Tamil secessionist insurrection and counterinsurgency in Sri Lanka, 1977-1994: an analysis of government policies

  • Jagath P Senaratne

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The mutually hostile historical and political ethno-nationalist projects of the Sinhalese and the Sri Lanka Tamils, and, the fierce competition for resources have combined to produce an intense ethno-nationalist conflict in Sri Lanka. By the mid-1950s the animosity between the two major ethnic groups had begun to manifest itself in ethnic violence. By the early 1970s the Tamil Secessionist insurrection began at a relatively low level of violence. The United National Party (UNP) won the general elections of July 1977 and became the governing party of the country. In July 1983 occurred a destructive anti-Tamil pogrom-riot. After that the Tamil insurrection escalated to a high level of intensity from which it did not reduce except for brief periods when ceasefires were in effect. Up to the year 1987 five Tamil guerilla groups were active. After July 1987 the secessionist insurrection was prosecuted only by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As a consequence of the pogrom-riots Tamil Nadu and the Indian central government insisted on intervening in the Sri Lankan conflict. The Indian central government's stated policy was that it did not want a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lanka Tamils and others in Tamil Nadu lobbied for India to intervene and partition Sri Lanka.

    During the 17 year period from 1977 to 1994, two UNP governments ruled Sri Lanka. The first under President Jayewardene, from 1977 to end-1988, and the second under President Premadasa from January 1989 onwards (Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE in May 1993). A caretaker President governed till November 1994 when the UNP was voted out of office. Up till that time, this 17-year period was the longest single period that any political party or coalition had governed Sri Lanka.

    These 17 years can be divided into three clear phases, each separated by very clear and dramatic breaks from the other. The first phase is from the UNP’s election victory in 1977 to the pogrom-riots of July 1983. The second is from the pogrom-riots to the exit of the Indian army from Sri Lanka in March 1990. The third is from the re-ignition of the Secessionist insurrection by the LTTE (the main secessionist group) in June 1990 till November 1994 when the UNP lost both parliamentary and presidential elections and therefore ceased to be the counterinsurgent. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 deal with these three periods in chronological order.

    The objective of this Thesis is to analyse the efforts by the UNP government of Sri Lanka to counter the Tamil secessionist insurrection during these 17 years. The analytical framework utilised for this task is grounded in counterinsurgency doctrine which spans approximately 50 years from work pioneered in the 1960s to the most recent US and British Army doctrine. After obtaining insights from this literature seven research questions were identified by the present author. The counterinsurgency campaigns of the Sri Lanka government 1977-1994 are analysed using these seven research questions.

    Our analytical work is deeply complicated, however, by the fact that in the second of the above two phases, i.e. die phase dealt-with in Chapter 4, the Indian central government was a central player in the process. Eventually in July 1987, India used pressure on both the Sri Lanka government and the Tamil secessionists to arrive at an Agreement called the Indo-Lanka Accord. However, that could not be implemented and eventually the Indian forces left Sri Lanka in March 1990, and the secessionist insurrection resumed with the LTTE fighting the Sri Lanka government. In the other two phases too, i.e. Chapters 3 and 5, the picture is not straightforward as President Jayewardene made massive mistakes by tacitly facilitating the pogrom-riots and in the period after June 1990 President Premadasa is faced with enemies from within his government and also revealed that he was at a loss as to what strategy could defeat the LTTE.

    Furthermore the three main counterinsurgents - President Jayewardene, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Premadasa - made serious errors of judgment (especially of the LTTE) and also on many occasions worked at cross purposes with one another. In the case of the errors on the LTTE, ex-Prime Minister Gandhi and President Premadasa paid for them with their lives. Working at cross purposes was, in a sense, inevitable when the Indian central government gave sanctuary and military training to Tamil insurgents. And also - as can be seen when the Indo-Lanka Accord, its Annexures and Letters are examined - India wanted to obtain geopolitical advantages over Sri Lanka. These matters had no direct connection whatsoever to the Tamil insurrection.

    By 1994 it could be stated that neither the Sri Lanka government nor the LTTE had won conclusively A situation akin to a stalemate existed but the advantage was with the LTTE, when compared to the situation in 977: it controlled large swathes of land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and at least 300,000+ Tamil civilians. The LTTE's increase in military capability in a period of ten years (1984-1994) is very clear when its main attack of 1983 (when it ambushed and killed 13 soldiers) is compared to 1993 (when it attacked a large Army-cum-Navy base in Pooneryn and killed at least 650 military personnel and stole truckloads of weapons and ammunition).

    This being said, however, the Sri Lankan government doggedly hung on and refused to cave-in and allow the country to be partitioned. Something akin to a stalemate existed at the end of 1994 at which point the UNP was ejected from government by the voters.
    Date of Award2014
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Northampton
    SupervisorIan F W Beckett (Supervisor) & Jim Beach (Supervisor)

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