Monday, April 14, 2008

Argument against Sri Lanka as a counter-insurgency

It may be splitting hairs, but it seems that what is going on in Sri Lanka does not really qualify as a civil war. Consider the Correlates of War (COW) definition for Civil Wars: “To be recognized as a civil war, a conflict had to (1) occur within a generally recognized state (2) produce at least 1000 deaths per year (3) involve the national government as an active participant and (4) experience effective resistance from both the rebels and the government.” (Walter, pg 48) Combine that definition of civil war with Colliers’ construct of civil war: “a relatively high proportion of young uneducated men; an imbalance between ethnic groups, with one tending to outnumber the rest; and, a supply of natural resources like diamonds or oil which simultaneously encourages and helps to finance rebellion.” (Collier, Bottom) Then, consider that statistics for Sri Lanka in Table 1. Sri Lanka stands out from the rest of the countries in the table in literacy, average age and in the lack of a “resource curse.”

The sides in Sri Lanka appear to be two combatants contesting an international border rather than a rebel group against a sovereign country. The north and east of the island has been identified internationally as a Tamil homeland since at least 1873 when the frontier was demarcated by Britain. (Manogaran) The LTTE, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, collect taxes in the areas they control, run schools and even have a navy and an air force. (Shtender-Auerbach) The latest assessments by observers of the conflict see the war headed for stalemate. “However, since mid-2007, the Sri Lankan ground forces have not been able to show any notable successes, giving rise to fears among military observers that there could be a prolonged stalemate, leading to public disillusionment.”

The combat between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government may share some of the characteristics of civil wars seen around the world, but this conflict should fit into another category. This new category should include wars between states and quasi-states. Wars between states and quasi-states, such the one between Israel and Palestine and between China and Taiwan, feature capable combatants across a clearly demarcated frontier. Further, the sides have fought to a stalemate although considerable animosity exists on both sides and can flare into combat quickly. Removing these “state vs quasi state” conflicts from the discussion about civil wars makes the causation for civil war more clearly defined and more readily apparent from the Table 1 data.


Balachandra, P.K. “Sri Lanka may be heading for military stalemate” India eNews Feb 6 2008 at accessed 29 Mar 08.

Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2007.

Manogaran, Dr. Chelvadurai. “Sinhalese - Tamil Relations & the Politics of Space” Tamil National Forum 29 June 1997 at accessed 29 Mar 08.

Shtender-Auerbach, “What Happens When a "Poor Man's Air Force" Goes Airborne?” The Century Foundation, 5/3/2007 at accessed 29 Mar 08.

Walter, Barbara F. Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 2002.