Tiger Blood

Two years after its brutal counterinsurgency war ended, Sri Lanka faces new questions from the international community.


At the end of May, a braided military gaggle will gather in Colombo’s swank Galidari Hotel to extract lessons from Sri Lanka’s thorough 2009 defeat of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. The seminar on "Defeating Terrorism" will lead foreign military guests through a series of helpful how-to-do-it PowerPoint presentations. Perhaps out of this forum we can expect a more secure world, and fewer 30-year-long, ethnically driven wars on small islands. Or perhaps this outcome is unlikely on both counts.

Undoubtedly, the world is a better place without the Tamil Tigers. A fearsome and cultish adversary of Sri Lanka’s always-struggling democracy, the insurgent organization very nearly brought the state to its knees over three decades of war. The Tigers blew up high-rise buildings, killed Sri Lankan President Premadasa, slew civilians, and wiped out a moderate Tamil opposition. They used children as fighters, recruited women as suicide bombers, and carved out a de facto "homeland" in the country’s north. They deployed scuba divers, submarines, shallow-water attack craft, and even light planes in devastating raids. In 2001, they destroyed 26 Sri Lankan aircraft on Colombo’s tarmac in front of startled holidaymakers. They decimated an Indian force sent to keep peace, and assassinated former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in revenge at his interfering temerity.

In 2006, under the capable political leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a galvanized Sri Lankan state and army finally pushed back hard. None pushed harder than the president’s brother. As defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa put steel in the gloves of the Sri Lankan defense forces. After years of hedging, and now under contract to build a billion dollar port in the island’s south, China came to the party with cash, arms, expertise, and diplomatic cover in the U.N. Security Council. At Sri Lanka’s request, Iran, Burma, and Libya followed up with varying packages of support. The gritty Gotabaya, a former Sri Lankan army colonel and U.S. passport-holder, shook up the officer corps, refined frontline tactics, and forged the defense forces into a unified fighting machine. Morale soared, and victory followed upon victory.

By January 2009 the army had bottled up the Tigers in a shrinking pocket on the northeast of the island, along with around 330,000 civilians. Foreign military observers I spoke with at the time continued to insist that the guerrillas were militarily unbeatable — they were just too tough and resourceful to be defeated on the field of battle. Western leaders dutifully called for restraint and reminded the warring parties of their obligations under humanitarian law. Iran supplied oil, while China supplied easy credit, easing the Sri Lanka government’s worries that material and cash-flow problems might collapse their strategy as they resisted diplomatic pressure. Sri Lanka cracked down on domestic opposition, gagged the press, and excluded foreign journalists and humanitarian workers. It assured U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that it was not using heavy weapons.

Troops fought doggedly in what was by all accounts a dreadful fight through marshland, scrub, and jungle. Artillery units pounded the Tiger front lines. By May, squeezed into an area the size of a few city blocks, Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was dead, and the few remaining Tigers were in captivity. Sri Lanka regained complete control of its coastline for the first time in close to 30 years. Officials in Colombo proclaimed that their "humanitarian rescue" of Tamil civilians was complete, and that nary a drop of innocent blood had been shed. Alone among the nations of the world, Sri Lanka had succeeded in "defeating terrorism."

So far so good. But a panel of senior international judicial experts appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in September 2010 has just come to a vastly different conclusion. In a report released this week, the U.N. panel has in effect outlined a prima facie case for war crimes. It alleges that both sides caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in just the last five months of the war. The government is blamed for a majority of the killing, as it shelled the Tigers with long-range artillery.

The report describes what it calls the "systematic shelling of hospitals" and says that the government also withheld life-saving humanitarian aid from civilians being held hostage en masse by the Tigers. It allegedly ordered the execution of most of the captured senior Tiger leadership as they surrendered. Trophy videos of the torture and killing of other battlefield captives began to leak shortly after the victory. It appears that alongside the government’s much vaunted "hostage rescue," one of the larger war crimes of this century was discreetly committed.

That the government allowed itself to stray into unlawful warfare on the cusp of victory is something of a mystery. The Tamil Tigers were a spent force. For two years, the army had driven the Tigers’ lines back steadily across the breadth of the island, without causing a grossly disproportionate loss of civilian life. It had synchronized bombardments that drove civilians away from the front lines with the dispatch of small commando teams that sowed disorder in enemy territory. Drones pinpointed Tiger artillery and hovered over columns of retreating civilians.

The Sri Lankan navy deployed new tactics to combat the Tigers’ "brown-water" capability. India and the United States shared intelligence that enabled frigates to intercept and sink a dozen merchant vessels en route to re-supply the guerrilla army. The Defense Ministry buffed up its press briefings with drone video and slick target justification presentations. Against the backdrop of the "global war on terror," a majority of nations were quietly glad that the Tigers were defeated. In a post-9/11 world, their aggressive and ingenious use of terrorist tactics in the name of national liberation, quite simply, set a bad example.

So what went wrong? The army tried with leaflets and radio bulletins to convince civilians to escape. Families, however, continued to weigh their chances of survival in favor of moving away from the front lines, rather than toward and through them. This no-brainer was helped in no small measure by the Tigers, who coaxed, assisted, and then gradually enforced the retreat of all civilians as a buffer against outright attack by the Sri Lankan army. The army made a difficult tactical problem worse when it bombarded self-declared "No-Fire Zones," killing thousands.

From around February 2009, the besieged pocket shrank until there was simply no room left. The Tigers’ lines converged, funneling hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians onto a sandspit the size of New York City’s Central Park. The army continued to bombard the bedraggled guerrilla lines that now backed onto civilian tents. Army incursions clawed tens of thousands of civilians from the siege zone, but with many "hostages" killed.

Since the war ended in May 2009, life has improved immeasurably for a majority of Sri Lankans, predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists who support President Rajapaksa. The government delivered a decisive victory, but whether it has delivered a durable peace, let alone any measure of justice to its Tamil minority, is quite another question. The release of the U.N. report is a "Srebrenica moment" for Sri Lanka, as the pieces of the crime scene fall into place. The same is true for humankind at large. What really happened in 2009, and will there be a war crimes tribunal for Sri Lanka?

The Tamil Tigers and their quarter-century fight were a direct result of anti-Tamil pogroms in 1983 that killed thousands. Modern counterinsurgency doctrine tries to win over a contended population, and to separate guerrillas from their constituents by delivering meaningful security and a better deal. Sri Lanka did things rather differently, and is touting its model of counterinsurgency without factoring in the true cost to civilian life or acknowledging that such brutality is hardly a formula for long-term peace. It is unlikely that the real price of the "Sri Lanka solution" will be on the agenda of the meeting in Colombo this May. The opinion of the U.N. panel is that the sheer scale of alleged crimes constitutes "a grave assault on the entire regime of international law." Hardly a formula for success.

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