These observations suggest that aÂ militant vs. state conflict tends to make the leaders on both sides stronger– giving both leaderships a vested interest in continuing the fight.
In July 1983, the LTTE carried out an ambush on government security forces. The Sinhalese majority (encouraged by the government) responded by killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of Tamil civilians in the “Black July” riots. Tamil trust in due process was shattered, and support for the LTTE grew astronomically. In short, the LTTE attacked, the government responded, and the LTTE, rather than being weakened by the government response, grew stronger.
Though an extreme example, this “cycle of violence” repeats itself throughout the history of the Sri Lankan conflict– and around the world. In Sri Lanka, during times of relative peace or relatively enlightened national leaders, conditions would improve and the urgency the Tamil minority felt to become their own nation would lessen. As a result, their support for (and patience with) the LTTE would wane. Recruitment and financial contributions would fall. Opposition (or rumors of it) would surface. At times, peace would even appear to become a viable option. This didn’t serve the needs of the LTTE, which exerted control over its constituency through force and had no interest in democratic elections and the like. So the LTTE would attack, or bait the government into attacking, to ensure that peace did not break out. Because the government had difficulty in attacking the LTTE directly, it would inevitably “punish” the Tamil civilian population, which in turn would increasesupport for the LTTE. (The 2002 Cease-Fire Agreement may be an exception: it appears that in that instance, the LTTE may have been genuinely interested in change.)
For an organization that needs conflict to survive, well-planned attacks can easily derail a peace process, garner respect and free international publicity, trigger waves of new recruits, and discredit the government. The LTTE is a good example, perhaps one of the earliest, of a militant group intentionally using the “cycle of violence” to its benefit. But Al Queda successfully used a similar approach in Iraq: al-Zarqawi, a relative nobody when the Iraq War began, catapaulted himself to international recognition and was at the time of his death, arguably, one of the more powerful men in the world.
This brings up a troubling question: If the LTTE always gained support by attacking the government and forcing it to respond, how is it that the government continued to play the game? Did its leaders not recognize that the LTTE gained strength when the minority was oppressed? Or did they not care? Only recently, while comparing the Sri Lanka conflict with the Iraq War, did I realize the answer:
Just as there is a cycle of violence that benefits the militants, there is a cycle of political violence that benefits the leaders of the government. They gain power internally, within their own constituency, when the militants attack. Both parties gain from this cycle.
Here’s an example: In 1994, Chanrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was elected President of Sri Lanka on a platform of peace, return to the rule of law, and returning power to the electorate. She even carried a majority of the Tamil vote. In early 1995, with great fanfare, a cease-fire agreement was reached. It lasted four months before the government alleged that LTTE had attacked its positions. (The LTTE account of events is somewhat different.) The government responded both with attacks on the LTTE and restrictions on the Tamil populace. It is likely that the police and military response was much harsher than Chandrika intended– but whether Chandrika or the local commanders were responsible, the result was a complete loss of Tamil trustÂ for Chandrika. One Tamil man in the East said at the time, “I never voted for a Sinhalese before, and I never will again.” The LTTE had made its point– or rather, enticed the government to make its point.
But on the government side, you cannot return power to the people when you need it to “fight terrorism.” Instead, a new set of Emergency Regulations restricting freedom went into effect. Chandrika reneged on her promise to abolish the powerful office of Executive President, expanded the military, obtained additional foreign aid– all undeniably benefitting her and her administration. I do not believe this was her intention when she got elected– but it was the end result nonetheless.
When attacked by an outside enemy, a nation’s leader can demand (and receive) the support of both the opposition and the populace. It is a time of crisis, and no patriotic citizen can withhold his/her support. But the crisis is self-created. When militants attack, a government at war knows (or should know) thatÂ its violent response will strengthen the enemy. But strengthening its enemy is one sure way to guarantee a continued crisis in which to demand support.
This suggests one last point: Analysis of a post-modern conflict is often confused by the supposition that the goal of both sides is to achieve military victory. This is not always the case. At times, it appears that the conflict itself is a tool, a means to and end that has nothing to do with the other side and everything to do with controlling one’s own constituency. And until that goal is achieved, the tool cannot be discarded.