Lessons From Lanka: Is Military Intervention the Answer?

Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan asks what lessons can be drawn from the Sri Lankan war for combatting the Islamic State

Sri Lankan Tamil refugees arrive in India in 2005. Photo by Climatalk .in via Flickr

Sri Lankan Tamil refugees arrive in India in 2005. Photo by Climatalk .in via Flickr

A major insurgency, pitching militias, guerrillas and suicide bombers against state forces. A division of a nation along ethnic and religious lines. Reprisals against civilians by both state and terrorist forces. Support for the terrorists followed by intervention and war by a larger power in opposition.

It’s worrying how easily this could describe the Islamic State, but this is the Sri Lankan Civil War. Claiming tens of thousands of lives, the war began as an ethnic clash between Tamil and Singhalese groups on the island in 1983. Over the years it expanded as Indira and later Rajiv Gandhi’s governments provided training and equipment for men including the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, allowing the group to escalate from guerrilla warfare into heavy combat. Indian troops under the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) were stationed on the island during the late 80s, originally providing stability – but tensions between the various forces led to a breakdown of relations. The LTTE fought both the IPKF and the Sri Lankan army, producing bad blood between India and Sri Lanka which persists to the present day – the IPKF have been accused of multiple acts of war crimes including rape: one alleged victim was Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, a suicide bomber who succeeded in killing former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as he campaigned for re-election.

The final chapters of the civil war were written in May 2009, with the death of Prabhakaran – but it did not heal the nation. In 2013, images purporting to show Prabhakaran’s 12 year old son executed by Sri Lankan security forces were released.  Even before that, outrage had built up as the extent of the security forces’ massacres was revealed in a 2011 Channel 4 documentary. As important was the role of the Tamil diasporas, many who remain vehemently supportive of the LTTE despite their actions. One can visit La Chapelle, a road just off of Gare du Nord, and find dozens of Sri Lankan Tamil shops – many bearing posters of Prabhakaran’s face. Elsewhere in Paris, pro-LTTE demonstrators are not an uncommon sight.

It’s tempting to draw conclusions from the Sri Lankan Civil War and apply them to our present conundrum: the Sri Lankan government does boast, after all, to be the first nation in the world to eradicate terrorism from its land. That’s true, if we ignore state terrorism, but it’s difficult to imagine the Iraqi government doing the same. For a start, unlike the hugely permeable borders of the Middle East, the only way into Sri Lanka is by air or sea. Furthermore, the LTTE could never have more support than there were Tamil civilians, who always constituted a minority and whose numbers fell as the Civil War ravaged the country, forcing many to flee abroad. The alienation of many of those who remained due to the LTTE’s excesses further hurt their cause, and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi swayed public opinion against them quite comprehensively. Comparing the Sri Lankan government’s victory over the LTTE to defeating IS simply ignores the numbers at play.

Furthermore, the LTTE never harnessed publicity in the same way in which IS has done. Although a network of Tamil diasporas supported them throughout their reign (and to the present day), the cause of Tamil Eelam (‘homeland’) certainly did not gain the same press coverage as contemporary incidents in the Middle East or Europe. Whilst the lack of social media certainly prohibited widespread dispersion of their ideology during the 80s and 90s, even in the 21st Century more coverage has occurred in the aftermath of the war.

But there are lessons we can take from the civil war regarding proxy wars, and arming ‘rebels’. Indira Gandhi’s government, keen to shore up India’s status as a regional power and worried about Indian Tamils demanding self-determination, supplied arms and training to the LTTE and other Tamil nationalist groups throughout the 1980s. During a Sri Lankan government siege of LTTE positions, India went so far as to drop food and medical supplies to the beleaguered guerrillas. All of this allowed for her son, Rajiv Gandhi, to send the IPKF into Sri Lanka, occupying the Tamil north, and extending India’s power in the region. The Sri Lankan government, wary of this larger, better-armed force, used the IPKF-protected disarmament process to transfer troops to the south of the country, fighting Sinhalese nationalists.

From here, however, it all went wrong. Though many Tamil groups did disarm, the LTTE refused. Tensions between them and the IPKF turned into a conflict in which the Sri Lankan government is accused of supporting the Tamil guerrillas against the Indian occupation force. Regardless, the war was mismanaged by India, with intelligence failures and increasingly poor rapport with locals leading to heavy casualties. By the time the last units of the IPKF departed from the tear of Lanka in 1990, many civilians were dead, raped, traumatised, or homeless. A year later, Rajiv Gandhi himself was killed at the hands of a group which his mother had helped to foster.

The Sri Lankan government is anything but angelic. Mahinda Rajapaksa has been accused of running a mafia state since his victory in the civil war, imprisoning political rivals and ensuring transactions run through his office. In many ways, he might be just another Assad, albeit with less publicity. Still, the lesson from the Sri Lankan Civil War is that rushing in to arm militias or throwing boots on the ground is not the best way to shore up a region, but the quickest and most effective route to chaos.