Home / Robert Farley / How Did the Sri Lankan Government Beat the LTTE?

How Did the Sri Lankan Government Beat the LTTE?


Lionel Beehner and Niels Smith duel on reasons for the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Beehner:

It was brute military force, not political dialogue or population control, which ended its brutal decades-long war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, a separatist group perhaps most notorious for popularizing the suicide bomb. The final military campaign lasted months, not years or decades. It was a gruesome finale, to be sure. The Sri Lankan government paid little heed to outside calls for preventing collateral damage. While humanitarian workers and journalists were barred from entering the war zone, as many as 20,000 civilians were killed in the crossfire and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Tamils were corralled into camps after war ended1. It was, as one journalist I spoke to in Colombo put it, ―a war without witnesses. Hearts and minds took a backseat to shock and awe.


An examination of Sri Lanka’s victory reveals the LTTE’s collapse was the result of cumulative external and internal forces, not simply the employment of ruthless new tactics. Indeed, there is little beside the ability to disregard Western criticism that distinguishes Sri Lankan tactics or brutality post-2005 from earlier eras, as the conflict was already one of the most violent and ruthless in the world. Critical blows from internal defections, loss of external funding, a global antiterrorist mindset after 9/11, and secondorder effects of the 2004 tsunami crippled the LTTE. At the same time, foreign aid, domestic politics, and external political cover from China enabled the Sri Lankan government to resume its COIN campaign from a position of strength. The combination of these factors proved decisive in the defeat of the LTTE.

To my mind Smith makes the better case, largely because Beehner doesn’t take good account of the variety of reasons why the LTTE was weakened after 2005. As Smith notes, the political protection provided by China, the tsunami, and the global clampdown on insurgent funding sources loom large. Beehner also underplays the role of defections within the Tigers, which are related to an aggressive military campaign but are hardly “shock and awe.” In any case, read if interested…

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