Guest post by Peter S. Henne

Peter S. Henne is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University.

On picturesque Sri Lanka, a brutal conflict has been raging for nearly three decades between the majority-Sinhalese government and the militant Tamil opposition group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The violence has been disastrous for the population, causing approximately 70,000 deaths; also, despite the obligatory Scandinavian peace efforts, it has gained little attention from world publics and leaders. With Sri Lankan military victory over the LTTE now likely, however, U.S. policymakers should watch the outcome of the conflict closely. As we attempt to formulate a counterinsurgency strategy that is in line with progressive principles, the government victory over the LTTE contains significant lessons, not all of which may be positive.

While the conflict began in the early 1980s, tension between the two ethnic groups is long-running. Sinhalese dominance after independence from Britain led eventually to a Tamil nationalist movement, with militant groups forming in the late 1970s and fighting breaking out soon after. The LTTE became the dominant Tamil group, conducting extremely violent attacks, including massacres of civilians, while the government responded in a like manner, often attacking civilians in conflict zones.

The government’s progress towards defeating the LTTE was not achieved through negotiations on Tamil autonomy, but through an outright military campaign against LTTE-controlled territories. When Mahinda Rajapaksa became president in 2005, he promised to eradicate Tamil militancy, launching a strong military offensive and eventually seizing the LTTE’s home region of the Northern Jaffna Peninsula. The campaign has generated a great deal of collateral damage, however, driving many Tamil civilians out of the conflict zone, creating a potential humanitarian crisis.

The apparent outcome of this conflict, then, is depressingly in line with the scholarly finding that the best way to secure peace in a civil war is often the complete victory of one side over the other. The government has made such headway against the LTTE because it abandoned attempts to find a mutually acceptable solution, instead attempting to eradicate the group.

If this strategy is more successful than ones focused on broad “hearts and minds” approaches, the fate of the LTTE may have less than promising prospects for U.S. counterinsurgency planning. The admirable move by General Petraeus towards a more constructive counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq was predicated on the assumption that winning over the population is more effective than trampling it in securing peace. If Sri Lanka demonstrates the supremacy of the latter approach, though, this suggests that maintaining our security may require abandoning our values, despite Obama’s inaugural pledge. Must progressives make a choice between the two?

The answer is yes, and no. Counterinsurgency is inevitably complicated; while the population may want peace, the insurgents are usually more intractable, as seen in LTTE resistance to previous peace overtures. A balanced strategy will lead to a prolonged conflict and higher casualties; this may sour the public on compromise with insurgents and increase demands for total victory, as occurred in Sri Lanka. If progressives are to eschew the all-out tactics used by the Sri Lankan government, we must be prepared to accept U.S. casualty levels and public discontent that may undermine the will to restrain our power.

Yet, the brutal conflict in Sri Lanka did not emerge automatically from the Tamils’ grievances. The Tamils attempted to change their situation peacefully for decades, and it was the futility of these efforts that precipitated the war. Early concessions to Tamils would thus have prevented some of the violence. Also, while the several ceasefires were short-lived, and did nothing to change the LTTE’s focus on violent struggle, they did create a space for potential government outreach to the Tamil population and support for moderate Tamil groups. Greater international support during these ceasefires may also have made a difference.

The United States, then, may be able to pursue a progressive approach to such insurgencies. First, we must pay persistent and proactive attention to minority grievances throughout the world, putting pressure on leaders who infringe on their citizens’ rights. Second, we must devote enough attention to conflict situations to create space for negotiation and reconciliation, as we so ably did under President Clinton; Obama’s appointment of special envoys to high-conflict areas — several of whom were responsible for the Clinton-era successes — is an encouraging step in this direction.

These efforts may not end all insurgencies, and our ideals and our interests are not always in line. Yet, realizing this disconnect will encourage us to avoid entering into conflict when our interests can be advanced in other ways, consequently avoiding some insurgencies, such as the one that arose in Iraq. Also, the use of U.S. power to engage the international community can address minority grievances and leverage ceasefire opportunities, preventing future conflicts. In such a way, the United States can learn from the lessons of Sri Lanka.

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • PeterRatna

    The Sri Lankan model does not answer the question of whether ‘insurgencies’ can be ended by military means. A close look at this particular conflict shows that the current Sri Lankan success is against the ‘conventionalised’ form of the militant LTTE.

    During the ’90s, the LTTE gained full control over large swaths of territory, including population centres, where it established a quasi-government, thanks largely to financial aid from the Tamil Diaspora. The LTTE’s armed unit had its own naval and air wings as well as artillery and armoured corps. For all practical purposes, it was operating as a mini-state.

    The current phase of the Sri Lankan civil war has been more akin to a inter state war than an anti-insurgency campaign. Sri Lankan troops, who easily outnumber the LTTE and can count on superior fire power, have mange to roll their tanks into the previous LTTE ‘state’, taking control of towns and the population.

    How Sri Lanka stands up to the classic insurgency of ambushes, mine attacks and even suicide bombings of military, economic and civilian targets is yet to be seen.

    One must not forget that US led troops took total control of Iraq in just nine days. The insurgency only began after the entire landmass and population was brought under ‘control’.

  • Stanmore

    PeterRatna should stop clogging every single online forum on Sri Lanka with pro-terrorist rhetoric.

    He may also find it useful to read articles before embarking on a comment-sprees.

  • Kichchi

    The writer is more correct in saying that “The Tamils attempted to change their situation peacefully for decades, and it was the futility of these efforts that precipitated the war. Early concessions to Tamils would thus have prevented some of the violence.” than saying that “The LTTE became the dominant Tamil group, conducting extremely violent attacks, including massacres of civilians, while the government responded in a like manner, often attacking civilians in conflict zones.” because the peace agitations of the Tamils for “equal treatment” was responded by brutal violence and that brutal violence caused the birth of an individual “Sivakumaran” to go he way of violence and thus encouraged the birth of groups that believed in violence as the possible alternative to meet violence with violence since early non-violence style was met with violence.

    As the writer correctly points out The United States, may be able to pursue a progressive approach to such insurgencies such as paying persistent and proactive attention to minority grievances throughout the world, putting pressure on leaders who infringe on their citizens’ rights by devoting enough attention to conflict situations to create space for negotiation and reconciliation, as was done under President Clinton. President Obama must appointment a special envoy to Sri Lanka which would be an encouraging step in the correct direction.

    My idea for a political solution is given below:

    “People who value democracy, equality and equity, needs to pressure the Sri Lankan state to take immediate action towards a meaningful and just power sharing arrangement. That is the only way to ensure security and the dignity of the peoples of Sri Lanka.

    If peaceful coexistence through power sharing is not achievable, the only other solution that would be available will be secession” so said Mr. Lionel Bopage, former Secretary of the JVP.

    There is a vast difference in the policy of the ORIGINAL JVP to which Mr.Lionel Bopage belongs and the policy of the present JVP.

    A new concept outlined below is towards a meaningful and just power-sharing arrangement that should address all grievances of all sections of people.

    Many, who call themselves as ‘moderates’, are not willing to consider this concept which gives a certain degree of ‘power’ with ‘responsibility’ to everyone including the poor and voiceless silent majority in the country and not excluding the so-called “minorities”.

    Now, one word, for those who are actually and sincerely interested in fostering a united country by supporting “devolution” as a means to achieve sustainable peace, please avoid thinking in terms of “devolution” and instead please try to think in terms of “sharing” of powers, rights, duties and responsibilities that cannot be taken back at any time by any government or individual by any method.

    The best political solution would be to DILUTE the powers of all elected representatives by separating the various powers of the Parliament and empowering different sets of people’s representatives elected on different area basis to administer the different sets of separated powers. It has to be devolution HORIZONTALLY where every set of representatives would be equal and in par and NOT VERTICALLY where one set of representatives would be above the other, which is the normal adopted practice when talking of devolution, in this power-hungry world. It is because of “devolution” being evolved “vertically”, we have all the trouble in this power-hungry world. So, for sustainable peace it should not be the present form of “devolution” but “dilution of powers” or “sharing of powers” in such a way that no single or set of peoples representatives – other than the common people themselves – is superior to another.

    This system would eradicate injustice, discrimination, bribery and corruption – the four pillars of an evil society – and establish the “Rule of Law” and “Rule by ALL” for sustainable peace, tranquility and prosperity and a pleasant living with dignity and respect for all inhabitants in the country. Everyone must have “equal” powers, rights, duties and responsibilities and most importantly everyone should be deemed “equal” before the law not only on paper but also practically – be it the Head of State, The Chief Justice or the voiceless poor of the poorest.

    A detailed version of the concept, which is quite long is available for discussion by interested individuals with an aim to change the hearts not just a change of mind of the citizens of this country with the aim of preserving a UNITARY form of Government with every section of people from every part of the country PARTICIPATING in the GOVERNANCE OF THE COUNTRY in a practical and meaningful way. In a way it may be termed “participatory democracy”. In this system the country is NOT DIVIDED but the “powers of governance’ of the Parliament is separated and administered COLLECTIVELY by different sets of peoples representatives.

    Mr/Ms “sprees” has to note that the above suggestions are being made as a “sincere patriot” who longs not only for sustainable peace but also for good governance in the country that would be a “blocking stone” for the eruption of “terrorism” in the future. We must keep in mind that “frustration” of not being able to do the correct thing for good governance in the country is the basic cause for violence in the country, especially by the youth, IF we have not forgotten the uprisings of 1971 and repeated subsequently in 1988.

    “the present situation marks, in my view, a total denunciation of the forms and procedures which we have bee trying to emulate and ape borrowed from a foreign culture, totally irrelevant to our present day thinking and to the present day context” so said Felix Dias Bandaranayake in Parliament soon after the 1971 uprising. As a very powerful Minister in the then cabinet he should have taken steps to do the needful to curb any future uprising. As a politician, he just forgot his words after having quelled the uprising.

  • PeterRatna

    On 8th August 1983 Sri Lanka introduced the 6th Amendment to the Constitution, making it illegal for anyone to promote self-determination for Tamils. This act drove all people with such aspirations to operate from the ‘underground’, effectively forcing all peaceful secessionists to join militant groups.

    Britain, for example, has taken a totally different route in dealing with Scottish secessionists. There nationalist political parties espousing an independent Scotland are even in control of the regional devolved parliament.