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The Sri Lankan civil war which began on July 23, 1983 between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE also known as Tamil Tigers) – who fought to create an independent State called ‘Tamil Eelam’ in the North and East – ended in May 2009 with the defeat of Tamil Tigers after a 26-year campaign by the Sri Lankan military. 


  • Gota could be named as the game changer 

  • Outcome of the battle decided not only by weaponry but man behind the gun

  • US provided more than $3.6bn to SL since independence

  • Breakaway of Karuna a dead blow to LTTE


For over 26 years, the war caused significant hardships to the population, environment and national economy, with an initial estimate of 80,000–100,000 people killed during its course. Successive governments took initiative in listing the LTTE as a terrorist outfit in 32 countries including the US, India, Canada and member nations of the European Union. Sri Lankan government forces have also been accused of human rights abuse, systematic impunity for serious human rights violations, lack of respect for habeas corpus in arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances. 


After two decades of fighting and four failed attempts at peace talks including the unsuccessful deployment of the Indian Army IPKF from 1987 to 1990, a lasting negotiated settlement to the conflict appeared possible when a ceasefire was declared in December 2001 and a ceasefire agreement inked with international mediation in 2002. However, limited hostilities renewed in the late 2005 and the conflict began to escalate; the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission had documented 3,930 ceasefire violations by the LTTE against 351 by the security forces. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa urged the government to abandon the ceasefire agreement. 


A new crisis leading to the first large-scale fighting since signing of the ceasefire occurred when the LTTE closed sluice gates of the Mavil Aru reservoir on July 21. Mavil Aru was the waterway that provided water to some regions in eastern Sri  Lanka. After the ceasefire in 2002, the conflict over Mavil Aru was one of the biggest military confrontations between the Sri Lanka Armed Forces and the LTTE. Its relevance is for geo-strategic reasons within Mavil Aru, Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil populations live side by side. It is also the entrance to Koddiyar Bay, the inlet for TrincomaleePortand naval base, so the LTTE presence in the area seriously threatened the Sri Lankan security forces’ presence and domination. 

Closure of Mavil Aru affected water supply to 15,000 families in government-controlled areas. After initial negotiations and efforts by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission to open the gates failed, the military initiated an operation to achieve the re-opening of sluice gates. 

Former President Rajapaksa said the supply of water was a non-negotiable human right. Additionally, a government spokesman said, “utilities could not be used as bargaining tools” by the rebels. The government deployed its’ army and air force for the offensive, attacking not only the region of Mavil Aru but also the LTTE positions in Batticaloa and Vavuniya. Air Force planes attacked LTTE positions on July 26 and ground troops began an operation to open the gate. Water began flowing immediately after security forces carried out a precise bombing of the Mavil Aru anicut. Following heavy fighting, government troops gained full control of the reservoir on August 15. It was the precedent of Eelam War IV which ended at Nandikadal and on May  16, 2009, addressing the G11 summit in Jordan, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa said,”My government, with the total commitment of our armed forces, has militarily defeated the LTTE in an unprecedented humanitarian operation. 


War is a too important and serious matter to leave to soldiers. As quoted by Clemenceau and the Third Republic (1946) by Hampden Jackson (p. 228); this has also become commonly paraphrased as “war is too important to be left to the generals.”

The model, set out by Samuel Huntington among others, is that military strategy is a matter of technical expertise which must inevitably be degraded by civilian influence; the commander in chief is to set the goal and the military is to decide how to get there.


Rescuing hundreds of thousands of innocent Sri Lankans suffering under the fist of LTTE’s brutal fascism was a key priority of Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was elected to office in 2005. He was given a clear mandate by the people to solve the terrorist problem once and for all and win an honourable peace for Sri Lanka. As such, he invited the LTTE for direct talks and attempted to restart stalled negotiations. 

Over the years, there had been many attempts to militarily defeat the LTTE, but none of these campaigns met with lasting success. The most distinctive feature of humanitarian operations launched in 2006 was the clear aim and commitment of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to rescue the country from terrorism once and for all. 

Having a clear, unambiguous aim is absolutely vital, as no successful operation can be launched if any doubt lingers in the minds of personnel entrusted to achieve it. In the past, the military had pushed forward with great success on many occasions only to be prevented from consolidating these successes to a permanent victory due to external factors. In contrast, when humanitarian operation began in 2006, the military understood that Mr. Rajapaksa’s commitment to eradicating terrorism was unshakeable. His statements and actions during humanitarian operations proved beyond doubt not only to the military but to the entire population. Importantly, there was no change in his resoluteness from the first day of the operation to the last. 

The committed leadership displayed by the former President was imperative. For the duration of humanitarian operations, over three and a half years, he chaired weekly Security Council meetings where the brief for the past week and plans for the oncoming one were discussed. By keeping in touch with the unfolding situation, the former President as the Commander in Chief was fully cognizant of the great progress being made. When there were setbacks, as there can be in any military operation, he understood they were only temporary. 

During the course of operations, in the face of increasing military casualties and mounting international criticism, no matter how unfounded, the former President stood firm and absorbed all these pressures. As Commander in Chief, his resolute stance gave our personnel the confidence to press ahead with their operations. He never faltered from the ultimate goal. 

He reacted very promptly on crisis situations. When the LTTE’s claymore mine attack on a bus killed close to 70 innocent civilians at Kebithigollewa, a village in the North Central Province close to LTTE-dominated territory, he went to the location immediately. He spoke to the bereaved as well as other people in the affected area. He instructed the local commander to strengthen defence around such threatened villages to prevent further LTTE atrocities. 

Similarly, when the LTTE developed its light low-flying aircraft that threatened vital installations as well as civilians in Colombo during night raids, the former President personally supervised the rehearsals of a new air defence system that was installed at Katunayake Air Base to counter this threat. Such examples of commitment and leadership at the very top gave a lot of confidence to the entire country during this difficult period. 

The former President’s personal commitment to the success of humanitarian operations went above and beyond the call of duty. In the East, when the LTTE-dominated town of Vakarai was liberated, he went to the town to congratulate our troops even though the East had not been completely cleared. He also visited the key town of Kilinochchi, which had been LTTE’s stronghold in the North, as soon as it was liberated. This was a landmark victory during the course of the war and though the northern operation was still in progress, the former President went there to speak to the troops. Such acts gave our military personnel encouragement and confidence to press ahead and see the humanitarian operation through to its conclusion. The selection of three forces commanders were done based on recommendations made by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 

In contrast, from the time of his election, former President Rajapaksa went out of his way to keep New Delhi briefed about all developments taking place in Sri  Lanka. He understood that while other countries could mount pressure on us through diplomatic channels or economic means, only India could influence the military campaign. 

The role played by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unparalleled from beginning of Eelam war IV at Mavil Aru and end at Nandikadal until the complete defeat of the LTTE bringing peace to 22 million Sri Lankans. 


Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa placed total confidence in his brother Gotabaya appointed as Defence Secretary giving all authority and resources ordered to defeat the LTTE. Gotabaya had the will and courage to take the difficult decision to expand the military to the size required to win an extended campaign in the North and East while protecting the rest of the country. The combined strength of armed forces in 2005 was nowhere near the number that was actually required for a serious campaign to eradicate the LTTE. This fact was clearly understood by Gotabaya and the decision was made to expand the strength of the military. 

By the time the military campaign resumed in 2005, the LTTE had killed more than 26,000 armed services’ personnel; the LTTE had more than 30,000 battle-hardened cadres, access to large stockpiles of modern armaments, ammunition and equipment, a sophisticated naval wing and a fledgling air arm. By projecting its intentions very clearly to the public, the government encouraged a lot of young people to step forward and join the armed forces. They did so because they understood that the political leadership had both the clear aim of eradicating terrorism and the will to achieve it. Between the end of 2005 and end of 2009, the Army’s nine divisions were increased to 20; its 44 Brigades expanded to 71 and 149 Battalions to 284. This was a large but essential expansion that increased the number of army personnel from 120,000 in 2005 to over 200,000 by the end of the humanitarian operation. 

He initiated numerous welfare projects to boost the morale of battlefield soldiers and provided them with every need to perform their duties with dignity and confidence to accomplish the mission. Outcome of the battle is decided not only by sophisticated weapons but by the man behind the gun. 

From very early in the humanitarian operations, the relationship between Sri  Lanka and India was managed through maintaining a clear communication line at the highest level. A special committee was established to engage in constant dialogue. The Sri Lankan side comprised of the then Senior Advisor to the President, Basil Rajapaksa, Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga and Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Indian side comprised former National Security Advisor M.K. Narayan, then Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and then Defence Secretary Vijay Singh. This troika had continuous discussions and ensured that whenever any sensitive issue arose, they would be resolved immediately. 

With precision of a skilled strategist, Gotabaya decisively defeated the LTTE. With limited resources, the military intelligence network he put together to keep track of terrorists was second to none; he literally had the country “wired” for real-time information-collecting and feedback to authorities. The mental concentration he focused on completing his mission was driven by an unwavering intention to get the job done as required. At the time, he cared little for sparing the feelings of his and his President brother’s legion of opponents, who were merciless in their criticisms; he was often chastised for his brusque, and sometimes, curt manner. His task of ending the war and rebuilding the country occupied his mind 24/7, and he had no time or inclination to indulge in the pettiness of politics. 


In 2006, just before the start of the conflict’s final phase, retired Indian Lieutenant General A.S. Kalkat in 2006 declared, “There is no armed resolution to the conflict. Sri Lanka Army cannot win the war against Lankan Tamil insurgents.” 

The Sri Lanka Army, together with his sister services disproving General A.S. Kalkat’s prediction, totally defeated the LTTE gaining control of the territory held by it and with the death of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and capturing all the areas held by it. Since the start of Elam War 1 at Tirunelveli in Jaffna with the killing of 13 Sri Lanka Army infantry soldiers in an ambush by terrorists and until the end on May 18, 2009 at Nandikadal, Sri Lanka Army played the most difficult and pivotal role. During the 26-year long civil war, 23,962 brave soldiers in Sri Lanka Army gave away their lives and one can understand the amount of sacrifices made by the army personnel. Army being the land force had to bear heavy casualties and the role played is unparalleled through the civil war. They brought peace to this island and with the dawn of peace could be seen the glow of happiness and hope for the future on the faces of every citizen. 

The then Sri Lanka Army Commander Lt. General Sarath Fonseka, later promoted to the rank of Field Marshal, together with his brave officers and men played a key role in bringing the civil war to a complete end. 


Professor Rohan Gunaratne said, “Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) played a very decisive role. SLN was able to cut off the supply of arms and ammunition to the LTTE on the ground from the LTTE ships which were acting as floating warehouses, stationed in high seas thousands of kilometres away from Sri  Lanka and closer to Indonesia and Australia. If not for the role of SLN, the war would have continued for a long time and a lot more Army personnel would have been killed. The role of the army has been highlighted but role of the Navy not so much. Both these elements together with the air force played a remarkable role. The leadership of Navy Commander Admiral Karannagoda was decisive. Karannagoda was different; he understood not only the naval dimension but the political one too and questioned, in terms of leadership, the investment we were making in the future to produce leaders like that. This amply justifies the leadership of Admiral Karannagoda and the significant role played by the Navy.” 

When asked from former Naval Commander and present Admiral of the fleet Wasantha Karannagoda how he planned the mid sea operation to destroy LTTE floating warehouses, he said, “We had to improvise and innovate to meet the requirement. We had to convert an old sea-going trawler and a merchant ship to carry fuel, water and food half the distance. We did refuelling in the mid sea south of the equator where seas were calm. We had to mount land-based multi-barrel rocket launchers on board ships with stabilised platforms. We carried snipers onboard. Information we received on the last four ships from satellite pictures of relevant areas from US PACIFIC COMMAND were analysed to identify LTTE ships; the first two through army monitoring cell and third and fourth by navy intelligence.” 

Following naval actions scientifically and factually prove their critical contribution to the final outcome of the decisive battle against the LTTE. Navy with limited resources sailed 4000kms deep into the international sea and completely destroyed 8 LTTE floating warehouses which carried 100,000 each of 122,130 and 155mm artillery rounds and 60mm and 81mm mortar rounds.The destruction of 8 ships acting as floating warehouses in 2007 by SLN was the ‘turning point’ of the war. With this destruction, LTTE cadres realised that every bullet they fired was no replenishment. They had no choice but to withdraw from the positions they were holding. This made it much easier for the army to move forward with much less casualties. 


Interestingly, though many countries consider air power to be a high-tech instrument that only richest countries can employ, countries with limited resources have used relatively simple to greater effect – Vick AJ, Grissom A, Roseau W, Grill B, Muller PM (2006).  Thamilini, theleader of LTTE women wing, revealed the crisis faced by the organisation due to a strategic bombing campaign carried out by the air force. The air force had caused heavy losses to the LTTE and eroded its capacity to launch a major offensive action, contrary to lies propagated by interested parties. Thamilini said the air force carried out accurate bombing of identified targets including those frequented by leaders including Prabhakaran. 

When asked from former Air Force Commander and present Marshal Roshan Goonetilleka said, “Sri Lanka Air Force carried out an independent strategic bombing campaign to break the will of the enemy to fight and destroy his fighting capability which it had acquired over the years. Air operations were conducted day and night to achieve this state. The role which the air force played helped to successfully conduct the humanitarian operation in a much shorter duration of time than thought and also reduced the casualty rate of ground troops. For this purpose, the air force needed much equipment and ordnance which were made available to us because of the pivotal role played by former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa who could be named as the major game changer in this success.” In the final battle against the LTTE, the air force led by Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleka carried out 8,000 air sorties which included Kfir, MiG-27, F-7, Mi-24 strike missions and Bell-212, Bell-412, M17 communication, transport and Casevac missions and C-130, AN-32 , Y12 and Beechcraft transport and reconnaissance missions. Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) flew 1,500 UAV hours to cover the North and Eastern skies for intelligence and information missions.Air interdictions carried out during day and night to destroy LTTE training bases including suicide cadre training centres, cadres operating in front lines, sea tiger training bases, fuel dumps, ammo dumps, logistic depots, transport network, sea tiger boats, artillery gun positions and leadership. A total of 38 pilots sacrificed their young lives to bring peace to this island.

The writer is the former Security Forces Commander (Wanni), the competent authority for internally-displaced persons in the North, the Colonel Commandant of Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment, world top-ten in National Defence Studies (China), a Doctor in Economics and Architect of Wanni Bogaswewa settlement with 36 years of active military service, presently working as an international writer and researcher. The writer being an infantryman fought the same war against the LTTE for more than 20 years. 


Another critical factor in this regard was formalising the Civil Defence Force. This was initially a loose organisation of civilians who had been given only shotguns to protect the villages under threat from the LTTE. When the decision was made to once again engage the LTTE militarily, it was clear that the LTTE would try to distract the operations by attacking more innocent civilians in these villages. Therefore, it was necessary to formally organise these civilians into a proper paramilitary force capable of protecting vulnerable villages. Some 42,000 able bodied men were recruited from the villages and given proper training as well as equipment. They played a significant role in protecting their villages from LTTE attacks during the course of humanitarian operations. The credit should go to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Admiral Sarath Weerasekara and Admiral Ananda Pieris. If not for their commitment, the Civil Defence Force would have been non-existent today. 


Meanwhile, in March 2004, there had been a major split between the northern and eastern wings of the LTTE. Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Col. Karuna, the Eastern commander of the LTTE and one of Prabhakaran’s trusted lieutenants, pulled 5,000 eastern cadres out of the LTTE, claiming insufficient resources and power were being given to Tamils of the eastern part of the island. It was the biggest expression of dissension in the history of the LTTE and a clash within the LTTE seemed imminent. After parliamentary elections, brief fighting south of Trincomalee led to a rapid retreat and capitulation of Karuna’s group, their leaders eventually going into hiding including Karuna himself. However, the ‘Karuna faction’ maintained a significant presence in the east and continued to launch attacks against the LTTE and breakaway of Karuna was a dead blow to LTTE. 


Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal who spoke on ‘nation building’ said between 2006 and 2009, the government spent USD 5.5 billion or four per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence. 

However, he said, this was an investment in peace and its dividends were now paying off with the country’s economy recovering with the end of the war. “The expenditure included the cost of aircraft, ships, tanks, ammunition, other equipment as well as food and uniforms for troops,” he said. 

Mr. Cabraal said the amount spent by Sri  Lankawas small compared to heavy military expenditure by other countries and made a comparison with the United  Stateswhich spent USD 910 billion on its wars in Iraqand Afghanistan. He said the end of the war had fast-tracked development particularly in the northern and eastern provinces with thousands of bank loans granted to people to rebuild their lives after nearly three decades of war. “The government is putting money where its mouth is,” he said. 


The European Union and Canadahave joined the United States, India and Australiain labelling the LTTE a terrorist organisation, which has made it more difficult for the group to get financing from abroad. The civil war has killed nearly seventy thousand and watchdog groups have accused both the LTTE and Sri Lankan military of human rights violations including abduction, extortion and use of child soldiers. 


During the 1970s, India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), helped to train and arm the LTTE but after the group’s terrorist activities grew in the 1980s — including its alliances with separatist groups in the southern IndianState of Tamil Nadu – RAW withdrew support. In 1987, Indiamade a pact with the Sri Lankan Government to send peacekeeping troops to the island. The Indian forces were unable to end the conflict and instead began fighting with the LTTE. Indiawas forced to withdraw by the then Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1990. Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister of Indiaat the time of the peacekeeping force deployment, was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber in 1991. Premadasa met a similar fate in 1993. 
Indiaremains concerned about the conditions of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, as it stirs protests and tensions among its own Tamil population in the south. In February 2009, India’s

Foreign Minister expressed concern over the safety of civilians in Sri  Lankaand said the only way forward would be devolution of power from the center to the provinces. Under the 1987 accord with India, which was followed by the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, Colomboagreed to devolve some authority to the provinces and make Tamil an official language. But no government has fully-implemented the provisions, say experts. 


According to the Congressional Research Service, the United  Stateshas provided more than $3.6 billion to Sri Lankasince its independence in 1948, most of it in the form of food aid. Military aid was suspended in December 2007 because of Sri  Lanka’s human rights violations, which are catalogued in the US State Department’s annual report on human rights practices. Since 2008, the United  Stateshas also been working with the Sri Lankan Government through the US Agency for International Development on programmes focused on democracy, governance, humanitarian assistance and economic growth. It also awarded a five-year $12 million contract to support regional government in Sri Lanka’s eastern and north-central provinces. 

The LTTE campaigns regularly to be taken off the US State Department’s terrorist list. In August 2006, federal authorities arrested and charged eight suspects in New Yorkwith attempting to bribe US officials to remove the LTTE from the list. The suspects, said to have close ties with LTTE leaders like Prabhakaran, are also charged with trying to purchase surface-to-air missiles, missile launchers, AK-47s and other weapons for the LTTE. 


It must be understood that notwithstanding this, the LTTE was one of the deadliest terrorist organisations in the world. The list of the LTTE’s atrocities is long. Over the years, the LTTE carried out ethnic cleansing in the North and East, brutally driving out the Sinhalese and Muslim civilians who lived there. They carried out countless attacks on civilians. They attacked villages near the areas they occupied, massacring thousands. They attacked places of worship such as Sri Maha Bodhiya and Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the two most significant places of worship for Buddhists worldwide. They also carried out massacres at mosques and attacked churches. 

The LTTE attacked vital national infrastructure such as the international airport, the central bus stand and the main railway station in Colombo. They attacked economic targets such as the Central Bank, the World Trade Centre, oil refineries and civilian harbours. They set off countless parcel bombs, car bombs, truck bombs and claymore mines in populated areas, killing thousands of innocent civilians, and they perfected the tactic of suicide bombing. The LTTE also carried out a vicious campaign of assassinations against political targets, killing the President of Sri Lanka, former Prime Minister of India, Defence Minister, Foreign Minister, several Cabinet ministers, leaders of political parties and a large number of parliamentarians. 
Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and attacks on Sri Maha Bodhiya and Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic were strategic mistakes made by the LTTE. India, specially the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi, did not show any mercy towards the LTTE and entire country despite of which party they belonged to supported whatever the party in power to annihilate terrorism from Sri Lankan soil. 


The ‘war on terror’ – also known as ‘global war on terrorism’ – the international military campaign launched by the USGovernment after the September 11 attacks was a blessing in disguise to defeat the LTTE. USAhad to adopt a strict policy against terrorist organisations around the word. It helped to identify, locate and demolish terrorists along with their organisations, reject sponsorship, support and sanctuary to terrorists, end State sponsorship of terrorism, establish and maintain an international standard of responsibility concerning combating terrorism, strengthen and maintain the international effort to combat terrorism, function with willing and able states, enable weak states, persuade reluctant states, compel unwilling states, intervene and dismantle material support for terrorists, abolish terrorist sanctuaries and havens, reduce underlying conditions that terrorists seek to exploit, establish partnerships with the international community to strengthen weak states and prevent (re)emergence of terrorism. 


Above events show that the professional armed forces together with the police, Civil Defence Force, strong political leadership, bureaucrats, civilian societies like doctors, nurses, well-wishes, taxpayers, external actors like war on terror campaign by superpower, provision of war material on credit basis and protecting Sri Lanka against at the United Nations by friendly countries and the strategic mistakes made by the LTTE itself including the breakaway of Karuna were vital factors to defeat virulent enemy. 

It is with great honour I mention that 23,962 soldiers, 1,160 sailors, 443 airmen, 2,568 policemen and 456 Civil Defence Force personnel have sacrificed their lives on behalf of all citizens so that people can live peacefully without allowing this nation to be divided. In saying so, the brave soldiers who died, sustained injuries and who are living should never be forgotten. They are the real heroes. Claim by one person that he single-handedly won the war is unrealistic. 

The writer is the former Security Forces Commander (Wanni), the competent authority for internally-displaced persons in the North, the Colonel Commandant of Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment, world top-ten in National Defence Studies (China), a Doctor in Economics and Architect of Wanni Bogaswewa settlement with 36 years of active military service, presently working as an international writer and researcher. The writer being an infantryman fought the same war against the LTTE for more than 20 years. 

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