Sri Lanka post the LTTE


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THE total military defeat of the LTTE in mid-May is without doubt the most dramatic political event to have occurred in South Asia in the year 2009. After resisting the Sri Lankan state’s multi-pronged military offensive for over two years, and then being cornered to a small coastal area of Mulaithivu, the LTTE’s military structure collapsed within a few days after 15 May 2009 when the top military and political leadership of the LTTE died within a space of twenty-four hours. While bodies of some, including that of LTTE’s leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, have been found by the Sri Lankan soldiers, those of many other LTTE leaders have not been recovered. The circumstances under which they met their death are not publicly known and will remain controversial for many years to come. Some third level leaders may have surrendered to the army, but little is known about the fate of many of them. With this unexpected collapse of the LTTE, Sri Lanka’s protracted ethnic insurgency has come to a halt. But will it mark the end of the ethnic conflict as well? Many, for obvious reasons, are quite skeptical.

The story of the emergence, spread and collapse of the Tamil secessionist insurgency encapsulates some of the key contradictions in post-colonial Sri Lankan polity in general, and the Tamil ethnic formation in particular. The insurgency developed in the late 1970s against the backdrop of repeated refusal by the political elite of the majority Sinhalese community to pay heed to the Tamil demand for regional autonomy. The secessionist slogan first emerged in 1975-1976 as a part of the mainstream, parliamentary politics of Tamil nationalism.

A year later, during the parliamentary election of 1977, the campaign for self-determination for Tamils entered a period of mass mobilization. In that process, several radical Tamil youth groups sprang up, advocating armed rebellion and challenging the parliamentary strategy of the traditional Tamil leadership. The LTTE was one among a number of these radical youth groups that took up arms to carry forward the struggle for a separate state. Even when the insurgency began to take shape, the Sinhalese political leadership failed to realize that the Tamil campaign for autonomy was a serious political challenge. Instead, they treated it as a law and order problem and responded, typically by relying on the police and military. The anti-Tamil riots of 1983 in which a section of the ruling party took an active part, eventually altered the political equation in favour of a full-blown civil war between the Sri Lankan state and a host of Tamil militant groups.


Among the Tamil nationalist groups, the LTTE had the strongest, and most uncompromising, commitment to the goal of a separate Tamil state called Eelam. Almost all the others gave up the path of armed struggle as well as the goal of secession by the mid-1980s, in the aftermath of the Indian government’s engagement in Sri Lanka for a political solution. The Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987, initiated by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, promised devolution to Tamils in a merged North East province as the basis of regional autonomy for Tamils. While all other Tamil parties and groups accepted, some openly and some tacitly, the Indian mediated settlement, the LTTE stood by its secessionist agenda, eventually creating conditions for a war between itself and the Indian peace keeping forces. The LTTE survived that war by cleverly manipulating contradictions between the Sri Lankan and the Indian government.

The Indian attempt to force a settlement on Sri Lanka’s conflict in the mid-1980s only worked partially. With its failure to either defeat the LTTE militarily, or force it to accept a political deal well short of secession, the Indian government withdrew from an active role in Sri Lanka. Between 1989 and 2001, the attempts at a negotiated settlement were made essentially between the LTTE and Sri Lanka’s government of the day. When those attempts failed, the parties returned to war. In 2001-2002, an inter-nationally mediated peace attempt was made by the newly elected United National Front (UNF) government, but that too failed to produce a settlement agreement. The return to full-scale war in 2007, which led to the LTTE’s defeat in May 2009, was the culmination of a prolonged process of civil war interspersed by cycles of negotiations, temporary ceasefires, and proposals for a political solution, international engagement and a relaps into war.


Why did the LTTE refuse a political compromise a number of times, but particularly in 2002-2003? Why did the LTTE continue its war strategy even at the risk of being annihilated? Answers to these two questions are crucially important to understand the trajectory of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict and civil war. Concerning the first question, the LTTE all along remained steadfast in its commitment to secession by military means. The LTTE seems to have translated that commitment into a long-term strategy of sustaining itself as a formidable military entity, until regional or global conditions favoured the establishment of a separate ethnic state in Sri Lanka.

That was a fairly long-drawn out agenda, and the LTTE seemed to have made its political calculations to cover a period of at least three to five decades of armed struggle. A political compromise to accept devolution, which LTTE saw as minimalist regional autonomy, would have diluted the commitment to that goal. Repeated reproduction of the war, after brief periods of negotiations and relative peace, seems to have been an integral part of this long-term strategy of the LTTE. And that eventually turned out to be counter-productive. Ultimately, the LTTE fell victim to its own commitment to long-term war when the global and regional conditions ruled out the legitimacy of a separatist goal by means of war and violence.


To elaborate the last point, during and after the 2002 peace negotiations, the LTTE’s commitment to a separatist goal turned into a huge liability, and even a trap from which the LTTE could not extricate itself. Peace talks and the ceasefire agreement actually favoured the LTTE in terms of restoring its political legitimacy and its being recognized as an equal partner not only to the ethnic problem, but also a political solution. In their liberal peace-building efforts, major global actors led by the US, EU and Japan were ready to assist both the government and LTTE with significant development assistance to lay economic foundations for peace-building. The LTTE could not have bargained for a better deal with any government in Colombo.

But after five rounds of talks, the LTTE became impatient with the peace process, probably because of the possibility of a federal solution being imposed by the Sri Lankan government, backed by a formidable international coalition. Even if the LTTE was willing to accept an interim settlement, that settlement could not have been a federal solution. The LTTE’s conception of an interim solution became clear when, in October 2002, it unveiled its own proposals for a transitional arrangement in the form of an interim self-governing authority. This proposal envisaged an interim framework of regional autonomy which exceeded any known form of federalism anywhere in the world. It was in fact a confederal proposal.

If the interim solution was a confederal one, the LTTE’s concept of a final settlement would have been independence. A negotiated separation on the basis of military balance of power on the ground probably lay at the core of the LTTE’s strategy, which turned out to be both naive and illusionary. It became quite clear that in both military and political terms the LTTE continued to show a commitment to maximalist options; and that ultimately backfired on the LTTE. ‘Secession or death’ should been a mere rhetorical slogan for mobilization, but not a programme of self-destruction.


To a great extent, the LTTE was also caught up in a quasi-state trap. In some parts of the northern and eastern province where the LTTE managed to establish a firm military presence, it had also set up institutions and practices of a regional mini-state with its own structures of coercion, administration and military control. The LTTE maintained a separate judiciary, a police force, an apparatus for internal taxation and machinery for education and economic development. These were primitive institutions of state power backed by an equally primitive conception of the state which essentially focused on military capacity. However, the LTTE leaders probably thought that those were tangible achievements of the armed struggle for statehood. But the trouble with these ‘achievements’ was that they prevented the LTTE from thinking of a political compromise of devolution or federalism that would incorporate them into the terms of settlement.

One crucial outcome of the LTTE’s intransigent behaviour during 2002-2004 was the total loss of international sympathy. The attitude among the western governments until the LTTE unilaterally walked away from peace talks in March-April 2003, was to view the LTTE as a legitimate party and partner in the peace process. This despite the label of ‘terrorism’ that the same governments attached to the LTTE, in some instances even proscribing it as a terrorist entity. The LTTE’s stubborn refusal to return to the negotiation table in response to repeated appeals by the leading global actors perhaps led to the realization in Europe, the USA and Japan that the LTTE was the key obstacle to peace in Sri Lanka.

When the present Mahinda Rajapakse administration launched its massive military assault on the LTTE, the global actors were not enthusiastic to force the government to explore the option of a negotiated peace. They appeared to have come to terms with a particular reality, that is, the pragmatic necessity to remove the LTTE from being a party to the conflict and to a possible solution as well. The Rajapakse government was exceedingly committed to make that reality actually happen. Not surprisingly, the international community was not overtly disturbed by the eventual military defeat of the LTTE.


With regard to the second question posed above, the real puzzle remains why the LTTE opted for war, knowing well that its chances of winning were exceedingly remote. The same puzzle applies to the Sri Lankan government too. Why did the Rajapakse regime opt for war, taking the risk of being forced into a costly military stalemate by the LTTE? There are a number of explanations to this puzzle. One is that both sides were pushed into a new phase of war by the logic of circumstances. For the Rajapakse government, which was a coalition of hardline Sinhalese nationalist parties and ideological forces, a genuine attempt at defeating the LTTE militarily was an irresistible political compulsion. For the LTTE too, returning to war was absolutely necessary, particularly after its bid for an interim regional government failed. The LTTE also needed the war to maintain its permanent state of emergency over the Sri Lankan Tamil society. When the space and options for political engagement became unavailable, the logic was for each side to happily resume the war on their own terms.


The second explanation is about military objectives. The LTTE’s intention was perhaps to engage the Sri Lankan state in war until the Indian parliamentary elections were concluded. The LTTE appears to have calculated on a possible BJP electoral victory and a BJP-led coalition government being formed in New Delhi. That scenario, the LTTE may have thought, would have enabled them to force a military stalemate on the Sri Lankan government, with political backing from a BJP government in New Delhi.

What the LTTE wanted to achieve through this scenario in concrete terms is not clear. What is somewhat clear, however, is the fact that the LTTE probably wanted the re-entry of India into Sri Lanka’s conflict in a context of a war-induced humanitarian crisis of massive magnitude. Thus, external humanitarian intervention seems to have been one key outcome the LTTE probably anticipated. As it turned out, this scenario did not work out. The BJP lost the parliamentary election and the Congress-led government re-established its authority on a firmer footing. The LTTE did manage to create a massive humanitarian crisis with the support of the adversary, but there was no significant international response to prevent or manage it.

Clearly, the LTTE seems to have totally misunderstood the behaviour and agenda of the international and regional powers in relation to Sri Lanka’s conflict. It also underestimated the will and commitment of the Sri Lankan political and military leadership to a unilateral military victory, disregarding any political or humanitarian cost it was to incur. The calculated military gamble of the Sri Lankan state prevailed over a politically isolated LTTE. It proved another crucial point: in the post-9/11 world there are no favourable conditions to sustain a counter-state insurgency, unless it is backed by a regional or global big power.


Now that the LTTE is not a part of Sri Lanka’s political equation, what will happen in the political process? Three broad issues are at the centre of Sri Lanka’s post-civil war political agenda. They can be presented as three ‘D’s – democratization, demilitarization and devolution. Resettlement of large numbers of internally displaced Tamil citizens, restoration of their normal life and rebuilding of the economic and social infrastructure in the war-ravaged northern province are immediate priorities too. The broad and immediate issues are interrelated. All these constitute a massive challenge to the government in the form of managing transition from civil war to civil peace, peacefully and democratically. Winning the war and winning the peace are equally formidable challenges. The first will not automatically lead to the second.

Meanwhile, the LTTE’s role in Sri Lanka’s politics is now over, although its supporters abroad do not seem to be ready to acknowledge this reality. The Sri Lankan state, particularly its defence establishment, is not likely to allow the LTTE to re-emerge even as a parliamentary political entity. The pro-LTTE diaspora is trying to mobilize its supporters and sympathizers abroad to keep the flag flying, but their impact on the political process within Sri Lanka appears limited. Sri Lanka’s Tamil politics will in the short-run be dominated by anti-LTTE Tamil groups who have been partners with the state in the counter-insurgency war against the LTTE. It will take some time before a new moderate Tamil party can emerge to champion minority rights in Sri Lanka within a democratic framework.


The question of a political solution to the ethnic conflict encapsulates the larger framework within which the nature of post-civil war ethnic relations in Sri Lanka will continue to be defined. Both India and the western powers appear to have thought that once the intransigent LTTE was removed from Sri Lanka’s political equation, a political compromise with non-LTTE Tamil parties would be immediately forthcoming. But that does not seem to be happening in Sri Lanka. During the war, President Rajapakse assured the international actors that he would implement a political solution once the war was over. That promise now appears to be easier made than put into practice for there are internal constraints limiting the political capacity of the Rajapakse administration to move in the direction of a political solution acceptable to the Tamil and Muslim minorities.

The regime is a coalition of hardline Sinhalese nationalists who constitute the core of a broader coalition which President Rajapakse put together earlier to back his war effort. Included in that coalition were the military, the bureaucracy, the media, nationalist intelligentsia, political elites of the anti-LTTE Tamils as well as non-Tamil minorities, Sri Lankan diaspora and the Buddhist and Catholic religious establishments. This is a broad and powerful war coalition. One key reality in the post-civil war Sri Lanka, however, is that the same coalition that was formed to fight the LTTE militarily cannot be the vehicle for a fair and just political solution that can satisfy at least some of the key Tamil political demands. President Rajapakse’s hesitation to implement any devolution framework is largely rooted in this complex problem. Thus either President Rajapakse has to forge a new postwar coalition of moderate political and ideological forces, or continue to defer a political solution to the ethnic problem.


Post-civil war issues of democracy in Sri Lanka are closely linked to an agenda of demilitarization. During the war, Sri Lanka saw the emergence of a national security regime in which the defence establishment played a pivotal role. Under the national security regime, both cabinet ministers and parliament became secondary to the defence establishment. Prevention of terrorism law and the emergency legislation provided the legal framework for the national security regime.

During the intense period of the war, media freedom got a severe beating, both literally and metaphorically. Abductions and disappearances of journalists and vocal critics of the regime were the order of the day. The regime had no hesitation to justify aggressively and assertively, at home as well as at international fora, the grave human rights violations and humanitarian problems, claiming that the war against terrorism and state sovereignty takes precedence over other considerations.

Once the war ended, there has been a relaxation of the atmosphere of fear, intimidation and reprisals that characterized political life before May 2009. However, demilitarization is not a part of the immediate agenda of either the ruling party or the opposition. In an unusual twist of fate, the opposition’s candidate for the presidential election scheduled for January 2010 is the former commander of the Sri Lankan Army, who actually led the counter-insurgency war for the past three years. Sri Lanka’s main political actors appear to take militarization as the normal state of affairs. In a way, Sri Lanka has entered a specific phase of post-democracy. That is a key outcome of the protracted civil war.


In a political cost-benefit analysis of Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war, the ultimate losers are the Sri Lankan Tamils. After nearly thirty years of armed struggle for what was understood as ‘national self-determination’, all they have got is the status of IDPs (internally displaced/detained persons) inside open prison camps surrounded by barbed wire. The outcome of the war has thus reaffirmed the structures of ethnic hierarchy in Sri Lanka. It will require a massive effort to reintroduce to the political debate and culture the values of inter-ethnic equality, justice and trust.

During the civil war, the relationship between Sri Lanka’s ethnic minorities and the state has gone through an unusual transformation. Because of the destructive consequences of LTTE’s military confrontation with the state, many Tamil and Muslim political leaders have come to accept the politics of coalition collaboration with the Sinhalese political leadership as the most prudent option available to them. They have also come to terms with the hegemony of hardline Sinhalese nationalism and its continuing influence on public policy, regime agendas and state-society relations. They are acutely aware of the fact that extreme polarization of politics along Sinhalese and Tamil nationalist projects continues to prevent any significant political reform in Sri Lanka.

Thus, the quest for minority rights on the basis of equality and regional autonomy has now been relegated to a secondary status in the politics of non-LTTE Tamil parties, and the political parties of plantation Tamil and Muslim communities. Their emphasis is now on power-sharing at the central government in the form of obtaining lucrative cabinet positions for party leaders and regional economic development.


Meanwhile, in a surprising political development, Sri Lanka’s ex-army commander is likely to contest President Mahinda Rajapakse at the next presidential elections scheduled for mid-January, 2010. General Sarath Fonseka, who recently quit from his official position as Chief of Defence Staff, will be the presidential candidate of the joint opposition. Fonseka, a key architect in the recently concluded war against the LTTE, is known to have played a leading role in both formulating the strategy and the execution of war against the LTTE.

The dispute between Rajapakse and Fonseka erupted ostensibly on the question of sharing the credit for the military victory. A deeper issue is also involved in this dispute. Rajapakse and his brothers, who are influential civilian officials of the administration, may have tried to curtail the influence of the military on the post-war policy process. Perhaps the civilian politicians became aware of the need to restore the pre-war balance of power between them and the army. Obviously, this has angered General Fonseka. The opposition which has been searching for a viable presidential candidate to pit against the popular President Rajapakse wasted no time to entice General Fonseka to be its presidential candidate.

At one level, the Rajapakse-Fonseka dispute shows that the war coalition is cracking up from within. On the other hand, Fonseka’s presidential candidacy can do little to strengthen the three ‘D’ agenda referred to earlier. At best, it would mark a setback. In a Sri Lanka sans the LTTE, Velupillai Piribakaran will not be there to decide the outcome of the presidential election of January 2010, as he did in 1994, 1999 and 2004. Instead, in post-LTTE Sri Lankan politics, deep contradictions within the Sinhalese power elites will be played out in the open.


The end of the violent civil war and the dramatic demise of the LTTE has created a significant political disequilibrium in Sri Lanka. The signs of the war-coalition disintegrating from within are an indication of how the establishment of a new post-civil war political equilibrium has come to the centre of Sri Lanka’s political agenda. The forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will provide opportunities for the political actors to forge new alliances and redefine the power bloc to manage the post-civil war Sri Lankan state. The civil war is over, but the trajectory of the island’s post-civil war politics is still in the process of being formed. One has to suspend an assessment of the possible paths of Sri Lanka’s future politics until the shape of the new configuration of political forces becomes clearer during the first half of the year 2010.