Tricks of the trade from a Sri Lankan general, and some secrets

Published: March 4, 2013

“Fighting against its homegrown militants is the only guarantee for peace in Pakistan,” says General Weerasooriya. PHOTO: FILE

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka became the first country in the world to defeat terrorism in 2009. On the surface, it was a victory for the government after a four-decade fight with the Tamil Tiger rebels. Nearly 100,000 people were killed in the ethnic guerrilla war between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Hindu Tamils. And just like in Pakistan today, Sri Lanka too bore the brunt of the Tiger suicide bombers. But that is where the similarity ends.

What Pakistan would not give to make the same declaration today – that it has defeated terrorism.

The former chief of the Sri Lankan army understands this desire all too well. “Fighting against its homegrown militants is the only guarantee for peace in Pakistan,” General Srilal Weerasooriya recently told The Express Tribune in an exclusive interview. His long-time friendship with several Pakistani generals, particularly Gen (retired) Pervez Musharraf, made it possible for him to develop an understanding of Pakistani politics and security threats that the region is facing.

Weerasooriya, who rates the Pakistan military as the best disciplined force in South Asia, underscored the need for the country to stop foreigners from infiltrating over the Durand Line – its porous border with Afghanistan. He stopped short of naming any country, however.

And as far as the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan is concerned, Weerasooriya, who has served as ambassador to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, urged Russia and China to play a part in peace-building in this region. The Sri Lankan army could assist Pakistan in the war against insurgency, suggested Weerasooriya. Indeed, perhaps some of the tactics that proved successful on the island could work here. For example, the Sri Lankan army set aside a series of “no-fire zones” and told civilians to assemble there before it repeatedly shelled insurgents.

But Weerasooriya hastened to cautiously add, no doubt from his nuanced understanding of Pakistan’s particular challenge, that the situation in its volatile areas are totally different from those in the Sri Lankan north-western Jaffna province, where much of his country’s civil war took place.

Ties with Musharraf

The general, who also served as ambassador to Pakistan from 2002 to 2007, felt that Musharraf’s team could have changed the mindset of extremists as various military generals, particularly from the ISI, were major players in his cabinet. Musharraf was two batches ahead of Weerasooriya who graduated from Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul.

The Sri Lankan general had an interesting meeting with Musharraf in 1999 just hours before the COAS was to take a flight back home from Colombo on October 12. Weerasooriya feels that Musharraf had dropped a hint about his uneasy relations with then prime minister Nawaz Sharif. This led him to suspect that contrary to Musharraf’s stated position that his decision to topple Nawaz’s government was not planned, it was a premeditated coup. Weerasooriya’s claim contradicts Musharraf’s stance that he was compelled to topple the civilian government when Nawaz attempted to hijack his plane that day.

Counter-insurgency 101 How Sri Lanka beat the rebels

1. Democracy works. Refrain from imposing emergency controls that curtail democratic representation; ensure that legitimate local elections occur regularly in insurgent territory.

2. Empower the military to adapt to guerrilla warfare. Create smaller fighting units. Devolve authority to independent battlefield commanders.

3. Engage internationally and cut off funding. Focus political, military, and diplomatic contacts at the highest level with key neighbouring countries to build confidence.

4. Co-opt at the top. Initiate defection of key operational or regional commanders rather than foot soldiers.

SOURCE: ‘Think Like a Guerrilla: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Sri Lanka’ by Malik Ahmad Jalal in Harvard Kennedy School Review 2011

Published in The Express Tribune, March 4th, 2013.

Reader Comments (10)

  • Mar 4, 2013 - 7:45AM

    Sinhalese Buddhists and the Hindu Tamils

    This is not true on many levels. First not all Sinhalese are Buddhists and not all Tamils were Hindus. There are lots of Christians of both ethnicities.

    Second not all Tamils were involved in the violence. This is a major point that news organizations around the world overlook. Vast swathes of the Tamil population living in the central and southern provinces was peaceful and non-violent. Even in the North and East lots of Tamils were just trying to live their lives. The LTTE was just one among many Tamil organizations and for most of the war it was the only one fighting the government.

    So calling it Sinhalese vs. Tamils is wrong. It was the LTTE vs. the government of Sri Lanka.

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  • Yoghurt lover
    Mar 4, 2013 - 8:11AM

    I am surprised he did not mention the major differences between Sri Lanka and every other country suffering terrorism.

    1) Srilanka is an island, making it easy to control foreign inflow of terrorism and weapons.

    2) Srilankan Tamils were well educated group. Not brutes like LeT or Taliban. Tamil Tigers had an organized government running in the north, unlike LeT or Taliban. Tigers were driven by language while LeT and Taliban are driven by religion. Religion, as has been said by someone, brings out the worst in human beings.

    3) There were no backers to Tigers. Tigers did not have any support from another country. LeT has support from Pakistan. Taliban has support from Afghanistan.

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  • Rajeev Nidumolu
    Mar 4, 2013 - 9:37AM

    SriLankan General has made a deliberate omission in explaining as to how the SriLankan army was victorious against Tamil rebels. LTTE lost sympathy of Indians when it picked up arms against Indian peace keeping force and was involved in assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
    India was involved in naval blockade of LTTE arm supplies during the terminal events of civil war.
    I hope that Pakistanis will not learn from this General “tricks of trade” as to how to commit widespread crimes against humanity in particular Tamil minority.
    Recently there was screening of the latest Channel 4 documentary film “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” organized by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and FIFDH at the Palais de Nations in Geneva on 1st March 2013. Vote is due this month in UN against SriLankan violation of human rights
    The way the civil war ended is no guarantee that there will not be resurgence of tamil minority separatism and it will be supported this time by Indian state of TamilNadu putting pressure on the central Govt.
    Regarding point 1 advice by the general the civil war started because of Sinhala first discrimination policy and not listening to moderate elected leaders of Tamil minority

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  • Ullumian
    Mar 4, 2013 - 11:14AM

    @Yoghurt lover; completely agree with you. Further, LTTE was mainly personality oriented and once Prabhakaran was killed, it couldn’t survive and WILL of the tigers was destroyed. Here TTP is driven by ideology and after one leader is killed another comes up and musters same loyalty from the cadres. We are doomed… because of what our short-sighted generals did and blinded religiosity of the majority of masses.

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  • Mar 4, 2013 - 12:47PM

    Many Sri Lankan Tamils are Christians not Hindus. The LTTE got a considerable amount of support from abroad.

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  • Ram2009
    Mar 4, 2013 - 3:58PM

    The war was not between the Hindu Tamils and the Sinhala Buddhists as you say. It was between Tamil terrorists and the rest of Sri Lankans. It is remarkable that during the thirty years while the war lasted the majority of the Tamils CHOSE to live in areas not controlled by the Tamil terrorists.and more moved away from the Terrorist controlled areas as and when they could.

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  • Mar 4, 2013 - 5:03PM

    @Yoghurt lover:
    1) Being an island does not make it easy to control foreign inflows. On the contrary policing the seas is harder than policing land. For much of the war the LTTE had an efficient sea and land based smuggling network that provided it with everything it needed.

    3) The LTTE was trained by India and later turned on their masters. It is a part of history and you should read up on it. It also had extensive funding from Tamil expatriates living around the world. In the end though the Indians, Chinese and even some Western countries helped close the noose on the LTTE.

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  • Das
    Mar 4, 2013 - 5:58PM

    The general forgot the 25,000 bombing missions by the Sri Lanka Airforce.
    These killed combatants and civilians about equally.

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  • Lion
    Mar 4, 2013 - 6:22PM

    “the ethnic guerrilla war between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Hindu Tamils”

    There was no war between Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils. This is utter nonesense. Please research and investigate for the right information before writing to news papers.

    It was a clear case of ligitimate givernment forces fighting with terrorists to restore peace.

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  • Easwaran
    Apr 5, 2013 - 1:29PM

    @Rajeev Nidumolu:
    I totally agree on what you have written. I wish to observe and add few more points. Srilanka had been just boasting that it had eliminated the terrorism. Did it? No, not by itself, it had 20 odd countries supporting in many ways, which is a common knowledge. During this so called racial war that was fought under “fighting terrorism”, using George Bushes’ slogan “War On Terror” mesmerised the world with its “False propaganda” and blatant lies. Calling out wolf, wolf, to the Co-Chairs who were there to bring peace since 2002, but they turned their commitments to accomplish the ‘counter terrorism methods’ especially USA,UK and EU, following the new world order in the post 9/11 and experiment their ideology- ‘Counter terrorism’. India in addition to the satellite intelligence, also had its military mercenaries accompanied when Indian Prime Minister came for the SAAS conference in Colombo 2007.
    Karuna’s men infiltrated the LTTE in March 2009. Anathapuram debacle was due to these fellows informing the Srilankan Army. They also did shoot the civilians who were trying to escape the war zone. HRW Brett Adams was right in saying investigation should start with Karuna Amman.
    Srilanka is still trying to fool the world that it had eliminated terrorism. Unless its state terrorism is eliminated by the world {UN} there will be no peace or Justice in Srilanka. Srilanka at the UN had the worst Human Right abusers to support.

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