A year ago this week, the Sri Lankan government officially declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in one of the most extraordinary counter-insurgency campaigns in recent times.
The endgame of the conflict, particularly from January to May 2009, saw the bloodiest fighting, often with the presence of tens of thousands of civilians that the LTTE desperately used to fend off its inevitable defeat. Since then, new evidence has become public that offers further insights into the final months of Sri Lanka’s secessionist civil war.
For decades, the jungle-laden Mullaitivu District, located in Sri Lanka’s northeast, served as the LTTE’s main stronghold. However, under significant military pressure from the Sri Lankan Army during the final stages of the conflict, the LTTE conducted a fighting retreat towards its last bastion astride the Mullaitivu coastline.
As it did so, the LTTE used all means at its disposal to inflict casualties to delay, halt or even push back the Army’s advance. For example, the LTTE constructed a series of embankments between two and three metres high, also known as earth bunds, which proved to be formidable defensive obstacles. Assault troops also encountered camouflaged LTTE armour plated bunkers.
According to one frontline Army officer from the time: ‘You don’t know where they are, and you can’t even see them until your right on them…The first you know is when you are wounded in the leg. All we can do is to fire towards the sound, throw grenades and send off RPGs [Rocket Propelled Grenades] in the general direction.’
In addition, frontline infantry often confronted elaborately laid LTTE minefields that required field engineers equipped with Bangalore torpedoes to clear pathways. Similarly, the LTTE cleverly utilised booby traps made of discarded rubbish and metal that were tied to hidden explosive caches dispersed over a wide area that when triggered caused multiple and devastating explosions.
Each passing month saw increasingly fierce combat. Reports suggested that the Army absorbed anywhere between 10 and 20 fatalities per day—sometimes more—while the Army claims that the LTTE suffered average losses ranging from 25 to 40 combatants per day. Due to high levels of attrition and the need to augment its depleted conventional formations, the LTTE had little choice than to continue to rely heavily on forced recruitment of civilians, a practice that it revived full-scale in late 2007.
To ensure a ready supply of civilians, the LTTE adopted a series of coercive measures such as that reported in one Sri Lankan newspaper which quoted a 14-year-old female child soldier saying the LTTE had warned her that her family would be punished if she didn’t join. Indeed, the Army confirmed that an increasing number of conscripts were seen at the frontline, notably child soldiers. ‘It’s like looking at your own child. Quite large numbers [of the LTTE fighters killed or captured] are under 16,’ one Army Brigadier told the Telegraph. ‘They grab them from their parents and [when] they try to pull them back they [the parents] get shot. These children have dog tags and cyanide capsules.’ Indeed, it was later revealed, according to the independent Sri Lankan daily, The Island, that in the final months of the war the LTTE planned to carry out a massive offensive against the Army with 300 suicide bombers, but was forced to cancel it as many suicide bombers were either killed in action or deserted to government-controlled territory.