Tigers and Lions in Paradise:
the Enduring Agony
of the Sri Lankan Civil War

The horrendous, internecine conflicts of the last 50 years—the wars in the Balkans, in Ulster, in central Africa and the Caucasus—are almost always attributed to the ancient hatreds, hereditary blood feuds, and innate racial and religious animosities of troubled societies. In part, this is a reflection of the late-modern vogue for romantic notions of ethnicity, cultural purity, and racial identity. But it is also an excuse. We like to blame the horrors of history on the irrational because the irrational demands no further explanation, no deeper, potentially more troubling moral examination. We blame bestial behavior on unfathomably primitive, bestial passions, because such explanations put the causes of human behavior beyond reach and beyond individual responsibility. The thought that ordinary, reasonable people like ourselves might be responsible for a Prijedor or a Rwanda and that deliberate, rational action might build such horrors on a foundation as flimsy as the familiar, ordinary passions— envy, greed, lust, ambition—is simply too unsettling. Perhaps this is why much of the world has averted its gaze from the ongoing, 25-year tragedy of the island republic of Sri Lanka, a tragedy that confounds easy, romantic explanations and forces us to see how big a mess ordinary people can make while behaving in quite familiar, entirely comprehensible, typically human ways.

When, in 1947, Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) gained its independence from Britain, it seemed to have a bright future. It was a prosperous nation, by the standards of other newly decolonized countries. It had a strong, growing economy, based largely on tea, tropical timber, and other high-value agricultural commodities, a gentle climate, a relatively well-educated populace, and a generally high standard of living. There were no obvious ethnic divisions of the type that already had Indians tearing each other limb from limb. The majority of the population were Indo-European speaking, Sinhalese Buddhists, descendants of settlers who migrated from India in the 6th century BC. They were farmers, for the most part, and lived largely in the fertile, inland region of southern Sri Lanka. The minority were Tamils, the descendents of the soldiers, traders and fishermen from southern India who gradually settled the less heavily populated northern and eastern coasts of Sri Lanka starting in the 3rd century BC. Contrary to the accounts that various demagogues have invented in the last 30 years, there is little evidence of any long-standing, ancestral conflict between the two populations. There is, in fact, little evidence that they ever formed distinct and homogeneous communities.

Independence was indeed accompanied by considerable ethnic and religious tension, but these were the relatively recent products of British colonial policy. The colonial administration favored the Tamils. It encouraged Tamil immigration in order to guarantee a supply of workers for the tea plantations, teachers for the schools, lawyers for the courts, and bureaucrats for the colonial civil service. It gave them preference when competing for spaces in the universities and for government posts, at the expense of Sinhalese applicants. The Sinhalese resented this favoritism and, as people will, greatly exaggerated its significance. To its victims, the causes of British favoritism—the economic strength, technical knowledge, and political skills that made a generation of Tamils useful to the authorities—seemed to be its products. By 1947, they were determined to get these "products" for themselves, by replacing British-colonial favoritism with the favoritism of a Sinhalese-dominated republican government, a favoritism guaranteed by demographics and universal, one-man one-vote suffrage. Members of the Tamil elite were, of course, no less determined to preserve social, economic, and political advantages that their families had earned, in their own eyes at least, through hundreds of years of communal study, enterprise, and often ill-paid labor. They feared that a quasi-socialist mobocracy might trample on their individual rights, confiscate their property, and strip them of jobs that they had always done well. They lobbied Britain for a Lebanon-style "Fifty-Fifty" solution. As a condition of independence, they wanted the UK to reserve half of the seats in the post-independence parliament for the 13% of the population who were Tamils.

When, by 1949, it became clear that the "Fifty-Fifty" plan had no chance, given the overwhelming opposition of the majority, Tamil politicians began agitating for a separate Tamil homeland in the northern part of the island, perhaps in federation with Tamil Nadu, the predominately Tamil state of southern India. This Tamil Eelam ("Tamil Ceylon") would comprise 29% of Ceylon's land mass, 60% of its coastline, and its only major harbor, Trincomalee. It would accommodate 9% of the island's population (more than half of the Tamils lived and worked in the cities of the south). The agitators justified this audacious proposal with a romantic pseudo-history of the island that identified their newly invented Eelam with an ancient Tamil kingdom predating the Sinhalese and attributed its disappearance to remorseless Sinhalese oppression.

No less strident Sinhalese chauvinists had a no less convenient mythology of their own. It denied that the 2000 year-old Tamil presence in the island was anything but a a short-lived, ancient invasion perpetuated by colonial injustice and recent illegal immigration. This influx of "foreigners" had interfered with Sri Lanka's destined role as the special guardian of Buddhist teaching. It had corrupted the sacred Sinhalese language with foreign terms and, worst of all, polluted the sacred Aryan blood of the Sinhalese people with inferior, Dravidian stock. In 1956, the Sinhalese extremists managed to elect one of their more unscrupulous demagogues, Solomon Bandaranaike, prime minister. He made Sinhalese the sole official language for public business and Buddhism the official, state-supported religion. In the interest of righting past discrimination, Bandaranaike and his supporters in parliament pushed through what Americans know as an "affirmative action" program. They replaced competitive examinations with a set of discriminatory racial quotas designed to increase the proportion of Sinhalese in the universities, professions, and civil-service, even if better-qualified Tamil applicants had to be turned away. To break the imagined Tamil stranglehold on the economy and to return the nation's wealth to the "people," Bandaranaike's party embraced a a strange amalgam of foreign Marxist ideology and native Buddhist communalism. He declared the country a socialist republic and nationalized most major enterprises.

For the first 40 years of the republic's existence, this violent rhetoric and discriminatory, ethnocentric legislation did little to undermine the general public's commitment to parliamentary democracy and peaceful change. For all their vehemence, the disputes remained political disputes, and ethnic animosities for the most part stayed what they had always been, a cynical rhetorical trick used in parliamentary debates and stump speeches.

Unfortunately, while the political leadership was occupying itself with romantic, racist rhetoric and socialist fantasies, the Sri Lankan economy was failing. The prices of key crops began to fall sharply in the 1960s, and Bandaranaike's ill-considered socialism sapped what strength the economy still had. The government poured scarce capital into poorly conceived public works projects, including a grandiose Maheweli River irrigation project that was that was meant to restore the semi-desert lands that had once been the agricultural heartland of the ancient Sinhalese kingdoms. As conditions worsened, state enterprises had to be subsidized, strikers had to be appeased with higher wages, and the poor had to be helped with ever larger welfare payments. The nation was bankrupt, and, by the end of the decade, fully 25% of the population, Sinhalese and Tamil, was unemployed. Most of the unemployed were young. For this desperate mass of disappointed youth, the violent metaphors and racist rhetoric that passed for the ordinary, if raucous, give-and-take of parliamentary debate among the established politicians now became a literal call to arms.

In 1971, the violence began. Many young Sinhalese had by now concluded that the nation's socialism had failed by being too half-hearted and that its "revolution" had been betrayed by Westernized politicians and an alien system of parliamentary democracy. These militants coalesced around the Jatika Chintanaya, the "National Ethos" or "Racial Ideology" advocated by the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (Peoples' Liberation Front). This party's leader, Rohana Wijeweera, was a medical student turned revolutionary who modeled himself on Pol Pot and the xenophobic Burmese generals. Under his leadership, the JVP set out to destroy all traces of non-Sinhalese culture in the island. Western technology, architecture, religion (a sizable part of the population was Christian), and dress would be purged. The mongrel Tamil and Eurasian minorities would be driven out, and the Aryan blood of the Sinhalese race would be purified. Buddhism would be restored to its ancient predominance, and the nation would settle back into the pristine, agricultural self-sufficiency of the 9th century. To bring all this about, there would have to be killing. In 1971,the JVP launched an open insurrection that focused in large measure on killing "Westernized" Sri Lankans—politicians, policemen, and any and all Sinhalese who disagreed with the party's Racial Ideology. The army and police responded as best they could and, after a desperate struggle, suppressed the initial uprising, at the cost of 10,000 to 20,000 insurgents and "sympathisers" killed. The JVP went underground, to emerge a few years later in still more virulent and violent form.

At roughly the same time, Tamil politics gave birth to its own racist terrorists. Extremist factions sprang up in the youth movements of all the established Tamil separatist parties, notably that of the Tamil United Front. In 1972, the TUF youth wing began a series of grenade attacks on civilian officials, most of them Tamils who failed to toe the Tamil hardline and older TUF officials who tried to control younger members of their party. This in-fighting splintered the TUF and brought ever more extravagantly named extremist groups into being: the Tamil New Tigers, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), and the soon-to-be-notorious Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The ultras of the LTTE soon secured the assistance of the government of India's Tamil Nadu state, and, given the demands of coalition politics, the tacit support of Indira Gandhi's national government. LTTE terrorists attended training camps in Tamil Nadu where they were trained by sympathetic Indian military officers and agents of RAW (the Research and Analysis Wing), India's secret intelligence service (the RAW doubtless hoped to destabilize Sri Lanka and arrange for its eventual incorporation into India). LTTE operatives openly outfitted speed boats for raids on Sri Lanka, gathered and transshipped arms, and extorted "taxes" from well-to-do mainland Tamils. On more than one occasion, the LTTE's improvised gunboats proved more than a match for the Sri Lankan patrol craft that tried to interdict the arms traffic in the Palk Strait, between India and Sri Lanka's LTTE-held Jaffna peninsula. The Tamil militants used their new arms to carry out ever more spectacular atrocities against the Sinhalese civilian population, including a horrendous 1985 attack on the Buddhist shrine at Anuradhapura, where 150 Sinhalese were massacred and the sacred Bo tree—sprung from a seed of the tree under which Buddha reached nirvana—severely damaged.

By 1977, the shift to violence and the enormous human cost of the JVP uprising had waked up the Sri Lankan electorate. It elected Junius Jayewardene, who set about reversing the disastrous economic policies of the Bandaranaike regimes, repealing discriminatory legislation, and lessening of intercommunal tensions. But, misled by apparent successes against the 1971 JVP uprising and by the advice of his foreign counter-insurgency specialists (British, Israeli, and Pakistani), Jayewardene believed that terrorism could be handled militarily, by the army and police, while economic problems and intercommunal relations were addressed separately by the politicians. Relieving Tamil-Sinhalese tensions would proceed side by side with an all-out, no-holds-barred counter-terrorism operation aimed at the LTTE. This policy was a disaster. Unlike the JVP, which had no external supporters, the LTTE could had arms and expertise available in neighboring India. The Sri Lankan military found itself ill-equipped and ill-trained in the face of such a well-armed and ruthless foe. It suffered one humiliating defeat after another, and, in desperation, turned to collective punishment, torture, and indiscriminate counterterror against Tamils. These expedients fatally undermined Jayewardene's parallel, conciliatory efforts, and threw huge numbers of Tamils into the arms of the rebels. By 1981, the nation had plunged irretrievably into war.

Like other adherents of modern counter-insurgency doctrine, the Sri Lankan authorities placed heavy reliance on air power. Airplanes seemed likely to make best use of what limited military experience was available, either in the ranks at home or in the international mercenary market. A small number of professionals in aircraft could, it was thought, move rapidly from trouble spot to trouble spot, apply overwhelming fire power, and insert, supply, and remove commando teams without exposing them to the ambushes and surprise attacks that plagued road- and outpost-bound conventional troops. Aircraft could easily run down and destroy even the fastest LTTE speed boat, and they could stiffen the resistance of low quality troops with timely fire support and tactical information.

Unfortunately, the air force was even less well-equipped than the rest of the Sri Lankan military. Twelve Jet Provost T.Mk.51s had been purchased new in 1959 (Ceylon being the launch customer for this variant) and assigned serials CJ701-CJ712. The T.Mk.51 was purpose-built for light-attack duties, with two .303-in (7.7-mm) machine guns in the walls of the engine air intakes and underwing racks for typical loads of four rockets and eight 25-lb fragmentation bombs. But, by the early 1980s, only two of the original 12 were still airworthy. These had been in storage for some years. The Bandaranaike regime's flirtation with Asian socialism had led it to purchase small numbers of Shenyang FT-2 (MiG-15UTI), F-5 (MiG-17), and F-7 (MiG-21F) fighter aircraft from China, but these had proven woefully unreliable and spare parts and support were all but unobtainable. Few, if any, were still airworthy. The service was even more desperately short of transport aircraft. A pair of no longer flyable C-47s and one or two recently acquired Hawker-Siddeley HS.748s were all that was available.

To meet the immediate operational need, the Sri Lankan Air Force armed its small, seven-aircraft fleet of Bell 206 JetRanger liaison helicopters for service as interim gunships. In 1981, the helicopters were re-engined to bring them up to the then-current JetRanger III standard. They were then painted a dark, olive green and fitted with seven-round, 70-mm rocket pods and FN-built 12.7-mm (.50-cal) machine-gun pods (some were later finished in a green and dark-earth or stone segmented camouflage). In 1984, two more JetRanger IIIs were purchased. All were assigned to No. 4 Helicopter Wing. Unfortunately, they did not altogether meet the army's needs. They were too small to transport commando teams and were fairly lightly armed. Moreover, they were seldom available for close-support and strike missions because of more pressing operations over the Palk Strait. Though an unlikely maritime patrol aircraft, the JetRanger was, for want of anything better, most often assigned to the ongoing attempt to interdict the nightly arms shipments that the LTTE smuggled across the strait from India. While its range was modest, the Bell 206's rocket and machine-gun armament was entirely adequate against the lightly built speed boats used by the smugglers.

To meet the need for a transport and heavier gunship helicopter, the SLAF turned to the Bell 212, the twin-engined, PT6-powered version of the veteran Huey. Two of these were acquired along with the additional 206s in 1984, primarily for logistical purposes. But, once it became clear that the nation's continuing financial difficulties made procurement of a dedicated gunship impossible, the service settled on the 212 as the best, dual-purpose compromise. Bell Asia supplied a total of 12, 9 of which were armed by Heli Orient with a door-mounted 12.7-mm machine gun and a pair of 7- or 19-round 70-mm rocket pods or FN 12.7-mm machine-gun pods. The gunships were airlifted to No. 4 Squadron's base at Katunayake in 1985. The Bell 212 gave the SLAF its first effective tactical transport and attack capability. Operating in conjunction with the British-trained commandos of the newly formed Special Task Force, the helicopters at last let the Sri Lankan Army go on the offensive. At least one was soon lost to LTTE ground fire, and several more were damaged to varying degrees. Repairing the aircraft abroad was more expensive than the service could afford, so the SLAF bought the requisite repair equipment and began doing the work itself. Four Bell 412 aircraft were added to the fleet later in the year.

Transport capacity was increased by buying two Harbin Y-8 four-engined heavy transports and six Y-12 II light twins from China, all at very low prices. The Y-8 was essentially a pirated Antonov An-12. The aircraft were already old when supplied and rough runways and tropical conditions forced them to operate with less than half their designed load. The Y-12 II is an indigenous Chinese design in the same class as the CASA Aviocar or DHC Twin Otter. Both types went into service with No. 2 Transport Wing.

Three twin-engined deHavilland Doves, a four-engined deHavilland Heron, and two turbine-powered Riley Skyliner Heron conversions were pressed into service as maritime patrol aircraft with No. 3 Maritime Squadron at China Bay. These elderly commuter airliners lacked any direct, offensive capability, but they at least had the range and endurance for the task and could call in the less economical strike aircraft when a target was located and identified. For shorter range patrols, the squadron had a small number of Cessna 337 Super Skymasters.

Late in 1985, the SLAF added its first fixed-wing COIN aircraft to its arsenal, six SIAI SF-260TPs, turboprop versions of the widely exported SF-260W. The aircraft were reportedly built for the military dictatorship of Myanmar (Burma), but never delivered, either for political or financial reasons. They were thus available immediately and at a good price. Four underwing hard points let the SF-260TP carry up to 661 lbs (300 kg) of munitions when flown as a single seater, including 250-lb bombs, 70-mm rocket pods, and machine-gun pods. The SIAIs were immediately sent into action, camouflaged in two shades of dark blue-green and carrying tiny, toned-down insignia. The SF-260 was popular in SLAF service. Two were subsequently shot down and immediately replaced by aircraft purchased in Italy, one of which was the company demonstrator. A Sri Lankan serial number and low-visibility insignia were simply painted on the demonstrator's original sand-and-stone desert camouflage, and the SIAI corporate markings were retained. All the SF-260s were assigned to No. 1 Flying Training Wing, which served as the SLAF's fixed-wing COIN unit.

(above) SIAI SF-260TP and FMA IA-58 Pucara COIN aircraft

In 1992, the Sri Lankan government purchased its second fixed-wing COIN type from the Argentine air force. Four refurbished IA.58A Pucara twin-turboprops, serial numbers A-600 to A-603, were delivered to No. 1 Flying Training Wing at Katunayake and given SLAF serial numbers CA-601, CA-602 (later renumbered CA-605), CA-603, and CA-604. All retained their light-grey and sky-blue Argentine camoufage. Once a nucleus of three Sri Lankan pilots and 12 mechanics had received training at the Argentine air force overhaul facility, Area de Material Córdoba (AMC), the aircraft were committed to action, operating from Anuradhapura and Vavuniya in the north. They seemed ideal for the purpose. The IA.58 is well-armed, with four 7.62-mm FN-Browning machine guns with 900 rpg (rounds per gun) and two 20-mm Hispano DCA-804 cannon with 270 rpg mounted internally in the fuselage. With full fuel and ammunition, up to 1500 kg (3305 lb) of 250-kg South African bombs and 70-mm rocket pods can be carried externally on one 1000-kg (2205-lb) capacity Alcan pylon under the fuselage and two 500-kg (1102-lb) pylons under the wings. Twin engines and cockpit armor provide good protection against light ground fire. Yet, despite its evident suitability, the aircraft has apparently not been a success in SLAF service. Serviceability is said to be low, perhaps due to problems with the French Astazou engines and/or difficulties obtaining spares for what is now a rather elderly, limited-production aircraft (only 108 were built, and Uruguay remains the only other export customer).

By 1987, new equipment and growing experience had at last brought the government forces some battlefield successes, but at a frightful cost. The LTTE rebels remained as firmly entrenched in the Jaffna peninsula as ever, and most army posts in the north were essentially surrounded and under siege, even if aircraft did allow access to the outside. The LTTE had, moreover, gone over to the offensive in the crowded cities of the south. LTTE terrorists would detonate large bombs—often strapped to their own bodies—in crowded markets or religious processions and confederates would then machine-gun the wounded and panic-stricken survivors before melting back into the still numerous urban Tamil population. LTTE attacks on rural, non-Tamil villages, on travelers, and on captive government soldiers and policemen were, at the same time, ever more grotesque and barbaric. Victims were tortured, mutilated, burned alive, and strung up from lamp posts along the roads, which were heavily and indiscriminately mined by LTTE operatives. The experience of this type of warfare quickly brutalized the relatively inexperienced and amateurish Sri Lankan army. The professional, pre-war officer corps proved incapable of controlling the excesses of outraged conscripts, even when it wished to do so. Collective punishment, often in the form of heavy, indiscriminate shelling and deliberate air attacks on civilians, became normal operating procedure. Suspects and their families were routinely tortured for information or as examples to others and then summarily executed. Non-Tamil civilian groups were armed with shotguns and organized into civilian local defense teams for purposes of self defense and prophylactic terror, though, predictably, they spent much of their time settling private scores. Sometimes whole villages were simply lined up and shot because a mine had happened to go off on a nearby road. The LTTE cynically encouraged such over reaction by deliberately mining the roads around Tamil villages that were playing no part in the insurgency and by firing on government troops from clinics, private homes, temples, and churches. The inevitable retaliation would, by falling on the innocent, teach Tamils everywhere that they could not remain neutral and could not escape association with the LTTE. The central government was, meanwhile, becoming ever more authoritarian and corrupt.

In the early summer of 1987, events took a dramatic turn. Mounting LTTE atrocities and growing confidence in the army's abilities caused the government to mount an all-out, general offensive on the LTTE stronghold in Jaffna. Helicopter gunships and SF-260TPs bombed and strafed towns all over the north. Spearheaded by the airborne commandos of the Special Task Force, columns of mine-proofed, South African-supplied Buffalo armored vehicles moved slowly forward behind completely indiscriminate artillery barrages. The LTTE fought back ferociously, ambushing and sometimes routing government columns. But the offensive moved forward. Meanwhile, the government's air and sea blockade of the Jaffna peninsula was at last making itself felt.

At this point, India intervened to stop the government offensive. Alleging widespread starvation among the civilian population of Jaffna, India unilaterally announced that it would break the blockade and supply humanitarian relief to the north. On 4 June, after a motley flotilla of relief vessels was turned back by Sri Lankan Navy gunboats, five IAF An-32 transports dropped 25 tons of food and medicine under cover of Mirage 2000 fighters. India also issued an ultimatum. It demanded that fighting stop and that Indian forces be allowed into the country as peacekeepers. This looked very much like the Indian takeover that the Sinhalese right had always feared, like a new Goa or Hyderabad. Outraged and goaded by extremist politicians, President Jayewardene briefly considered declaring war on India. But his senior military commanders quickly brought him back to reality. He really had no choice. On 29 July Jayewardene and India's president, Rajiv Gandhi, signed the Accord, an agreement that made the Indian-brokered ceasefire permanent, granted the Tamils limited autonomy in the north, guaranteed that the LTTE would surrender its weapons, repatriated the government's Israeli, British, and Pakistani mercenaries, and made India Sri Lanka's sole source of arms and military training.

Relative calm in the north was, however, offset by a new civil war in the south. The Accord provoked violent outrage among the Sinhalese, now hardened by LTTE terror and used to the anything-goes warfare of the last few years. Indian An-32s had to fly government troops from the north to prevent rioting in Columbo. Worse, the JVP suddenly reemerged to attack government officials, loyal Tamils, Muslims, and moderate Sinhalese, including even the monks and teachers who had been considered sacrosanct in traditional Sinhalese society. From 25-50 people per day were being killed by JVP activists. Ominously, the ultra-nationalist party had by now made inroads into the war-hardened army, police, and civil administration. In much of the south, it was already a shadow government, with widespread support from a population almost uniformly opposed to the Accord.

At this point, in yet another bizarre twist, the LTTE ended the peace in the north with attacks on Sinhalese civilians and the largely ineffectual Indian peacekeepers The LTTE had come to fear the Indians and suspect their motives, much as the Sinhalese did. India viewed the LTTE as a creature of its RAW and thus as a mere tool of Indian policy. It expected the organization to follow Indian instructions. It was not about to tolerate an independent Tamil nationalist movement, particularly one that had designs on the Tamil regions of southern India, as the LTTE did. When LTTE militants proved less pliable than the RAW had expected, India decided to dispose of them. Indian peacekeepers enforced the disarmament clauses of the Accord vigorously where the LTTE was concerned, while the RAW quietly organized and armed rival Tamil militias. The LTTE feared imminent annihilation, and lashed out with a series of village massacres—the first in what would soon emerge as a full-scale campaign of "ethnic cleansing"—and land-mine attacks, which India seemed powerless or unwilling to stop.

To rescue its credibility as a peace keeper, India now felt forced to punish the LTTE. In October 1987, it launched Operation Pawan ("Wind"), the capture and occupation of Jaffna. It took 17 days, despite overwhelming Indian force. The town was bombed by waves of MiG-21 fighter-bombers, strafed by Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopter gunships, and relentlessly pounded by howitzers, tank cannon, and Soviet 122-mm artillery rockets. At least 1000 civilians died. But, despite losing 300-400 dead, the Tigers managed to slip through the Indian cordon with their weapons. India lost 450 killed. By the end of the year, the Indians had over 50,000 men in the country and were losing them regularly to LTTE ambushes and landmines. They quickly adopted the very same tactics— reprisal and collective punishment o Tamils—that had provoked Indian intervention in the first place.

By the middle of 1989, the new President of Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa was demanding the withdrawal of Indian troops, to no avail, and the ever more xenophobic JVP seemed on the verge of seizing power. To curb the Sinhalese nationalists, the president had to end the occupation. He thus took the extraordinary step of entering into secret talks with the Tamil Tigers. In exchange for a ceasefire and an end to the ethnic cleansing, he would arm the LTTE against the Indians (Indian naval power had presumably choked off most of the LTTE's normal weapons sources) and would stand by while the LTTE liquidated the rival Tamil groups that the RAW had organized. When the ceasefire was made public (but not the arms agreement), Premadasa was able to argue that Sri Lankan's were solving there own problems and that foreign troops were a hindrance rather than a help. Faced with renewed Tamil assaults and an ever more hostile central government, the Indians stopped operations against the Tigers and pulled out, the last troops leaving in March 1990. The LTTE wiped out its pro-Indian competitors, and then settled down to what would be the longest ceasefire of the war, just over a year.

Peace was not at hand, however. By removing the Indians, Premadasa had secured his nationalist credentials and freed himself for an all-out assault on the JVP, which had, in the interim, murdered almost 4500 members of his United National Party (UNP). The JVP was now a formidable enemy. JVP agents instigated crippling strikes and scared government workers away from their jobs more or less permanently. The capital, Colombo, was blacked out because of sabotage, under curfew, and studded with concrete pillboxes and army checkpoints. Given the widespread sympathy for the ultra right in the security forces and the army, the JVP might have been able to seize power outright, had it not overplayed its hand. To secure its growing place in the army and police, the JVP tried to intimidate officers and men who did not adhere to the party's National Ethos ideology and those who belonged to the ruling UNP. It massacred the families of holdout soldiers. This was a serious mistake. Solidarity within the battle-hardened security services proved much stronger than mere ideological convictions. When the president ordered the liquidation of the JVP, the army and police were ready and willing. The helicopter gunships were launched against neighborhoods deemed sympathetic to the JVP. 10,000 army troops were redeployed from the north and unleashed against the 2000 or so hardcore JVP activists in the south. In the dead of night, exotically named, newly formed, Latin American-style death squads—Yellow Cats and Green Tigers—snatched JVP suspects, their families, and their neighbors, together with the human rights monitors who tried to publicize their fates. The mutilated, often headless bodies would be found the next day, hanging from trees, floating down the rivers and in the sea, or smoldering in the crater where the latest JVP land mine had blown up an army vehicle. Under torture, JVP captives soon revealed the hiding place of their leader, Rohanna Wijeweera. He died in custody, along with almost every other prominent JVP activist.

The JVP was broken, but at a horrible cost. In the general climate of barbarism and near-anarchy that now prevailed in Sri Lanka, terror was an accepted method for settling disputes even in government circles. Opposition politicians were soon receiving visits from the Yellow Cat death squads and most forms of political expression were simply outlawed. Putting up anti-government posters, striking, or attending unauthorized political meetings were now capital offenses. Any news that the government deemed counter to the national interest was censored.

With the JVP at last out of the way and almost all Sinhalese political opposition intimidated or suppressed, Premadasa felt freer to make concessions to the Tigers. He was confident that he could negotiate a workable peace, using the Indian-brokered Accord as a framework. But the LTTE had no intention of making peace. They had recently been raising new funds by hiring their killers to coup plotters in the Maldive islands and to drug traffickers in Burma. They had rearmed and eliminated their Tamil rivals and thus felt ready to tackle the government again. Without warning, in the middle of negotiations, LTTE guerrillas overran twenty police stations in the eastern province. Some 800 policemen, who, under the conditions of the ceasefire, had been confined to barracks, surrendered on orders from the government, which still hoped to calm things down. The LTTE shot the prisoners. Government forces and Sinhalese mobs massacred at least 600 defenseless Tamil civilians in retaliation. Faced with the threat of a Sinhalese backlash, even a revival of the JVP, Premadasa had no choice. He abandoned further peace overtures and ordered the army to wipe out the LTTE once and for all.

(above) Unmarked, mercenary-manned Mi-24 gunship and An-32 transport

The fragmentation of the Soviet Union had by now made a wide range of military aircraft and mercenary aircrew available to any country prepared to pay the modest prices asked, with no political strings attached. To carry out its part in the coming campaign, the SLAF took advantage of this new source of arms and men. In 1993, twelve Mi-17 transport helicopters were purchased from the factories at Kazan and Ulan-Ude in the former Soviet Union. All were delivered to 6 Squadron at Vavuniya and used for airlifting troops into the battle areas. Twin-engined An-32 transport planes were obtained at the same time.

The long-serving Bell gunships were supplemented by a handful of Mil Mi-24V helicopters, which entered service with 9 Squadron at Minneriya/Hingaruakgoda. The aircraft were heavily armed with a 12.7-mm Gatling gun and large pods of 57-mm rockets. Reportedly, the aircraft were leased along with their crews from Belarus or the Ukraine. They operate without markings other than a discrete, SLAF serial number.

Finally, the SLAF bought its first reasonably reliable jet fighter-bombers, Israeli-made IAI Kfirs. Two Kfir C2s and a TC2 two-seater were delivered late in 1995 or early in 1996 and assigned to newly formed No. 10 Squadron. One or two others probably followed. These aircraft have been heavily engaged in bombing missions in the north, as well as in antishipping strikes against LTTE transports and gunboats. As a COIN airplane, a high-performance jet like the Kfir leaves something to be desired, and attacks are necessarily rather indiscriminate, given the evident lack of precision- guided munitions, limited forward air-control, an elusive enemy, and wooded terrain.

The new aircraft and pilots, together with newly acquired T-55/59 tanks, spearheaded the new government assault on the LTTE. In 1995, the army overran Jaffna city after a 50-day siege, though, once again, most of the LTTE fighters successfully escaped across Jaffna Kilali lagoon. With Jaffna successfully occupied, the government forces turned their attention to the rebel-held territory south of the Jaffna peninsula. LTTE command of the area around Vavuniya, Mankulam, and Mullaittivu made the army's position in the north rather precarious. Overland communications with the Sinhalese south were blocked by the LTTE, and LTTE gunboats operating from the rebel-held coastline south of Mullaittivu made the sea lanes insecure. The large Jaffna garrison and the widely scattered, isolated army camps were thus, in effect, besieged, despite their material superiority. Expensive, inadequate airlifts had to supply all of their basic needs, even as air transport itself became increasingly dangerous. SA-7 missiles were by now taking a steady toll of the chartered, civilian-flown An-32 and Y-8 transports. The danger could be reduced by flying over the sea, but it could not be eliminated. At least one Y-8 was shot down over the open ocean by an SA-7 launched from an LTTE speed boat. To secure its position in the north and end the insurrection, the army had to open a land corridor between Jaffna and the south.

Operation Jaya Sikurui ("Victory Assured") was supposed to achieve final victory by clearing the narrow strip of rebel-held land between Vavuniya, the northernmost point under government control, and Kilinochchi, on the edge of the government-held Jaffna area, 65 km to the north. After the Sri Lankan army's relatively swift success in Jaffna, the LTTE capital, this seemed like a relatively straightforward operation. Columns of tanks and armored personnel carriers would move rapidly along the highways linking Kilinochchi, Vavuniya, and Mullaittivu. The columns would be covered by aircraft and supported by artillery. But, air reconnaissance proved incapable of securing the army's flanks in the close, dry scrub forest that covered the area. The columns quickly advanced 6-10 kilometers on each front, meeting weak LTTE resistance, then blundered into long, running ambushes. LTTE antitank weapons, mortars, and mines took a heavy toll of the armor in the close country, and units quickly became disorganized. Towns were captured, lost, and recaptured as besieging forces found themselves besieged in turn. What had been planned as a war-winning, lightning offensive quickly bogged down, and the familiar pattern of the war—grinding, indecisive bloodshed—reasserted itself. By September 1998, the army had captured 2/3 of the highway between Kilinochchi and Vavuniya and occupied Mankulam. But the rebels had captured Kilinochchi. After 16 years of fratricidal warfare, there is no end in sight.

Markings note: most Sri Lankan Air Force aircraft carry small Sinhalese inscriptions that I have not been able to reproduce in the drawings.

Text and illustrations © 1998 by Robert Craig Johnson.
Photographs © 1998 by Peter Steinemann. Used by permission.

The views expressed in this artcle are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Peter Steinemann or Skyline Aviation Photo Agency.

Peter Steinemann is a noted aviation photographer who specializes in the air forces of Asia. His work appears regularly in well-known periodicals, including Air Forces Monthly and World Air Power Journal. His book, Asian Airpower, is published by Osprey. To see more of Peter's photographs, visit his website, Skyline Aviation Photo Agency.