ACSLU Publication No. 32

The Lessons of the
Mullaitivu Disaster

An ACSLU Statement


1. The Mullaitivu Disaster

On the night of 19 July 1996 the LTTE terrorists executed a well- planned attack on the military garrison of the Sri Lankan Army at Mullaitivu in the North-East of Sri Lanka. The fighting went on for a few days, and the terrorists have claimed that over a thousand SL soldiers had been killed in this battle. Even though these claims may be exaggerated there is no doubt that the Mullaitivu operation has been one of gravest blows delivered to the SL army in the 14 years of the terrorist insurgency. The debacle at Mullaitivu puts into question the whole strategy of the SL Government's handling of the separatist problem. It should lead to a complete re-think of the policy that has been place for a long time, and pursued alike by both the main political parties that have wielded political power in SL during the duration of this insurgency.

The Mullaitivu action comes at a time when the LTTE and its international support groups have been systematically losing ground both in Sri Lanka and internationally. The loss of the Jaffna region to the LTTE has been a serious blow to their morale, while more and more foreign governments are seeing the true nature of the LTTE. Hence there has been a desperate need for the LTTE to re-establish some of their "reputation" however questionable that reputation has been for all reasonable persons. Those foreign elements which the Tamil Lobby has cultivated for long, and who still support them will no doubt use the Mullaitivu incident as another argument why the LTTE should be looked upon with favour as a credible force in Sri Lanka. However the correct response is not to exaggerate the LTTE capabilities but to emphasise the political and military failures on the part of the SL Government. Of these the political failure is particularly important for it is this failure that has continually prevented the adoption of an effective military strategy to end the insurgency swiftly. Both the UNP and the SLFP and their respective coalition partners has continually touted "devolution of power" as the real solution to which all military efforts must be made subservient. The only differences that separate them relate to details about the proposed devolution of power. The military action is seen as a means to nudge the terrorists to enter negotiations for the devolution of power. Of course the Colombo-based Tamil political parties, some sections of the international Tamil separatist lobby, and crypto-Eelamists both in Sri Lanka and in the expatriate movement, have realised that devolution is an easy route to Eelam and support the devolution efforts of the Government with great enthusiasm. Only the LTTE is seeking a complete capitulation from the Colombo authorities, either on the negotiation table or on the battlefield. The military setbacks which the SL Government has faced since the Jaffna operations is thus closely related to the incorrect political solution that is increasingly being touted by the SL Government. Furthermore a revival of Tamil terrorism in the Jaffna peninsula cannot be ruled out if the conflict with the terrorists in the other parts of Sri Lanka is allowed to continue.

2. The Lessons of the Past
In a number of studies issued during the last decade ACSLU and its forerunner organisation had warned against the consequences of the policy adopted by the SL Government [Note 1]. These warnings were generally ignored. In the light of the Mullaitivu disaster it is time to re-iterate these arguments in the hope that even at these late moments there can be a change in the policies that have so far not secured any resolution to this conflict.

The Mullaitivu disaster is particularly important as it comes after the complacency that has been engendered by the success of the Riviresa operations in the North. These military campaigns did not eliminate the LTTE terrorists but merely shifted the locus of their activity further South into areas in which they had not previously been as active. There have been reports in the post-Riviresa period of LTTE atrocities being committed in a broad arc stretching in a clockwise direction from Puttalam in the central West coast to Yala in the South-East. This perimeter covers nearly three-quarters of the coastal region of Sri Lanka. The Government had been assuring the public that the LTTE could no longer engage in massed attacks, and perhaps this premature boast may have edged the LTTE to demonstrate its power in a most spectacular fashion at Mullaitivu.

We have argued that the greatest failure of successive SL governments has been their political failure from which the military setbacks have arisen. The failures in these areas are particularly alarming in the light of the history of terrorist atrocities. Must of the world attention has been grabbed by terrorist bombs in Colombo and other places, aimed at vital economic targets like the Central Bank and Oil Storage Depots. Then there have been the spectacular assassinations using human bombs. And there has been no let-up in the systematic ethnic cleansing aimed at territorial aggrandisement of the claimed Eelam region. But what has been most galling has been the massive attacks on the security personnel, and the insidious attrition of service personnel. Few nations would have tolerated such attacks on its armed forces. Yet the politicians of Sri Lanka seem not only to ignore them but are also ever ready to forgive the authors of these atrocities as seen in their numerous amnesties, and to parley with them as if they were combatants fighting for a legitimate cause.

There have been previously two particularly serious attacks on security personnel. The first was at the conclusion of President Premadasa's negotiations with the LTTE in 1989. Then under the cover of the cease-fire observed by the security forces well over a thousand policemen and soldiers were treacherously captured. They were then massacred in cold blood to the cheers of Tamil civilians in the Eastern Province, the very "civilians" whose interests are constantly espoused by the so-called human rights groups . No other nation would have forgiven such a cowardly atrocity. But the Premadasa Government turned a blind eye, and the victims of this massacre were quickly forgotten. The second was the attack on the Pooneryn military base. At this time nearly 300 soldiers were killed some of them executed after capture. Once again there was a deafening silence from the Premadasa Government and the international bodies supposed to be concerned with norms for the conduct of military exercises. When the new Government of Kumaratunga came into power its first act was to pay homage to the same terrorists who had been responsible for the killings of 1989 and the Pooneryn attack (not to mention their numerous other atrocities). At that time while many Sri Lankans were hailing this "peace initiative" ACSLU condemned it as a policy that will only lead to disaster. True to form it did not take long for this to happen.

After the collapse of the negotiations with the LTTE the Government launched the Riviresa operations to wrest the Jaffna peninsula from terrorist control. This was the first time that the terrorists were challenged in their own region since Operation Liberation was halted due to Indian intervention in 1987. The success of the Riviresa operations destroyed many of the myths about the LTTE and it gave a much needed boost to the morale of the SL nation. However the failure the pursue the terrorists into their new lair has been a serious mistake. While the Government commenced the reconstruction of Jaffna it forgot that any real reconstruction can only be done when the terrorists are totally eliminated. This did not happen and it may well be that the reconstruction of Jaffna may once again be undone. Certainly the Mullaitivu event must convince the Government that the military defeat of the terrorists must take precedence over all the other activities including the reconstruction of Jaffna.

3. The Devolution Solution
Overshadowing its military errors is the policy of the SL Government which it calls its "political solution" to the SL problem. The devolution package has been analysed elsewhere by ACSLU [Note 2. It has been shown that the devolution proposals amount the transformation of Sri Lanka into a federal state based on the principle of racism and apartheid, and will not only create the preconditions for the final disintegration of Sri Lanka, but also institutionalise racial conflict and even Eelam were to eventuate create an international conflict similar to that between India and Pakistan.

The support for devolution comes from several sources. It is understandable that Tamil racists should be the staunchest supporters of devolution. They rightly see in it the opportunity to the final dismemberment of Sri Lanka. This is the main motivation for the non-LTTE groups. The LTTE have not directly supported the proposals as they hope to secure their Eelam objective by military means, their ambitions for Eelam extend far beyond the Northern and Eastern Provinces which the Government's proposals seem to be conceding as the basis of the Eelam Region.

Quite apart from the Tamil racists there seems to be considerable support for devolution from Sinhalese and the Muslims. The Muslims see the grant of "autonomy" to the Tamils as providing the framework for autonomy for themselves in another part of the SL nation. But what needs to be explained is the support which devolution seems to be enjoying amongst the Sinhalese.

As we have seen both political parties support devolution in some form. These political groups are only interested in the spoils of power for themselves and in search of these are willing to sacrifice the interests of the nation. Since they rely on "democratic" elections to hand over to them the spoils of power they are motivated by a crude political arithmetic. They see that the votes of the Sinhalese are divided between the two main protagonists, so they see the votes of the minorities, especially the Tamils, as making the crucial difference. Hence the unseemly scamble to secure the support of the Tamil groups, both Sri Lankan and Indian. Since the bulk of the Tamil electorate has always demonstrated that they were interested in purely communal politics it is inevitable that the communalist Tamil policy informs the Government of SL whether it is from out of one political grouping over the other.

But the blame cannot be laid entirely on the political parties. They also articulate the demands of the a section of the Sinhalese are coming to be called the neo-Sinhalas. [Note 3] Sri Lanka has in the past produced traitors to the national interest, and the neo-Sinhalas mere carry on this trait. It is surprising how much the ideology of Tamil separatism is espoused by these segments of the Sinhalese. There is no lack of spokespersons from this group who can be relied to grace Eelamist conferences and argue the case why "autonomy" should be given to the Tamils.

The neo-Sinhala ideology is particularly strongly represented in the recent Sinhala migration to the West. There they are joined by JVP-minded persons who between them provide strong support to Tamil separatists. Indeed they form a crypto-Eelamist which is no less inimical to the real interests of Sri Lanka than the Eelamists proper. A full study of this phenomenon is being undertaken by ACSLU and will be published soon.

Whether the Mullaitivu operation will increase the support for devolution in Sri Lanka it is hard to say. Certainly the neo-Sinhalas and other pro-Eelamists will argue that there is no "military solution" to the conflict. This ignores the fact that the devolution solution, whose ultimate destiny is the divide the Island of Sri Lanka into at least two fully armed military camps, it itself the ultimate military solution. Instead of the SL Government having to deal with a terrorist band it will have to deal with a fully armed Eelam which will even try to adopt a nuclear posture. If this were to happen the threat to the rump of Sri Lanka that will remain for genuine Sri Lankans will be far greater than the threat they now face from the LTTE. Unfortunately there is every chance that the success of the LTTE at Mullaitivu will not open the eyes of Sri Lankans, both at home and those abroad, into the real implications of the separatist threat. They might foolishly persevere in the belief that there is a political solution to what they never cease to describe as Sri Lanka's "ethnic problem".

4. Towards a Correct Solution
It must be emphasised that a real political solution exists which must be contrasted with the sham political solution usually described as "devolution"

The real solution involves the very opposite of devolution. It involves the intensification of the centrifugal forces and an increase in the degree of political and economic centralisation. The historical experience of SL has been that it has always prospered when there was a strong central government in place. This has been demonstrated both before and during the period of colonial rule. On the other hand periods of disintegration when a number of "kingdoms" ruled parts of Sri Lanka there had been a general disintegration with no achievements in any area. On the contrary these periods of disintegration have inevitably led to foreign invasion and domination.

The principles that must guide the real political solution have already been identified by ACSLU [Note 4]. They need not be argued here at length. Briefly stated the five principles are the following:

1. The principle of the Unity of Sri Lanka. This affirms that Sri Lanka must at all times remain a unitary state with no concession to devolution of power in any form, least of all on the basis of racism.
2. The principle of non-Racism. This affirms that no weight should be given to racism of any form, and all individuals should be treated alike irrespective of ethnic, racial or religious affiliation.
3. The Principle of Democracy. This means that the ballot and not the bullet should be the basis for decision making. Despite the obvious abuses of the democratic process in Sri Lanka it is still far preferable to the military tactic resorted to by the Tamil separatists and even other terrorists like the JVP.
4. The Fundamental Rights Principle. This affirms that all claims of discrimination and the like should be treated within the context of an established charter of fundamental rights. Of course these rights adhere to individuals as individuals, not as members of any racial group.
5. The Principle of Independence. This affirms that Sri Lanka should not bow to foreign pressure groups in making vital decisions. Many of these foreign bodies whether governmental or NGO are now infiltrated by the LTTE.

All five of these principles are violated in the devolution concept now supported by both the main political parties in Sri Lanka, as well as by racist Tamils and the neo-Sinhala and JVP elements amongst the majority community. But a real political solution is possible on the basis of the five principles enunciated about. The construction of such a solution must be the imperative of the times.

Whether the Mullaitivu incident will lead to a new approach to the problem, one which is based on a political solution embracing the five ACSLU principles is to be seen. If this does happen some good may still eventuate from the carnage at Mullaitivu. If not all this massive loss of life would have been in vain, and those that perished will be betrayed as has been the case with all those who have perished so far.



1. In January 1995, shortly after the commencement of the negotiations with the LTTE ACSLU issued a publication entitled Sri Lanka's Capitulation to Separatist Terrorism. The following quotation, made at the very commencement of the cease-fire which accompanied the start of the negotiations is worth repeating: "To judge by the euphoria of the capitulationists and the foreign expatriate supporters one might well be forgiven for thinking that the cease fire announcement has `solved' the separatist problem in Sri Lanka. This is far from the case."


2. See the ACSLU Publication The Devolution Proposals of the Sri Lankan Government for an analysis of this Package.


3. The term "neo-Sinhala" was coined by ACSLU to denote a new breed of Sinhalese who grew up under the dispensation of Solomon Bandaranaike and who have abandoned the positions of the classic Sinhalese of old who had build the Sri Lankan and nation and maintained it over two millennia. The neo-Sinhalas are little more than apologists for Tamil racism and accept their myths like the discrimination myth and the homeland myth.


4. These principles were set out in the very first document issued by ACSLU: The Manifesto of the Australian Centre for Sri Lankan Unity