LTTE's strategy of deterence
Excerpts from "View from afar"
LTTE's strategy of deterence
By D.B.S. Jayaraj
(Date: Jun 1990)
JAYARAJ was the most well informed analyst of ethnic war
in Sri Lanka. His articles which appeared in The Island,
The Sunday Times and Hindu and Frontline (for which he was
the Sri Lankan correspondent for some time) were well known
for their factual accuracy.
Once he was arrested and questioned by the Sri Lankan CID
on the request of the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo
because of an interview he had with Mahaththaya in Jaffna
on the commencement of LTTE's war with the IPKF. Jayaraj
now lives in Canada.
[When] 'one begins to get some idea of the available scenario' of
'the fighting' [that] 'has erupted between the LTTE and the secu-
rity forces', one begins to sense that as in the pre-1987 period
the wood has been missed for the trees particularly when Sinhala
friends remark in hurt tones about a perceived betrayal and why
I am confused too. In recent times particularly after the Indian
troop withdrawal I had been troubled by the sharp differences
arising between nationalist Sinhala and Tamil opinion, the con-
flicting perceptions about North-East developments and above all
the increasing contradictions between the UNP and the LTTE.
[On the basis of various information one gets] ...I had detected
the drawing apart of both sides. The convergence of interest that
prevailed during the Indian presence was declining into diver-
gence. There seem to be no identity of interests except a mutual
stake in peace development, stability and the desire to keep
In that sense one could detect a build up of hostility and
paranoia corresponding to a break-down of confidence and trust.
But why the Batticaloa incident became the flashing point for the
simmering tension is unanswerable at least for the moment.
In my perspective the unfolding events are a peculiar expression
of the LTTE strategy of deterrence. The LTTE has been relying on
that strategy in thought when it commenced talks with Colombo,
when the Indians commenced withdrawal, and indeed after the IPKF
left. Deterrence in essence is the effort taken by one party to
persuade an opponent to refrain from taking action contrary to
its interests by impressing upon the costs and risks of doing so
will outweight what the opponent hopes to gain.
In the Lankan context the LTTE hoped to fill both the political
and military vaccum in the North-East consequent to the 1983
Sixth Amendment and 1990 Indian army withdrawal. The Tigers
wanted the Sixth Amendment repealed and the North-East Provin-
cial council repealed so that it could play an overt political
role with constitutional respectability.
Militarily it wanted a process of demilitarisation to begin. The
army was to revert to a non-law enforcement role. Its presence to
be minimised in the N-E by the gradual closing down of most
camps camps except for one or two in in a district. Policing to
commence with the recruitment of provincial police reflecting the
ethnic composition of the North-East..
During this interim period the LTTE wanted to be responsible for
maintaining law and order in the Tamil speaking areas. It was
willing to compromise in the Sinhala areas. The Tigers felt
rightly or wrongly that they were entitled to this because of the
fight they put up against the Indian 'invader'. The fact that
Colombo allowed them to fight the Indian installed Tamil National
Army without interfering or attempting to fill vacant districts
while the staggered Indian army withdrawal was in progress re-
inforced this belief.
Whatever the Tiger spokespersons may have said publicly the LTTE
was not going to surrender its arms. Certainly not after fighting
the Indians alone for two years. 'The tigers were keen' as
Kittu, the ex-Jaffna LTTE commander told me 'to legalise the arms
in their possession rather than surrender them'. So it was keen
on retaining arms by embracing legality and thereby regulating
the use of arms. Arms was a must until the Tamil problem was
resolved felt the LTTE. So the Tigers expanded rapidly with mas-
sive recruitment and strained every sinew to be the dominant
authority responsible for for North-East security law and order.
The situation however could be challenged and perhaps transformed
if the Sri Lankan forces adopted a military course of action.
This course was to be deterred. It was prudent to do so without
fighting. So the best option available seemed to be utilising a
The LTTE recognised in President Premadasa statesman like
qualities with regard to the Tamil problem. In the LTTE percep-
tion President Premadasa was a person who preferred to settle
with the Tamils rather than compromise with India unlike his
predecessor who preferred to sign a pact with India rather than
arriving at an agreement with the Tamils.
But the LTTE 'did not trust' sections of the UNP, the mainstream
opposition , sections of the Buddhist clergy, the media and the
defense establishment. It also feared New Delhi machinations. The
Tigers felt not withstanding the President's sincerity and
genuine intention he was liable to be pressured into approving
So it preferred to rely on its own strength too. The massive mil-
itary build-up that it undertook was to be translated into a
deterrence strategy. In case Colombo did not paly fair a military
machine was of immense value to defend itself and protect its
So the LTTE in the current context paraded its cardres in uni-
form, displayed their arms and mad republic pronouncement that
Colombo and its forces should lay off. Otherwise it would face a
protracted military campaign.
But deterrence as a strategy could be effective only with a
rational opponent.... The UNP regime under President Premadasa
fitted the category of a rational opponent. Unlike the previous
regime it felt that a military option was not possible. President
Premadasa to his credit publicly said so.
Any war with the LTTE could only lead to a prolonged, bitter con-
flict resulting in massive loss of life, limb and property.
there could be no swift, surgical strike or a conventional vic-
tory. the conflict was bound to transform itself into a pro-
tracted guerrilla campaign. The economy would be shattered.
Above all India which has been effectively sidelined due to the
UNP-LTTE axis could once again intervene if it desired to do so.
In that context the LTTE's opponent was 'rational'. Therefore
the deterrence strategy seemed to succeed.
On the other hand any deterence strategy could only be a limited,
time buying exercise. It was not and could not be permanent. What
the LTTE hoped to do in the time gained through this strategy was
to contest and win Provincial Council elections as an interim
measure and then negotiate on the substantive issues. A victory
at the polls would give it 'legitimacy' and prove to the world
that they are the authentic representatives of the Tamil people.
It wanted to initiate relief and rehabilitation measures for the
affected people particularly the orphan, widows and mutilated.
It wanted to transform the guerrilla cadres into a conventional
military and para-military force. It also wanted to generate
economic development in the Tamil region. The replacement of the
annual political conference in London by an international seminar
on North-East development is a case in point.
The situation seemed mutually beneficial. Yet the silver lin-
ing started showing signs of strain. The LTTE perception of
events seemed to be that Colombo was being given a last chance to
resolve the conflict without bloodshed. It also felt that the
Sinhala psyche had to unlearn its past and adjust to the new
reality of LTTE dominance.
On the other hand Sinhala perception seemed diametrically
opposite. The feeling was that the LTTE was being given a last
chance to join the political mainstream. The phenomenon of LTTE
dominance seemed unpalatable and undigestable.
With the Indian army gone the assertion of the LTTE became
highly visible generation hostile resentment in the south. The
similarity of views and interests vis-a-vis the Indian presence
was removed. One would have expected a reduction of hostile
behaviour and a relaxation of acute tension after a ceasefire of
several months. Instead the opposite was happening.
A number of incidents like the altercations with the ser-
vices, the hartal, Tambimuttu killing etc. were happening. On the
other side hard-line pronouncement, talks with the EPRLF etc.
were taking place. the defense preparation by the LTTE seemed to
suggest an LTTE offensive. Opposition leaders and sections of the
media were criticising the government. President Premadasa was
being subjected to great pressure. The tragedy was that the LTTE
was becoming more paranoid and therefore more assertive. This
assertion amounted in some instances to abrasive behaviour that
was offensive to southern susceptibilities. It was a vicious cir-
cle with both states of mind reinforcing each other mutually.
The deterrence strategy assumes that the opponent is
rational. Even though the government and the upper echelons of
the defense establishment were rational the same could not be
said of the rank and file and perhaps a few junior officers. The
opposition and sections of the media were also indulging in the
politics of the irrational. Incidents of friction between LTTE
cadres and security personnel began to proliferate in the North-
The point here is not to judge who is right or wrong but to
recognize that a patter was evolving. In the eyes of the LTTE the
pattern was sinister and diabolical. In the meantime nothing was
moving politically. No repeal of 6th Amendment, no dissolution of
N-E provincial council. Like wise there was no action militarily
too. A situation where there was no military conflict and where
there was no major controversial political concession to the LTTE
was ideally suited to the UNP government. So it became somewhat
'lethargic' on these issues.
But to the LTTE internal pressures and political compulsion
were increasing. It had exhausted its series of political meet-
ings explaining its stand. All that it wanted was the Sixth
Amendment repeal and P.C. election. the LTTE was becoming
increasingly uncomfortable with the no politics, no military
The government was telling it that a two thirds majority was
not possible to repeal the amendments. the LTTE was saying brand-
ing the Tamil groups who took the oath a s traitors the LTTE had
to fight for a repeal. The constitutional wrangles caused by the
EPRLF and the Indian inspired disappearance of Perumal was com-
pounding the situation. the talks with the EPRLF was 'Mala Fid'
in LTTE eyes. Talk of a gun free election seemed to mean arms
And so the Vavuniya incident was a pointer. Then came Batti-
caloa. If that had been contained then some other incident would
have been the flash point.
The PFLT Tamil statement released in Paris on June 15 throws
some light on the LTTE mind and motives. Even if one does not
agree it is better to understand it.
The statement says that the current conflict began as a
result of continuous irritants by the "sinhala Police" and the
obstacles caused to the LTTE by them. It also says that while it
could tolerate delay regarding issues where a 2/3 majority was
required it could not tolerate 'delay' in reducing the Sinhala
police presence in the N-E. the statement goes on to say that
while the government had agreed to reduce the military presence
and totally recall the Sinhala policemen in Tamil areas when the
Indians were here it is now increasing their strength in Tamil
The statement also refers to Mr. Ranjan Wijeratna's "pro-
vocative" comparison of Prabhakaran with Perumal in Parliaments.
It says that despite the ceasefire announcement the government
had expanded military activities by deploying additional troops
and intensifying attacks.
It also alleges that civilians had been hacked to death.
While paying homage to the 45 tigers killed in four days of
fighting it says that that was not one we sought.
In this context it seems that the conflict is aimed at the
reduction and minimal presence of the army and "sinhala" police
in the Tamil areas.
But all deterrence is heavily context dependent. Therefore it
is not possible at all times to design a strategy that will deter
all options available to the dissatisfied opponent. This is where
the deterrence strategy could go wrong. It is important to dis-
tinguish real or perceived interests of the opponent. Rationality
in statecraft may be eclipsed by political compulsions that may
be malefic in the long run. the rational of peace, development,
avoidance of bloodshed, exclusion of India etc., may be oversha-
dowed by the more immediate exigencies of responding to military
threats, internal pressure from the armed forces and the need to
undermine opposition criticism. If that happen then the deter-
rence e strategy may be counter productive.
(A few sections of this article where Jayaraj discusses various
aspects of deterrence as a strategy had to be deleted to cut down
the length of this posting.)