The use of force alone is temporary. It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again; and a nation is not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered. ~ Edmund Burke, Second Speech on Conciliation with America, 1775.

The insurgency in Sri Lanka that lasted from the early 1980s until 2009 is particularly relevant to scholars interested in the conflict in the contemporary period. It was a revolutionary war with a definitive end. It was accomplished without granting the insurgents political access to control over the contested area after the fight. It is an example of how a revolutionary war may be concluded with a decisive conclusion. Sri Lanka’s counterinsurgency war is an interesting case study since it was long and included several military forces battling a strong insurgent organisation. It also provides valuable insight into how a resource-poor nation defeated the insurgents.

In Sri Lanka, ethnic conflicts between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and the minority Hindu Tamils were at the root of the Tamil insurgency in 1983.1 This tendency started with the assertion of Sinhalese political dominance, followed by the marginalisation of Tamil groups at the same time. This marginalisation persisted and intensified, culminating in a catastrophic ethnic war that killed thousands of people. As a result of this tendency, the Tamil Diaspora escaped the nation under perilous circumstances.2 The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) earned worldwide prominence for inventing the suicide belt, which they used to execute their targets. The organisation’s total suicide bombs amounted to 315, which was more than both Hezbollah and Hamas combined.

The Tamil Tigers were among the most well-organized and vicious groups to emerge anywhere since World War II. Along with its unique ground soldiers, the Tigers had their own air force and navy. They were among the first to use suicide bombers and used non-combatants as human shields.

Insurgencies cannot be overcome only via the use of military force. As a result, public political support in Sri Lanka was critical in mobilising the resources needed to fight and win the war. Even in the face of spectacular LTTE assaults on critical government facilities, the Sri Lankan government maintained a regular election schedule to garner support. Even during the hotly contested elections of 2005, the provinces with a Tamil majority retained their full right to vote in the national election. Because the LTTE was forced to employ threats and violence against its population to impose the boycott, the government was able to defeat the insurgents in the battle for domestic public support.

The Tamil diaspora supplied the insurgents with financial support as well as international credibility. By influencing foreign governments, the worldwide Tamil community helped the LTTE’s cause. Sri Lankan officials used the post-9/11 anti-terrorism climate to persuade thirty-two nations to classify the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. The LTTE’s loss of credibility at home was exacerbated by the LTTE’s loss of international backing and legitimacy.

The government’s divide and conquer strategy was successful. According to reports, Colonel Karuna, a senior LTTE leader in the Eastern Province, defected after the Sri Lankan government orchestrated his defection. Sri Lanka’s government made attempts to foment discord inside the organisation itself. In the aftermath, the LTTE suffered significant internal divisions, which resulted in a significant reduction in recruiting.3

The Sri Lankan government’s attempts to garner broad popular support resulted in a rethinking of military culture to better fight insurgents. Special infantry operations teams ( SIOTs) were formed to infiltrate deep into hostile territory, use hit-and-run tactics against enemy troops, and direct artillery and air attacks. The deployment of SIOTs alongside regular infantry units aided in the diffusion of special warfare capabilities and raised the standards of regular infantry troops.

The eastern region’s counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign used various combat tactics, including combined land, sea, and air operations, SIOT troops, special task forces, and marine guerilla warfare, among others. These troops and task forces penetrated far into the Tamil Tigers’ control lines.4

The last military battle lasted just a few months rather than years or decades, and it was a very horrific conclusion. Civilians were killed in the crossfire, and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Tamils were forced into internment camps. Hearts and minds were put on hold in favour of shock and awe. Sri Lankan COIN demonstrates that overwhelming force can quickly destroy insurgents, terrorists, and irregular armed organisations. Its approach disproves the idea that counterinsurgency operations must be long and drawn out, like Vietnam.5

The Sri Lankan Armed Forces had used counterinsurgency concepts (COIN) in their battle against the LTTE militants for 26 years. Throughout this period, the LTTE was able to establish itself as a legitimate conventional military force. It was not until the fourth phase of the Sri Lanka campaign, known as Eelam War IV that the Sri Lankans could secure lasting peace.6 

The war against the LTTE was costly; tens of thousands of lives were killed, many more were wounded, and huge quantities of resources were destroyed or lost throughout the whole nation during the conflict. Some lessons were drawn from the triumphs and failures in the battle against domestic terrorism due to this experience.


 1Peter Stafford Roberts (2016) The Sri Lankan Insurgency: A rebalancing of the orthodox position. 

 2Manage Nishantha (2012) Counterinsurgency Principles for Contemporary Internal Conflict.

 3Malik Ahmad Jalal (2011)  Think Like A Guerrilla Counter-Insurgency Lessons from Sri Lanka

4Manage Nishantha (2012) Counterinsurgency Principles for Contemporary Internal Conflict.

 5Lionel Beehner (2010) What Sri Lanka Can Teach Us About COIN.

 6Lionel Beehner (2010) What Sri Lanka Can Teach Us About COIN.