I first started visiting Sri Lanka in the course of my work in 2000 and have worked here off and on for the past 12 years. I have been asked by many people about the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka, and how it finished. Due to my work I wish to keep a neutral stance on this but I can direct you to a writer who is recognized as one of the best historians on the clonflict, M.R. Narayan Swamy, who wrote this article in June 2009, a month after the conflict finished, and published it in Asian Affairs.
After years of bloody uncertainty, Sri Lanka finally crushed the LTTE last month.
For well over a quarter century, it looked as if Velupillai Prabhakaran could never be vanquished. Since its birth in 1976, his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had grown from a rag-tag outfit to one of the world's deadliest insurgent groups commanding thousands of fighters. At one time, the Tamil Tigers presided over a third of Sri Lanka's land area and two-thirds of its coastline as they ran a de facto state. A Norway-brokered truce went into effect in 2002 but failed to bring lasting peace. Finally, after years of bloody uncertainty, Sri Lanka finally crushed the LTTE in May this year, delivering a knockout blow from which it will never recover.
Sri Lanka's decisive victory over the LTTE is the biggest success story in the world of anti-terrorism. It is in sharp contrast to the dragging military campaign the U.S. leads against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also outshines the collapse of the Maoist Shining Path movement in Peru. And it came about despite emerging evidence that a section of the West tried to save at least some LTTE leaders before the war ended May 18.
When Prabhakaran fled his home for good in 1972, few people would have thought that he would one day almost end up breaking Sri Lanka.
The LTTE he founded with a small group of friends in 1976 sought an independent Tamil state in the northeast of Sri Lanka. It alleged that the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority in the island nation discriminated against the mainly Hindu Tamil minority. The LTTE struggled to exist until an ambush of an army patrol in Jaffna in July 1983 killed 13 soldiers and sparked off anti-Tamil violence leaving hundreds dead and igniting Tamil insurgency.
India, Sri Lanka's northern and bigger neighbour, covertly began training Tamil militants to pressure the country to go for a negotiated settlement with moderate Tamil leaders. The strategy backfired. The moderates got eclipsed and the LTTE slowly took charge of the Tamil community — with disastrous consequences. India and Sri Lanka signed an agreement in 1987 to end Tamil separatism but it led to a war between the Tigers and Indian troops deployed in the island.
Once the Indians withdrew, the LTTE took control of Jaffna and expanded its domain, fighting and winning many battles against Sri Lanka. By then the LTTE was presiding over a de facto state with its own army, navy and police. It boasted of an 'air force' — its two-seater planes bombing Colombo towards the end of the conflict. The LTTE even owned a shipping line that ferried arms and ammunition when it was not legitimately trading in cargo. The LTTE's most lethal weapon was suicide bombing. The Tigers' VIP victims included former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi (1991) and Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa (1993).
For years, as the war see-sawed, it looked as if the LTTE would exist forever as a permanent nuisance even if it did not overcome the Sri Lankan state. The LTTE opened offices in several countries, mainly in the West. Its support base in the West came from the large expatriate Tamil community that had fled Sri Lanka over the years and contributed to the Tiger kitty. The LTTE extorted money from those who were not its supporters.
The 2002 international peace process gave the LTTE a certain legitimacy it never had before. But it was too good to last. The LTTE pulled out of the peace talks in 2003. A year later, it suffered a crippling split when one of its top commanders, Karuna, revolted with thousands of followers in the eastern province. As the LTTE pursued its politics of murder, Canada and the European Union outlawed it. India, the U.S. and Britain had declared the Tigers terrorist much earlier. All these badly hit the Tigers' fund collection drives.
Once Mahinda Rajapaksa became Sri Lanka's President in November 2005, events galloped fast. In April 2006, Sri Lanka's army chief escaped an audacious assassination attempt by a LTTE woman suicide bomber who had sneaked into the army headquarters in Colombo. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary and the president's brother, survived an LTTE-sponsored assassination attempt in December of the same year. By then, a full-scale war was raging between the LTTE and a military determined to change the tide. In 2007, the LTTE lost control of the eastern province — after many years. Its losses continued through 2008. As 2009 dawned, it lost Kilinochchi town, its political hub, and began to retreat into the interior. In their last stages the Tigers tried to hold on to hundreds of thousands of civilians to prevent the final military onslaught. But that did come in May, leaving Prabhakaran and all his top lieutenants dead in a strip of land in Mullaitivu district.
Five major factors contributed to the eventual and complete destruction of the LTTE, which itself was responsible for four of these.
The first was the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the former Indian prime minister. The LTTE killed him because it feared he would return to power and may deploy the Indian army again in Sri Lanka to take on the LTTE. The LTTE thus alienated itself from the Indian ruling class, which prevented the Tigers from using its soil and closed ranks with the Sri Lankan establishment. Gandhi's killing catapulted his widow, Sonia, into politics. She was a key pillar of India's ruling coalition when the LTTE went down.
The LTTE decision to pull out of the peace process in 2003, after the U.S. did not invite it to a Washington conference, angered the West, which wanted to promote democratic values in the group. The unending recruitment of children into its army as well as the continued killing of its critics during the peace process also alienated the West.
The 2004 split by Karuna caused unprecedented damage to the LTTE, from which it never recovered. Karuna was no ordinary guerrilla but a trusted lieutenant of Prabhakaran, who understood his mindset perhaps more than anyone else. He not only took away thousands of fighters but also provided invaluable intelligence about the ultra secretive LTTE to Colombo.
The Tigers' biggest blunder after Gandhi's killing was the 2005 appeal to Tamils to boycott the presidential election. In the process, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who signed the 2002 truce with Prabhakaran, was defeated narrowly (after losing Tamil votes that would have gone to him). This led to the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who proved to be the LTTE's nemesis.
The final factor was the cohesiveness of the Rajapaksa regime. While the president presided over the country, one of his brothers, Gotabaya, ran the defence establishment with a singular aim: finish off the LTTE irrespective of the consequences. Another brother, Basil, handled the political front of the government, giving a cohesiveness that no previous administration had. The unison of mind also helped Sri Lanka ward off strong western pressure when the military push against the LTTE reached a decisive stage and when some countries insisted on a ceasefire, albeit to save civilians trapped in the war zone. But the Rajapaksa brothers carried on until Prabhakaran lay dead.