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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings - Adrian Wijemanne > Is a military solution possible and/or desirable ?

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Selected Writings - Dr. Adrian Wijemanne

Is a military solution possible and/or desirable ?

5 September 1995

The phrase "military solution" is very common now in the Sri Lankan discourse on the war. It is an euphemism for a very specific and precise concept, namely, the total military defeat of the LTTE driving it to unconditional surrender. The unconditional surrender will entail the surrender of all LTTE forces to the Sri Lanka army and navy as well as the surrender of all their weapons and equipment to the latter. When this is achieved the Sri Lankan state will regain the monopoly of armed force within the island, which is the indispensable bedrock of a single all-island state.

The first question is - Is this consummation possible? To some the mere asking of this question is a traitorous offence - the affirmative answer is a fundamental assumption of both faith and reason. They regard the very asking of such a question as the giving of aid and comfort to the enemy. It is an universal assumption that since the state commands the resources of a state and the LTTE does not; since the Sinhala are more numerous than all other races on the island combined; since their collective economic strength vastly outweighs that of all others combined; since the state has an army, navy and air force with reasonably modern equipment; since it has a 10 to 1 advantage over the LTTE in troop strength - there can be no question but that the Sri Lankan state must eventually prevail. Even if it were to take decades, the final outcome must be in its favour for the above-mentioned reasons.

These convictions are held universally by the Sinhala people and by all their leaders of every political stripe without a single exception. This unanimity is matched by an equally universal lack of understanding of the very specific nature of the type of war in which they are engaged. What is going on in Sri Lanka is not merely a war between the state�s conventional forces and a guerrilla adversary - it is a nationalist guerrilla war of secession being fought on the guerrillas� home ground. This is a very specific type of war between conventional and guerrilla forces and it has happened in a few other theatres. In all those theatres, without a single exception, the state has had all the advantages over the guerrillas enumerated in the preceding paragraph. In all of them the state�s objective was the same i.e. the total defeat of the guerrillas driving them to unconditional surrender.

In no theatre of such conflict has the state succeeded in achieving its objective. Wherever such wars have been concluded, they have been concluded with the guerrillas securing their objective of an independent state comprising the whole or a substantial part of the territory they claimed. Where such wars have not been so concluded, the conflicts are still in progress - the oldest (Myanmar) now well into its fifth decade. Not even the foremost industrially developed countries have been able to avoid this general pattern (e.g. the U.K., Russia).

This is the general background. Now let us consider the specific case of Sri Lanka. We need to ask the question "Can the LTTE be defeated militarily and driven to unconditional surrender?" because in the last 12 year period (1983 to 1995) in which there were just over 10 years of actual fighting the Sri Lankan forces have not been able to achieve this result. On the contrary, the LTTE is much more powerful today than it was at the beginning of the conflict the very opposite of what we tried to achieve.

We can get a reasonable estimate of Sri Lanka�s prospects of achieving its objective by two comparisons - one with a developed country which has faced, and still faces, the very same type of conflict; the other with an Asian developing country with approximately the same G.N.P. per capita per annum as Sri Lanka and is also engaged in the identical type of conflict.


The first comparison I wish to make is with the UK. In the UK the Irish waged a nationalist guerrilla war of secession on their home ground - the island of Ireland intermittently for 300 years. During most of that period the population of mainland Britain was just over 40 million souls and of Ireland around 2 million. In the latter half of this period the UK experienced the agrarian and industrial revolutions, large scale capital accumulation and the acquisition of imperial possessions overseas. The Irish had none of these advantages. Nowhere was the disparity in economic and military strength between the state and the guerrillas greater than in this conflict. But we all know what the outcome was. The guerrillas could not be defeated by the state�s best efforts and peace was secured only by the splitting up of the state into two states in 1922 - The Irish Free State (now The Republic of Ireland) and the present United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That peace has endured unbroken for 73 years. It was not disturbed even by the Irish Republic�s neutrality in the Second World War and its having in Dublin an embassy of Nazi Germany. When wars of secession end by separation, the resulting peace lasts.


There is another facet of Irish/U.K. relations which is of equal relevance to the conflict in Sri Lanka. Irish nationalism, which regards the whole of the island of Ireland as the Irish homeland, was not satisfied with the peace of 1922 which left 6 Irish counties and 2 county boroughs (Belfast and Londonderry) within the UK. The Irish Republican Army ( IRA) which was the main guerrilla group that had fought for and won an independent, sovereign Irish state, continued to exert pressure for the secession of the 6 counties and 2 county boroughs which comprise Northern Ireland from the UK and for their joinder to the Irish Republic. All negotiations towards this end having failed, the IRA commenced guerrilla warfare in 1968. Soon the Royal Ulster constabulary (RUC) had to be backed up by troops of the British army. The two combined fielded just over 30,000 men against nearly 300 hard-core guerrilla fighters of the IRA - a ratio of 100 troops to 1 guerrilla. The conflict went on for 26 years despite the best efforts of the British army until the ceasefire of August 1994 . No settlement has been reached as yet, indeed all-party negotiations have not begun at the time of this writing. All 3 parties to the conflict - the IRA, the British army and the Protestant paramilitary remain in possession of their respective arsenals of arms and explosives.

Throughout this long-drawn-out conflict it is estimated that the IRA had the support of only a minority of the Roman Catholic population (itself a minority of the total population) of Northern Ireland. The backing of a minority of a minority, supplemented by support from a part of the large Irish population of the USA (estimated currently at around 40 million) enabled the IRA to defy successfully the British army�s best efforts to defeat them militarily and drive them to unconditional surrender. In the latter stages of this conflict the British government spent on it 3.25 billion pounds per year or 8.9 million pounds per day. (At the exchange rate of Sri Lanka rupees 76 = l Pound, these figures translate into Rs. 247 billion per year or Rs. 676 million per day.) This enormous expenditure on warfare in Northern Ireland is an important factor in the UK�s relative backwardness in comparison with its fellow members in the European Union - in the league table of G.N.P. per capita per annum the UK is in 11th position among the 15 members of the European Union. Military expenditure on a protracted war has a severely debilitating effect on the economy.

Let us now compare this effort with the corresponding effort in Sri Lanka. Northern Ireland is 5482 sq. miles in land area; the north-east province is approximately 7,600 sq. miles.

Northern Ireland is mostly gently undulating, open farmland with an excellent road and telecommunication network; the north-east province is topographically very rough, especially in the eastern province, heavily wooded south of the Jaffna peninsula and endowed with a road network of the most appalling primitiveness which is by itself a death-trap for motorized vehicles and with no telecommunication network worth speaking of. In Northern Ireland the IRA�s guerrillas number around 300 according to the best estimates; in the north-east province the LTTE strength is estimated at around 12,000. The British forces in Northern Ireland fielded 100 troops to 1 IRA guerrilla; in the north-east province the ratio is, at best, 10 troops to 1 guerrilla. The IRA never acquired naval or missile systems during its 26 year struggle; but in 12 years the LTTE has both.

On the 30,000 troops in Northern Ireland the British government spent Rs. 247 billion per year; on four times that number, 120,000 troops, deployed against the LTTE the Sri Lanka government spends, say, Rs. 35 billion per year - one-twenty-eighth the comparable amount.

The U.K. produces domestically everything required for the war in Northern Ireland; the Sri Lanka government produces domestically nothing required for the war in the north-east province and has to import it all in desperate buying sprees abroad after every major encounter.

In Northern Ireland after 26 years of fighting the British army�s own estimate was that the IRA was better armed and better led than they were at the beginning; in the north-east province the conflict has lasted only 12 years and likewise it is well known that the LTTE is better armed and better led than at the beginning.

No one in the UK, from the Prime Minister downwards, believes the IRA can be militarily defeated and driven to unconditional surrender; in Sri Lanka everybody from the President downwards, believes the LTTE can be militarily defeated and driven to unconditional surrender, with Col. A. Ratwatte declaring this can be achieved by the end of 1995.

The Northern Ireland experience holds important pointers for the future in Sri Lanka. The IRA never held any territory in defiance of the state; they existed among the civilian population and successfully fought a long-drawn-out guerrilla war against a modern, battle-hardened army with the support of only a minority of a minority of the resident population. In Sri Lanka the LTTE holds substantial extents of populated territory in defiance of the state. As long as they hold such territory they fight a partly conventional/partly guerrilla war. If and when that territory is recovered by the state and the rule of the state is restored in it, the LTTE could revert to the normal type of guerrilla warfare which proved impossible to suppress in Northern Ireland. Indeed, in Sri Lanka itself that experience was realised when the IPKF captured Jaffna in October '87. It was thereafter that they suffered the worst bloodletting of all and it lasted over a prolonged period right up to their departure. The facile conclusion that the war will be over if and when, Jaffna is captured by the Sri Lanka army only shows the lack of understanding of this particular type of war and of the very recent experience of other countries and our own.

The other significant feature of the Northern Ireland experience is the important role played by the Irish Diaspora in the USA. Not only was it a vital source of funds for the IRA, it was very effective in mobilizing diplomatic support for the IRA. The British government enjoys, supposedly, a "special relationship" with the US government but despite that the pressure of its own citizens and voters in the USA counted for more. The Tamil Diaspora is in exactly the same position. It is a continuing and growing source of funds for the LTTE as well as an increasingly influential lobby through their elected representatives. The feeble diplomatic efforts of the Sri Lanka government, often orchestrated by sycophantic political appointees, are not, and can never be, a match for voter pressure through elected representatives. Anything smacking of the genocidal in the government�s military effort could rouse a dozen hornets� nests and result in irresistible international diplomatic and economic pressure. A foretaste of that in 1987 precipitated the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord of that year. There could well be more of the same.


Let us now turn to the second comparison. Myanmar (formerly Burma) is an Asian, Buddhist country with a G.N.P. per capita per annum almost the same as that of Sri Lanka i.e. just under US$ 600.00 . It is 10 times larger in land area than Sri Lanka and enjoys a more abundant and varied resource endowment than Sri Lanka. It is self-sufficient in food and has proven petroleum deposits on land. Its population of 43 million is 2.5 times that of Sri Lanka. it has, currently, an army of 380,000 men due to rise soon to 500,000. The present strength is over 3 times that of the Sri Lanka army. Since independence in 1948 the army has been engaged in war with the guerrilla forces of the several tribal peoples living on the western, northern and eastern peripheries of Myanmar, who are fighting for their independence from Myanmarese rule. The failure to subdue these guerrilla uprisings and the need to Marshall all the state�s resources for the war effort led to the overthrow of civil government in Burma, as it then was in 1962, and its replacement by a military dictatorship which exists to this day. All the different guerrilla forces, even if combined, are vastly outnumbered by the Myanmar army. Nevertheless the latter has failed after 47 years of unremitting effort, with the army in command of all the state�s resources, to quell the guerrillas and to drive any one of them to unconditional surrender.

The staggering cost of this effort to the citizens of Myanmar is on full and open view to anyone who visits that country. I have been in both Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and Mandalay (the northern capital) and can testify to the truly spectacular display of degradation and decay that meets the eye. It beggars description and has to be seen to be believed. Myanmar is not a far country on another continent; it can be reached easily from Colombo via Calcutta. Everyone seriously interested in what the future holds for Sri Lanka should make this short journey and see with their own eyes what prolonged and unwinnable war with separatist nationalist guerrillas can do to a poor country.

The tribal guerrillas who have confronted the might of Myanmar�s army have the great advantage of mountainous and rugged terrain which has no parallel in the north-east province of Sri Lanka. They are adept at using all the advantages of that terrain which is their home ground. Nevertheless they cannot be compared by any stretch of the imagination to the LTTE in respect of military sophistication, organisation, logistical capability and generalship. They do not have missile systems nor a naval arm - not even the Karens who have a coastline. They have no supporting international elite Diaspora. Yet they have kept at bay a professional, battle-hardened army of 380,000 men for 47 years and show not the slightest sign of weakening let alone caving in. Their fight for independence from Myanmar rule goes on.


From these 3 comparisons it should be abundantly clear that with the war as it is now conducted with an army of 125,000 men, yielding a troops to guerrillas ratio of 10 to 1, in the rough terrain of the north-east province it is manifestly impossible to defeat the LTTE militarily and drive them to unconditional surrender. The last 12 years experience is compelling proof of this. All the army�s outposts in the north-east province have to be supplied by sea through ports which are ill equipped for handling heavy cargo such as tanks etc. The cargo vessels and their naval escorts are harassed by Sea Tiger attacks. The needed increases of troop strength and heavy armament in the area will multiply the strain on the sea-borne supply lines.

For any credible performance against the LTTE the strength of all three arms of the military - army, navy and air force needs to be increased many fold. Even a factor of 10 only provides the ratio of troops to guerrillas which failed in Northern Ireland. But even that will raise annual military expenditure to around Rs. 350 billion. Such a large sum cannot be found from increased taxation of incomes and corporate profits. It can come only from the cessation of subsidies to the general population and the termination of large areas of social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals which are the biggest elements. Such drastic surgery on the body politic cannot be carried out by any elected government. It can be achieved, as in Myanmar, only by a military dictatorship as ruthless as that now prevailing in the north-east province or even more so. Even such military dictatorships have failed to defeat and drive to unconditional surrender nationalist guerrillas fighting on their home ground for secession. Col. Mengitsu�s extremely ruthless military dictatorship in Ethiopia failed to crush the Eritrean nationalist guerrillas. On the contrary Ethiopia itself collapsed and the war was ended by the Eritreans securing for themselves, in 1993, a sovereign, independent state of their own. In Myanmar the military dictatorship has succeeded only in keeping the war going, not in ending it. It is equally unlikely that a military dictatorship in Sri Lanka will fare any better in respect of the LTTE.


The conflict in Sri Lanka has been crowded out of the world�s television screens by that in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In that state the Bosnian Serbs, who represent about 45% of the population, are fighting for independence from the Bosnian (Muslim-led) government and for the establishment of an independent state of their own where they constitute the majority of the resident population. After 4 years of warfare, which has produced large cross-border refugee flows, it is now agreed by all parties that peace can be achieved only by partitioning the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina into two - with the Bosnian government getting 51% of the land area and the Bosnian Serbs the remaining 49%. The difficulty of implementing this is due to the fact that these percentages can be aggregated only by discontinuous and non-adjacent parcels of territory on the basis of the present residence of each ethnic group. Only large-scale population transfers within Bosnia-Herzegovina can produce compact land areas for each new state-to-be. Neither the international community nor any of the parties involved in the conflict directly or tangentially regard it as a practical possibility to defeat the Bosnian Serbs militarily and drive them to unconditional surrender. Not even the USA, whose warplanes from the USS Theodore Roosevelt bombed the Bosnian Serbs in the heaviest air raids in Europe since the end of World War II, holds the view that the Bosnian Serbs can be militarily defeated and driven to unconditional surrender.


For those who believe that the "military solution" is possible it is but a short and logical step to conclude that it is also desirable. Since the vast majority of the Sinhala people and all their leaders without a single exception believe that a "military solution" is possible the prevailing view among them is that it is also desirable. This illustrates how the long period of warfare has begun to obscure any clear understanding of the causes of the conflict. The LTTE is regarded as the product of one man�s wickedness and bloody-mindedness. The phenomenon of Tamil nationalism, the forging of it into a sharp weapon on the anvil of war, its durability and growing vigour both in the present and for the future, seem to be entirely beyond cognition within Sinhala society. There is the facile assumption that when the LTTE is militarily defeated and driven to unconditional surrender, Tamil nationalism itself will disappear. The lesson of history is that nationalism thrives on war and even on military defeat. In two decades after the end of World War I, German nationalism reared its head again with a vengeance. After the end of World War II the evil day has been postponed only by the vanquished winning the peace so resoundingly. The desirability of the military solution is a view that can be held only by ignoring the greatest and most pervasive international trend of 20th century history - the rise of Irredentist ethnic nationalism.

The agenda for ending the war and for the way ahead in the 21st century demands an acknowledgment of Tamil nationalism and a rational, humane, viable rapprochement with it. To our cost we know how fatal it has been to oppose it. Our future lies in acknowledging and heralding the nationalism of our great neighbour and in developing a modus vivendi for both nations within the island and within the larger international comity of nations. The only �sacrifice" we have to make is to cast off the comforting mediaevalism which has proved so worthless a shield.



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