Dialogue  April-June 2008 , Volume 9 No. 4

Three Dimensions of the Fourth Eelam War in Sri Lanka

Col R Hariharan (Retd)*

"It has become incumbent upon us to confront this group to the extent of our ability, deploying all the resources of the State, to protect the people of Sri Lanka and their democratic way of life. I must add that what I am doing is in no way different to what other democracies have done before, and continue to do, in the face of terrorism.”                               

  -Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka, at the Oxford University         Student Union, May 13, 2008.                                                                                    

   Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement given above to justify the decision of Sri Lanka to wage the Eelam War-4 against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) gives an inkling into his thinking. The war has been going on for nearly two and a half years now. Sri Lanka went to war in December 2005 even while the Norwegian-mediated peace process 2002 was in force. In the past Eelam wars, Sri Lanka’s security forces had dithered at achieving decisive results despite initial successes. So the two Eelam wars fought by the security forces against the LTTE in the past had ended in a stalemate (the Eelam War-2 was fought by Indian troops in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990). And the LTTE had fared a little better, in ensuring its survival and in preserving its core leadership while sacrificing thousands of Tamil lives on and off the battle fields.
      Considered in this backdrop, the security forces have achieved some notable success in present episode of the Eelam War. They have inflicted at least 40 to 50% casualties on the LTTE and captured over 55% of the territory the LTTE controlled at the beginning of the peace process in 2002. The security forces owe their military success not only due to their better performance in battle field, numerical superiority of forces or preponderance of fire power but also due to the unflinching support President Rajapaksa has been extending to the war effort, despite facing severe international criticism for resuming the war while the ceasefire agreement was in force. Buoyed by Sri Lanka’s early successes in the east in the current war, President Rajapaksa has expressed his confidence in “crushing” the LTTE by end of 2008.                                                                    

   The overall impact on Sri Lanka despite its successes so far in the Eelam War-4 had been terrible. So far the war has caused over 7000 casualties including about 5000 of the LTTE and 2000 of the army. As three to four divisions of the security forces are poised to  launch their offensive on the main defences of the LTTE in Mannar, Muhamalai, Vavuniya and the Welioya sectors,  much more casualties can be expected in the coming months. Already, the fall out of the war is affecting the Sri Lankan economy – inflation rate is touching 25%. Traditional tourist traffic has suffered and food and fuel prices have gone up. Sri Lanka had been under fire internationally for its dismal human rights record triggered by the war. Unless it improves, Sri Lanka may lose the duty free concessions for its exports to the EU under the GSP+ scheme due for renewal in 2009.                                                                      

    This has three dimensions – internal, international and Indian - to the current conflict in Sri Lanka. This conflict is likely to leave its impact on all the three dimensions unlike the earlier three episodes of the Eelam wars.  

Internal dimension

        The President had very strong reasons to take up the military option. Towards the end 2005 when the presidential poll was due, the nation was facing a political crisis with its inability to shore up the peace process, which was making no headway. The LTTE having submitted its interim self governing authority (ISGA) proposal without proper response from Sri Lanka was holding the political initiative. Despite the ceasefire, in the first three years of peace from 2002 the LTTE had an impressive tally of over 3000 violations of ceasefire painfully verified by the Nordic members of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. It had continued “recruiting” underage kids in its ranks despite international condemnation. It expanded its fighting capability, adding an air wing


and strengthening its burgeoning Sea Tiger force. On the other hand it had put Sri Lanka on the defensive when its killer squads  eliminated key anti-LTTE Tamil political and intelligence elements, military intelligence officers and members of the cabinet. Notable victims of the LTTE included Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, a vocal critic of the LTTE for its agenda of terror. These violations of the LTTE caused the EU and Canada to ban the outfit in their regions.            

    Compared to the LTTE, the Sri Lanka government’s record was  barely ten percent of the LTTE count. Many of them related to human rights, curbing media rights, police harassment and highhandedness, and personal security violations.                                                                                    In his run up to the presidential elections, Rajapaksa had articulated his opposition to the peace process 2002, and its attendant instrument of ceasefire signed by Sri Lanka with the LTTE, in his election manifesto Mahinda Chintanaya. Indirectly the LTTE helped him get elected as it imposed a boycott of the polls in areas under its control, thereby depriving the benefit of Tamil votes for his opponent Ranil Wickramasinghe, the architect of the peace process. When Rajapaksa got elected on a thin majority through southern Sinhala votes, he started translating his poll promises into action programmes. Since then he has shown a single mindedness of purpose in implementing his Chintanaya. Going to war with LTTE well before he formally abrogated the ceasefire agreement on 16 January 2008 was part of his agenda.                           

    Of course Sri Lanka had enough provocations from the LTTE to go to war. It had used the ceasefire period to buttress its claims as a de facto state on the threshold of becoming a legal entity. Eight months before the new President came to office, the LTTE unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate the army commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka. It also made an abortive attempt to kill the President’s brother and advisor Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the heart of Colombo high security zone. The attempt on the army commander was probably the trigger that unleashed the ire of armed forces held in check earlier while the two major political coalitions quibbled over how to respond to the LTTE. So when the newly elected President Rajapaksa came up with a military agenda, it found the security forces eager to take it up as a challenge to redeem their prestige and honour.                                                                             Through some clever political manipulation, President Rajapaksa has managed to tinker a Sinhala consensus of sorts to gather support for his policy to abandon the peace process and wage war. This has been brought about by splitting strong opposition parties like the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Party (JVP), and by selective intimidation of both homegrown and international peace lobbies campaigning against the war and muzzling the media opposed to his policies. His omnibus cabinet of over 100 ministers included many small parties and ensured he had sufficient support in parliament.                   

     Before President Rajapaksa came to power the breakaway group of the LTTE headed by Karuna, the estranged Batticaloa leader was looking for political moorings to enable it to survive in the conflict between the two warring sides. Karuna had formed the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), a political party born out of the embers of the splinter group, which could not take off as both the major political parties did not want to publicly associate with it due to its unsavoury reputation.  The TMVP cadres continued to retain their arms and there were widespread complaints of extortion, intimidation and forceful recruitment of children against them. However, the President used the TMVP to support his operational effort, particularly in driving out the LTTE from the east. The successful “liberation” of the east enabled the President to gain a lot of prestige, and to pull in influential sections to his side. Before the east was won, they had been aghast at his style of political manipulation and governance.                                                                              

      His other actions including the de-merger of the northeastern province in deference to a Supreme Court decision, in spite of strong objection from peace lobbies and Tamil polity, have endeared him to the Sinhala population. In fact, parties like the JVP which had depended upon playing upon the Sinhala nationalist sentiments found the President had stolen their thunder.  It was the success in the war effort so far that had made the President to go ahead with the implementation of the 13th amendment of the Constitution which had been held in abeyance in the east. This amendment came about as a result of     the India-Sri Lanka Agreement 1987. It had visualized the creation of a united northeastern provincial council to administer Tamil inhabited areas with limited autonomy. However, it was never fully implemented. The President has used the implementation of 13th amendment perhaps to satisfy those who accuse him of not providing even limited autonomy for Tamils.                           

   In May 2008, the first ever poll for the newly created eastern provincial council was successfully conducted. With the three major ethnic communities in almost in equal proportion the eastern province is a sensitive barometer of popular sentiment. The President’s United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) struck an alliance with the TMVP and a splinter group of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) for this election to come out with flying colours, capturing 20 seats while the UNP secured 15 seats and one seat each went to the JVP and the Tamil Democratic National Alliance. There had been complaints against the UPFA and its TMVP partner about stuffing of ballot boxes and intimidation of voters. Such complaints are not unknown even during elections in the normal circumstances. Given this background, one could say the President has managed to get through the elections without major violence or large scale misconduct. The success of his coalition has gained the President a foothold in an area that was  considered a UNP-SLMC stronghold. This is likely to further strengthen his party and demoralize the opposition further.                                                         

   However, the larger issue of satisfying the aggrieved Tamil minority population still remains untouched. The President’s successful war effort has diverted popular attention from implementing a devolution package for Tamils to be worked out by an all party committee which has gone into hibernation after the President decided to conduct the eastern provincial council poll. The feeling of insecurity among Tamils, particularly businessmen, due to killings and kidnappings, and lack of enthusiasm in the government machinery to follow up has affected the public image of the government both at home and abroad.                             

    In single-mindedly pursuing the military option President Rajapaksa had shown a remarkable similarity of intent to the LTTE chief V Prabhakaran. This has added a dangerous dimension to the Eelam War-4 making a “fight to the finish” a real possibility. But can that produce a lasting solution? It is most unlikely as wars with ethnic roots leave long-lasting scars in the psyche of people. In the long run, this poses a potential threat to ethnic reconciliation so essential for the country, than the enormous loss of men and material caused due to the prolonged war. And the Eelam War-4 is directly contributing to this danger.

International dimension

    The Eelam War-4 has caused a lot of concern to the EU, Japan, Norway, and the US - the four co-chairs of the Tokyo Donors Conference – which had underwritten the now defunct peace process. But Rajapaksa had adroitly used the prevailing scenario of global war on terror to engage the LTTE militarily. His option has been made more acceptable to other nations as the LTTE is showing neither remorse nor an inclination to consider options other than warfare. On the other hand, the LTTE has continued with its terror tactics to carry out suicide bombing of civilians and government officials, the latest being the assassination of President Rajapaksa’s right hand man and minister Fernando Poulle by a suicide bomber last month.                                               

   The Eelam War-4 is taking place when the U.S., stung by 9/11 Al Qaeda attack, is assiduously promoting a global war on terror and implementing internationally networked anti-terror measures. These have made clandestine operations of terror groups to carry out money laundering, human trafficking, illegal weapons procurement and transfers, and extortions more difficult than ever before. As a result LTTE’s time-tested global support system is being torn asunder. The FBI sting operations carried out across the globe in 2006-07 to bust the LTTE efforts to procure missiles and other modern weapons and gadgetry are a good example of the results of the global war on terror. Thanks to international exchange of vital intelligence, Sri Lanka Navy in 2007 managed to destroy eight tramp ships of LTTE’s proxy shipping companies  in Indian Ocean while gun running for the insurgents. This has practically  put out the LTTE’s in-house capability to ship weapons in its own bottoms.                                                                                           

   On the flip side, President Rajapaksa has tried to gain legitimacy for his military option by loudly proclaiming the Sri Lanka war on the LTTE as part of the global war on terror. This argument does not find many takers as many countries while sympathizing with Sri Lanka feel basically see it as a direct consequence of the Tamil struggle for autonomy and not as a part of Al Qaeda inspired terrorism. However, the international voices against the war are muted because the LTTE has gained the dubious reputation of the world’s most powerful internationally networked non state actor with a capability to wage irregular warfare in land, sea and air. As a result India, the EU, Canada and the US have banned the LTTE as a terrorist organization.                                                       

    With the U.S.’s record tarnished by excesses of human rights violations in Afghanistan and IraqSri Lanka’s human rights violations has become suspect. Western nations had been unhappy with Rajapaksa’s style of governance and warfare conducted much to the detriment of their peace effort. Generally, they had been supportive of the Sri Lanka government actions to cope up with the compulsions of fighting the LTTE. Their economic and military support had been an important component of Sri Lanka’s ability to pursue the war option. with episodes like the Guantanamo Bay Camp for Al Qaeda suspects, the moral high ground of the West to question However, Western nations have strong anti-war and human rights lobbies apart from influential Tamil expatriate groups who are campaigning for international action against Sri Lanka for its human rights violations and humanitarian aberrations of war. So the West will be compelled to take some action in the coming months to bring Sri Lanka back to acceptable norms of conduct. As this could affect Sri Lankan economy, the President had been assiduously cultivating India, China, Pakistan, and Iran for their support to shore up Sri Lanka. While India will not supply arms it has strong economic links and assistance programme. Iran has promised to apportion up to $4 billion as aid to  Sri Lanka while both China and Pakistan have been important sources of supply of arms. However, it is doubtful whether the Sri Lanka-Iran relations have any future in the face of strong U.S. opposition to such a development which has been made clear to Sri Lanka.

The Indian dimension

     There had always been an Indian dimension to war and peace in Sri Lanka, though it varied in form and content from time to time. India’s Sri Lanka perceptions have been impacted by two constants. The first is the geo-strategic element relating to Sri Lanka’s location within India’s area of influence, overlooking the vital shipping lanes of Indian Ocean. Thus developments within Sri Lanka always have relevance to India’s national security. However, during the last decade, Indian strategic perspective has enlarged from its focus on military security of the Cold War days to economic and regional security issues in keeping with the global power and economic equations.                                                                   With India’s global trade growing at a fast pace, Sri Lanka is emerging as an important economic partner of its growth story. As a result trade and commerce is playing an important role in shaping India-Sri Lanka relations for a decade now. Close business and commercial links are being built ever since the two countries signed the Free Trade Agreement in 2002. Both the countries have worked hard to make it successful. The Indo-Sri Lanka trade is poised to exceed $ 4 billion by 2010. Indian entrepreneurs are investing heavily in Sri Lanka and Indian investment is flowing into many projects in the energy and infrastructure sectors in Sri Lanka. The   economic security component is likely to continue as a major factor in the broadening spectrum of India’s strategic security considerations in the future also.                                                                      The other dimension relates to the problems of Tamil speaking minority population of Sri Lanka. Tamil is spoken by about 23 percent of Sri Lankan population composed of ethnic Tamils, Tamils of Indian origin who came as plantation labour, and Muslims. In the seventies the denial of Sri Lankan citizenship for Tamils of Indian origin had figured as an important issue in India -Sri Lanka relations. Over a period of time, this issue has been resolved to a large extent. However, since early eighties the struggle of ethnic Tamil minority in Sri Lanka for autonomy and preserving their distinct identity had evoked a lot of sympathy among the 60-million strong Tamil population in India. Traditionally Tamils of Tamil Nadu have been having close cultural, religious and linguistic affinity with Sri Lankan Tamils. Thus this issue became an important factor not only in shaping the course of Tamil Nadu politics but also India’s Sri Lanka policy.                                                                                                      Around 1976 when the Tamil political struggle for autonomy in Sri Lanka failed to make any progress, the demand for the creation of an independent state of Tamil Eelam gathered strength. And Tamil polity, which could not produce results, gave way to militant organisations to fight for a Tamil Eelam. The issue also assumed political dimensions of some consequence in Tamil Nadu. It gathered a lot of emotional momentum in July 1983 when thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees landed in Tamil Nadu in a bid to escape Sinhala pogrom against them in Colombo.  Since then the issue of devolution of powers to Tamil minority in Sri Lanka has remained an important factor in shaping India-Sri Lanka relations. Of course, there are a few perennial issues of lesser importance involving Tamil Nadu like the loss of traditional fishing grounds of Tamil Nadu fishermen when India-Sri Lanka territorial waters were demarcated, and fishing in Sri Lanka waters. But probably these have only a marginal impact on policy making Since 1981 India’s Sri Lanka policy making has aimed at reconciling the twin considerations of developing closer strategic relations with Sri Lanka while ensuring the Tamil ethnic minority get a fair share of power within a united Sri Lanka. As a result, the India/Sri Lanka relationship had seen its ups and downs during the last two decades in keeping with ebb tide of the strategic developments in the region, and the progress of Sri Lanka’s Tamil conflict. The events of the period 1981-90 termed as “troubled years” by Prof Sahadevan have left indelible marks on the perceptions of both India and Sri Lanka about each other. From this point of view it may be considered as the decisive decade of India-Sri Lanka relations.                    

     The Eelam War-4 now in progress for the third year was a logical sequence to the failure of all stakeholders to implement the peace process 2002 in good faith. However, India despite its strategic and ethnic interests in Sri Lanka had been interested bystander at best ever since the peace process started in 2002. India’s posture was probably based upon its   own negative experience in the past which underscored that good intentions of the third party alone were not enough to bring peace in Sri Lanka. However, even in these circumstances India has made clear that while it stood for a united Sri Lanka while it supported a process of devolution of powers for Tamils and for this peace effort rather than war was the answer.                                                                                  

    Ever since the peace process failed, the four co-chairs would probably like active involvement of India in the bid to revive the peace process. However, India is reluctant to do so because it has three practical problems in donning the role of a mediator once again. This probably reflects the public opinion prevalent in India on the issue. Many feel India’s past efforts to bring peace have not been recognized in Sri Lanka by both the Tamils and Sinhalas. And under such circumstances the present policy was probably the best option.                                                Firstly, India’s strategic relations with Sri Lanka being closer than ever before, India would not like to be involved in Sri Lanka conflict if it jeopardized its basic strategic and economic considerations in any way. As the present Sri Lanka regime has strong views on the subject, India would probably get involved more actively only when the circumstances are more opportune and have better chances of success of such intervention. Till then it will probably continue to try and influence Sri Lankan through diplomatic and economic means only.                           The second aspect relates to the increasing Indian investments and assets in Sri Lanka. The security of these strategic assets requires a stable government in Sri Lanka. The LTTE despite its avowal of Tamil cause does not have a record of reliability and could act as a destabiliser of Sri Lanka. Hence, India probably feels there is sufficient cause for the Sri Lanka government to militarily reduce the LTTE to manageable proportions after which India could take up the revival of peace effort.                  The LTTE and its future itself is the third road block in Indian involvement. The LTTE has a love-hate relationship with India. There is a popular belief both in India and Sri Lanka that there is widespread support and sympathy for the LTTE in Tamil Nadu. There is some confusion in understanding the Tamil mindset among non-Tamils (including Indians and Sri Lankans) about their support to the LTTE. This confusion prevails even among some people in Tamil Nadu.         

     The people of Tamilnadu, like most of the Tamils all over the world, have always supported the struggle of Sri Lanka Tamils for their democratic rights. They will continue to do so till the Tamil aspirations are satisfied. Tamilnadu extended passionate support when the Tamil struggle turned into militancy in 1982. The support to militants gained legitimacy in after the Black July pogrom in 1983. Different Tamil Nadu political parties patronised different Tamil groups. While Tamil Eelam Organisation (TELO) had Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) leader Karunanidhi as a patron, his political rival MG Ramachandran of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIDMK) naturally favoured the LTTE, a contender for Tamil leadership against TELO.                      

    , two developments split this support base for militants in Tamilnadu in 1987: the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, and the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. The military involvement of the IPKF against the LTTE was not accepted by most of the Tamil people, who had romantic notions about it. But this notion was shattered when the LTTE carried out the killing of Rajiv Gandhi after meticulous planning. And after Vaiko, then a popular leader of the DMK, fell out with Karunanidhi over his overt support to the LTTE (among many other internal issues), there had been a change in Karunanidhi’s attitude.             

    He had studiously distanced himself from the LTTE, ever since the people of the state adversely came out against the LTTE when Rajiv Gandhi was killed. Though the LTTE had been trying to cultivate him for sometime now, he had been careful in talking about them on the subject. Nothing illustrates this point better than a resolution adopted on April 24, 2008 in the Tamil Nadu state assembly. It called upon the Centre to take steps to bring peace in Sri Lanka. Its constructive tone for finding a peaceful resolution of the problem, rather than the polemical Tamil political rhetoric adopted in the past, is significant. Coincidentally, the resolution was passed when the Eelam War-4 hit new high of combat at Muhamalai causing heavy casualties on both sides.

     The Sri Lanka Tamil issue is no more in the centre stage of Tamilnadu’s public or political agenda. However, if the refugee inflows increase it will stage among minor Tamil political partners in the coalition at the Centre. In principle the DMK is unlikely to change its stand in such circumstances. However, political compulsions will force it to toe the same line. The real danger is from the LTTE ‘sleeper agents’ in Tamil Nadu who have become active as a result of the war. Already a number of cases of clandestine shipments of essential stores, explosives, fuses, and other warlike material to the LTTE apprehended along the Tamil Nadu coast have been reported.  Under this circumstance, it is unlikely the Indian government would take any action to encourage the LTTE despite the influence of coalition politics at Delhi on policy making.                                                                                                                                        

    The impact of the Eelam War-4 on India’s Sri Lanka policy is direct.  The war is between the Sri Lanka government, a friendly neighbour, and the LTTE, a proscribed organisation in India. Unless the LTTE makes amends for its conduct India as a nation will not be able to change its attitude towards it. Given Prabhakaran’s ego-centric leadership it is unlikely he would allow the LTTE to deviate from its present course of war. This is rooted in his false belief that Tamils all over the world support him and the LTTE’s war. This is far from the ground reality. The LTTE probably enjoys the smallest support base now when compared to the widespread support it had when it entered into the peace process in 2002. The pre-1983 generation that inspired Tamil militancy is fading into oblivion. The new generation uprooted from the red soil of Jaffna to other parts of Sri Lanka or overseas does not have the emotional inspiration for the LTTE ways, because the war has been going on for too long.    


      The aftermath of every war of the Eelam series starting from the first spell in 1979 saw enhanced the scope and content of warfare adding higher force levels, weaponry, and technical sophistication with the sole purpose of causing more casualties to people and national resources. Of course human rights and humanitarian considerations are the first casualties of every war and Sri Lanka’s Eelam wars are no exception. This pattern makes it weakens the chances of resuming a peace process. By these standards the Eelam War-4 has set many benchmarks even before it is finished.  Sri Lankan Prime Minister Wickramanayake has recently clarified that there would be no more ceasefire agreements in future with the LTTE as it had exploited such agreements in the past.                                                                                                 

     While most of the nations including India and the four co-chairs underwriting the peace process have not been happy with the way President Rajapaksa’s style of politics, diplomacy or war, they know he has a hard task at hand in reigning in the LTTE. Their own exposures to the LTTE have made them to make allowances for it in the policy aberrations of Sri Lanka. However, it would be under estimating international opinion if the President takes international opinion for granted on two vital issues - human rights and upsetting the international power equation in this region. While he could take palliative measures for improving Sri Lanka’s human rights record, developing closer relations with Iran is fraught with danger as it introduces a new power play of unknown proportions. None of the existing friends of Sri Lanka including the US and India are likely to welcome this development.            

    With the successful conduct of elections in the east, the President has proved a point that not only he can win the war but also usher in normal life and development in war torn areas. However, this would become true if only the efforts towards development in the east are not frittered away in the notorious corruption regimen that is endemic in Sri Lanka.                                                                                                                                     

   India will continue to occupy a large space in Sri Lanka’s strategic and economic picture. As the Indian government policy is unlikely to undergo any drastic change in essential basics, this relationship is likely to grow in the coming years not withstanding the fortunes of war.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati