Prabhakaran’s war of attrition

By Dayan Jayatilleka

How many of those who should, actually recall the founding year of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam? Not many, I suspect. It was 1976. Its precursor the Tamil New Tigers was formed in 1972, but the LTTE, the Liberation Tigers, Viduthalai Puligal, was born in 1976.

That makes this year, 2006, the 30th anniversary of the LTTE. If anyone thinks that Mr Prabhakaran is going to let that go uncelebrated by some major, if not historic exercise, he or she does not understand such struggles and movements. This would be the year that Prabhakaran launches his Final War; one that has already been advertised among the Tamil Diaspora.

In a sense that Final War is already underway, but has not been recognised as such because it is in its first phase or ‘movement’: an undeclared, one-sided, War of Attrition, the bleeding to death of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces by a thousand ambushes, almost daily attacks. It is Death by a Thousand Cuts.


Sri Lanka is caught in a trap. The CFA prevents the Armed forces from preventing the almost daily ambushes by hitting the Tigers. The international community has the leverage to restrain the Lankan state but not the LTTE. With the state in paralysis, Sinhala ‘ultras’ try to fill the vacuum, but these motley militia target the ethnic ‘Other’ – their ethnic neighbours, the Tamils, and not the Tigers. Mini-pogroms such as Trincomalee reduce the moral high ground occupied by the Sri Lankan side.

Some would think that the way out of this trap is simply to break out of the CFA and go for the Tigers. The problem there is that one really cannot be sure whether we will prevail, or whether the debilitating effect of the last few years under Ranil and Chandrika, compounded by our usual internal fissures at all levels including the military, have weakened us, hollowed us out. Prabhakaran spent the years of the ceasefire, preparing for war, while we spent that same time doing anything but that!

A healthy nationalism is no bad thing but it must be disciplined by a steely grasp of the realities. What we must avoid is an Arab-Israeli scenario of 1967, where we are carried on by the tide of our own rhetoric, into a set-up, and suffer huge losses of men and territory.

Mervyn de Silva often warned in the Lanka Guardian, that the East is our Bosnia, and if he was right, it is important that we not be Milosevic’s Serbia in that scenario. If we play the Serbs, we’ll wind up like them.

Prabhakaran’s Plan

It was of course Lenin and Mao who framed the most crucial of questions in matters of serious political contestation. Lenin’s question ‘Kto Kogo?’ (‘Who-Whom?’) is variously translated as ‘Who gains?’ or ‘Who wins?’ or ‘Who will prevail over whom?’ When applied to Trincomalee and the East, it is evident that the only ones who gain from the anti-Tamil backlash after the LTTE’s provocative bomb blast in the market place are the Tamil Tigers.

Mao Ze Dong posed the query ‘who are our friends? Who are our enemies?’ and when applied to our context it is clear that the LTTE is our main enemy (and Karuna is our friend), while those who strengthen the enemy (and weaken Karuna), as did the Sinhala racist mobs in Trincomalee, are not the friends of the Sri Lankan state but its enemies.

Indeed the Sinhala ultras (the Ku Klux Klan types in Trincomalee as well as the JHU which has just returned to the religious issue) are objectively far more helpful to the Tamil Tigers, than their pet hates, the Southern peacenik NGOs.

‘Above all we must have clarity’, said Lenin. So let us be clear:

Firstly, Prabhakaran is the sole leader of the Tigers, not Balasingham or Thamilchelvan. Secondly, whether or not the Tigers go to Geneva, Prabhakaran is already at war. We do not have a peace process punctuated by outbreaks of armed violence; we have a (one sided) war of attrition, punctuated, if at all, by peace talks or silence.

Thirdly, it will not always be a war of attrition; the scale of the war will change and sooner rather than later Prabhakaran will escalate to a mobile-conventional war – that which the journalists call a full-on or full scale war.

Mr Solheim may think that will not happen as neither side can win militarily, but as long as his friend Mr Balasingham is unable to convince Mr Prabhakaran of that, it is irrelevant and dangerously illusory.

Fourthly, Prabhakaran will aim to make it a short war, modelled on Hitler’s blitzkrieg and Israel’s 6 Day War. He will fight on many fronts simultaneously, and strive primarily for decisive damage to the Sri Lankan forces and secondarily for significant territorial gains which can be frozen when the world community forces a ceasefire, which in turn Colombo will be happy to accept because we would be taking a beating.

Neither Provoked nor Passive

What we must not do is go into that war on a footing that is favourable to him. This means several things: We must not be provoked by his war of attrition into going for civilian targets or permitting Sinhala militias to do so. We must not be provoked into large scale retaliation which will trigger a full-scale war in which he is, at this moment, at an advantage. Nor however must we remain passive and paralysed.

The Sri Lankan armed forces must be re-trained in its battle tactics so that it can hit back hard in self defence when set upon by the Tigers on land or at sea, turning ambushes into counter-ambushes and defeats for the enemy.

In addition, retaliation must take place at the time and place of our choice, against Tiger (not civilian) targets, in Tiger territory, and must go unclaimed. If the Tigers can wage an undeclared war of attrition, the Sri Lankan state has the right of self-defence, bearing in mind though that Prabhakaran will use the opportunity to escalate – something we must be ready for.

The Sri Lankan armed forces must be swiftly strengthened. President Rajapaksa’s impending visit to China must be used for the purpose, sealing a weapons agreement and/or securing an outright grant which will enable us to buy the weapons on the open market.

The president should follow this up with a visit to Russia, which must also focus on security and the struggle against ethnic separatist terrorism. Both Russia and China (especially Russia) manufacture excellent ship-to-ship missiles, which can give an edge to the badly battered Sri Lankan navy.

A high level ministerial delegation must be despatched to Venezuela to sew up an oil deal which will keep fuel prices (and therefore prices in general) stable and supply secure.

Karuna’s Conundrum

The struggle, and therefore the challenge, is not just military but politico-military. There are urgent tasks facing the anti-Tiger forces, the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil resistance. One task faces Karuna, and it is a politico-organisational challenge.

He has rightly decentralised his forces for purposes of guerrilla warfare, but as numerous, counterproductive hits on pro-Tiger civilian (unarmed) targets shows, he has been unable to communicate his political line uniformly to and enforce it among his cadres.

It could be a weakness of C3: command-control-communication. Or there is too much of the early Tiger tactics by the Karuna cadres, which worked for Prabhakaran in the 1970s and ’80s, but will not succeed for Karuna in today’s global and political context where every attack is widely reported by the world media and commented on by the international community.

The other political tasks are those incumbent upon the Sri Lankan state. We simply cannot afford to face the LTTE’s war in a situation where the world community stays unhelpfully neutral. If the Sri Lankan state looks the other way while Sinhalese mobs kill Tamil civilians, then the world community will look the other way similarly, when the Tigers pounce on us! The word must go right down the ranks of the Sri Lankan armed forces and police, that Tamil civilians are off limits and Sinhala mobs are mandatory targets.

Nor can we afford to face Prabhakaran’s war with the world community asking us what reforms we have offered/ on offer for the Tamil people! At present we have a very favourable situation: the Sinhala hardliners have been pushed back by the Sinhala electorate at the recent local government elections, and at the same time the Tigers do not seem interested in talks.

So the Sri Lankan state need not allow either the Tigers or the JVP/JHU to have a veto over a solution to the Tamil ethno-national question.

Unfeasible Federalism vs. Actual Autonomy

Contrary to the utopianism of Sinhala liberals and Tamil democrats, federalism is simply not on. The issue is not whether federalism is desirable or not (personally, I think some form of it is); it is whether it is feasible, given public opinion.

Sri Lanka is a democracy and the electorate has clearly indicated its preference for a unitary, not a federal system. This confirms all the opinion polls conducted by the CPA over the years – there is simply no majority, or anything like it, for federalism. Had the UNP and SLFP cooperated under Chandrika, federalism would have been possible, but the last chance for that was the Mano-Malik dialogue of early 2004.

With the PTOMS, Chandrika joined Ranil in discrediting federalism in the eyes of the people, and public opinion swung, as it has so many times in Israeli (and American) elections. Today public opinion mandates that any settlement has to respect the unitary state, However- and this is vital- it does not mean that the unitary state cannot be stretched.

The UK, Spain, the Philippines, South Africa, Indonesia are all societies in which an explicit federalism is anathema. And yet, these are states in which there is substantial regional autonomy. Britain is of course the classic example.

Douglas Devananda has long proposed concrete measures to upgrade the 13th amendment, most dramatically on TV at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the SLFP. He was ignored by Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Professor Lakshman Marasinghe has sketched out, a few months back, three options for enhanced devolution within a unitary system. Only the first requires a two thirds majority; the second can be implemented by a simple majority in Parliament while the third requires only presidential fiat. I might add that India can help with legal-constitutional expertise to fully implement the Indo-Lanka accord and the 13th amendment.

With enhanced devolution in place we can declare elections in the North and East and express willingness to negotiate with whosoever is elected. This may be difficult to implement because Prabhakaran may be at (or will go to) all-out war.

Yet, it is far better to face him while he is trying to prevent an election. That is the only path to the moral high ground, which is the only defensible space. It is the terrain from which we can launch a victorious counteroffensive when Prabhakaran launches his Final War in this 30th anniversary year of the founding of his Liberation Tigers with a view to achieving its founding objectives.

If we fight this war as – or allow it to degenerate into – an ethnic (or worse, ethno-religious) war, we shall lose the moral high ground, world opinion and regional support, and therefore the war itself. [Source: Sunday Observer]

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  1. A legitimate government protects its own citizens.

    If a government cannot or refuses to do that, then it is clearly illegitimate!! Surely the Sri Lankan government have repeatedly proven themselves illegitimate in their policies toward non-Sinhalese over some time now.

    How much more evidence of failed governance does one need?

    If the Sri Lankans government can demonstrate legitimacy, then any desire for Tamil separation will evaporate.

    However if the Sri Lankan government is determined to prove that it’s incapable of providing good governance, then the Tamils will obviously get their separate state.

  2. Some one give me details about how the killer was made pregnant ?

    To me it is a ploy to divert the world attention.

    I spoke to a retired doctor from Kandy and he told me that they test the urine sample to confirm the pregnancy and many clinics don’t even do the physicial check until after 30weeks.

    DID this woman provided a urine sample of some one and made her a true pregy?

    I am some what puzzled to see the investigation how far she was carrying since one news said 5 months and she pretends to be 9month on the fatal day

    Could this woman faked the real pregnant woman’s ID and papers and impersonate as the other woman. It will be a good hollywood movie if we know the truth with facts.

    recent co-chair decision and EU decision seems to me they were some what happy to see the TOP SOLDIER confined to where he is than where he was as a mode to end the cycle of violence.

  3. the sl president is just doing what the the ltte want …to establish “THE TAMIL EELAM”……..

    even though i dont blv in astrology i have to accept the prediction that SRI LANKAN ISLAND WILL NO LONGER BE A ONE COUNTRY-OFFICIALLY- B4 THE JUNE IN NEXT YEAR….

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