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Selected Writings - Dr. Adrian Wijemanne
An Unwinnable War
Letter to Gamini Jayasuriya,
2 June 1992
Mr.Gamini Jayasuriya Meegoda
My dear Gamini,
I hope you will remember me from our college days and later during my service in the then Ceylon Civil Service, especially as AGA, Colombo. Like you I am deeply concerned for the welfare and lasting happiness and prosperity of the Sinhala people even though our perceptions of how this desirable end could be achieved differ.
I get copies of the Shri Lanka newspapers, especially The Island which has been very hospitable to the views of the Sinhala Arakshaka Sanvidanya. I have read with admiration the excellent analysis of the Thondaman proposals carried in their Sunday edition of 19th January '92. Would that more writing on the subject were as analytical and thorough as that! I have read also your memorandum "No negotiations with the LTTE" carried in their Sunday edition of 24th May '92.
From the latter especially I can see that you are inching closer and closer to the military realities on the ground and becoming sceptical of the government's gung-ho assessments of imminent military victory and occasional suggestions that this has already been achieved in the eastern province. It is on the question of the military realities that I wish to address you in this letter for I am absolutely convinced that it is in this area that the government has misled the Sinhala people in a most reprehensible way.
You are no doubt aware that we here in Britain are engaged in a guerilla war with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland which spills over into mainland Britain with increasing frequency. Our newspapers are full of the subject and hardly a day passes without some very thought-provoking article on the issues involved and the prospects of securing peace in some way or other. In August this year - in two months from now - this country will have completed 24 years of guerilla warfare. When it all started there was not the slightest indication that the country was embarking on such a long-drawn-out travail and the universal conviction was that the conflict would be swiftly and successfully concluded especially because the government of The Irish Republic pledged its unqualified support for Britain in defeating the IRA (which has very de-stabilising effects in that country as well ) and has lived up to its promises, giving the IRA no support whatever.
It is interesting to remember that during this 24-year period Britain successfully fought the Falklands War and that its forces participated very effectively in the recent Gulf War. The British Army is a highly professional volunteer army with very up-to-the-minute equipment, much of it manufactured at armaments factories in this country. Its most sophisticated hardware is used in Northern Ireland and there is a constant research into evolving new anti-guerilla tactics and information gathering techniques.
Furthermore, the entire land area of Northern Ireland is under British Army occupation and control and the seas all round Northern Ireland are patrolled round the clock by the British Navy to prevent the smuggling of arms into the territory. Not an inch of the area is under exclusive IRA occupation or control.
I am very familiar with the terrain of a good part of Northern Ireland having travelled by road several times to Londonderry in connection with a project which I handled during my last employment with The World Council of Churches,Geneva. It is mostly beautiful, lush emerald-green farmland with very sparse woodland cover, gently undulating and well-roaded and supplied with excellent telephonic communications. It is not ideal guerilla country; on the contrary it is perfectly suited to the motorized troops and aerial surveillance of the government.
I am even more familiar with the Northern and Eastern provinces of Shri Lanka after 2 1/2 years as Assisstant Director (Administration) in the Irrigation Department followed immediately by 5 1/2 years as Deputy Land Commissioner. Most of this 8-year period was spent on projects in these two provinces large areas of which I know like the back of my hand.
I may be the only Shri Lankan who knows both these land areas so well - and that is one of the reasons that moves me to write to you.
It may interest you to know that the British Army fields a force of 100 to 1 against the IRA guerrillas and this number has been slightly increased recently. You are no doubt aware that IRA activity has increased markedly in recent months and the British Army's assessment is that the IRA is today "better armed, better trained and better led" than at any time in the past. The war goes on and there is no end in sight. An herculean effort has been made to overwhelm and eradicate the IRA. No funds have been spared in providing the army everything it wants for the conflict but to no effect. We are slowly but surely learning the lesson learnt by the French in Viet Nam and Algeria, the USA in Viet Nam, the Ethiopians in Eritrea, the Russians in Afghanistan and the IPKF in the north-east of Shri Lanka that a guerilla war against a nationalist movement cannot be won by a conventional army however great the disparity in numbers, equipment and finance.
Let us now turn to Shri Lanka where the LTTE will soon complete 9 continuous years of warfare - 6 1/2 years with us and 2 1/2 years with the IPKF. We field against them an army of 80,000 men. The most recent assessment of LTTE numbers is by K.P.Sunil a highly respected investigative journalist from the Indian journal SUNDAY OBSERVER LIFE. After a recent visit with the LTTE in Jaffna and the east he estimates the current strength of the LTTE as 30,000 well-trained men and women fighters. So, we are fielding about 3 to 1.
The six counties and two county boroughs (Belfast and Londonderry) that make up Northern Ireland are 5452 sq. miles in extent; the north-east province is about 7400 sq.miles -very nearly the size of Belgium. The terrain of the northeast province is so rough and ill-roaded that it is ideal for warfare nad we would need several times the British troop strength to equal their performance even if other factors were the same.
Furthermore large areas of the north-east province are under exclusive LTTE occupation and control including many small fishery harbours and extensive mileages of coastline. Much of the area contested by the Shri Lanka army in daytime reverts to LTTE control by nightfall. The army is virtually beseiged in the major towns such as Trincomalee, Batticoloa, Vavuniya and Mannar. A few miles outside each the LTTE is in occupation and control. These are all on the periphery. The few army camps within the area of the north-east province, such as Elephant Pass, have to be supplied by helicopter and will have to be evacuated as soon as the LTTE acquires shoulder-fired ground to-air missiles.
No independence movement in India is in exclusive possession of territory as is the LTTE on the island. Not the Assamese, not the Sikhs, not the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front - nor as I have said earlier the IRA. Every foreign military analyst who has been with the LTTE - vide Edgar O'Ballance in his The Cyanide War - testifies to the quality of the training of the LTTE. It is the one factor that distinguishes the LTTE from all other guerrilla movements now in operation worldwide.
The recent banning of the LTTE by the Indian central government will, like all of the foolish bungling of that government from start to finish, rebound on itself for it has made martyrs of the LTTE among Tamil nationalist elements in Tamilnadu and will inflame secessionist tendencies there. I have shown you earlier in this letter what little effect the cooperation between the British and Irish governments has had on suppressing the IRA. We cannot hope for even that much cooperation from Mrs. Jayalalitha who probably dislikes Mr. Premadasa as much as she dislikes Mr. Prabhakaran.
No great feat of deductive logic is needed to come to the conclusion that the war as it is presently being waged is manifestly and absolutely unwinnable. If the strength of the army is increased ten-fold to 800,000 men it is still unwinnable - for that would be around 27 to 1. An escalation of military numbers of that order would necessitate the ending of civil government and all its programmes and services to find the funds for the military. No schools, no hospitals, no social security, no subsidies, no corporations, no parliament, no government services except those needed by the military - that is the situation of the Tamil people today. Even if we pay so heavy a price the final outcome will still be in doubt - for only those who fight inside their very hearths and homes win, not those who come from outside.
We have to face up to the reality that the "unitary state" which we are fighting to preserve has long disappeared and is now beyond recall. What we have is government by insolvency trying unconvincingly to maintain the fiction that it is in control of the "unitary state". If it persists not only will the lives of so many of our young men be squandered in trying to shore up an illusion but the whole fool's paradise will blow up in a vast volcanic upheaval of inflation exactly as happened in Indonesia not so long ago.
If you really care for the welfare, happiness, tranquility and prosperity of the Sinhala people it is time now to let go of the chimera of the "unitary state", separate with peace and honour and try to put our own house in order and help our Tamil neighbours do the same. What both nations need is amity not unity. War will secure neither. Peace with separation will secure the first which is the absolute pre-requisite for the regeneration of our nation.
I ask you in all earnestness to take what I have said above into serious consideration. I invite you to verify everything I have said in this letter from independent sources and not to accept any of it without verification. You-can exert a great deal of influence for the good of our people. Things have now come to such a pass that every preconceived notion must be abandoned and we must concentrate exclusively on bringing peace with honour to our people.
Yours very sincerely,