February 6, 2009:
After 26 years and over 80,000 dead, the Sri Lankan civil war is just about ended. Sixteen months ago, the LTTE separatist rebels still had a population of nearly 500,000 Tamils under its control in the north (out of a total Sri Lankan population of 20 million). Now, there are only about 200,000 Tamils still in only 300 square kilometers of LTTE controlled territory. In that small area, some 50,000 Sri Lankan troops are seeking out a few thousand armed LTTE fighters, many of them recently conscripted teenagers.
There are about 3.5 million Tamils (whose ancestors came from southern India) on the island. Most are tired of the violence, so the LTTE has had to use increasing amounts of force to maintain control of the Tamil population. After three years of a ceasefire (during which 130 people died in combat anyway), and failed peace negotiations, the fighting resumed four years ago. Since then the 220,000 man Sri Lankan army has lost about three thousand dead, while the LTTE has lost over 15,000 dead, and more than 10,000 fighters who surrendered, were captured or deserted. The army suffered even more desertions, but has been able to replace them. Because of declining popular support, the LTTE has had a harder time recruiting. Many, if not most, of their new troops are young teenagers, enticed or coerced into joining. Two years ago the LTTE was believed to have about 7,000 people under arms full time. They tried to mobilize another 30,000 fighters from among the population they controlled. The rapidly mobilized fighters proved to be much less reliable, many of them avoiding conscription and putting up little effective resistance to the battle hardened army. The LTTE has increasingly been using coercion to maintain support from Tamils, and has been known to shoot their own fighters to prevent or discourage desertion. This, in the end, didn't work.
The big problem for the LTTE was the loss of over 5,000 fighters, and control of over a million civilians, in eastern Sri Lanka two years ago. Large quantities (over 10,000 rifles, and many tons of artillery shells, grenades of explosives) of weapons were lost. There were still stockpiles in the north, but not enough to arm over 30,000 mobilized civilians. The civilians up north got training in how to use rifles, and basic military techniques. But without weapons, a lot of the mobilized civilians could only help by carrying ammo and other supplies for those who are armed, and digging fortifications.
The LTTE "Sea Tigers" used to make suicide boat attacks against the Sri Lankan navy, and supervise the smuggling of weapons and ammo into LTTE territory. Two years ago, the LTTE had over fifty speed boats and at least a dozen smuggling boats (often rigged to look like fishing boats), plus some larger ships. The smugglers try to mix in with the hundreds of Indian fishing boats that operate off Sri Lanka each day. But the Sri Lankan nave got better at detecting these efforts, and by a year ago, most of the LTTE boats were discovered and sunk.
The Sri Lankan Air Force acquired a dozen Israeli Kfir and Russian MiG-27 fighter-bombers, and these went after key targets deep in LTTE controlled territory. New reconnaissance aircraft and more patrol boats for the navy enabled the government to isolate the LTTE and cut off their supplies.
The destruction of the LTTE army, still leaves many LTTE terrorists and Tamils willing to continue fighting as guerillas. The Tamil population is still unhappy with the Sinhalese majority (and vice versa). In the two years that eastern Sri Lanka, and its Tamil majority, has been back under government control, there has been constant terrorist and guerilla violence. Much of this is between pro and anti LTTE Tamil factions. In the north, similar violence can be expected, along with attacks on government targets and non-Tamils. There is also a Moslem minority that has always attracted a lot of LTTE violence. This points up another source of conflict. The Sinhalese are Buddhist, while the Tamils are Hindu. Thus religion has also been the source of some violence (even though the LTTE is non-religious). Finally, the LTTE built up a fund raising operation that collected, and sometimes extorted, large amounts of cash from Tamil expatriates in the West. At its peak, this was taking in over $200 million a year. But the host nations for these Tamil migrants have cracked down on the Tamil fund raisers, but not eliminated them. So any continued LTTE resistance in Sri Lanka will still have millions of dollars a year to pay for terrorism and guerilla operations in Sri Lanka.
So the war may be over, but the violence isn't.