Sri Lanka’s main strength is on the internal front, its main vulnerability is external. The LTTE’s main weakness is on the internal front, its main strength is increasingly on the external front. This is evident when one contrasts the progress of the Sri Lankan armed forces with the success of the Pongu Thamil demonstrations in the West. Paradoxically, the democratic Sri Lankan state is doing better than the terrorist militarist Tigers in the domain of "hard power", while the militarist Tigers are doing well in that of "soft power".
As they do badly on the military front, the latent strength of the LTTE is increasingly becoming manifest and is being thrown on to the scales in a desperate gamble. That is the soft power of the dominant pro-secessionist stream of the Tamil Diaspora, the LTTE’s global rearguard and reserve.
In general, the internal factor is more important than the external. As the Sikh and Chechen insurgencies were defeated on the ground – by military and political means – the strong support for them among Diaspora communities in the West proved irrelevant and withered. However, every rule has its exceptions, and in 1987 Sri Lanka, a vulnerable island, experienced the importance of the external over the internal. That balance was righted in 1990, but Prabhakaran had lived to fight another decade.
While Tamil Nadu is a demographic and geopolitical given, the Tamil Diaspora is of course a Sinhala extremist creation. It is the direct product of the anti-Tamil riots of 1958 and 1983. If not for those attacks, the Tamil middle and upper middle classes would not have wished to migrate and the doors of the West would not have been opened for them. The success of the anti-Lankan lobbying by the Tamil Diaspora resides in the social character and insertion of that Diaspora. It is not that the Sri Lankan Sinhala Diaspora has no sophisticated strata drawn from the professional elite. It is that this component is either alienated by national dynamics or the dynamics within the Sinhala Diaspora, and is thus de-motivated or de-mobilized, while their Tamil counterparts are motivated by the bitter experiences that drove them from their original homeland.
The loss of the Sea Tiger base at Vidathalthivu to Brigadier Shavi de Silva’s men, is a strategic blow to the LTTE, and gives credence to the claim that we are now entering the end phase of the conventional war between the Sri Lankan state and the separatist terrorist army. To borrow the celebrated phraseology of Winston Churchill, we are not at the end of the end, but nor are we at the end of the beginning. We are at the beginning of the end. The markers of victory of this stage of the war would be the disintegration of the main-force units of the LTTE, the reunification of the country’s territory, and as in the case of the defeat of the JVP insurgency, the elimination of the historic leadership of the Tigers.
Prabhakaran’s strategy at this stage is predictable. He would hope to draw the SLA into a meat-grinder on his home turf, while seeking out the gaps in the disposition of our forces so as to launch one or more counterattacks, thereby reversing the tides of war. That would be his best case scenario, while his fallback option would be to break up into small units, abandon territory and revert to classic guerrilla warfare.
The war would then revert to a low intensity conflict. Colombia’s war is regarded in the international media to have gone on for forty years, ten more than the Sri Lankan, but students of the conflict know that Manuel Marulanda, the founder leader of FARC, who died recently of natural causes, took up arms even before the Cuban revolution. Similarly, the twin insurgencies in the Philippines, those of the CPP-NPA and the Moros of Mindanao have been ongoing for four and three decades respectively. The lesson is that some insurgencies are more durable and intractable than others. Yet, they are manageable.
The experienced, well trained and motivated Sri Lankan military brass will obviously anticipate Prabhakaran’s thinking and already seems to have done so. The danger zone lies beyond what one can expect of the military. That is in anticipating and countering the non-military, yet utterly strategic, aspects of Prabhakaran’s thinking and planning.
Any human being naturally tends to repeat what has proven successful for him, and when under pressure Prabhakaran has historically been successful in three non-military moves: (i) provoking Sinhalese extremists into attacks on Tamil civilians (ii) lobbying Tamil Nadu to widen the gap between Delhi and Colombo and (iii) escaping through the gap between the two democracies, Sri Lanka and India.
For some time, he has not been successful in repeating the first success, i.e. racist attacks on Tamil civilians, but that does not mean he will not try his utmost, and this the State must be vigilant against, ready to crack down at the slightest sign, from whichever quarter that sign emanates.
He may be obtaining more success in manipulating Tamil Nadu opinion and therefore Indian politics. An editorial of the pro-Tiger Sudar Oli clearly reveals the LTTE leadership’s hope that elections in the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies, the USA and India, will open up space for the Tigers which they hope to manipulate and maneuver in.
Prabhakaran thus hopes to hold on militarily in his home base – or at worst, retreat into the jungle and wage protracted guerrilla warfare -- until the external situation changes in what he hopes will be his favor or at least against the Sri Lankan side. He is counting on the external outweighing the internal and "soft power" factors such as public opinion compensating for the erosion of "hard power".
He has escaped military defeat not once but twice, using this factor. The first time was in Vadamaarachchi in 1987, and the second was a year later in late 1988, when he used the gap between Delhi and Colombo over the tardiness of devolution (the latter was battling an anti-devolution insurgency) and the incentive of the Tamil Nadu vote with an election imminent, to prevent the IPKF Para Commandos from going in for the kill once they had encircled his base complex.
What is puzzling is why we – by which I mean some Sinhalese elements who profess to be anti-LTTE -- are behaving in such a manner as to assist Prabhakaran to escape the trap that he is in.
While the Sri Lankan state, government, leadership (President Rajapakse) and ruling party (the SLFP), are clearly conscious unlike the UNP government of the 1980s, of the imperative for excellent relations with India, the same ideological and social forces who waged an anti-Indian, anti-devolution struggle in the ’80s and thereby provided Prabhakaran with an opportunity of escaping firstly the Sri Lankan and then the Indian armed forces, are active today, albeit split into three formations.
Some criticize the presence of Indian security units at the SAARC summit, forgetting that their presence reduces the risk and enhances the cost of an LTTE hit, and that if they were not present, the Sri Lankan armed forces would have to be diverted for the task.
Others oppose Indo-Lanka economic ties, oblivious to the advantage gained by links with one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and the strategic benefits of giving India an economic incentive or stake in Sri Lanka, to offset even slightly, the anti-Lanka weight of the Tamil Nadu factor.
Still others scratch at the scab of old wounds, such as Indian training of Tamil militants, again forgetting that it was at least in part a self-inflicted wound, insofar as July ’83 provided the cause or catalyst for that policy.
Some hallucinate that China or Pakistan can be played off against India, unaware of Pakistan’s current preoccupations and China and India’s rapidly growing economic ties as well as their determination not to fall victim to the game of some extra-regional powers to pit one against the other.
Voices are raised against devolution while the war is on, and oppose the full implementation of the 13th amendment, ignorant of the fact that we can create the political space to win the war without interference or external support to the LTTE, only if we are seen, at the least, to fully and speedily re-flate and re-float Provincial autonomy.
Then there are those who are generating religious intolerance and hostility (the most recent being an attack on a Sri Lankan Burgher pastor and his family), oblivious to the fact that there are 18 million Evangelicals in the USA, the world’s sole superpower, constituting a well-organized and decisive force which both US Presidential candidates are busily wooing.
It is one thing to avoid being a puppet or doormat of the West, robustly support the platform of the Non-aligned Movement, cultivate excellent relations with Russia and China (who vetoed the resolution against Zimbabwe in the Security Council recently), reach out to emerging new centers of power and influence, and deepen our Asian identity while strengthening especially, relations with our neighbors. It is another to lash out in all directions on issues and against countries or cultures, where we will have no support from anyone (including in the Non-Aligned Movement) and succeed only in isolating ourselves.
(These are the personal views of the writer)