Written by Elena Pokalova.
Victories over insurgent and terrorist groups are hard to achieve and harder yet to maintain. In 2009 Sri Lanka declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). At the time many were skeptical whether peace would ensue and observers predicted more violence. The 2010 U.S. Country Reports on Terrorism reported that the LTTE was regrouping in India and was exploiting its international financial networks to collect funds to procure weapons. However, despite concerns over a comeback, the LTTE has been largely inactive since 2009. Aside from the 2014 attack on a police officer by a former LTTE intelligence operative, no attacks verifiably attributed to the LTTE have been recorded in Sri Lanka. We can turn to Sri Lanka to examine factors that have contributed to its success at keeping the LTTE at bay.
The fact that the LTTE was defeated militarily contributes to the lack of LTTE comebacks. Through a military onslaught the Rajapaksa government decimated the LTTE leadership and obliterated the organization that once controlled almost one third of the island. While a number of additional factors discussed below have thwarted the LTTE attempts to recover, the vast militarization of the Sri Lankan society that had allowed for such a defeat also resulted in the government’s unprecedented ability to control the country. In the run-up to the final standoff with the insurgents the government increased the budget of the armed forces by 40%. In turn, the armed forces personnel went up from 80,000 to 160,000. The militarization did not stop after the end of the conflict, and the military personnel have had a large presence in daily lives, carrying out construction projects, fixing roads and even opening beauty salons. While the pervasive presence of the military has raised concerns, it has also been instrumental in thwarting LTTE comebacks. Reliance on its military force to keep control of the confined territory has prevented the resurgence of the LTTE activities within Sri Lanka.
Since the end of the conflict Sri Lanka has set out to promote reconstruction and economic development, and initiated a number of reconciliation programs. Many reconstruction and development projects have aimed at rebuilding the war-torn North. New construction and development of communications systems have been powering economic growth. Over the past five years Sri Lanka has experienced robust economic expansion. The positive economic environment has been conducive to reconciliation, diminishing the likelihood of the LTTE resurgence.
Further, Sri Lanka’s reconciliation programs have produced certain results. According to the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, nearly 12,000 former LTTE cadres, including 594 former child soldiers, have gone through government rehabilitation and reinsertion programs. According to government estimates, as of August 2016 547,651 internally displaced persons were resettled in the Northern Province. While President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling style raised concerns over the prospects for reconciliation, the 2015 transition of power to Maithripala Sirisena took place without major violence. Instead, the Tamils voted in unexpectedly high numbers in northern areas that had previously boycotted national elections. Sirisena further laid out a new reconciliation course promising more accountability and justice. The government is taking steps towards establishing a Truth-Seeking Commission. In January 2016 the government began working on a new constitution that aims to “to devolve power to the grassroot level and strengthen democracy in order to prevent another war.”
Given the promises of economic development and reconciliation programs it would be difficult for the LTTE to muster enough support to restart a war with Sri Lanka’s military forces. By 2009 the LTTE no longer had the same levels of support among Sri Lanka’s Tamils. The group grew increasingly authoritarian towards the civilian population and had to switch to forced recruitment. In preparation for government offensives, the LTTE introduced a policy of conscripting one person per family in the rebel-held areas. Forced recruitment, along with abductions the LTTE carried out, alienated many members of the Tamil community. As a result, since the end of the conflict, war weary Tamils inside the country seem to have embraced the peace process. As one ethnic Tamil explained, “It’s important to have reconciliation between us and the Sinhalese.”
While renewed military confrontations with a revived LTTE seem unlikely, LTTE terrorism might be said to present a more pressing danger. However, the absence of LTTE-orchestrated terrorist attacks can be explained by the problems associated with the funding and the overall diminished sympathy towards terrorist tactics in the name of ethno-nationalist separatism. The LTTE has heavily relied on the Tamil diaspora for funding. However, the situation changed after September 11 2001. While the Tamil diaspora communities abroad have continued to support Tamil Eelam, international tolerance for the LTTE terrorism has diminished. The LTTE itself recognized the impact of September 11 on terrorist tactics and condemned the attacks on the U.S. as illegitimate violence.
Many of the LTTE international funding channels have been frozen. After September 11 the Sri Lankan government has been successful in pressuring its partners to proscribe the LTTE and target the group’s financial networks. In October 2001 the U.S. State Department relisted the LTTE as a terrorist organization under the E.O. 13224. In 2006 the LTTE was placed on the EU list of terrorist organizations. Other countries also designated the LTTE as a terrorist group, which has significantly restricted the LTTE’s access to funds. In turn, the Sri Lankan government has delisted a number of proscribed Tamil diaspora organizations including one of the largest Tamil diaspora groups, the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC). This move has promoted engagement over terrorism, and the CTC has issued statements in favour of the peace process in Sri Lanka.
The victory over the LTTE in Sri Lanka remains in place. The Sri Lankan government still faces many problems. Among them are the role of the military in Sri Lankan society, the need for sustained economic growth in war torn parts of the country, and the importance of solid reconciliation among the ethnic groups of the island. At the same time, the military annihilation of the LTTE has prevented its comeback as a combat force. Terrorism, on the other hand, no longer has the same level of political support either domestically or internationally. The government’s continued commitment to reconciliation might be a viable protection mechanism against the revival of the LTTE.
Dr. Elena Pokalova is Associate Professor of International Security Studies at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. She is author of Chechnya’s Terrorist Network: The Evolution of Terrorism in Russia’s North Caucasus (Praeger, 2015). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia.