Uncertainty Rather than Stability Follows Defeat of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 26

Displaced ethnic Tamils

The Sri Lankan government’s delay in resettling nearly 300,000 internally displaced ethnic Tamils and failure to address the Tamils’ core grievances have led to concerns that these issues might lead to a reversal in the strategic gains made since May’s military defeat and decapitation of the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Recent developments have confirmed these concerns, including fissures between conciliatory and belligerent factions within LTTE remnant groups, with the belligerents gaining the upper hand, and a pro-LTTE party performing strongly in local elections held recently in former insurgent-held territory.

Tactical Victory vs. Strategic Ambiguity

The Sri Lankan government led by President Mahinda Rajapakse has undoubtedly secured a significant victory against the Tamil Tiger insurgency since the military renewed its offensive in 2006. The writing was on the wall by July 2007 when the military ousted the LTTE from the Eastern Province in an offensive sparked by a split within the organization three years earlier. The division was between the Prabakaran-led northern faction and the eastern faction led by Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (alias Karuna Amman), which defected to the government. This was followed by a string of tactical victories by the military, including the seizure of the LTTE’s political and administrative capital of Kilinochchi and its military stronghold of Mullaitivu in January 2009. After controlling one-quarter of the country’s territory at one point, the LTTE was reduced to controlling less than 12 square km of land by the end of April. The last nail in the coffin came in May with the reported killing of the LTTE’s senior leadership, including supreme leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, political chief Balasingham Nadesan, peace secretariat head Seevaratnam Puleedevan and Prabhakaran’s eldest son, Charles Anthony. This was followed by the government’s declaration of victory over the LTTE on May 19 (Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence: Public Security, Law and Order, www.defence.lk, May 19).  

However, despite the loss of the LTTE’s conventional military capabilities, territory and senior leadership, the government’s declaration of victory in the three-decade conflict may be premature. The LTTE will continue to pose a threat given its disciplined structure, institutionalized fund-collection system and strong support among diaspora communities (as illustrated by sizable demonstrations organized by overseas Tamils in Western Europe, Canada and the United States earlier this year). A renewed full-scale insurgency in the short-to-medium term is unlikely, although pockets of resistance, aided by the proliferation of weapons across the country, could continue to pose a risk. This was demonstrated on July 4 when a Sri Lankan soldier was reportedly shot dead by a LTTE cadre in the eastern district of Batticaloa – the first Sri Lankan military casualty since the cessation of formal hostilities in May (Times of India, July 5).  At the end of the same month Sri Lankan police reportedly arrested a senior leader of the LTTE’s intelligence wing with a quantity of explosives in the Slave Island area of the capital Colombo (Defence.lk, July 29).  

While the LTTE’s conventional military capabilities have been defeated, the separatists continue to pose a threat through their capacity to revert to guerrilla tactics. An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 insurgents are believed to remain within the country, many of whom are thought to be sleeper cells of the ‘Black Tiger’ suicide squad. Their existence could result in a surge in asymmetrical attacks taking the form of suicide bombs, roadside bombs and assassinations. Such attacks will likely be concentrated on reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in the former LTTE-held Northern Province ahead of this year’s district, provincial council and presidential elections. The surge in refugee outflows from the war zone and the ability of LTTE members to blend into the civilian population threatens an expansion of the group’s activities throughout the country in the coming months. Given the LTTE’s significantly reduced capabilities, any attacks are likely to be opportunistic rather than part of any concerted campaign. These would likely involve high-profile targets, including highly-populated areas, transport and power infrastructure, and government and military personnel and compounds. LTTE remnants could also mutate into “guns for hire,” leading to a surge in organized crime, facilitated by the proliferation of significant quantities of weapons following the three-decade civil war.

The LTTE’s Split Personality

With respect to the future of the LTTE, there appears to be a tug of war within the ranks of the remaining organization over its leadership and strategic objectives. The LTTE is moving in two directions; within the country, the loss of its senior leadership following the reported death of Prabhakaran and the destruction of its military capabilities has paved the way for less coordinated attacks led by the LTTE’s more hawkish intelligence wing. Notably, the fact that the body of the leader of the LTTE’s intelligence wing Shanmugalingam Sivashankar (a.k.a. Pottu Aman) has not been discovered (despite government claims that he was killed) has raised speculation that he is alive and leading remnants of the LTTE within the country (Asia Times, June 1).

Outside Sri Lanka, the LTTE has taken a different approach to generating sympathy for the cause by pledging the pursuit of a non-violent struggle. The LTTE’s chief of international relations, Selvarasa Pathmanathan (a.k.a. Kumaran Pathmanathan, popularly known as KP), proclaimed the creation of “a provisional transnational government of Tamil Eelam” on June 17, which would pursue “democratic principles” and a “non-violent” path in order to achieve a “political vision towards our freedom” (Asia Times, July 27).  KP, who held significant influence within the LTTE as the head of its international wing (which controls the group’s foreign propaganda and financing), was appointed by the group’s executive committee to lead the organization in July (Times of India, July 22).  This raised the prospect of the LTTE fracturing into a non-violent political movement overseas while a weakened insurgent group continues operations within the country.  

However, KP’s ambitions were quelled within a month with his arrest in Kuala Lampur in early August (The Nation, Bangkok, August 7; Lanka Daily News, August 7). While this has served to further cripple the LTTE, it may also have given the upper hand to more belligerent factions within the rebel group’s remnants. To be sure, KP was no peacemaker; the credibility of KP’s pledge to pursue a peaceful path was undermined by his own reputation of being in charge of arms procurement and building up the LTTE’s shipping network, used to smuggle arms into the country. Even KP’s leadership of the LTTE’s international operations was challenged given that he was only promoted to the post in February and many supporters of KP’s predecessor, "Castro" (Veerakulasingham Manivannan), continued to oppose KP’s leadership (Asia Times, June 9). Nonetheless, his removal gives more radical elements the upper hand, which makes a rapprochement between government and pro-LTTE ethnic Tamils less likely.

Military Victory vs. Political Uncertainty

If continued reports of the mistreatment and marginalization of ethnic Tamils by the government are accurate, a sustainable political solution to the conflict may remain elusive. The military offensive has created a humanitarian crisis, with some 280,000 internally displaced ethnic Tamils who are housed in state-run “welfare camps” (LankaPage, July 21). Reports of the poor living conditions within these camps and other human rights abuses affecting refugees are likely to exacerbate grievances among the country’s Tamil minority and prolong hostilities.  

The prospects of the government translating its victory into lasting peace will depend on the extent to which it is able to address these grievances by establishing inclusive governance structures and promoting economic development in the Tamil-majority Northern Province. While the government has publicly committed to devolve power to the provincial council, it appears reluctant to implement the full provisions of the devolution plan.

The low voter turnout and unexpectedly strong performance of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) party in August confirmed that anti-government sentiment remains prevalent in the former insurgent-held territory (Times of India, August 10). These polls are a harbinger for the more significant Northern Provincial council elections. The government is now likely to postpone these polls and delay the process of repatriating internally displaced persons (IDPs) in government-run refugee camps until it can ensure a favorable outcome.

Implementing a sustainable peace and development model in the Northern Province has also been undermined by continued instability in the former LTTE-held Eastern Province.  Notably, district and provincial council elections, in February and May 2008 respectively, came under criticism amid allegations of voter intimidation and violence and as a result of the government’s alliance with the Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers (Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal – TMVP), which is comprised of LTTE defectors and regarded by many as an armed paramilitary group with a reputation for violence and intimidation (ColomboPage, March 25).

Much will depend on who represents Tamil interests in the Northern Province in the absence of the LTTE. The LTTE was effective in eliminating most challengers to its self-proclaimed status as the sole representative of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. If a party such as the TMVP – which swept the Eastern Provincial Council election in 2008 but is regarded by many Tamils as a puppet of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – emerges as the leading representative of the Tamils in the Northern Province, the credibility of the post-conflict peace process will be undermined.

Triple Threat: Ethnic Tensions, Military Relations and India’s Role

Ensuring harmony between the country’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious communities is central to Sri Lanka’s future. Along with longstanding tensions between the country’s majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil population, there have been indications of a nascent militant movement among the Muslim population in the east. For instance, at least 15 people were killed and 60 others injured in a suicide attack near the Jumma mosque in Matara district earlier this year (Daily News [Colombo], March 11; Defense.lk, March 11).  While the attack’s proximity to the mosque was secondary to the targeting of a government minister, it nonetheless served to fuel grievances among Sri Lankan Muslims, adding a new dimension to the country’s instability. Recent reports have alleged the presence of over 18 armed Muslim militant groups in the Eastern Province, with Kathankudy as their base of operations (Daily Mirror [Colombo], July 6).

Following three decades of conflict, the Sri Lankan military has also emerged as a significant force in the country’s political arena, and restraining its role and influence will be a significant challenge to ensuring a sustainable peace. The military is not likely to be demobilized anytime soon, given its continued importance in disarming LTTE remnants, and the provision of humanitarian relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction in the north. The government has also appeased the military through promotions and arms procurements. Despite growing economic pressures, the national defense budget for 2009 was also increased to an unprecedented 177bn rupees ($1.6bn), accounting for a fifth of the national budget. Up to 40% of Sinhala families in the country have a family member in the armed forces, while the government announced plans in July to recruit an additional 50,000 security personnel to administer former LTTE-held areas (Defence.lk, July 1).  

However, as the government attempts to curtail military spending to address fiscal pressures, friction is likely to develop between the civilian government and the military over the latter’s role in the post-LTTE framework. This could set the stage for a Sri Lanka facing problems in civil-military relations similar to those seen in other South Asian countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. As such, the demobilization of Sri Lanka’s armed forces and any future reintegration of former LTTE combatants will pose a major challenge to the government. Notably, General Sarath Fonseka’s promotion to the post of Chief of Defence Staff in July has also been seen as a means to diffuse the powers of the military by dividing responsibilities between Fonseka and new army chief General Jagath Jayasuriya (News.lk, July 12; Tamil News Network, July 19).

Finally, India retains a significant role in bringing about a sustainable resolution to the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka given its geographic proximity, political, economic and military weight, and the sympathy generated for the LTTE by their ethnic brethren in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Refugee numbers in India have dwindled as the navies of Sri Lanka and India provide effective policing of the waters across the Palk Strait, but there remain over 75,000 Tamil refugees housed in 117 camps across Tamil Nadu (Deccan Chronicle, July 28). Similarly, the LTTE has lost much of its strategic depth in India as a result of the limited influence of the Sri Lanka issue on Tamil Nadu state politics; however, the relaxation of media restrictions in Sri Lanka may return the Tamil issue to prominence in India.

Overt Indian intervention in Sri Lanka remains unlikely following the bloody nose that India suffered following its 1987-90 military intervention. However, India’s role in facilitating post-conflict reconstruction and rapprochement is likely to increase in the coming months as the politics of India and Sri Lanka remain inextricably intertwined.