The Nature of War – Part 2
The most obvious feature of a post-modern war is the insurgency, a para-governmental or non-governmental force that seeks concessions from an established government. Most media reports portray the war just that simply. But if it was that simple, the fighting would not continue for years or decades.
I studied the Sri Lanka civil war in great depth for exactly that reason: if it’s that simple, why can’t they end it? Of course, it wasn’t that simple.
The war in Sri Lanka pitted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL). The LTTE claimed it was fighting for a Tamil homeland because of decades of abuses by GOSL against Tamils. The history of abuse is well documented, stretching back to the 1960 violent suppression of a peaceful protest by Tamil activists, and even further. But that’s not enough to explain the LTTE.
Sri Lanka is a unified state, meaning that all power rests with the central government, which is elected through a simple majority. State and provincial officials are appointed by the central government. The country is about 3/4 Sinhalese. while the Sri Lanka Tamils, the second-largest majority, make up just over 12%. In a simple-majority system, the Tamils have no chance at influencing the central government or its appointees to state and provincial office. So Tamils are at a severe political disadvantage to the extent that one might say they are denied self-determination.
But the problem does not lie solely with the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamils. Both Sinhalese and Tamils have a caste system. Unlike India, in Sri Lanka in both ethnic groups, the upper castes are the largest. Thus, the lower castes have little influence even within their own ethnic groups.
The founders of the LTTE came from the lower Tamil castes. They were a double minority, unheard by either the government or their own people. And while their nationalist message initially appealed to intellectuals and some upper caste Tamils, as the war began in earnest, LTTE turned to the Tamil lower castes for support and recruits. Though they claimed the war was for the benefit of the “Tamil people,” their real motive was to gain power for themselves and the unheard low-caste minority within Tamil society, as well as from the Sinhalese-dominated government. Over the years, they mercilessly quashed competing Tamil groups, intellectuals, and high-caste leaders. Their claim to represent the entire Tamil people was true only insofar as they had eliminated any other possible representatives.
One factor in the LTTE’s success was its development of international support. There is evidence that they received some support from India in the early years, but their support primarily came from the tens of thousands of Tamils living abroad. Sometimes voluntarily and sometimes under coercion, the Tamil diaspora provided money and publicity for the LTTE’s efforts at home. LTTE supplemented this support with global enterprises, smuggling guns and drugs all over the world. Thus, LTTE had a stream of foreign support that no other Tamil group could match.
LTTE shares characteristics common to many insurgencies in post-modern wars. They originate in a voiceless group of people with at least some legitimate grievances. They compete successfully within their larger group identity for leadership, often offering para-governmental services such as education and health care that no one else makes available. They develop support networks beyond their immediate constituency. And they use the war skillfully to cement their position.
Similar characteristics can be seen in Hamas in Palestine, the Taliban in Afghanistan, ISIS in Iraq, and many other insurgencies.
One of the most important keys to understanding a conflict is this: under the existing systems, the insurgency’s leaders would have no chance of getting elected through a democratic process. They hold power only so long as the government in question has no control over them. Thus, whether they can win the war or not, they need to keep fighting, because they could never gain or retain power during a time of peace.