A Costly Victory in Sri Lanka

Writing in The Atlantic, Robert Kaplan offers an awfully grim retrospective on how Sri Lanka won its 26-year war against the Tamil Tigers.

Though it was only a one-day news story in the United States, a momentous event occurred last spring, with worldwide military significance. After 26 years of heavy fighting, the Sri Lankan government decisively defeated an ethnic insurgency, killing all of its top leadership, whose bodies were displayed on national television. Massive victory parades followed.

The Tamil Tigers were no ordinary insurgency. Built on the ethnic hatred of the minority Hindu Tamils against the majority Sinhalese Buddhists, the movement was among the best organized and most ruthless to have emerged anywhere since the Second World War. The Tigers boasted their own air force and navy to go along with their unconventional ground troops. They helped pioneer the use of suicide bombers. (Recall that it was a female Tiger suicide bomber who killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.) They regularly embedded their fighters among noncombatants, using them as human shields. In other words, they were as organized and heartless as any insurgent group in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Tamil Tigers, moreover, had a brilliant, charismatic leader by the name of Vellupilai Prabakharan, who was venerated by many ethnic Hindu Tamils to the same extent that radical Muslims have venerated Osama bin Laden. His following was cult-like and was largely responsible for the war that killed 70,000 people since 1983, in an island of only 22 million people. Compare that to the deaths of 3,000 in the World Trade Center out of a population of 300 million in the United States. So when the Sri Lankan government displayed Prabakharan’s body on television last May, it represented the culmination of a counterinsurgency campaign that the U.S. could only dream about….

The war was won using techniques like the following, which the United States could and should never employ.

The insurgents are using human shields? No problem. Just keep killing the innocent bystanders until you get to the fighters themselves.… The Sri Lankan military indiscriminately killed large numbers of civilians—as many as 20,000 in the final months of fighting, according to the United Nations.

Bad media coverage is hurting morale and giving succor to the enemy? Just kill the journalists.… No journalist I met in Colombo was willing to cross the line and publicly attack the government.

The international community disapproves of your methods and cuts off military aid because of the human rights violations you’ve committed? Again, no problem. Get aid from China, whose assistance comes without moral lectures. That’s just what the Sri Lankan Government did. In return, the Chinese got the right to help construct a deep water port in Sri Lanka, close to world shipping lanes….

via RealClearPolitics

Kaplan adds a few other harsh observations in an interview with Michael J. Totten.

The Sri Lankan government was elected in 2005 to win the war. And it has done that. Extremely brutally. It’s a government that’s very nationalist Sinhalese Buddhist. These are not the Richard Gere’s “peace and love” Buddhists. These are the real blood and soil Buddhists, where Buddhism is like any other religion when it’s threatened and it’s defending a piece of territory. It can be very brutal….

In Sri Lanka you have a majority Sinhalese Buddhist population that thinks like a minority. They have a minority sense of oppression. Although they have 75 percent of the population while the Tamils have only about 18 percent, there are 60 million more Tamils nearby in southern India. So they’re kind of like the Iraqi Shias and the Serbs, other majorities who feel like minorities, and can be twice as brutal because of it.

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Filed under India, nationalism, religion, Sri Lanka, war

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