The fall of Kilinochchi

The conflict in Sri Lanka has made it into the international news once more. The occasion is the recapture by the government of Sri Lanka of the town of Kilinochchi which served as the capital city of the territory once controlled by the LTTE.

What does this mean concerning a solution to the conflict? Again, I will disavow any claims to authority and just give the impressions and interpretations of an American citizen reading the Sri Lankan newspapers (mostly online) daily. There are no independent journalists in the conflict zone, so what appears in the news is heavily colored by being based on either press releases of the government of Sri Lanka or by the LTTE and their political allies. So what follows is my attempt to read between the lines.

LTTE controlled regions

LTTE controlled regions

It helps to have a map. To the right is an enlarged section of the map of Sri Lanka. When we arrived in October, 2008, the LTTE controlled the territory outlined by the blue line. As of today, January 6, 2009, the LTTE controlled region has shrunk to the region enclosed within the purple line.

Map of Sri Lanka

Map of Sri Lanka

Below is a map of all of Sri Lanka. The green box in this map is the region of Sri Lanka that is shown enlarged in the upper map. Keep in mind that Sri Lanka as a whole is about the same area as the state of West Virginia.

The message of the map is that the area under the control of the LTTE has shrunk to a tiny portion of Sri Lanka. There is only one large town remaining under their control and that is Mullaitivu on the northeast coast and that is under siege already.

Following the news, it appears that the Sri Lankan Army has made very good use of its numerical superiority. They have used their larger numbers to contain any attempts at counter-attack and, rather than attacking built-up areas directly, they have used the technique of bypassing strong points. This eventually leads to a situation where the defenders of the strong points must choose between being surrounded or retreating. For its part, the LTTE has always chosen to retreat in these situations. The LTTE attempts to use the fact that the strong point is therefore empty when the Sri Lankan Army finally does enter as a propaganda point (“They just captured an empty town.”) but their loss is no less real as a result. The real battlefield victory recently was not Kilinochchi, but the town to the north, Paranthan. The capture of the Paranthan junction of the A9 highway led to the LTTE abandoning Kilinochchi and, as is being reported this morning, Elephant Pass, thus ceding the entire isthmus leading to the city of Jaffna to the Sri Lankan Army.

So one question is, how soon will it be before the LTTE controls no territory? Based on recent events, it would seem that the answer would be measured in weeks, rather than months. Two things indicate it might take longer than recent events indicate. First, the LTTE has managed, so far, to retreat in good order and have not succumbed to the temptation to make some suicidal last stand. Second, despite being internationally outlawed as a terrorist organization, despite the fact that the Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian Navy are doing their best to prevent arms from reaching the LTTE, there is, as yet, no evidence that the LTTE is running out of ammunition or weapons. As their security perimeter contracts, they will have the advantage of defending a smaller area, though the terrain limits that advantage somewhat. But in all, it does not seem plausible at this point that the LTTE will control any territory at all much past the end of this month.

A story that has been flying under the radar is the plight of the civilians under LTTE control. The government controlled newspaper, The Daily  News, eagerly reports news of civilians who leave LTTE controlled areas. But these reports have been coming in only dribs and drabs. When the Army entered Kilinochchi, it was evidently deserted of LTTE fighters but also the civilians who lived there. Estimates are that as many as 200,000 people are living in LTTE controlled territory. With that territory shrinking, the possibility of a humanitarian disaster looms.

This is an advantage for the LTTE. Whether, as the government  claims, the LTTE are holding the civilians hostage, or, as the LTTE claims, its citizens are fighting for their independence, the LTTE is hoping that the outside world, particularly India, will intervene and stop the Sri Lankan Army offensive to avoid a possibly large loss of life. The Tamils of Sri Lanka have strong support in the bordering Indian state of Tamil Nadu and politicians in Tamil Nadu are pressuring the Indian government to put a stop to the Sri Lankan offensive, going so far as to label it “genocide.” But, in what may be the biggest strategic blunder I have ever heard of, the LTTE assasinated Rajiv Gandhi, former prime minister of India in 1991. The current ruling party in India is the party that Gandhi headed and so the Indian government has pretty much turned a deaf ear to the pleas of the politicians  in Tamil Nadu, even arresting anyone openly supporting the LTTE, which is officially banned as a terrorist organization. The recent attacks on Mumbai, though not carried out by the LTTE, also did not help the LTTE, since the Indian government wants to be seen as being strongly against terrorism no matter what the cause. The US and the EU is supporting Sri Lanka as an ally in the “war on terror” despite currently very frosty relations. No other major world power has an interest, so it is unlikely that the LTTE’s hopes for outside intervention will be realized. That leaves the fate of the 200,000 civilians in the hands of the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE. What happens to those civilians is important. Large numbers of civilian casualities would likely fuel more support for the LTTE in the future.

But the bigger question is, what happens to the conflict once the LTTE no longer controls any territory? Not controlling any territory will surely be a blow to the LTTE. They will lose the ability to tax civilians. They will lose access to food from humanitarian organizations. They will lose credibility in that they will cease to appear  as a potentially legitimate government of a separate state in northern Sri Lanka. Having a safe haven as a staging ground for attacks and to stockpile arms is a decided advantage to any army. On the other hand, the LTTE seems to still have many supporters, both in Tamil Nadu and in the Sri Lankan diaspora. I’ve heard the statistic that one in twenty Sri Lankans now live abroad and everyone we have met has relatives in the US or the UK or the MidEast, or Australia. Tamils make up a large fraction of the diaspora and, despite the LTTE being outlawed in all of these countries, Sri Lankans abroad have provided money and material support for the LTTE in the past. This support does not seem to be ending. The LTTE began as guerrilla fighters and there seems to be no indication that they cannot return to this mode of operation. So the common wisdom here is that the government regaining the areas controlled by the LTTE will not, by itself, put a stop to the conflict. Some go so far as to say it will just make the conflict worse, in that a guerrilla war will be fought throughout the country and not just be largely confined to the north.

To put a stop to the conflict, the Sri Lankan government faces the same problem as Israel has with the Palestinians or the Turks with the Kurds, or insert your favorite insurgency here. The West counsels dealing with the legitimate issues of the minorities and to create jobs and development in minority regions to create a middle class invested in the peace process. Pressured by India and the West, the government of Sri Lanka is saying all the right words now. Also, they are having a kind of practice run right now as they try to bring the eastern portion of Sri Lanka, once controlled by the LTTE, back into the fold. A former LTTE commander is now the leader in the Eastern Province and is even a Minister in Sri Lanka’s Parliament. The government will try something similar in the north, and are promising free and fair elections within six months of the fall of Mullaitivu.

Optimists hope the end of the offensive brings peace, pessimists are convinced there will be no end to the conflict. Let us all pray that somehow Sri Lankans can find a path to peace.




  1. Charles said,

    January 7, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    Tim, what’s happening in Sri Lanka is a tragedy. This mindless war has taken the lives of thousands of young boys and girls, and it reflects a failure on the part of our politicians and their lack of vision. The island’s first Prime Minister, Mr. D.S.Senanayake in 1949 compared Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) with its four communities to a Muslim gentleman with four wives, all of whom must be treated with equal kindness. Poor D.S – he must be stirring in his ashes now, given the present situation. Capturing Kilinochchi is not the end of the island’s problems. There is a Greek saying: “Beware what you want in life: you may get it”. War is cruel, especially to the very poor and under-privileged: those people without a voice, those who do not leave any shadows. While children ought to be burying their parents, in many parts of the island, parents are burying/cremating their children because of the war. The measure of a civilization is the way it treats those it disagrees with. Despite our long history and the influence of two great religions (Buddhism and Hinduism), we are unable to resolve our differences in a civilized manner. Our conflict is similar to the fight of two bald-headed men for a piece of comb. So, we need to promote initiatives that would bring about an end to this madness and restore lasting peace. Otherwise, Sri Lanka will be like that ugly girl at the ball: no hope and no chance. The road to hell is lined by signs reading: “It seemed like a good idea at that time”. There is no military solution to our problems. Today our country has an army; tomorrow the army may have a country.

  2. March 9, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    […] good for Minister Mahinda Wijesekara. As I mentioned once before, the government is saying all the right things these days. As in any political process, the tough […]

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