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Selected Writings - Dr. Adrian Wijemanne

A war beyond the resources of the Sri Lankan State
[Letter sent to Editor FRONTLINE, Chennai which was not published]

Hot Springs, 1 February 1997


1. I write with reference to Ram Manikkalingam's interview with President Kumaratunga carried in your October 4th issue. I am a Sinhalese deeply concerned with the imperative need for peace for both nations on the island.

2. In the first answer of the interview President Kumaratunga draws a distinction between "a traditional war" and the war against the LTTE in Sri Lanka. She acknowledges that the LTTE cannot be wholly eliminated in a hurry. These are percipient and realistic views rare in the Sinhalese discourse on the subject. They re-kindled, therefore, a hope that she understood the very specific nature and the very serious implications of an armed conflict with an ethno-nationalist, secessionist guerrilla organization fighting on its home ground for independence. Unhappily, in the answers that followed that hope was dashed.

3. The President says that though the LTTE may not be totally eliminated in the foreseeable future, the Sri Lanka army can regain, and keep control over, the whole territory of the north- east province; the LTTE would then be capable only of minor guerrilla attacks; despite such attacks the Tamil population of the area can be weaned away from supporting the LTTE and from the demand for a separate state by a constitutional reform within the single all-island state. This is a very revealing scenario. It sets out on public display how far removed from reality the President and her military advisors and her government have gotten themselves. Let us take the 3 elements of the scenario separately, and in their given sequence, and seehow well each stands up against the world's current reality.

4. First, the prospect of military occupation of the whole north-east province, all 7,300 sq. miles of it. The ratio of troops to guerrillas required for such an occupation has to be very high. In Northern Ireland ( 5,500 sq. miles ) the British army occupies the entire area and fields a ratio of 100 troops to 1 IRA guerrilla. In Sri Lanka, where physical occupation of the area has not been attempted so far on a large scale, the present ratio of Sri Lankan army troops to LTTE guerrillas is 10 to 1. An effective physical occupation of the whole north-east province will necessitate the increase of 'the numbers of the Sri Lanka army by a factor of at least 10 - an escalation wholly beyond the financial or human resources of the Sri Lankan state.

5. It is relevant to remember here that the LTTE is 30 times larger in numbers than the IRA, that it already has the capabilities of conventional and naval warfare which the IRA does not possess and that the LTTE presently occupies, in defiance of the state, populated territory equivalent to the entire area of Northern Ireland.

6. Now to the second element of the scenario i.e. that the LTTE can be militarily degraded to the extent that it will be able to mount no more than minor attacks, pinpricks which could be easily scotched. This is the diametrical opposite of the world's (including Sri Lanka's) experience. That experience has been that wars of this nature drag on and on, and as the guerrillas suffer one military defeat after another, they re-emerge stronger than before.

7. In Northern Ireland after 28 years of constant conflict the IRA is stronger today than at the beginning in 1968. In Ethiopia after 30 years of deadly warfare the guerrillas of the Eritrean Peoples' Liberation Front were stronger at the end than at the beginning. So also on the island of Mindanao in The Philippines where the Moro secessionist Muslim guerrillas out-faced and out-fought the US-trained and equipped Philippine army for over 28 years ending last month in a peace treaty giving them control over their home territory. After 13 years of warfare in Sri Lanka the LTTE is stronger now than at the beginning.

_ 8. This is the systemic paradox of nationalist guerrilla wars of secession fought on the guerrillas' home ground. In every theatre of such conflict the state has found it impossible to comprehend this mystery. It is a mystery because of a failure to understand and acknowledge the force of nationalism ( in Sri Lanka it is ethnic nationalism, the fiercest and most uncompromising form of nationalism ) that impels the guerrillas. President Kumaratunga gives an open President Kumaratunga gives an open and classic demonstration of this mental block. It removes her from the realm of reality to a domain of "make believe".

9. Finally, to the hope that in an atmosphere of calm a constitutional reform of the single all-island state can be made to satisfy the Tamil nation's desire for an independent, sovereign state of its own for which the Tamil people of the north-east province voted overwhelmingly at the general election of 1977, long before the LTTE achieved its present dominance in Tamil affairs. There can be no more convincing or conclusive declaration of a nation's will than a vote at a general election. The desire for independence and for a separate sovereign state to express and embody that independence is a moral and legitimate aspiration. When the LTTE says it is fighting the state and sacrificing the lives of its troops to translate that determination into a concrete political reality it puts itself on the side of morality and legitimacy. Anyone who offers less not only has to meet the LTTE's challenge but has also to face the far graver test of explaining to the Tamil nation why its perfectly legitimate determination must needs be frustrated and why it must be content with a lesser alternative. Of all the many dilemmas facing the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhala people this one is the most intractable. President Kumaratunga blithely believes this vital issue on the moral plane can be conjured away by a constitutional mantram. once again she gives a classic demonstration of there being no understanding of a nation's deep need and the enormous sacrifices it has made, and continues to make, for it.

10. The interview fills me with sadness. It shows vividly why our two nations are at war and will, unhappily, continue to be at war until the Sinhala people and their government begin to comprehend both the practical impossibility and the moral egregiousness of their position. Thirteen years of war, years of constant, painful thinking about what it all means, have brought no enlightenment. What is ahead is a long, very long period of warfare stretching into the decades of the future.

11.The Irish war of independence lasted, sporadically, for 300 years. Sri Lanka seems set to follow her last imperial ruler's unwise example. The difference is that Sri Lanka is not the world's leading industrial power which Britain was for the whole duration of that conflict right up to its end in 1922 with the establishment of the Irish Free State. On the contrary, Sri Lanka is one of the 50 poorest countries in the world. How will the Sri Lankan state and Sinhala society fare during a long war of attrition against an adversary far more formidable than the original Irish guerrillas ever were ? And will the eventual outcome be any different ?

I am, dear Sir,

Yours despondently, Adrian Wijemanne



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