As Sri Lanka’s conflict shifted from largely a guerrilla war to a conventional one, the Liberation Tigers have become increasingly aware of an important lack in their state-building strategy. That gap was glaringly exposed in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami: at times of crisis, the LTTE’s cadres simply cannot be everywhere at the same time. The gradual disintegration of the Norwegian peace process and recent tsunami scares have spurred an age old solution: a citizens’ militia.
When the huge waves smashed into the northern, eastern and southern coastlines on December 26, they not only annihilated entire communities, but also destroyed roads and bridges, cut communications and overwhelmed local authorities’ capacities.
By quickly mobilising its military machine – particularly its naval forces - and deploying its entire fighting strength alongside its relief, police and other civil administration arms, the LTTE was able to rescue tens of thousands, treat the many wounded, prevent the spread of disease and organise relief assistance for the homeless.
But key lessons were learnt. Had the waves struck amid an ongoing war and the LTTE’s forces deployed in combat operations, the casualties would have been much worse. And after the immediate rescue effort, the subsequent relief efforts - which tied up large numbers of LTTE troops - might have been untenable.
‘We are not doing this because war is imminent but if war is imposed on us, the people will want to protect themselves’ – LTTE
These realisations have occurred against a background of another concern. From the outset, the conflict has been characterised by atrocities and abuses against civilians. Numerous massacres and mass arrests and disappearance of Tamil civilians by Sri Lanka’s predominantly Sinhala armed forces, particularly in the nineties, have contributed to the terrorising of the populace, as have frequent incidents of torture and rape in military custody.
As Tamil guerrillas grew in numbers and acquired greater firepower, Sri Lanka’s armed forces ability to range freely became increasingly curtailed. Civilian deaths in areas LTTE-controlled areas were mainly caused by aerial and artillery bombardment, and the effects of embargo. In areas controlled by the military – particularly recently captured from the LTTE - however, the population was vulnerable to arrest and summary executions, torture and rape. The abuses in Jaffna after its capture in 1995 – as typified by the rape and murder of Krishanthi Kumaraswamy and her family – are a case in point.
The shift from guerrilla war to conventional war, meanwhile, resulted in the increasing concentration of forces by both sides. In the late nineties, for example, the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) massed its key fighting divisions (in Jaffna and Vavuniya) to invade the LTTE-held Vanni. As a result, the Tigers were also compelled to do the same. In concentrate their forces for decisive battles, both sides were compelled to leave territory they controlled elsewhere weakly defended. In the mid-nineties, the SLA moved large numbers of troops from the eastern provinces to Jaffna for the peninsula’s capture, enabling the LTTE to take over large swathes of territory in Batticaloa.
But the SLA’s ability to hold other parts of the eastern province whilst massing its troops in the north was enhanced by its raising in the preceding years of tens of thousands of ‘Home Guards.’ Drawn from Sinhala colonies and Muslim villages in the Northeast, the Home Guards comprised a comparatively lightly armed, yet effective militia. Apart from providing local security in some Army-controlled areas, they constituted a first line of defence against LTTE incursions, enabling the limited SLA forces to provide a mobile response in the event of major clashes. Across the eastern province, and especially in the contested colonisation zones, the Home Guards also unleashed a punitive wave of terror, displacing tens of thousands of Tamils.
‘Militia can maintain law and order and protect people in the aftermath of the full range of emergencies’ – Col. (retd) John R. Brinkerhoff
Amid growing fears of war in the wake of the deterioration of the February 2002 ceasefire and the increasingly aggressive posture adopted by Sri Lankan security forces in the Northeast, the LTTE has now set about building a citizens’ militia that can provide a measure of protection for their own villages, particularly against Army-backed irregulars, and could be drafted into relief efforts in the wake of natural disasters in other areas.
Training, conducted on a part-time basis, takes two months. Apart from fitness drills, it includes the use of small arms and grenades. Able-bodied civilians, including housewives, university students, school teachers and senior citizens are taking part, Reuters reported last month. Training is open to men and women between the ages of 20 and 55 years and attendance is not compulsory.
By late July, 3,000 people had already been trained in the Trincomalee district, LTTE spokesman Daya Master told the BBC. Several thousand more are being trained elsewhere in the Northeast. In the LTTE-held Vanni, hundreds of people have attended training courses near Kilinochchi, the coastal regions of Pooneryn and Mullaitivu.
Training is underway in several parts of the Batticaloa district also. Large numbers of residents joined the program at Kokadicholai, a village which has suffered not one, but two, large-scale massacres by the SLA. Over 350 residents joined the scheme at Thikilivadai village, Eelanatham reported in July. Other programs were underway at Kithul and Urugamam, the paper said.
On August 11 training was formally initiated in the Pachilaipali region of Jaffna for an estimated 2,000 civilians by Mr S. Thangan, the Deputy head of the LTTE’s Political Wing. Training also began in Aliyavalai and Uduthurai regions of Vadamarachchi East this week. The Virakesari newspaper reported that residents in these Jaffna villages had pressured commanders at the nearby Sea Tiger base to provide them with basic training. The region is close to the Muhamalai frontlines and is in the line of advance of any SLA offensive into the Vanni.
Amid anxieties of renewed war, the security dilemma has emerged: efforts to strengthen village level self-defence capacity amid fears of renewed war has, in turn, heightened anxieties that the LTTE is raising a large army for a new offensive. The Tigers have denied this, reiterating commitment to the ceasefire, and sought to reassure concerns.
“We are not doing this because war is imminent but if there is a war imposed on us, the people will want to protect themselves,” Mr. Daya Master told reporters.
“The people need this training for their own safety,” he told Reuters, adding, moreover, that those being trained will not fight alongside the LTTE’s troops if war does break out. Indeed, the limited training being given to the civilians is a far cry from the rigorous six-month infantry course that LTTE recruits go through.
But the availability of large numbers of lightly armed militia based in their home villages will allow the LTTE to mimic the SLA’s strategy of using mobile, well trained troops to respond to attacks in strength, whilst also providing a pool of trained volunteers to be drawn on in the case of natural disasters such as another tsunami.
The availability of large numbers of lightly armed militia based in their home villages will allow the LTTE to mimic the SLA’s strategy of using mobile, well trained troops to respond to attacks.
Interestingly, the utility and cost effectiveness of lightly-armed militia with limited training has been raised recently in the United States in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, by analysts who argue the National Guard has become too heavily armed and well trained a force to be cost-effective in homeland security or, indeed, even to be considered a ‘militia’ as stipulated by its constitutional mandate.
Apart from the National Guard, 19 states maintain official militia which “consist of volunteers who train [for security tasks] and also provide emergency and community support services,” Colonel (retd) John R. Brinkerhoff, pointed out in a paper titled “Restore the Militia for Homeland Security.”
He argues moreover, that “some of the large numbers of military personnel needed to defend America [at home] can be provided at low cost by using militia to provide troops for the governors to use to maintain law and order and protect the citizens of their states in the face of the full range of emergencies.”