Jeremy Page wrote in The Times: “It was supposed to be the unwinnable war. For almost three decades, Sri Lanka was held up as an example of how a small democratic state with a conventional army could never defeat a well-funded and disciplined guerrilla organisation. It has proved that to be untrue. But how Sri Lanka won its victory — and whether it should be condoned or copied — is the subject of an international debate that touches on the War on Terror, the UN and the new geopolitical world order...The army used guerrilla tactics — moving in small groups through the jungle rather than on main roads — while the Tigers fought a conventional campaign to defend their territory. Military intelligence split the Tigers by persuading Colonel Karuna, their second in command, to defect in 2004, allowing the army to drive the rebels out of eastern Sri Lanka in 2007. [Source: Jeremy Page, The Times, May 19, 2009]

Peter Layton wrote in The Diplomat: “How to win a civil war in a globalized world where insurgents skillfully exploit offshore resources? With most conflicts now being such wars, this is a question many governments are trying to answer. Few succeed, with one major exception being Sri Lanka where, after 25 years of civil war the government decisively defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and created a peace that appears lasting. This victory stands in stark contrast to the conflicts fought by well-funded Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. How did Sri Lanka succeed against what many considered the most innovative and dangerous insurgency force in the world? Three main areas stand out. [Source: Peter Layton, The Diplomat, April 9, 2015]

“First, the strategic objective needs to be appropriate to the enemy being fought. For the first 22 years of the civil war the government’s strategy was to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table using military means. Indeed, this was the advice foreign experts gave as the best and only option. In 2006, just before the start of the conflict’s final phase, retired Indian Lieutenant General AS Kalkat in 2006 declared, “There is no armed resolution to the conflict. The Sri Lanka Army cannot win the war against the Lankan Tamil insurgents.”

“Indeed, the LTTE entered negotiations five times, but talks always collapsed, leaving a seemingly stronger LTTE even better placed to defeat government forces. In mid-2006, sensing victory was in its grasp, the LTTE deliberately ended the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire and initiated the so-called Eelam War IV. In response, the Sri Lankan government finally decided to change its strategic objective, from negotiating with the LTTE to annihilating it.

“To succeed, a strategy needs to take into account the adversary. In this case it needed to be relevant to the nature of the LTTE insurgency. Over the first 22 years of the civil war, the strategies of successive Sri Lankan governments did not fulfill this criterion. Eventually, in late 2005 a new government was elected that choose a different strategic objective that matched the LTTE’s principal weaknesses while negating their strengths.

“The LTTE’s principal problem was its finite manpower base. Only 12 percent of Sri Lanka’s population were Lankan Tamils and of these it was believed that only some 300,000 actively supported the LTTE. Moreover, the LTTE’s legitimacy as an organization was declining. By 2006, the LTTE relied on conscription – not volunteers – to fill its ranks and many of these were children. At the operational level some seeming strengths could also be turned against the LTTE, including its rigid command structure, a preference for fighting conventional land battles, and a deep reliance on international support.

Grand Strategy

Peter Layton wrote in The Diplomat: “Second, success requires a grand strategy. A grand strategy defines the peace sought, intelligently combines diplomacy, economics, military actions, and information operations, and considers the development of the capabilities the nation needs to succeed. The new government decided not to continue with the narrowly focused military strategies that had failed its predecessors, but rather adopt a comprehensive whole-of-nation grand strategy to guide lower-level activities. [Source: Peter Layton, The Diplomat, April 9, 2015]

“In the economic sphere, the new government decided to allocate some 4 percent of GDP to defense and increase the armed forces budget some 40 percent. This would significantly strain the nation’s limited fiscal resources so annual grants and loans of some $1 billion were sought from China to ease the burden. Other forms of financial assistance, including lines of credit for oil and arms purchases, were provided by Iran, Libya, Russia and Pakistan.

“Diplomatically, the government took steps to isolate the LTTE, which received some 60 percent of its funding and most of its military equipment from offshore. This succeeded and over time the group was banned in some 32 countries. Importantly, a close working relationship was formed with India, the only country able to meaningfully interfere with the new government’s grand strategy. The U.S. in the post-9/11 counterterrorism era also proved receptive to the government’s intentions of destroying the world’s premier suicide bomber force. America assisted by disrupting LTTE offshore military equipment procurement, sharing intelligence, providing a Coast Guard vessel, and supplying an important national naval command and control system. Canada and the European Union also came on board by outlawing the LTTE’s funding networks in their countries, severely impacting the group’s funding base.

“Internally, the government set out to gain the active support of the public. By 2006 many Sri Lankans were war weary and doubted the new government’s abilities to achieve a victory no one else could. To win popular support the government realized that development activities had to be continued, not stopped while the war was fought. Moreover, various national schemes addressing poverty needed to be sustained, a prominent example being the poor farmer fertilizer subsidy scheme. These measures made financing the war very difficult and foreign financial support important, but were essential to convincing the people that there was a peace worth fighting for. The measures worked. Before 2005, the Army had difficulty recruiting 3,000 soldiers annually; by late 2008, the Army was recruiting 3,000 soldiers a month.

The increased budgets and popular support allowed the Sri Lankan armed forces to grow significantly. The Army in particular was expanded, growing from some 120,000 personnel in 2005 to more than 200,000 by 2009.

Astute Tactics

Peter Layton wrote in The Diplomat: “Third, to meet the ends that the grand strategy seeks, the focus of the lower-level, subordinate military strategy needed to be exploiting the enemy’s weaknesses while countering its strengths. The LTTE had limited numbers of soldiers, fielding only some 20,000-30,000, and with astute tactics could be overwhelmed. In this regard, the government forces had already won a major success before Eelam War IV started in mid-2006. [Source: Peter Layton, The Diplomat, April 9, 2015]

“In late 2004, a senior LTTE military commander, Colonel Karuna, defected, bringing with him some 6,000 LTTE cadres and seriously damaging the LTTE’s support base in Eastern Sri Lankan. The mass defection provided crucial intelligence that offered deep insights into the LTTE as a fighting organization. Crucially, for the first time, the government intelligence agencies now had Lankan Tamils willing to return to LTTE-held areas, collect information, and report back. The scale of the defection also clearly showed that the legitimacy of the LTTE was waning.

“At the start of Eelam War IV, the LTTE were able to operate throughout the country. There were no safe rear areas as high-profile suicide attacks on the foreign minister, defense secretary, the Pakistani high commissioner and the army chief underlined. This capability was countered by using the enlarged armed forces and police on internal security tasks, and by developing a Civil Defence Force of armed villagers. Operations were also conducted to find and destroy LTTE terrorist cells operating within the capital and some large towns. This defense-in-depth neutralized the LTTE’s well-proven ability to undertake both leadership decapitation strikes and terrorist attacks on vulnerable civilian targets.

“These defensive measures in the south and the west of the country allowed the Sri Lankan military strategy in the north and east to be enemy-focused rather than population-centric. The primary aim there was to attack the LTTE and force them onto the defensive rather than try to protect the population from the LTTE – the conventional Western doctrine. The areas under LTTE control were accordingly attacked in multiple simultaneous operations to confuse, overload, tie down and thin out the defenders. Tactical advantage was taken of the Army’s new much greater numbers.

“In these operations, small, well-trained, highly-mobile groups proved key. These groups infiltrated behind the LTTE’s front lines attacking high-value targets, providing real-time intelligence and disrupting LTTE lines of resupply and communication. Groups down to section level were trained and authorized to call in precision air, artillery and mortar attacks on defending LTTE units. The combination of frontal and in-depth assaults meant that the LTTE forces lost their freedom of maneuver, were pinned down, and could be defeated in detail.

“The small groups included Special Forces operating deep and a distinct Sri Lankan innovation: large numbers of well-trained Special Infantry Operations Teams (SIOT) operating closer. The considerably expanded 10,000 strong Special Forces proved highly capable in attacking LTTE military leadership targets, removing very experienced commanders when they were most needed and causing considerable disruption to the inflexible hierarchical command system. Of the SIOTs, Army Chief General Fonseka, who introduced the concept, notes that: “we also fought with four-man teams… trained to operate deep in the jungle…. be self-reliant and operate independently. So a battalion had large numbers of four-man groups that allowed us to operate from wider fronts.” When Eelam War IV started there were 1500 SIOT trained troops; by 2008 there were more than 30,000.

Learning Organization

Peter Layton wrote in The Diplomat:“With enhanced training in complex jungle fighting operations, Sri Lankan solders generally became more capable, more professional, and more confident. The Army could now undertake increasingly difficult tasks day or night while maintaining a high tempo. The Army had became a ‘learning organization’ that embraced tactical level initiatives and innovations. [Source: Peter Layton, The Diplomat, April 9, 2015]

“The LTTE was unique amongst global insurgency groups in also having a capable navy that conducted two main tasks: interdiction of government coastal shipping and logistic sea transport. For interdiction operations the LTTE developed two classes of small, fast boats: fiberglass-hulled, attack craft armed with machine guns and grenade launchers, and low-profile, armored suicide boats fitted with contact-fused, large explosive charges. In Eelam War IV, sizeable clusters of some 30 attack craft and 8-10 suicide craft operated as swarms, mingling with local trawler fleets to make defense difficult. These were eventually defeated by even larger counter-swarms of 60-70 government fast attack craft that used targeting information from some 20 shore-based coastal radars coordinated through the command and control system the U.S. had provided.

“For sea transport operations the LTTE used eleven large cargo ships that would pick up military equipment purchased from around the globe, station themselves beyond the Navy’s reach some 2,000 kms from Sri Lanka and then dash in close to the coast and quickly offload to waiting LTTE trawlers. In Eelam War IV though, the Navy used three recently acquired, second-hand offshore patrol vessels (including the donated ex-U.S. Coast Guard Cutter) combined with innovative tactics and intelligence support from India and the U.S. to strike at the LTTE’s transport ships. The last ship was sunk in late 2007 more than 3,000 kilometers from Sri Lanka and close to Australia’s Cocos Islands.

“The combination of the three factors of adopting a strategic objective matched to the adversary, using a grand strategy that focused the whole-of-the-nation on this objective, and adopting an optimized, subordinate military strategy proved devastating. The LTTE was completely destroyed. The government proved able to change its strategies in response to continuing failure and win, whereas the LTTE doggedly stuck to its previously successful formula and lost.

“Some have criticized the Sri Lankan victory as only being possible because the government disregarded civilian casualties and used military force bluntly and brutally. This view correctly emphasizes that wars are by their nature cruel and violent and should not be entered into or continued lightly. However, it unhelpfully neglects critical factors and explains little. As this article has discussed, victory came to the side with the most successful strategies – even if it took the government more than 22 years to find them. In this regard, a comparison with the two other Western-led counterinsurgency wars of the period comparing soldiers and civilians killed is instructive:

Foreign Military Aid Helps the Sri Lankan Army

Jeremy Page wrote in The Times: “From a military perspective the campaign of the past two years has been such a success that it is being studied by counter-insurgency specialists around the world. Key to that was the acquisition of fighter jets and radar from China and aerial surveillance drones from Israel that allowed the air force to target the Tigers accurately. The navy played a crucial role by attacking the Tigers’ supply ships, with help from India and the US. [Source: Jeremy Page, The Times, May 19, 2009]

“In the international arena Sri Lanka outmanoeuvred the Tamil Tigers by taking advantage of counter-terrorism legislation introduced after the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. It lobbied hard to have the Tigers banned as terrorists in the US, EU, Canada and Australia, forcing those countries to crack down on their financing and arms procurement. More recently it has cultivated ties with China, Iran and other non-Western powers to counterbalance Western criticism of its conduct of the war. It also secured tacit approval for its campaign from the ruling Congress party in India, whose leader Sonia Gandhi was keen to avenge the assassination of her husband, Rajiv, by the Tigers in 1991. The result has been paralysis of the UN system, with Western governments unable to put Sri Lanka on the formal agenda of the Security Council.

Harnesssing Sinhalese Buddhist Identity to Defeat the Tamil Tigers

Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic: “To defeat” the Tamil Tigers “Buddhist Sinhalese relied on a powerful sense of communal religious identity. This identity has been embodied, in particular, by the current Sri Lankan government of Mahinda Rajapaksa and two of his brothers: the defense secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa; and the president’s most trusted adviser, Basil Rajapaksa. Together, the three brothers have marked a decisive break from previous Sri Lankan governments. Whereas the governments of the Senanayake and Bandaranaike family dynasties hailed from the relatively moderate Colombo-centric elite, the Rajapaksas are more representative of the somewhat xenophobic, semi-literate, and collectivist rural part of the Sinhalese Buddhist population. The Rajapaksas, with the full backing of the Buddhist clergy, have reconstituted something out of the Sinhalese past: an ethnically rooted dynasty, like the Buddhist kingdoms of Kandy of old, dedicated to ethno-national survival, unaccountable to the cabinet and parliament. [Source: Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, September 2009]

“Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected in 2005 to win the war outright, and he succeeded in the most brutal fashion: by abducting or killing journalists and lawyers to silence the media, even as he conducted a counterinsurgency campaign that had no moral qualms about the deaths of the thousands of Tamil civilians that the Tamil Tigers were using as human shields. Of the 70,000 people killed in the war since 1983, 10 percent, mainly civilians, were killed in the last few months of fighting in 2009.

“I was in Sri Lanka on May 18, 2009, the day the war was declared over, and the body of Prabhakaran, killed in last-ditch fighting, was displayed on television, as government forces mopped up the final few hundred yards of Tamil Tiger territory. The next morning, May 19, I drove through the southern coastal heartland of the Buddhist Sinhalese. Everywhere there were parades and flag-bedecked, horn-honking rickshaw convoys, with young men, many of them unemployed, shouting and setting off masses of firecrackers. An effigy of Prabhakaran’s body was dragged and burned. I sensed a scary and wanton boredom in these young men, as if the same crowds, under different circumstances, could be setting fire to Tamil homes, as had been done in earlier decades. I noticed that the closer I got to the ethnically mixed population center of Colombo, the fewer such demonstrations I saw.

“President Rajapaksa came to Kandy a few days later, on May 23, to receive the blessings of the chief Buddhist monks at the Temple of the Tooth for winning the war. He expressed no apologies or remorse for the victims of the war, and he promised the monks, “Our motherland will never be divided [again].” He told them that there were only two types of Sri Lankans, those who love the motherland and those who don’t. Because he conceives of the motherland as primarily Buddhist, his words carried too little magnanimity.

“The monks had acquiesced in this descent into communal intolerance. They have long enjoyed the uses of political power and hark back to a past when they were the rousing nationalist force behind Ceylonese kings. Now they could close a long historical chapter that began at the Temple of the Tooth in March 1815, when the Kandyan Convention was signed, ceding all of Ceylon to the British after the defeat of the last Kandyan king, Wickrama. British rule in Ceylon, lasting until independence in 1948, was followed by decades of communal unrest culminating in the civil war. At last, these monks could look forward to a Buddhist-run state that would have full sovereignty over the island.

“But even if the artistic grandeur of Kandy has helped form the emotional source of Buddhist nationalism, which has proved itself as bloody as other religious nationalisms, Kandy’s religious monuments also offer a much deeper lesson: the affinity — rather than the hostility — between Buddhism and Hinduism. Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka from India as part of the missionary activity of the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C. And later eras of Indian history would witness an amalgamation of Buddhist teachings into Hinduism. A few miles from Kandy, deep in the forest amid glistening fields of tea, I saw statues of the Buddha and of Hindu gods under the same roofs, together in their dusky magnificence: in dark stone vestibules at the 14th-century temples of Gadaladeniya, Lankatilake, and Embekke. At the temple of Embekke, I lifted aside a veiling Hindu tapestry to behold the Buddha. At Lankatilake, I saw the Buddha surrounded on all four sides by devales (shrines) devoted to the deities Upulvan, Saman, Vibhisana, and Skanda — of mixed Hindu, Buddhist, and Persian origin. At the Buddhist shrine of Gadaladeniya, I saw stone carvings based on the style of the Hindu empire of Vijayanagar in Andhra Pradesh, in southern India. Each of these temples “reflects the fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism,” writes SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda in Eloquence in Stone: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka (2008).

“In fact, Wickrama, the Buddhist king who was deposed by the British, became the last in a dynasty, the Nayakkars, that was South Indian and Hindu in origin; even as its members patronized Theravada Buddhism, they sought Hindu brides for their male Buddhist heirs. The British, by ending this dynasty and thus breaking the link between Buddhism and Hinduism, helped set the stage for the polarization of politics in the postcolonial era. The truth was that Theravada Buddhism, so concentrated on ethics and the release from worldly existence, was too austere for the Kandyan peasantry, who were drawn to the color and magic of the Hindu pantheon. Kandy and its forests are a monument not only to Buddhism, but to Hinduism as well. The historical and aesthetic legacy of Sri Lanka that long predates modern statehood is, in the final analysis, deeply syncretic. Only when Sri Lanka’s political leadership recognizes that legacy will communal peace be at hand — and with it the arrival of globalization and chain hotels, and the end of Kandy’s quaintness.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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