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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Is the Sri Lankan option a recipe for counterinsurgency? Lessons in legitimacy for Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines Bordewick, Matthew James


Conventional wisdom has posited that it is difficult, if not highly unlikely, for a state to defeat an insurgency using conventional military strategy. However, the May 2009 victory of the Government of Sri Lanka over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam demonstrates that such victories are possible. This victory is attributed to a political strategy rather than the purely military one emphasized in the literature. This political component comes down to a contest for legitimacy between the GOSL and the LTTE’s leadership at the local level for the loyalty of two audiences: the rank-and-file of the insurgency, and the aggrieved minority population from which the insurgency was born. Among the former audience, if the state's legitimacy position gains in relative terms, the state can co-opt members of the rank-and-file through defection. Among the latter audience, the effectiveness of counterinsurgency operations will depend on a competition between the two actors for the support of the local aggrieved minority population. The logic behind these hypotheses on cooption and local support is born out in the Sri Lankan case, and, furthermore, is argued to have more general applicability by comparison to insurgent conflicts in Thailand and the Philippines. The Sri Lankan case demonstrates that when both actors have low support among locals (Sri Lankan Tamils) it is the insurgency, and not the state, that becomes more vulnerable on the battlefield. The Patani insurgency in Thailand is found to be closed to cooption, while the local population (Thai Malay Muslims) is argued to support neither side outright. This has led to conditions of stalemate on the battlefield. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines is found to be highly open to cooption since the 2003 ceasefire, with high levels of support among locals (Muslim Moros). This gives the insurgency a significant military advantage over the state if the peace process were to break down.

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