Leadership: Island In The Sun

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May 11, 2009: After 26 years and nearly 80,000 dead, the Sri Lankan civil war is approaching its end. While much of the credit goes to larger and more capable government forces, and more aggressive leadership, the LTTE leadership contributed by making some serious mistakes.

The major error was LTTE leaders ignoring the war-weariness of the Tamils they represented, and refusing to adapt to the tactics of the more powerful government forces. By last month, the LTTE was reduced to a few hundred experienced fighters, protecting themselves with 50,000 Tamil civilians used as human shields. The end is in sight, and the mighty have fallen.

Just twenty months ago, the LTTE still had a population of nearly 500,000 Tamils under its control in the north (out of a total Sri Lankan population of 20 million). There are about 3.5 million Tamils (whose ancestors came from southern India) on the island. Most are tired of the violence, so the LTTE had to use increasing amounts of force on the Tamil population.

After three years of a ceasefire (during which 130 people died in combat anyway), and failed peace negotiations, the fighting resumed four years ago. Over the next two years, the 215,000 man Sri Lankan army has lost about a thousand dead, while the 12,000 LTTE forces lost about 3,000 dead, and another 5,000 men who surrendered, were captured or deserted. The army suffered even more desertions, but has been able to replace them. Because of declining popular support, the LTTE has had a harder time recruiting. Many, if not most, of their new troops are young teenagers, enticed or coerced into joining.

The LTTE was believed to have about 7,000 people under arms full time two years ago. They were trying to mobilize another 30-40,000 fighters from among the population they controlled. This effort had little success, with parents resisting the recruiters, and many of the teenagers avoiding what used to be a popular undertaking. The LTTE was increasingly using coercion to maintain support from Tamils, and was increasingly shooting their own fighters to prevent or discourage desertion.

The big problem for the LTTE was the loss of over 5,000 fighters, and control of over a million civilians, in eastern Sri Lanka. This was where most of the Tamil population lived. Large quantities (over 10,000 rifles, and many tons of artillery shells, grenades of explosives) of weapons were lost. There were still even larger stockpiles in the north, more than sufficient to arm over 30,000 mobilized civilians. The civilians up north got training in how to use rifles, and basic military techniques. Because of reluctance to fight,  a lot of the mobilized civilians could only be made to help by carrying ammo and other supplies for those who are armed, and digging fortifications.

The LTTE navy continued to use suicide boat attacks against the navy, and supervise the smuggling of weapons and ammo into LTTE territory. The LTTE still had over fifty speed boats and at least a dozen smuggling boats (often rigged to look like fishing boats). The smugglers try to mix in with the hundreds of Indian fishing boats that operate off Sri Lanka each day. But the Sri Lankan nave has gotten better at detecting these efforts, and more of the LTTE boats being discovered and sunk. In the last twenty months, the LTTE navy was virtually destroyed.

The final battle had over 100,000 well led and equipped soldiers facing as many as 30,000 LTTE fighters. The army sought to avoid a bloodbath, and took its time carrying out the final offensive. The army was slow and methodical, giving the shaky LTTE force plenty of opportunity to surrender or desert. The army also spent more effort on recruiting. In 2008 alone, the army increased its strength by 40,000 men. This went into forming 47 infantry battalions, 13 brigades, four task forced and two divisions. By the end of last year, the army had 13 divisions, three task forces and one armored brigade.

The "talk and then fight" pattern has repeated itself time and again. Peace talks in 1989-90 ended when the LTTE went on the offensive and increased their power in the north and east coast. Another round of peace talks in 1995 failed (when the LTTE insisted on partition of the island, but the Sinhalese majority refused) and led to another five years of war that further expanded LTTE control, which now included areas that were largely Tamil.

Between 2001-4, there were more peace talks, and a ceasefire. More importantly, there was also a period of great economic growth in government controlled areas. There was no such prosperity in LTTE controlled areas. The LTTE ran a police state, and the Tamil population was getting tired of living that way. But by 2002, the peace negotiations basically recognized the LTTE government in the north and east.

In 2004, long simmering disputes between the LTTE leadership in the north and east led to what amounted to a civil war. The government offered a deal to the LTTE leadership in the east, and gradually persuaded the east coast Tamils to rejoin the nation (with some autonomy, which what the government had always offered the LTTE in peace talks.) By 2005, the LTTE only controlled the north, with rapidly declining influence on the east coast. In the Summer of 2006, the war resumed. In 2007, the army moved into the east coast area, crushing the LTTE forces that resisted. Thus, twenty months ago, the army was able to begin their final offensive.

The army advanced along the east and west coast, to take the coastal villages and towns that supported the LTTE smuggling effort. The government also controlled an enclave in the far north, and the army had a division move south from there. All this eventually cut off LTTE supplies of weapons, ammunition and military equipment. Food and medicine were provided by international aid organizations, which were there mainly to supply the civilian population. But the LTTE coerced the aid groups to keep the LTTE fighters well fed as well. Despite that, the Sri Lankan armed forces, including a larger and more effective air force, worked together to take apart the LTTE in less than two years.

One final error the LTTE made was the way in which they mobilized the financial and propaganda support of millions of Tamils who had left Sri Lanka, and southern India, and moved to the West. These migrants prospered, and the LTTE set up a network of fund raisers, publicists and enforcers to get over $100 million a year to fund their war. Again, the LTTE overplayed their hand, and used too much coercion to extract too much money from the expatriates. This led to a backlash, which greatly reduced the contributions, and moral support, from the overseas Tamils. This helped led to the LTTE being declared an international terrorist organization. This made it difficult for the LTTE to position itself as a legitimate independence organization.

All of these errors led to a sharp loss of support for the LTTE inside, and outside, Sri Lanka. Without that support, the LTTE was much less capable of resisting the Sri Lankan offensive.

 


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