty year conflict.

  3. P.Selvaratnam says:

    Successive Sri Lankan governments have been so successful in damage control at the intergovernmental organisations that many people have come to know about the conflict in Sri Lanka only after the massacre of 2009:

    The Danse Macabre of Sri Lanka’s Liberal Democracy, William Clarance, Global Asia Volume3 Number1(2008)
    Within months of independence, nearly one million Tamil plantation workers of Indian origin were deprived of their voting rights and citizenship. Such a blatantly discriminatory measure also entailed the loss of seven minority seats in parliament, thus upsetting the compromise on balanced representation that had been the basis for minorities accepting the constitution. Thereafter, it was easier for a large sinhalese party to ignore the wishes of the Tamil minority and still obtain a majority in parliament. Then, section 29(2) of the constitution, which prohibited discriminatory legislation, largely failed as discrimination in everyday life proved to be more a matter of public administration than successive sinhalese-dominated administrations ignored the alarming storm signals from the Tamils, the seeds of militancy and terrorism were sown that would lead to civil war and national evisceration. The headmasterly admonition of the Soulbury commissioners to play the game of parliamentary democracy well — “it will behove the Sinhalese majority to take the utmost care to avoid giving cause for any suspicion of unfairness or partiality”* – served only to underline their flawed judgment and political naiveté.
    (* Soulbury commission report, Cmd. 6677, para 177).
    [William Clarance first became interested in sri lanka when reading history at oxford in the 1950s. it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s when he was posted there to head the program of the UNHCR, the refugee agency, that he had direct experience of its conflict in the north east. His book, ethnic Warfare in Sri Lanka and the UN Crisis, was published in 2007].

    CEYLON : A DIVIDED NATION, B H Farmer(1963):”The truth is simply that nobody unacceptable to the present Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has any chance of constitutional power in contemporary Ceylon.”
    In the forward to the book, CEYLON : A DIVIDED NATION(1963), Viscount Soulbury (British Colonial Commission headed by him was in charge of handing over independence) expressed his regret: ‘’In the light of later happenings I now think it is a pity that the Commission did not also recommend the entrenchment in the constitution of guarantees of fundamental rights, on the lines enacted in the constitutions of India, Pakistan, Malaya , Nigeria and elsewhere. Perhaps in any subsequent amendment of Ceylon’s constitution those in authority might take note of the proclamation made by the delegates at the Arfrican conference which met in Lagos two years ago: ‘Fundamental human rights, esp. the right to individual liberty, should be written and entrenched in the constitutions of all countries’’.

    Sri Lanka: A Mounting Tragedy of Errors, Report by International Commission of Jurists, March 1984:
    ‘’The impact of the communal violence on the Tamils was shattering. The evidence points clearly to the conclusion that the violence of the Sinhala rioters on the Tamils amounted to Acts of Genocide”.

    Ethnic Conflict and Violence in Sri Lanka – Report of International Commission of Jurists 1981: ‘’The fate of the Tamils in Sri Lanka remains a matter of international concern”.

    Race Conflict in Ceylon, John Foster QC and others, September 1977

    Emergency ’58 – The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots, Tarzi Vittachi(1958):
    ‘’The GalOya race-killings of 1956 and the ugly episode of Little Rock in 1957 should have warned us that the Fifth Horseman(race-hatred) took no notice of time, place, …. What are we left with? A nation in ruins, some grim lessons which we cannot afford to forget and a momentous question: Have the Sinhalese and Tamils reached the parting of ways?”
    (The manuscript of the book was smuggled out of SriLanka and printed in the UK and the book was banned in Sri Lanka – the following year the author received the Magsaysay Award for the book)

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