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Over the course of a long and brutal war with Sri Lanka’s armed forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE) emerged as one of the world’s most formidable insurgent groups. Besides engaging the Sri Lankan government in a bloody battle for more than 25 years, the LTTE (or, more informally, the ‘Tamil Tigers’) managed to seize substantial chunks of government territory, and operated these as a quasi-state for well over a decade. Today, however, the mighty Tigers are on the verge of total military defeat. Will their demise bring peace to Sri Lanka?
Unsurprisingly, the LTTE’s hammering has come at an enormous price. Since its beginnings in the early 1980s, the war has claimed more than 70,000 lives, rendered some half a million Tamils refugees in their own country, and driven an equal number out of Sri Lanka. The last six months of fighting have been particularly intense, with the Sri Lankan government at its most aggressive in decades. Reports from the United Nations, Red Cross and several other reputed humanitarian organizations indicate that the country is on the brink of a colossal humanitarian disaster. Some 6,500 civilians have been killed since January, and another 100,000 are caught – facing carnage, and without adequate food, shelter and medicine – in the crossfire between the Tigers and government forces. An additional 40,000 or so that have fled the war zone are being held in military-run camps, where conditions, according to the most recent reports, are similar to those in Nazi-run concentration camps (journalists and humanitarian workers have been banned from these camps for over a month).
Led by the United Nations, concerned voices in the international community have repeatedly pleaded for a halt to the fighting, or even a ceasefire of a reasonable length, in which more civilians may be moved to safety, and aid workers allowed access to the sick and wounded. Determined to run the Tigers to the ground, however, the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has remained undeterred, apparently confident that a full purging of the LTTE – now perhaps only days away – will have been worth the carnage and dislocation, and the palpable damage to his country’s international reputation. Rajapaksa evidently believes that a Sri Lanka free of the Tigers will be a Sri Lanka whither all good things will come.
Over the years, the LTTE has earned the reputation of being a ruthless organization; one that turns children into hardened soldiers; that has perfected suicide bombing as a tactic; that relies on extortion and smuggling for funding, and that has zero tolerance for critics and competitors. While there are no reliable measures of the extent of support for the LTTE among Tamils in Sri Lanka, or within the vast diaspora, Tamil human rights activists both inside and outside the country have spoken out against the LTTE’s cruel ways, totalitarian structure, and uncompromising, maximalist demands. The LTTE has duly assassinated many of these detractors. Indeed, given all of this, it is tempting to presume that Sri Lanka will be infinitely better off without the LTTE, and that its elimination will necessarily steer the country towards order, stability and reconciliation. But though appealing, this conclusion ultimately rests on a wrongheaded view of the Tigers’ role in the conflict. The LTTE is the product, not the cause, of Sri Lanka’s deadly politics.
To begin with, the conflict, if not the war, predates the LTTE by a few generations. Its origins may be traced to the effects of the nefarious “divide and rule” policies devised by British colonial administrators to govern Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The British used the island’s Tamil minority to keep its Sinhalese majority in check, and in return, gave Tamils the best government jobs and the benefit of English education. With independence in 1948, however, the Tamils were deprived of their patrons, and found themselves outnumbered and marginalized inside the new Sri Lanka’s unitary state and majoritarian institutional framework. With the Tamils rendered politically irrelevant, short-sighted politicians competed with each other for the Sinhalese vote, and soon discovered that the political party with the stronger anti-minority stance was almost always guaranteed electoral success.
Such “ethnic outbidding,” as scholars have characterized the dreadful process, led to the rise of a ferocious Sinhala nationalism that demanded revenge for the Tamils’ supremacy during the colonial period, along with a revival of Sinhala language and culture. It saw Sri Lanka as for the Sinhalese alone, and insisted that the Tamil minority submit to its second-class position or, better still, simply leave the island. In the first few decades following independence, Sri Lanka’s Tamils were systematically stripped of their erstwhile social and economic privileges, with the demotion of their language (Tamil) to secondary status, and the imposition of strict quotas that shrank their employment and educational opportunities. Sinhalese farmers were encouraged to settle in and around the island’s north-east, in an obvious attempt to reduce the concentration of Tamils in these areas.
Initially, the Tamils attempted to resist these changes through democratic means, forming political parties that pressed for federalism and various minority guarantees. While many sensible Sinhalese politicians warmed to such appeals, the forces of majoritarianism always seemed to triumph. Any government seen as making too many concessions to the Tamils was swiftly pulled down, a disheartening ritual that eventually left most Tamils alienated, and the Tamil parties largely discredited. By the late 1970s, the conflict had taken a violent turn, with the surfacing of several militant outfits, including the LTTE, which called for armed struggle and secession – the creation of a Tamil ‘homeland’ (‘eelam’) out of the Tamil majority areas in Sri Lanka’s north-east. The LTTE proved the strongest of these militant groups, and, out-powering its rivals, became locked in bitter conflict with the Sri Lankan state.
As an insurgent force, the LTTE has been remarkably successful. By the early 2000s, it had captured much of the north and east, and was governing these territories as though they were already a separate state (the LTTE provided schools, postal services, and even rudimentary hospitals). The LTTE brought forth a harsh and authoritarian regime, but one that was, perhaps, an inevitable response to the harsh and authoritarian regime that the Sri Lankan government had become. Human Rights Watch has characterized the Sri Lankan government as one of the world’s worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances. Indeed, in many ways, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state have been reflections of each other’s total lack of generosity. Both have squandered numerous opportunities for peace, though it is unlikely that the Sri Lankan government would have agreed to negotiate at all – as it did in 2003, following a ceasefire – had it faced a lesser organization than the Tigers. The annihilation of the LTTE will mean that only one of the two fearsome, unbending contenders in the country’s long and bloody war will have left the arena and, that too, probably not for good. Far from being a recipe for peace, this will probably ignite a new cycle of grotesque injustice and pitiless retaliation.
One danger that looms heavily is that the Sri Lankan state will try to use its victory to seek a permanent solution to its “Tamil minority problem.” The government might begin by preventing Tamil civilians interned in its military camps from returning to their villages. These camps have already taken on an air of permanence, with the government arguing that no-one can be moved until the LTTE is fully flushed out, and the military demines the conflict zone. This could take months, if not years. It is entirely possible that while tens of thousands of Tamils languish in these camps, encircled by razor-wired fences, the government will move large numbers of Sinhalese settlers into the island’s north and east, thus stamping out, once and for all, the geographical rationale for a separate Tamil homeland. The counterpoint to the government’s expected belligerence might be an even darker phase in the Tamil resistance; one with a more lucid and focused fury that will bring great disquiet to Tamils everywhere.
To most governments, the bloodbath in Sri Lanka is the consequence of a sovereign power besieged by a brutal domestic insurgency. This is to be expected in a world where states are generally considered legitimate, no matter what they do, and those that challenge their authority are immediately viewed as criminal – a distinction that’s been sharpened, of course, by the menacing language around the “war on terror.” Indeed, following Sri Lanka’s success in having the LTTE proscribed as a terrorist organization by 31 countries, including the United States, the sense that the Sri Lankan state is on the right side of history has gone from strength to strength, which might explain the muted condemnation of its actions in the rapidly unfolding tragedy.
It’s probably too much to expect the US government – or any other government for that matter – to accept the argument, however rigorously advanced, that the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE have mirrored each other’s unyielding attitudes and methods, and, that ultimately, the noble sovereign power and the sinister terrorist organization are two sides of the same bloodied coin. The one, small opening for peace that the LTTE’s retreat may provide, however, is that without its looming spectre, the Sri Lankan government will be less able to shield its decaying democracy and ugly human rights record from the eyes of the world. It will, hopefully, be the subject of an international initiative that helps rein in the country’s majoritarian forces, thus barring any further acceleration of the vicious cycle of injury and retribution these tend to set in motion.
MITU SENGUPTA, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She may be reached by email: email@example.com