The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) air attack on oil storage facilities near Colombo is yet another confirmation that the organisation is one of the most resourceful and innovative guerrilla outfits in the world. Above all, the Tamil Tigers are masters of psychological operations (psy-ops) and timing. Their strike is militarily insignificant, but it has huge propaganda value. It is also a show of strength aimed at attracting funds from the expatriate Tamil community. The blackouts in Colombo and the pictures of blazing oil facilities are a shot in the arm for the beleaguered organisation.
In the past few months, as the fourth round of the Eelam war has gotten underway, the LTTE has suffered a number of setbacks. A breakaway faction has helped Sri Lanka restore its authority in large parts of the eastern districts of Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara. The Sri Lankan army has effectively cut the Tigers’ headquarters in the Wanni jungles off from their heartland, the Jaffna Peninsula, by taking control of the highway. As the Sri Lankan plan to isolate the Tigers gets underway, the LTTE desperately needs a major military victory, and failing that a psychological triumph. In the Tiger dictionary, the latter could, in the past, have been a major assassination. But the sheer scale of their past depredations has made that a somewhat overused ‘weapon’. Their ‘air force’ of a couple of light aircraft can embarrass the Sri Lankans, but hardly match their Israeli and Russian-made fighters.
Though they may not say it, the Sri Lankans are probably beginning to think that they can achieve a military solution to what is essentially a political problem. While the SLAF’s determination and enhanced fire power provides the government the means to pressure the LTTE, their bigger challenge is to come up with a more imaginative political strategy to bring a lasting settlement to the conflict that has reduced one of South Asia’s most socially and economically advanced country into a war zone.