Defying Darkness: Sri Lanka’s 15-Year Victory Over Terror

When a bullet was put through megalomaniac Velupillai Prabhakaran’s head on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on the morning of May 19, 2009, the terrorist movement’s fate was sealed.

12 mins read
Sri Lankan military supporting the wounded civilians during the conflict in North [Photo Credit: Sri Lanka Army]

Sri Lanka brought the war against separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to a successful conclusion on May 19, 2009 – fifteen years ago.

The New Delhi-sponsored group, that turned its guns on the Indian Army during the latter’s deployment in the Northern and Eastern regions here (July 1987 to March 1990) was once considered invincible by its covert and overt backers, until then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s Army brought back Kilinochchi under government control in the first week of January 2009.

The recapture and military consolidation of the Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi stretch of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, in a matter of days, effectively restricted the LTTE to the Mullaithivu district. Once highly mobile conventional LTTE units were trapped as several Army fighting formations closed in on them from all directions.

Within months what had been once considered to be impossible for the Sri Lankan military to defeat the conventional military power of the LTTE, was reduced to tatters. That wouldn’t have been possible if not for the unprecedented parallel success achieved by Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda’s Navy in the high seas, destroying much of the LTTE floating arsenal, while Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke’s Air Force, too, proved its superiority by speedily supplying urgent military needs, while evacuating casualties from whatever battlefront, as well as engaging LTTE targets from the air based on specific intelligence deep inside enemy run territory.

When a bullet was put through megalomaniac Velupillai Prabhakaran’s head on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on the morning of May 19, 2009, the terrorist movement’s fate was sealed.

Unfortunately, as we are about to celebrate Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism 15 years ago, various interested parties continue to cause turmoil here. The issues at hand cannot be discussed without taking into consideration the presidential polls scheduled for later this year.

Never again

One-time Norwegian International Development Minister Erik Solheim, who previously spearheaded the catastrophic and sham Norwegian peace effort here, is back. The 69-year-old former politician is President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s advisor on climate change. Although we will not go to the extent of finding fault with the President for appointing Solheim as his climate advisor, but the latter shouldn’t be allowed to get involved in local politics ever again for the simple reason Norwegians were never the honest broker of peace here. Haven’t we learnt enough from their duplicitous behaviour in the recent past just as our naive forefathers learnt the hard way the vile ways of colonial powers after inviting one after another from Portuguese to Dutch and then the British?

And this country is certainly not the inheritance of President Wickremesinghe to do any more dangerous experiments with crafty pale faces the way he blindly signed a one sided peace agreement with the LTTE, prepared by the Norwegians.

Solheim himself couldn’t have forgotten, under any circumstances, what far right extremist Anders Breivik, who had been influenced by the LTTE, did in July 2011. The Norwegian diplomat’s son murdered 77 persons, mostly children in two attacks carried out within hours.

The writer dealt with Solheim’s recent declarations regarding post-war Sri Lanka ahead of Norwegian Ambassador May-Elin Stener’s visit to the North where she met Northern Province Governor P.S.M. Charles. Stener met Charles on May 6 whereas Solheim held talks with her on April 30 in Jaffna. It was Soheim’s second meet with Charles since he received appointment as President Wickremesinghe’s climate advisor renewing old friendship. In the fresh avatar they first met in Colombo on Nov 20, 2023.

Against the backdrop of Norwegian Ambassador Stener meeting JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa in Colombo, it would be pertinent to also discuss the possibility of Norway eyeing a larger role here once again. Those who represent the interests of Western powers sometimes operate in not so mysterious ways knowing how gullible some of our leaders are on seeing white skins. Perhaps, Solheim is an exception. The international news agencies reported how Solheim, in his capacity as the UN environmental chief, promoted the China-led Belt and Road initiative as well as Chinese investments in Africa. Solheim should be able to explain the circumstances he threw his weight behind China, when the West in general is so hostile to Beijing.

Amidst that controversy, the Norwegian was compelled to resign several years ago following serious allegations of him squandering funds on overseas travel. The UN found itself in an untenable situation when some countries withheld funds for the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) in a bid to pressure the global organization. So, Solheim’s latest project here seems somewhat surprising and questionable. What Solheim really wants or whom he is now working for are two issues that needed to be addressed by the powers that be.

An expert opinion

Solheim’s latest foray should be analysed meticulously taking into consideration the crucial presidential polls, the first national election after the change of government through unconstitutional means in 2022. Does Solheim still believe that he could play a role in consensus building among Tamil political parties?

Eyebrows were raised when Solheim recently met EPDP leader Douglas Devananda who is also the Fisheries Minister.

But let me repeat author of ‘To End a Civil War’ Mark Salter’s response to my last week’s piece ‘Solheim is back’ published on May 8, 2024, edition of The Island. Salter, who began as a radio journalist for the BBC, subsequently specialised in Central European, West African and most recently South Asian affairs. Salter launched ‘To End a Civil War’ – a detailed description of the Norwegian peace role here in Colombo in early March 2016. Salter’s narrative should be examined, taking into consideration ‘Evaluation of Norwegian Peace Efforts in Sri Lanka (1997 -2009)’ produced by a team consisting of Gunnar M. Sørbø, Jonathan Goodhand, Bart Klem, Ada Elisabeth Nissen and Hilde Selbervik.

Salter found fault with the writer for not paying sufficient attention to what he called factual details. Pointing out the failure on the part of the writer to properly deal with the process leading up to the CFA, its aims and objective, etc., Salter countered the following assertions:

(a) “There is no doubt Solheim was one of those ill-advised diplomats or a deliberate hatchet man, who repeated their mantra that the LTTE couldn’t be militarily defeated.”

Simply not true – and in fact tendentious in its description of Solheim, whose views on the military balance at this point were derived chiefly from discussions with Delhi at this early point. Multiple evidence from the time indicates that the view that ‘the LTTE couldn’t be militarily defeated’ was essentially the view of, for example, both the Sri Lankan and Indian governments (Later is a different matter). This conclusion being chiefly based on readings of the prevailing military situation in the Vanni.

Adherence to this reading of the situation was a key factor in bringing the GoSL – in particular CBK and Kadirgamar – around to the idea of seeking facilitated talks with the LTTE.

(b) “The CFA was meant to create a separate region under LTTE control in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.”

There’s a straight confusion here. The CFA was not intended to create anything in a territorial sense. It simply sought to provide an agreed territorial basis for the ceasefire. LTTE control over the N&E was achieved via earlier LTTE military gains – not the CFA.

(c) The LTTE always had its way until President Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to put an end to the separatist terrorism.

Evidence to back this claim? The Lankan military retaking Jaffna 1995, for example: is that an example of the LTTE ‘always having its way’? Overall – and as often – these are the kinds of loose generalizations that I feel skew your whole approach.

Let me explain my stand on the above matters towards the end of this piece.

On May 2, the media received an email from the EPDP Office. Titled an urgent meet, the two-page statement in Sinhala, sent by EPDP leader Douglas Devananda’s longstanding Media Secretary, Nelson Edirisinghe, disclosed the Fisheries Minister meeting Solheim at the Colombo Hilton.

Edirisinghe, who had been with Devananda in the days he carried weapons, without hesitation revealed that the meeting was meant to discuss the current political situation. Why on earth the leader of a political party discuss current political situation with the President’s climate advisor?

The EPDP contested the last parliamentary polls, conducted in August 2020, on its own. It won two seats – one in Jaffna and another in Vanni. However, the EPDP accepted Cabinet portfolio from ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The EPDP continues to retain the Fisheries portfolio and recently declared its support to President Wickremesinghe’s candidature at the next presidential poll.

Devananda-Solheim meet

The EPDP statement declared its decision to go with President Wickremesinghe at the presidential poll.

This was the day after Devananda appeared with war-winning President and SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa on their May Day stage at the Campbell Park. Interesting. Isn’t it?

Let me stress in point form what Devananda told President Wickremesinhe’s advisor Solheim:

(1) President Wickremesinghe is the only leader capable of successfully overcoming political and economic challenges experienced by Sri Lanka (2) Wickremesinghe has received international recognition (3) The incumbent President is committed to properly addressing problems faced by the Tamil speaking people (4) reminded Solheim how he (DD) warned the then Norwegian International Development Minister, 28 years ago, that peace couldn’t be achieved through violence (5) Wickremesinghe’s continuation as President would be beneficial to the Tamil speaking community as well as all other communities (6) Under Wickremesinghe’s leadership, the country could achieve rapid development.

Finally, Minister Devananda asked Solheim’s intervention with the Norwegian government on behalf of the fishing community here. MP Himanshu Gulati (Progress Party), son of Indian migrants, accompanied Solheim.

It would be pertinent to ask Solheim whether he in anyway represented the government of Norway.

During the Norwegian-spearheaded peace talks, the LTTE never accepted the right of other Tamil political parties to engage in politics. By then, the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK)-led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has been compelled to recognize the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people. In addition to Norway, peace co-chairs consisting of the US, Japan, EU, as well as Norway, accepted the LTTE’s status. Otherwise, the LTTE wouldn’t have accepted none of them as co-chairs. That was the reality.

The LTTE hold on the TNA was such, its candidates for the 2004 General Election and its National List had to be cleared by the LTTE. By then, the LTTE had been divided with its Eastern cadre (Batticaloa-Ampara sector), led by Vinayagamoorty Muralitharan alias Karuna, switching allegiance to the government.

The post-2004 General Election report, issued by the European Union Election Observation Mission, in no uncertain terms disclosed the sordid relationship between the LTTE and the TNA. The EU asserted that the TNA secured 22 seats in the Northern and Easter Provinces, with the direct backing of the LTTE that resorted to violence and stuffing of ballot boxes in support of R. Sampanthan’s grouping.

One shouldn’t forget that by the time the LTTE declared Eelam War IV in August 2006, the Northern Province has been exclusively inhabited by Tamils as Muslims were driven away in Oct/Nov 1990 during Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure as the President and the Sinhalese much earlier. That had been one of the key factors that influenced the young Norwegian to go on the rampage in Norway in 2011.

A war that can’t be won…

Having held talks with the LTTE in February (Oslo) June (Oslo) and October (Geneva) under Norwegian facilitation without any success, the Rajapaksa government decided to go ahead with an all-out combined security forces campaign. The LTTE adopted an extremely hard and uncompromising stand as it quite confidently believed the military could be overwhelmed. (The Directorate of Military Intelligence gave the writer access to Kumaran Pathmanathan alias ‘KP’ a few months after the conclusion of the war in May 2009.

During the long interview, ‘KP’ asserted that the LTTE, at the time the war began, believed the military could be overwhelmed in the North within two years).

Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa hadn’t been hesitant when he told a top Norwegian delegation that the conflict could be settled through military means. Gotabaya Rajapaksa made that declaration during quite an early stage of the war. Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts-in Sri Lanka, 1997-2009 acknowledged that statement.

Retired Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne in his ‘Ranamaga Osse Nanthikadal’ (Road to Nanthikadal) revealed that Army Commander Lionel Balagalle during Norway arranged CFA said that the LTTE couldn’t be militarily defeated.

Dr. Rohan Gunaratne, too, during quite an early stage declared that the LTTE couldn’t be defeated. The writer had highlighted Dr. Gunaratne’s assertion on several occasions. On March 22, 2007, the Bloomberg news agency quoted Gunaratne as having said that Sri Lanka’s war couldn’t be won by either side. A story headlined ‘Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger Rebels Fight a War That Can’t be Won,’ by Colombo-based Anusha Ondaatjie, quoted head of terrorism research at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Gunaratna as having asserted: “Continuing the current spate of violence is not going to bring about a different outcome, or change the status quo. Both parties have developed significant support to be able to recover from losses, but this type of warfare is protracted.” Gunaratna declared: “What is needed is a negotiated settlement to the conflict.”

Just three months after Dr. Gunaratne stressed the need for a negotiated settlement, the military liberated the entire Eastern Province.

The then Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Store, who had been involved in the Sri Lankan initiative, in May, 2007, asserted that all observers believed that the conflict couldn’t be won by military means, and the majority was of the opinion that the government wouldn’t be able to defeat the LTTE militarily.

Veteran Canada-based political and defence analyst, D.B.S. Jeyaraj, in late Dec. 2008, declared that the LTTE had the wherewithal to roll back the Army on the Vanni east front. In an article titled WAR IN WANNI: WHY THE TIGERS ARE DOWN BUT NOT OUT, Jeyaraj maintained the circumstances under which the LTTE could inflict massive defeat on the Army on the Vanni east front.

Less than two weeks later, the Army captured Kilinochchi. The liberation of Kilinochchi, on January 1, 2009, effectively ended the possibility of an LTTE fight back. The capture of Kilinochchi and the A9 road, northwards up to Elephant Pass, sealed the fate of the LTTE, with several fighting formations rapidly surrounding the remaining LTTE units operating in the Vanni east.

In fact, the UNP, as well as the JVP, too, believed the LTTE would ultimately strike back and roll-back the Army. The media, too, propagated that the LTTE tactics were far superior to that of the military

Gen. Sarath Fonseka declared during drinks and dinner at his Baudhaloka Mawatha official residence of the Army Commander in January 2008 that he wouldn’t leave the war unfinished. A smiling Army Chief with a drink in his hand declared:

“My term of office is coming to an end this year and I will not leave this war to the succeeding Army commander”.

So unlike all the self-proclaimed experts who generally toed the Western lies by wooing for Tigers, while pretending to be independent analysts, only to be proved wrong soon before the whole world, Fonseka’s words were far more prophetic. Have we not seen a similar repeat in Ukraine where all the Western military experts on mainstream media were predicting a Russian defeat there and even a dismemberment of Russia while the opposite is happening.

The writer was present on this occasion when the Sri Lankan Army Commander made that almost prophetic pronouncement and no doubt when it came to prosecuting a war he certainly had a sixth sense, whether it be during fighting the ruthless Tigers or even JVP terrorists. Though Fonseka’s Army couldn’t finish off the LTTE before the end of 2008 it achieved the most unexpected just five months later. The rest is history.

At the time Eelam War IV erupted in 2006, the entire Northern and Eastern Provinces hadn’t been under its control. The Jaffna peninsula and neighbouring islands had been under military control whereas a large section of Vanni remained under LTTE. In the Eastern Province, the military controlled major towns though there were frequent attacks. The LTTE never managed to secure total control of the two provinces through military means.

The LTTE pursued Eelam dream regardless of consequences. In a way, it always had its way regardless of the consequences though from time to time it suffered setbacks. The LTTE adopted a similar style when it dealt with India. When the LTTE realized that Indian strategy didn’t facilitate its own, it declared war on the Indian Army, then secured financial and military support from the then Premadasa government to wage war against the Indian Army and then ultimately assassinated former Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. Gandhi’s crime was deploying his Army in Sri Lanka.

When the relentless Sri Lankan military drive forced the LTTE to retreat in all fronts, it dragged the civilian population to the Vanni east as a human shield where it made its last stand. Let me finish this by reproducing a letter written by wartime Norwegian Ambassador here. It explains the mindset of the LTTE.

Ambassador Hattrem’s note, dated Feb 16, 2009, to Basil Rajapaksa, revealed Norway’s serious concern over the LTTE’s refusal to release the civilians. The Norwegian note, headlined ‘Offer/Proposal to the LTTE’, personally signed by Ambassador Hattrem, underscored the developing crisis on the Vanni east front. The following is the text of Ambassador Hattrem’s letter, addressed to Basil Rajapaksa:

“I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE on how to release the civilian population, now trapped in the LTTE controlled area, has been transmitted to the LTTE through several channels. So far, there has been, regrettably, no response from the LTTE and it does not seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree with this in the near future.”

There wasn’t been any positive LTTE response and the military went ahead with the final phase of the operation which was completed 15 years ago this month.

Shamindra Ferdinando

Shamindra Ferdinando is a Deputy Editor of a Colombo-based daily newspaper, The Island.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog