Aneela Shahzad

Understanding the Sri Lanka Civil War in regional and global perspective

Understanding the Sri Lanka Civil War in regional and global perspective
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The people of Sri Lanka have a long and bitter history of colonial rule extending for almost four and a half centuries from 1505 to 1948. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British each took their turns in enslaving the island. The invaders crushed the local kingdoms and persecuted the Sinhalese and the local Tamil and suppressed the Sri Lankan Moors to ensure their dominance on the sea-trade around the state.

Freedom is sought by nations with much struggles and turmoil but protecting it after entering the bliss of the much-envisaged liberty, may prove to be equally laborious and full of strife. When freedom finally came in 1948, Sri Lanka was woken-up beside a neighbor that had a dream of greatness – an undeclared dream of a Greater India – with movements like Arya Samaj to Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra seeded in the soil.
Though Hindutva has never been a part of Indian official policy but the way India showed its manipulative foreign policy all around its neighborhood was enough to alarm Sri Lanka. From its inception India has held Kashmir, Junagadh and Hyderabad breaking the ‘Rules of Accession’ in each case – India has kept land-locked Bhutan as a client state reclining on India for its foreign policy – Sikkim lost its sovereignty and was made a part of India in 1975 – and India launched a war against Pakistan to break it into two parts in 1971.

In such a backdrop, the Sri Lankan government was faced with a 26-year long Civil War, a military conflict (1983-2009) with the dissident Tamil faction of the country – supported and armed by neighboring India.
Ethnic Tamil population of Sri Lanka is 11.2%, most of whom live in the northern province, whereas the majority of Tamils, 88.4%, live in the Indian province of Tamil Nadu, out of which 37.5% live below poverty line according to study. But the conditions of Tamils in Sri Lanka have been grave too. Successive governments in Sri Lanka have committed suppression upon Tamil populations from time to time; like, making Sinhala the only official language in 1944, which helped in defying many Tamils from government jobs; and the 1948 Ceylon Citizenship Act that barred Indian Tamils, mostly living in the central provinces, from obtaining Sri Lankan citizenship; later a great number of Indian Tamils were also deported to India. The Indian Tamils are separate from the Sri Lankan Tamils who lived in the northern province; the Indian Tamils had been brought into Sri Lanka by the British in the 19th century as tea and rubber plantation workers; and most wrongly so, the Sri Lankan governments discriminated against them and tried to get rid of them just like the Burmese government is trying to get rid of the Rohingya people today. These discriminations created dissent and rebellion – for which the country had to pay a bitter price in the coming decades – but this essay means, not just to ascertain this war in an internal canvas, but to understand the Sri Lanka Civil War in the regional and global perspective, and to realize the aggressiveness of global interventions that any nation has to face in today’s competitive world.

In 1976, when Prabakaran changed his rebel group from Tamil New Tigers to Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), this was a time when India under Indra Gandhi, was ripe in the hubris of defeating arch-enemy Pakistan, dividing the country into two in 1971. In the creation of Bangladesh, two factors had worked side by side – dissent of the eastern flank of Pakistan from its west on one side, and on the other, India’s full anticipation of the lapse and its agility in mobilizing dissenting elements, training and arming them via its intelligence and finally its direct military intervention. With complete success in 1971, India was only too sure to apply the same formula in Sri Lanka.
So, India’s formula was – train dissenting elements; implant the rebels back in their country; orchestrate false flags if necessary, so that the Sri Lankan government gets a bad image internationally; pose as a peace maker; intervene militarily, if needed, when the case is ripe – and in the end ease the breaking of the state.

The 1983 riots that began with LTTE’s massacre of 12 Sri Lankan soldiers and an officer and the reciprocating massacre of at least 400 Tamils at the order of Jayawardena, is considered to be the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War. After which, according to the Jain Commission, realizing that Jayawardena was unable to protect the Tamils, “Mrs. Indira Gandhi entrusted the full responsibility of Military training of the Tamil Militant youths, to the Research and Analysis wing (RAW)”. But this statement does not present the whole truth, as training camps for the Eelam Tigers had been set in over 30 bases in India, well before 1983. Some of these bases were situated in Uttarkhand, Himachel Pradesh and in Tamil Nadu. Nor was the LTTE, the first or the only militant front, several other groups like TELO, EROS, EPRLF and PLOT were being harbored in Indian soil for years.

Simultaneously, London that has always been a hub of non-state actors from around the world, was fathering a Tamil militant cause by the name Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students, headed by Balasingham. Balasingham wrote all the leaflets/training material for the LTTE, meaning that the Tigers were importing their philosophy from Britain. So why was a small militant group in Sri Lanka so important for Britain?

It must be realized that Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war (1983- 2009) lasted in two historical eras, the Cold War era and the post-Cold War era – allowing it to become a major pivot for proxies and allegiances of global contenders. It had lasted long enough to see the Russians get defeated in Afghanistan, the devastation of the two warring nations in the Iran-Iraq War, and US’ destruction of Iraq in the Gulf War. Russia’s defeat in Afghanistan in 1989 is seen as the end of the Cold War, but the tug-of-war between the two camps never really ceased. In fact, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia was able to turn the tables on the US in South America, where several anti-US regimes despoiled US-interests in their countries in unison, in what is called the Pink Tide.

In the 1990s, Russian politician and diplomat Yevgeny Primakov advocated the doctrine of supporting anti-US governments in the Middle East and a strategic partnership with China and Iran, and possibly also bringing India and France in their loop – to create a ‘zero-sum game’ between the US and Russia. The so-called Primakov Doctrine laid special emphasis on control of maritime trade via both the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Taiwan.

In this backdrop, India, that had traditionally aligned with the Soviet/socialist camp, was also at a verge of rethinking foreign policy. Russian retreat from Afghanistan in 1989 and US stepping in on Afghan soil in 2001, all happened during Sri Lanka’s civil war period, and with this, India slowly moved from one camp to the other. India also saw China’s strength consolidating in the region to its north, and its growing monopoly in maritime trade as a threat to its dream of ‘Greater India’. All this moved the Russia-China block closer to Sri Lanka, that was at that time struggling against an insurgency abetted by India. Possibly at that time Russia and China also foresaw Sir Lanka’s southern ports as future alternatives to ports in pro-US states around the Malacca Strait.

As the war preceded, states like the US, EU allies, Canada, India and Australia had designated the LTTE as a terrorist group and had backed Sri Lanka with aid, but later they cut their aids on the premise of human rights violation on the Tamil population by the Sri Lankan government. Surely this move was not just about human rights, the real reason being that these nations saw in a severed Sri Lanka and a strong India, a defeat for China.

In defiance of this, by 2007, China’s aid to Sri Lanka has gone up to $1billion. In addition to this, China made arms deals in sophisticated weapons and gifted six F7 Jets to Sri Lanka. Moreover, China encouraged ally Pakistan to sell arms to and to train Sri Lankan military. Interestingly, just a few decades ago, in 1971, when Pakistan was being broken into two by arch enemy India, Sri Lanka had defied Indian hegemony on its neighbors by allowing war planes from West Pakistan to refuel on its soil. Now, in return, Pakistan would not only supply tanks, rifles, rocket launchers and ammunition, but also military training, exercises and intelligence sharing regarding terrorism. Pakistan had conducted its first successful counter-terrorism operation in Swat in 2007 and had a lot they could teach the Sri Lankans.

Meanwhile, India had through and through involvement in the war; not only was it covertly training and arming the LTTE, it was also the ‘peace maker’; in 1987, a peace accord was signed between Rajiv Gandhi and Jayewardene and through it Indian peace-keeping forces were stationed in Sri Lanka – at the time of the peace accord, LTTE leader Prabhakaran was in Delhi. Apparently, Prabhakaran was not happy with the peace and became skeptical of Rajiv Gandhi – on one hand the peace-keeping force was collecting arms from the LTTE and on the other RAW was supplying them with the same. This resulted in clashes between the LTTE and the Peace Keeping Forces; and in the death of over 1200 Indian soldiers; and the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by an LTTE operative. The Peace Force returned in one years’ time. LTTE also assassinated the then Sri Lankan PM Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.

Rajiv Gandhi’s death brought political turmoil in India, only with the Narasimha Rao government, several months later, did India reconsolidate. But with Narasimha Rao, India also openly moved towards capitalism and an embrace of the United States. Later with US entering Afghanistan and India’s following it, made India’s imperial lust clear to everyone. Now it was clear for the Sri Lankans, how to choose between friends and foes. This was why, as the war was coming to a conclusion with furious army offensive against LTTE in 2008, the BBC World Service was jammed by the state-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Cooperation, and PM Rajapaksa rejected US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s call for a “temporary no-fire period”. In the same days, Sri Lankan foreign ministry called Gordon Brown’s appointment of former defense secretary Des Browne as special envoy ‘extremely unhelpful’ and ‘an intrusion into Sri Lanka’s internal affairs and disrespectful to the country’s statehood’.
Sri Lankan military succeeded in breaking down the insurgency by combining guerrilla tactics with conventional ones. With the help of partners, intelligence was increased, naval capabilities were enhanced to severe supply lines of the LTTE Tigers and the media was used to present the LTTE as a criminal gang and own soldiers as front-line heroes. Sri Lanka followed the Swat example and evacuated large populations to ensure LTTE clean-up. Post-evacuation camps and clinics were set to console the internally displaced and work on post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation programs were planned.

In May 2009, China prevented the UN Security Council from putting discussion of possible sanctions or ICC involvement in Sri Lanka, following government attacks on Tamil civilians – on its agenda – by its power of Veto. In the same month Prabhakaran was killed in a gun battle with the troops. General Fonseka announced victory that day after a long 26years of grievances, fears and hate between two people of the same nation – with an estimate of 100,000 precious human lives lost.

Were the Sinhalese majority and their political leadership right in suppressing the Tamil minorities in their land that had lived along sides them for centuries. Is apartheid, eviction or genocide of a part of humanity a ‘solution’. True leadership is in unity and in embracing each other, and not in overpowering and crushing – that is a politics of fear not of strength. But is it for powerful states to always find their own interests in fueling war between dissenting sectors of a country – dissent can be found in all societies and states – this does not legitimize intervention. India, in its imperialistic lust, forgot the so many dissenting sectors within its country and ran to have the dismemberment of a tiny state in its very neighbor.
But Sri Lanka defeated the strategy of its humungous neighbor, finding its strategy of survival in alliance with the enemy of its enemy. And Sri Lanka’s victory in turn became a victory of Pakistan and China to – eventually stringing the three states in the String of Pearls Strategy.

Perhaps in Sri Lanka’s victory there is an example for states around the world – that hate, prejudice, suppression and killing of own people based on cast or creed will never end up in a victory. The Sinhalese perhaps won from the LTTE but they lost Tamil trust and placidity, regaining which has to be an on-going battle of reversing inequalities and constant consolation of these people now. What was lost in this victory, was the hearts of the Tamil people – and true victory will only be in winning their hearts back.

This piece was also published on and is republished here by the consent of author.

Author is a geopolitical analyst, tweets at @aneelashahzad.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not necessarily reflect the position or editorial policy of Oracle Opinions.

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