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The goal of war is not to win

These observations suggest that a 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 trust 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) that 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.

  • In 4GW, the goal of insurgents may be to hollow out out the state, not collapse it. So, they don’t want a full military win, but rather a structure they can freely operate under. The drug cartels in Mexico are close to realizing such a situation.

    It’s not just control of a constituency that the players want, it’s also the ability to shape events and world media, to get their story out.

  • DJ

    True. But what most analysts seem to miss is that the goal of the leaders of the state may not be to win, either, but to use the war as a means to consolidate power. The longer the war goes on, the more they can pursue that goal. Thus war serves both leaderships– but it is inevitably the civilian populace that suffers.

  • Malathi

    I agree with the anlysis after 1983 but the cause of the proble have been the Sinhala Fundamentalist racism directed against minorities as soon as the British left the island and The Fictional racist book Mahavamsa which feeding and fuelling the racism among sinhalese.
    As long as the sinhala children being educated with the racist book Mahavamsa, Not even Buddha can change the MIND-SET of Sinahala people and Sinhala politicians.
    LTTE is the SYMPTOM not the Cause.
    The Cause is the constant Sinhala Racism among majority of Sinhala people and Sinhala corrupt politicians.

    In 1937, A British Senior Civil Servent, worked 40years in Srilanka during British rule, gave Speech about Srilankan and Sinhalese in Royal Albert Hall. He said that SINHALESE POLITICIANS DON’T NEED ENEMIES TO DESTROY THE SRILANKA, THEY CAN DESTROY THE COUNTRY IF THEY LEFT WITH THEIR OWN DEVICES. HOW TRUE HE WAS.

    After independence in 1948, first major projecr of the Srilankan Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake was the ETHNIC CLEANSING of Tamils and Muslims in PATTIPALAI(Kalloya) and dienfranchise of millions of Indian orginated Tamils who sent 8 MPs to Srilankan parliament.
    In 1998, All the Sinhala parties celeberated 50 years anniverssary of the FIRST ETHNIC CLEANSING of Tamils and Muslims in Kalloya.

    Then, the Srilankan governments systematically ETHNICALLY CLEANSED North Western Tamil areas- Puttalam and Chilabam, Forcefully Conveted almost all the Negombo Tamils into sinhalese(Minister Fernando Pulle -Tamil but now Sinhalese), Ethnically Cleansed Kanthalai, Amparai, Parts of Trincomallee, Parts of Batticola and created majority sinhalese district Seruvila(Tamil name SERUVIL), then Ethnically cleansed North Eastern Tamil areas Manal Aru, Kokillai and Nayaru- VELIOYA NOW- and settled 100% Sinhalese into Tamil areas annexed with Anurathapura now to cut off Tamil Nation.

    Then JR Jayawardene resumed MASSIVE ETHNIC CLEANSING AND GENOCIDE OF TAMILS during 80s in Trincomallee area to reduce Tamils and succeeded with killing 1000s of Tamils and chasing out many 1000s.

    PLEASE REFER THE SRILANKAN CENSUS REPORTS SINCE 1948 TO DATE TO SEE THE REAL PATTERN OF SRILANKAN ETHNIC CLEANSING OF MINORITIES IN FAVOUR OF SINHALESE.

    For example, Sinhala population were just under 1% in the entire Eastern Tamil areas but now GROWN TO NEAR 40% with the latest ETHNCI CLEANSING OF TAMILS FROM SAMPUR, MAVILARU, VAHARAI, etc.

    Tamil Nation and Sinhala nation never be under one rule before the British but they co-existed for 1000s of years and must be left as they were before the British to solve the issue amicably rather than continuing this fooooooooooooooolish genocide of Tamils by the corrupt Sinhala politicians and Military.

    TO CONCLUDE, I PROPOSE AND URGE THE UN TO HOLD REFERNDUM AMONG TAMILS IN THE ISLAND, LIKE THE ONE HELD IN EAST TIMOR, TO KNOW THE WILL OF THE TAMILS -EITHER SEPARATE OR UNITE WITH SRILANKA RATHER THAN DESTRYING THE TAMILNATION AND SINHALESE WHILE MORTGAING THE FUTURE OF SINHALA NATION FOR LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG TIME TO COME.

  • DJ

    “LTTE is the SYMPTOM not the Cause.”

    Very true, and something most analysts miss. But this cannot be blamed entirely on the Sinhalese. in 1948, the Tamil (elite) leadership voted to disenfranchise the Estate Tamils. Why? The leaders felt they had more in common with the Sinhala elites than with the Tamil lower castes. Hence the LTTE’s fight has historically been against not only the Sinhalese, but the elite Tamils as well.

    While I believe a U.N. referendum is a good idea, to presume that all Tamils have the same interests is erroneous. Those in the East, besides significant cultural differences, have much different concerns than those in the North. They are not interested in being ruled by Jaffna, and don’t care much who wins the war as long as they are allowed local self-determination. In other words, they would rather be a federal entity within a larger country, and whether Jaffna or Colombo is the capitol is not very important to them.

    I have often wondered why so few Jaffna Tamils go to the East and talk to Tamils there. Perhaps it is because they assume the East is the same– that Tamils are Tamils. But people in the East hint that it’s because they are looked down on by the North (and there is some historical evidence for this). Many in the East see LTTE and GOSL as equally exploitive. Unfortunately, neither side seems to find it necessary to prove them wrong.

  • Malathi

    Hi DJ,
    Typical divide the Tamils and win by a typical Sinhala politician.
    As per dienfranchising the millions of Indian Tamils, only 1 MP GG Ponnampalam did the foolish and costly mistake and lost the Indiaginous Tamils’ votes and lost elections. Srilanka, dominated by the Majority Sinhalese, would have disenfranchised with or without the GG Ponnampalm’s vote. Therefore Srilankan sinhala racists are the one to blame not the one Tamil MP.
    Yes, the Tamil elites made the costly mistake by beleiving the Sinhala racist elites depite the Sinhala racists ETHNIC CLEANSING of MUslims in 1915 in kandy and Ethnic Cleansing of Tamils in 1935, also the Sinhala elites, like Jr Jayawardene and SWRD Bandaranayake, D.S Senanayake proposed SINHALA ONLY ACT in Kelaniya Conference in 1935. the TAMIL ELITES MUST HAVE HAD THE LONG TERM THINKING LIKE OUR LEDER RT.HON.V.PIRAPAKARAN AND SHOULD HAVE DEMANDED THE SEPARATION TAMILEELAM IN 1948 LIKE THE JINNAH OF PAKISTAN.
    as per the un referendum, thanks for accepting that viable only idea. But, Why you are trying to divide Tamils in the district basis while Tamils in both north and east urging for the referndum and even voted the TNA, overwhelmingly twice, whose manifesto claimed that LTTE WERE THE SOLE REPS OF TAMILS.
    If the Srilanka beleive your theory of division of Tamils by regions, why not Srilanka agree to call the UN cos Srilanka will win the case but Srilanka know well that all tamils will vote for separation.
    How do you know what the eastern people thinking and when did you hold election to find out your stories??????????????????????
    22 out of 23 Tamil MPS elected for TNA by North and East Tamils twice and boycotted the Sinhala presidential election together by the Tamils in North and East.
    until the British invaded the island, Tamil Nation and sinhala Nation had been separed for 1000s of years and never ever lived under one rule before the British.
    as per differences among Tamils, don’t try to exaggerate our differences because each and every country have differnces among their regions and villages and sinhalese have lot of differnces and castes like Kandya Sinhaleses and Karava Sinhalese like Mahinda, Castes like Kovigama, etc. TYPICAL SINHALA TACTICS TO DIVIDE THE TAMILS AND KILL THEIR ASPIRATIONS USING TAMILS AGAINST TAMILS BUT WILL NOT WORK ANY MORE.
    Instead of dividing the Tamils better divide the Tamil Nation from the Sinhala Nation’s rule since the Sinhala nation proved time and again that Sinhala nation have no will or skill to govern the both nations equally and even handed as they keep the sinhala and buddhism as their state only language and religion while killing more than 100,000 Tamils in colod blood since 1948 with NOT EVEN ONE PUNISHED. Also, Srilanka used the TSUNAMI disater to kill more Tamils callously by not providing the international aid to Tamils and Muslims while killing the NGOs and denying them access to Tamil areas.
    HOW CAN TAMILS CAN SEE THE SRILANKA AS THEIR GOVERNMENT WHILE SRILANKA EVEN USED THE TSUNAMI TO KILL MORE OF THEM AND STILL REFUSING TO AGREE FOR P-TOMS. RECENTLY, SRILANKA DECLARED TAMILEEMA BY ETHNICALLY CLEANSED TAMILS FROM COLOMBO.
    THE LIST OF REASONS GOES, ON AND ON TO SEPARATE TAMILEELAM FROM SINHALA RACISTS’ RULE.
    EVEN SINHALA PEOPLE WILL BENEFIT FROM THE SEPARATION OF TAMILEELAM BECAUSE SINHALA CORRUPTED POLITICIANS WILL NOT HAVE THE EXCUSE TO DIVERT THE SINHALA PEOPLE’S URGENT PROPLEMS PROVIDED THE MUSLIMS WILL STAY WITH SINHALA NATION.

  • DJ

    Elections in Sri Lanka are, as you know, always suspect, even (and perhaps especially) in government controlled areas. Surveys by the NPC and others support the consensus I got in my field research in the East: the Eastern Tamils are pretty disgusted with both sides.

    As to dividing the country, the Sinhala people would also benefit from from breaking the ENTIRE country into regions, not just by ethnicity. I envision each of the 9 provinces as a federal unit. But others think the devolution must go much deeper. In any case, the myth of ethnic nationhood is one of the cruel hoaxes of the British colonials. Not only Tamils have regional differences, Sinhalese too have differences in culture, language, and concerns.

    Ethnic nationalists on both sides have perpetrated this war in order to unite under the ethnic banner that which cannot be united, to increase their own power. I predict that if there is peace BETWEEN the ethnicities, old intra-ethnic divisions WITHIN the ethnicities will once again rear their ugly heads. Of course, at present it appears that we may never know if I am right.

    Only through a radical change in the way Sri Lanka does politics can the rights of all Sri Lankans be restored. There has, as you point out, been a klot of killing. But it has not been all GOSL on Tamil– well over 60,000 Sinhalese were killed by GOSL and related parties under Jayawardena and Premadasa alone.

    As you say, the Tamil and Sinhala people have much in common. It is government by a tiny elite, regardless of what ethnicity, that is the enemy. I would truly love to see (and continue to work toward) a union of Tamil, Sinhala, and Muslim villagers demanding representative government and local self-determination.