Sri Lanka's hollow victory: Why hammering the Tamil Tigers will not bring peace

| May 4, 2009
There have been nearly constant protests by the Tamil community in Ottawa and Toronto in recent weeks.

Over the course of a long and brutal war with Sri Lanka’s armed forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has emerged as one of the world’s most formidable insurgent groups.

Besides engaging the Sri Lankan government in a bloody battle for 26 years, the LTTE (or 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 an absolute military defeat. Will their demise bring peace to Sri Lanka?

The LTTE has acquired a not undeserved reputation of being a ruthless organization; one that recruits child soldiers and resorts to suicide bombing; 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 callous methods, totalitarian structure, and uncompromising, maximalist demands.  The LTTE has duly assassinated many such detractors. 

Getting to the root of the conflict: Tigers are the product, not the cause

Given all of this, it is tempting to assume 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.  Sri Lanka’s steely President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his three brothers with ministerial status, are evidently confident that a full purging of the Tigers -- now perhaps only days away -- will have been worth all the carnage and dislocation of the past few months, which have left some 200,000 civilians directly at risk.   

This easy conclusion, however, rests on a profoundly 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 19th and early 20th centuries.  The British used the upper caste and upper class among the island’s Tamil minority to keep its Sinhalese majority in check, and in return, gave these Tamils the best government jobs and the benefit of an English education (upper class Sinhalese were also privileged, though Tamils were disproportionately favoured). 

This wretched balance changed for the worse with independence in 1948, when Tamils 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 the Sinhala language, culture and religion (Buddhism).  It saw Sri Lanka as for the Sinhalese alone, and insisted that the Tamil minority acquiesce to its subservient position or, better still, simply leave. 

Tamils faced systematic discrimination

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 radically shrank their employment and educational opportunities.  Sinhalese farmers were encouraged to settle in and around the island’s northeast, 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 minority guarantees.  While many sensible Sinhalese politicians warmed to such appeals, the forces of majoritarianism -- spurred on by the nation’s bizarrely combative Buddhist clergy -- 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 and east.  The LTTE emerged as the strongest of these militant groups after 1983, a watershed year in which nationwide anti-Tamil pogroms -- organized in retaliation for the killing of 13 government soldiers by Tamil rebels -- led to more than 1,000 deaths.  

Responding to a harsh and authoritarian regime

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.  Sri Lanka has been characterized by Human Rights Watch as one of the world’s worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances, and by Reporters Without Borders as more hostile to journalists than any other democratic government. 

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, although 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. 

Ultimately, 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 reprisal. 

The enormous price of war

Hammering the LTTE has already come at an enormous price.  Since its beginnings in the early 1980s, the war has probably claimed more than 100,000 lives, rendered some half a million Tamils refugees in their own country, and driven an equal number out of Sri Lanka (some 250,000 Tamil refugees have settled in Canada).

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 humanitarian organizations indicate that the country is in the midst 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 concentration camps (journalists and humanitarian workers have been banned from these camps for almost two months). 

Tamil internment camps have ‘air of permanence’

An immediate danger is that the Sri Lankan state, riding on a fresh wave of Sinhala chauvinism, will use its victory to seek a permanent solution to its “Tamil minority problem.”  The government could 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-wire fences and stalked by soldiers, 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. This alone should be sufficient motivation for Canada, home to the largest Tamil diaspora in the world, to take a keener interest in seeing a just and political (rather than military) resolution to this terrible conflict.

War on terror language aids state brutality

To most governments, the bloodbath in Sri Lanka is the consequence of a sovereign power besieged by a brutal domestic insurgency.  In its protracted campaign against the Tigers, the Sri Lankan government has received military assistance or counterinsurgency training from many countries, including India, Pakistan, Israel and the United States. 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 instantly viewed as criminal -- a distinction that’s been sharpened, no doubt, by the menacing language around the “war on terror.” 

Indeed, following Sri Lanka’s success in having the LTTE proscribed as a terrorist organization in Canada, along with 30 other countries, the sense that the Sri Lankan state is on the right side of history has grown from strength to strength, which might explain the shockingly muted condemnation of its actions in the rapidly unfolding tragedy. 

It’s probably too much to expect the Canadian 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 is that without its looming spectre, the Sri Lankan government will be less able to shield its rotting democracy and ugly human rights record from the eyes of the world -- that is, of course, if the world cares to sustain its gaze at this small and strategically unimportant island once the worst of the crisis is over. 

As a country that is no stranger to the aspirations of national minorities, Canada could acquire a role, perhaps as part of a broader multilateral initiative, in pushing the Sri Lankan state to address the core grievances that have perpetuated this tragic war’s vicious cycle of injury and retribution.     


Mitu Sengupta, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.  She may be reached by email: mitu.sengupta[at]gmail[dot]com.

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