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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


Sri Lanka: up country with the Tamil Tigers

President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved parliament this month and called for a snap election amid a political feud with the prime minister, who is accused of being soft on Tamil rebel demands. The resulting political chaos is paralysing the peace process with Tamil guerrillas, who have given up their claim for a separate state.

Cedric Gouverneur

THE Tamil city of Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s east coast celebrates heroes’ day each year on 27 November, commemorating 17,000 fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) (1) killed over 20 years. Last year the ceremony felt semi-official. The separatists, now legal, covered the city in LTTE flags and put up a marquee with photos of thousands of local martyrs, so the Sri Lankan army had to patrol in a setting that glorified its enemies. But there was no tension. Young, unarmed soldiers were even shopping. Under the peace process everyone was doing their best to make sure there were no incidents during the day.

Since 1983 the Hindu Tamils of the northeast, 18% of Sri Lanka’s population, have been at war against a state dominated by the Buddhist Singhalese (2). During colonial times the Tamils were treated well by the British, under their usual policy of divide and rule. But at independence in 1948, the Tamils found themselves in the difficult position of a minority that had been favoured by a foreign occupier. In the 1950s and 1960s Singhalese governments increasingly discriminated against them, especially through language.

As Tamil calls for a federal state went unheard, they drifted towards separatism. In 1975 the mayor of Jaffna was shot dead by a 20-year-old militant, Velupillai Prabhakaran, founder of the LTTE. Tamil armed groups trained in India, where the government wanted to penalise Sri Lanka for its pro-United States stance. The conflict escalated in 1983 when Singhalese extremists started pogroms in response to a Tamil ambush. Thousands of Tamils went underground. Civilian massacres became commonplace on both sides, while LTTE wiped out rivals within the Tamil community.

In 1987 the conflict went international. While the Indian government under Rajiv Gandhi renewed its attempts at mediation, Colombo, busy suppressing an uprising of the Singhalese far-left in the south (3), sent an expeditionary corps, the Indian peacekeeping force (IPKF), to the northeast. Unlike the other Tamil groups, the LTTE refused to hand over weapons to the Indians and turned them against their former mentors - assassinating Rajiv Ghandi in Madras on 21 May 1991. The LTTE harassed the IPKF until it finally withdrew in 1990. Since then the underground war between LTTE and the Sri Lankan army has left 60,000 dead and 11,000 disappeared; the few attempts at dialogue failed.

So last heroes’ day Batticaloa was empty: Tamils had gathered in the land controlled by the guerrillas. A convoy of vehicles passed through a final checkpoint before joining a traffic jam between the minefields. The Tamils explained that before the ceasefire they couldn’t come to this place to honour their dead; at the end of the track was the gigantic Theravai cemetery, where thousands of graves were laid out in a star form ation with statues of guerrillas in the centre, all surrounded by an artificial pond. Each tombstone carried a name and date of death but no date of birth, unsurprising given the LTTE’s heavy use of child soldiers.

Tens of thousands of people squeezed between the graves. Mothers and widows voiced their grief. Men and women Tigers armed with assault rifles channelled the crowd, sometimes with the aid of a rifle butt. At dusk torches on each grave lit up the scene, a striking effect evoking the solemnity of mass rallies in totalitarian states.

Many Tamils speak of the LTTE as "our army" or "our government". Challenges over LTTE methods - including child soldiers and civilian massacres - always meet the same answer, sometimes with an added sigh expressing disapproval: "Without the LTTE, the army and the Singhalese would have massacred us all." By standing up against the discrimination and killing, the Tigers became a Leviathan (4) for the Tamils: a dictatorial force entrusted with collective security and emancipation at the price of individual freedom.

"The Tigers have very wide support," said a Westerner from a humanitarian organisation. "Their grasp over social life is considerable. People call them for the slightest problem. They’re everywhere and can do everything: raise taxes, requisition vehicles, organise labour. No one would think of going against them."

Tamils are grateful to the Tigers, and often say: "Thanks to them, we will have our Eelam." Since February 2002 the LTTE and Sri Lankan government have observed a ceasefire with rare skirmishes. "The process is holding," said a European diplomat. "Neither side thinks it can win militarily, the people are fed up with war, Prabhakaran has swapped his never-say-die independence for federalism and the international community is waiting at the nation’s bedside."

In May 2003 international donors in Tokyo offered $4.5bn in aid, conditional on a negotiated settlement. Led by Norway, a Scandinavian team, the Sri Lanka monitoring mission (SLMM), criss-crosses the country, surveying the ceasefire. "Everyone wants the ceasefire to work," said Magnus Karlsson, the Swedish head of the SLMM naval mission in Jaffna. "But a final settlement is yet to be reached. For the moment, they have just taken their fingers off the trigger."

Military impasse was the main reason for the ceasefire. "We are the strongest national resistance movement in the world," brags guerrilla leader Mahendram Balasingham. Since the humiliation LTTE inflicted on India and its victories against the Sri Lankan army, it is reputed invincible. It relies on an efficient international network, financed through taxation of its expatriate diaspora and through trafficking (5). Each Tiger is asked to die rather than surrender and wears a cyanide capsule in a necklace.

The LTTE has mostly used suicide attacks, from the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi to the 2001 attack on Colombo airport. Between November 1999 and April 2000 this successful strategy worried experts. "It became clear that Colombo was never going to defeat the LTTE militarily," wrote a Sri Lankan political analyst (6). "Officers assured us they could beat the Tigers," added Karlsson, "but victory would mean endless attacks and chronic instability. They know that a lasting solution means negotiation."

On 4 November 2003 President Chandrika Kumaratunga (nationalist left People’s Alliance) increased the pressure on her coalition government partners: prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, accused of being too soft on the Tigers, and the centre-right United National Front (UNF). The president fired her defence, interior and information ministers, decreed but did not put into effect a state of emergency and then suspended parliament for two weeks.

First elected in 1994, Kumaratunga had been re-elected in 2000, but had to deal with the electoral victory of the UNF which, campaigning on a peace platform, won 114 of 225 seats in the December 2001 parliamentary elections. She had tried to negotiate with the Tigers in 1994-95 without success. Last year her outright rejection of the peace proposals made by the LTTE on 1 November was a show of strength. The Tigers had claimed to have accepted a federal solution. But the structure they proposed for the administration of their Eelam, the interim self-governing authority (ISGA), was to assume the role of an independent state in which the Sri Lankan government would have no say. This solution was unacceptable for most Singhalese, already baffled by what they felt was a surrender to terrorism.

The current peace process is opposed by 66% of Singhalese, but supported by 90% of Tamils (7). "Many Singhalese are bitter," says Kethesh Logonathan, who is director of research at the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a political science observatory in Colombo. "They feel the government is trying to appease the LTTE by handing over a third of the country without getting anything in return." That is why Colombo was shocked when the external relations commissioner to the European Union, Chris Patten, visited Prabhakaran on 26 November, the guerrilla leader’s birthday (8).

The Singhalese see their island as the cradle of Theravada Buddhism and themselves as guardians of a cultural heritage in danger of being devoured by the Indian world, which includes Tamil Hindus. "For most Singhalese, Tamils are a minority; yes, with rights, but a minority all the same, living alongside the Singhalese nation," says Logonathan. Discrimination against Tamils is not considered a racist policy by the Singhalese, but as a readjustment favouring the majority over a privileged minority once protected by the British crown.

By retaking control, Kumaratunga returned nationalist thinking to the debate. Considering what was at stake for the country, "it was unthinkable that half the politicians would remain sidelined from negotiations," says Karlsson. The Singhalese need to take a harder line to defend themselves from Tamil greed. But now the process is deadlocked: negotiations between the two parliamentary leaders are at a standstill, yet a two-thirds majority is required in parliament to modify the constitution, a prerequisite to any peace agreement. Worse, Kumaratunga is threatening to call early elections, which would be disastrous for any settlement given the current state of Singhalese opinion. The US, which wants a stable Sri Lanka, is pushing for renewed talks. For the US, the country is a strategic Buddhist island in the Muslim lake that is the Indian Ocean. The Tigers are worried and bare their teeth. "Because of the confusion in Colombo, we don’t know who to talk to anymore," says SP Tamilselvan, head of the LTTE political wing and the movement’s unofficial number two, who was maimed in action. "We are for peace, but if they give us war, it’s the LTTE’s duty to defend the Tamils."

Within a federal Sri Lanka the Tigers would have to accept Colombo’s authority. This is a tough concession to make since a de facto Tiger state already exists in the north. After Vavuniya, past a final military checkpoint, there is LTTE territory. At the Tamil Eelam Customs Centre checkpoint guerrillas tax goods from the south. Beyond is the town of Kilinochchi, the Tiger capital ravaged by fighting, with its own administration and police. Uniformed officers verbally impose speeding fines: tickets are payable at the post office, to avoid corruption.

The LTTE chief of police, Mahendram Balasingham, who wears tiger-striped combat gear, is enthusiastic: "We have an honest police force, which applies its own criminal code. We are a state in expansion. The destruction of enemy state structures allowed us to extend our own. When we drove out the army, we had to establish an administration to respond to the needs of the population." Which is done without reference to Colombo.

Jaffna and its peninsula mark the island’s northern tip. This formerly prosperous Tamil city, now under government control, was bombed by the army and the Indians and for years there were only ruins and minefields, cut off from the world. A third of the peninsula is classified a high-security zone, sectioned by 30,000 soldiers. Now Jaffna is slowly coming back to life: 170,000 refugees have returned (9), sometimes to find the army has requisitioned their homes. After years of shortages, there is now electricity and supplies in the shops.

A sign of changing times are Singhalese tourists at the weekend. The locals see the army, which they call the Singhalese, as a foreign occupation force - even if they have noticed an improvement in its behaviour since the ceasefire - and look forward to its withdrawal. Despite the army presence, the LTTE still controls daily life, levying direct and indirect taxes. The Tigers are keeping state structures in place: some civil servants even go out of their way to ensure that taxes are properly paid to the guerrillas.

The Tigers’ power, whether total, as in Kilinochchi, or partial, as in Jaffna, is expeditious. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accuse the LTTE of using the ceasefire to kill their opponents. They denounce the diplomatic inaction of the security forces and the SLMM, which seem to want not to annoy the guerrillas (10). Every month there are between five and 12 political murders in the northeast.

In a bunker in Jaffna VK Jakan, head of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and former member of parliament, says: "Since the ceasefire, five of our executives have been killed and 20 others disappeared." The EPDP’s hands are far from clean. But the LTTE’s attitude towards it does not bode well for freedom of expression. Other parties, such as the Tamil United Liberation Front and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organis ation (Telo), have allied themselves to the Tigers and recognise them as the sole representative of the Tamils, although more out of fear than conviction. "There is no other option for the Tamil people," explains an anonymous Telo representative. "The Tigers massacred Telo fighters in 1986. If I say one word against them in public, I’m dead."

The most serious troubles are in the east, in Batticaloa and Trincomalee, a region claimed by the LTTE. Muslims are sometimes a majority of the population; they speak Tamil but see themselves primarily as Muslim. This influential minority of 7%, which includes many merchants and a few moneylenders, is relatively prosperous. Tamils close to the LTTE accuse them of profiteering from the war and informing to the army. Muslims are often killed, and last November in Kinniya, near Trincomalee, the mutilated bodies of three peasants were found near an LTTE camp.

Hundreds of terrified families have fled, and the army has imposed a curfew. The killers’ obvious goal is to drive Muslims out of Trincomalee, one of Asia’s finest natural harbours. In Kattan Kudy, near Batticaloa, sheikhs not far from a mosque where the Tigers killed 103 Muslims at prayer in 1990, explained the situation - an anonymous spokesmen says: "We have a hard time believing the LTTE when it says it will respect our rights. We cannot possibly live under their rule."

Through the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, a member of the government coalition, the minority is demanding a place at the negotiating table. "We are asking for a separate political entity within a decentralised system, like that in Pondicherry. The country’s future lies with federalism, not with ethnic cleansing."

Sri Lanka is taking its first steps down the long road of peace. If it reaches its goal, the LTTE will govern de jure the Eelam it already controls de facto. The guerrilla movement has a bad record of human rights violations, which the international community is ready to overlook provided that a relative stability can be achieved, allowing investment in a country rich with potential.

Many observers would wager that the LTTE will evolve mid-term, influenced by the Tamil diaspora (accustomed to Western democracy after 20 years of exile) and their own pragmatic leaders, who are increasingly political and less warlike.

* Cédric Gouverneur is a journalist

(1) Eelam means country.

(2) A minority of both Singhalese and Tamils are Christian, and there are many Catholics in the LTTE. See Eric Meyer, Sri Lanka entre particularisme et mondialisation, La documentation française, Paris, 2001.

(3) The People’s Liberation Front (JVP) uprising and suppression most likely caused 30,000 deaths from 1987-89.

(4) The Scottish philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, defined Leviathan as a strong state to which men abandon their freedom in exchange for security.

(5) The LTTE has its own cargo fleet. See Peter Chalk, LTTE, International Organisation and Operations, an analysis for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, March 2000

(6) Narayan Swamy, Tigers of Lanka, updated edition, Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo, 2003.

(7) Public opinion poll published in December 2003 by the CPA, Colombo. (

(8) See Patten’s statement.

(9) According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, out of 800,000 domestic refugees, 300,000 have returned home since the ceasefire. The Jaffna peninsula has 600,000 inhabitants, but its population should be 900,000.

(10) Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International press release, 7 August 2003.


Translated by Jeremiah Cullinane





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

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