Countering Violent Extremism: The Fate of the Tamil Tigers

Discussion Paper | May 14, 2009

This paper by former Pakistani Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan suggests that despite the Sri Lankan government's apparent victory over the Tamil Tigers, the country’s civil war won't end without a political reconciliation with remaining Tamil militants.

Extremism in every form is a major concern for the global community. Though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (also known as LTTE, or more commonly, as the Tamil Tigers) do not share the same religious motivations as the violent extremist groups that tend to garner the most interest today, they merit much greater attention from the international community. Their longevity, success, and tactics – their revival of suicide bombing in particular – render them a formidable foe. The protracted conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE offers several important lessons regarding effective strategies for combating violent extremism. These lessons hold – and indeed are all the more relevant – in the face of the recent military gains of government forces over the LTTE.

In recent years, the Sri Lankan government has pursued a predominantly military strategy against the well-armed Tamil Tigers. This policy has failed to eliminate the violence in the region and is unlikely to yield peace in the future, even in the face of current military successes by the government. The government’s vow to end the civil war, even if achieved sooner rather than later, would only be a temporary victory – one that might diminish the level of violence in the short term but is unlikely to end it permanently. Sheer force, with no regard for the motivations and objectives of the LTTE, will not create the conditions necessary for an enduring and sustainable resolution of the conflict. The roots of this longstanding conflict are in the political and economic marginalization felt by the Tamil minority. A military victory by the government will not address this. Damaging military operations against the LTTE have not yet resulted in the LTTE seeking to change its tactics – the violent approach of the LTTE has wavered little. Without a negotiated settlement, the two sides will continue to pursue strategies that rely on violence, pushing aside the political goals and objectives that could actually, if resolved, bring elusive peace to Sri Lanka.

Continued violence will only serve to strengthen the resolve and sense of victimization of both factions. The longer the violence ensues, the more likely it is that the regional and global Tamil communities will be drawn into the conflict, potentially sparking an international campaign. India’s close proximity to Sri Lanka, along with its 60 million strong Tamil community, puts the regional superpower in a precarious position. Should the extremism expand beyond Sri Lanka’s borders, it will become a matter of global security and the international community will be compelled to act. It would be far better for the international community to become involved now and offer whatever assistance it can to reach a conclusion in this long campaign, than to act when it has no choice and little leverage.

Given the prolonged military campaign against the LTTE, a growing death toll – especially among civilians – and the threat of a larger campaign spreading where there are large Tamil communities, the government of Sri Lanka would be advised to muster the political will to try to fi nd a solution that addresses the political demands of the LTTE within the framework of a sovereign Sri Lankan state. This is not a call for capitulation but a call for negotiation and accommodation by both sides, even as government forces rack up military victories against the Tamil extremists. Insurgent organizations can and do evolve. LTTE participation in the political processes of Sri Lanka could shift the LTTE away from its strategy of violence.

Key recommendations

For resolving the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE 

  • Abandon the predominantly military strategy adopted by both sides following the end of the ceasefire agreement in January 2008 in favor of a strategy that favors political accommodation. 
  • Acknowledge the source of grievances on both sides as a starting point for negotiations.

For wider international efforts to counter violent extremism

  • Major players – both global and regional – should work with the UN to appoint an internationally respected figure to mediate between the government and the LTTE. 
  • Commit to a cooperative strategy that forgoes a military approach and engages insurgent groups. 
  • Identify and acknowledge underlying political grievances as a starting point for negotiations. 
  • Address human rights violations in military operations against all insurgents.