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Guest Thinkers

What Lessons Can We Learn From Sri Lanka’s War?

I am in the heart of Tamil territory. I am surrounded by jungles and tea plantations. A few miles north of me is a camp of 250,000 internally displaced Tamil civilians made homeless by the decades-long war. Only months ago, the Sri Lankan government announced that the war was over. It had won and even paraded the dead body of the Tamil Tigers before the cameras. What lessons can we learn from the Sri Lankan model to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency?

First, it’s unclear if the war has been won. Not all the root causes of the conflict have been addressed. Tamils are still discriminated against and economically and politically marginalized. Jaffna and other areas up north remain closed to human rights monitors. And Colombo seems unwilling to allow for an independent, Gaza-style investigation into alleged massacres committed by government forces.

Second, the government finds itself in a bind. If it releases the IDPs it is holding, as the EU, United States, and United Nations is pressuring it to do so, it runs the risk of replenishing the ranks of the Tamil Tigers and restarting the conflict. It officially says it will release them by next year, ahead of presidential elections. It also says the area up north is still unsafe because of landmines, while blaming the media and organizations like the UN for relying on hearsay evidence and unreliable third-hand sources on conditions there. Most Tamils I met say that is hogwash. They say the government is intent on a policy of collective punishment. There is no impetus to release them, aside from blunting criticism from abroad. Others, however, blame the Tiger leadership for growing fat and corrupt on the billions it pocketed from abroad. They say that thirty years of war got them nowhere. That bodes well for Colombo’s efforts to win back hearts and minds of the Tamil minority.

What lessons can we learn from the conflict? First, force can work, if it is overwhelming and done with blatant disregard for human rights. It means that thousands will be killed and it will draw charges of war crimes. The military, after all, massacred thousands of innocent Tamils. But in so doing, it also wiped away the top leadership of the Tigers, and in so doing won the war. Does the cost-benefit analysis justify such ruthless means? It’s unclear. I would argue a policy of restraint coupled with stepped-up intelligence-sharing and heavier policing would have been more effective. Second, the entire island remains in a perpetual military lockdown mode. Checkpoints are on virtually every block in the capital, not to mention that decades of war have scarred the next generation of Tamil civilians, who have been taught to distrust the majority Sinhalese. The slate cannot be wiped clean that easy. It will require years of confidence-building measures, peaceful coexistence, and development of the Tamil areas up north. Even then, the chances of a unified state at peace with itself seems unlikely. Much will depend on whether further investigations implicate any top Sri Lankan leaders or lead to sanctions (or tariffs imposed on its textiles), which could cripple its economy. 

The war in Sri Lanka is over. Now comes the hard part.