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Tamil Tigers

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Sri Lanka’s Future

22 December 2009

Sri Lanka’s Future

By Gwynne Dyer

First, the good news. Sri Lanka’s government, whose 26-year war against the separatist Tamil Tigers ended in total victory last May, is keeping its promise to let all of the 300,000 Tamil civilians who were captured in the final battle go home again. Not only that, but it is going to hold a free election next month – so free that the ruling party might even lose it.

The bad news is that it does not much matter who wins that election. Both the incumbent and the challenger are committed Sinhalese nationalists whose policies towards the Tamil minority militate against any reconciliation between the two groups. Tamils are less than a fifth of the population, so if tough treatment is enough to keep them quiet, then Sri Lanka faces a peaceful future – but repression has not worked in the past.

It’s easy to understand why the government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapkasa, insisted on a decisive victory over the Tamil Tigers, whose insurgency had caused 70,000 deaths over the years. There had been cease-fires and peace talks over the years, but the Tigers never really abandoned their goal of total independence for the Tamil majority areas in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

That was utterly unacceptable to the Sinhala-speaking majority, so the war was bound to end in a last stand by the Tigers sooner or later. They could have carried on with suicide bombings and assassinations forever, but their territorial ambitions drove them to seize and hold ground with a more or less conventional military force. (They even had a navy and an air force of sorts.) That made them vulnerable to military defeat.

All it took to make that happen was a government willing to devote all the resources of the state to building an army able to defeat the Tigers in stand-up battle, and tough enough to refuse all negotiations until the enemy was completely destroyed. The Rajapaksas provided that government.

All the well-meaning foreign pleas last May for a cease-fire to protect the Tamil civilians trapped with the Tigers were quite rightly ignored by the Sri Lankan forces. The Tigers always made sure that they had lots of innocent civilians around when they fought. The civilians absorbed a lot of the enemy fire, their deaths served to radicalise other Tamils – and cease-fires to protect civilians had frequently allowed the Tiger fighters to escape in the past.

Nor was Colombo wrong to round up all 300,000 Tamil civilians who were caught up in the Tigers’ last stand. Any surviving fighters were bound to try to hide themselves among the civilians, so a protracted sorting-out process was needed. But the Sri Lankan government promised that everybody except suspected fighters would be released within six months – and it has kept its word, more or less.

The camps have been emptying out fast over the past couple of months, and Colombo promises that everybody will have gone home by the end of January. There are justifiable complaints that not enough is being done to help former detainees re-settle, but there have been much uglier ends to long and brutal wars like this one.

The problem lies not in the past, but in the future. The Tamils are always going to be there, and the prospect of a peaceful future for Sri Lanka depends on reconciling them to coexistence with the Sinhalese in a state that treats both communities fairly. They will probably never again create a semi-conventional army like the Tigers, but it would be all too easy for them to resort to terrorism again if they feel desperate enough. And it would be almost impossible to stop it.

The trouble is that it took an ultra-nationalist Sinhalese regime to create the army that defeated the Tigers, and it is still in power. It does not want to welcome the Tamils back into equal citizenship, nor does it feel that it needs to. The Rajapaksa government has called an early election for 26 January to exploit its victory and consolidate its hold on power – and if it should happen lose the election, then things may just get worse.

The Rajapaksas’ challenger is none other than General Sarath Fonseka, who commanded the army that finally defeated the Tigers. The main opposition group in the Sinhala community, the United National Party, has banded together with nine smaller parties and put Fonseka up as their presidential candidate.

Fonseka could actually win, for his role in the defeat of the Tigers was just as large as that of the Rajapaksas. But he is also just as uncompromising a Sinhalese nationalist: as the war was nearing a conclusion, he was heard to say that Sri Lanka “belongs to the Sinhalese…(Minorities) can live in this country with us, but they must not try to demand undue things.” Like equality, perhaps?

That is the attitude that drove the Tamils into insurrection in the first place. The next time it wouldn’t take the same form, but it could guarantee another generation of misery, insecurity (and perhaps also tyranny) for the long-suffering people of Sri Lanka.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“All the well-meaning…past”; and “The camps…this one”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

What Matters in Sri Lanka

26 April 2009

What Matters in Sri Lanka

By Gwynne Dyer

As the 26-year war in Sri Lanka nears its end, every busybody in the world is urging the Sri Lankan government to stop. Spare the poor civilians trapped in the combat zone, declare a cease-fire, it’s time to negotiate, they all implore. Even the US government has now joined the chorus.

Last weekend, the White House said that it was “deeply concerned about the plight of innocent civilians caught up in the conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers and the mounting death toll.” It called on both sides to “stop fighting immediately and allow civilians to safely leave the combat zone.” The Tigers immediately declared a unilateral cease-fire, while the Sri Lankan government called it a “joke” and continued its final offensive. But the government is right.

More than 70,000 people have died in the Sri Lankan war. Some hundreds of civilians, or maybe even a few thousands, will be killed in this last battle, but that’s far fewer than would die if the war continued for years more. Every time the “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” were granted a cease-fire in the past, they used the breathing space to rearm, and then relaunched their struggle for independence. So no more cease-fires; just get it over with.

Besides, the civilians in the combat zone, all Tamils themselves, were not just “caught up in the conflict” between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. As the rebels lost control of most of northern Sri Lanka over the past two years, they forced tens of thousands of Tamil civilians from their homes and made them join the retreat. If the civilians tried to escape the ever-dwindling territory controlled by the Tigers, they were killed.

They are hostages, held prisoner in order to hinder the government’s use of heavy weapons against the Tigers’ defences. In a just universe, all the mealy-mouthed diplomatic formulas that omit that fundamental fact would earn eternal damnation for those who utter them.

Even when the Sri Lankan army managed to breach the Tigers’ defences last week and tens of thousands of the hostages escaped, the Tigers sent along suicide bombers among the streams of refugees to punish them for their “treachery”. Next to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, the Tamil Tigers are probably the worst bunch of ultra-nationalist extremists that Asia has seen in the past half-century.

They do, however, have an effective propaganda service, and command wide support among the large Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. Not all of this is voluntary: one Tamil-Canadian in Toronto explained to me how he always avoided filling stations run by Tamils in order to avoid being indentified and “taxed” by the Tigers, with unpleasant consequences for his relatives back in Sri Lanka if he failed to pay up.

However, since there are many more Tamils than other Sri Lankan immigrants in most Western countries, their governments tend to take the course of least resistance, which in the current context is to back the Tamil Tigers’ pleas for a cease-fire. Calling for a cease-fire always sounds good, and the Western governments don’t have to live with the consequences.

If the sanctimonious foreigners really wanted to make themselves useful, they would stop calling for a cease-fire and instead demand full civil rights for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka after the war, including broad autonomy in the areas where they are the local majority. It was the brutal suppression of Tamil rights in the decades after independence, extending even to pogroms against Tamils by the majority Sinhalese population, that caused this war. It will eventually cause another if it is not ended.

The current Sri Lankan government is not the ideal vehicle for attaining this goal. The prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a nasty piece of work, and his brother Gotabaya, the defence secretary, is even nastier. Together they have turned a once-flourishing democracy into a country where critics of the government often die violent but unexplained deaths.

If your goal is a tolerant, multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, you would not choose to start from here. But that is where Sri Lanka is, and so the choice is between evils.

The Tigers are a cancer that needs to be eliminated. The present government will probably then do almost everything wrong, alienating the defeated Tamils from the Sri Lankan state by repressive measures when it should be trying to reconcile them. But once the Tigers are gone, the raison d’etre of such a brutal regime vanishes.

Sri Lanka’s democracy has had its flaws and failures over the years, but it has deep roots, and it is hard to imagine a regime like that of the Rajapaksas surviving for long in peacetime. Only war made that possible, and the war will soon be over.

So if the foreigners really want to make themselves useful, they should stop grand-standing about the civilians trapped in the Tigers’ remaining territory, which is now down to about 12 sq. km. (5 sq. mi.). Instead, they should push the Sri Lankan government to create a post-war dispensation that makes Tamils happy to be Sri Lankans.

As a start, all the Tamil civilians who have escaped from the Tigers should be freed from the detention camps where they are now being held within the next few weeks. Keeping them for the planned year or more is just vindictive.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“They


Sri Lanka After the War

15 February 2009

Sri Lanka After the War

By Gwynne Dyer

The greatest mistakes are made on the morrow of the greatest victories. Sri Lanka is now approaching a decisive victory in its 26-year war against Tamil separatism, and it is about to make a very big mistake.

“While separatist terrorism must be eradicated,” wrote Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, “it is important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urge government to view Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens.”

Wickrematunge left that on his computer, to be published if he was murdered, which he duly was last month. He knew it was going to happen, and he believed that he knew who would be responsible: the government. Which is why he addressed President Mahinda Rajapaksa directly in his post-mortem article.

It was the first time that most of Wickrematunge’s readers learned that he and the president had been close friends for a quarter-century.

Indeed, they regularly met late at night at the president’s house, alone or with a few other old friends.

“In the wake of my death,” Wickrematunge wrote, “I know you (President Rajapaksa) will make all the usual sanctimonious noises…but like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. [Almost certainly Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother.] Not just my life but yours too depends on it.”

Like the United States under President Bush, Sri Lanka has ceased to respect the law in its fight against “terrorism”. Since the Tamil minority began fighting for a separate state in 1983, over 70,000 people have been killed in Sri Lanka, the majority of them civilians — and since President Rajapaksa took power in 2004 fourteen journalists have been murdered by unknown assailants.

Rajapaksa is now on the brink of destroying the rebel army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“Tamil Tigers”). Even one year ago they still controlled some 15,000 sq. km (6,000 sq. mi) in the north and north-east of the island, where they maintained all the institutions of a sovereign state. But the relentless offensive of the Sri Lankan army has now reduced them to only a couple of hundred square kilometres (less than a hundred square miles) of territory.

Within a week or two, that will be gone too, and what remains of the Tamil Tigers will no longer control a pseudo-state. Good riddance, for they were brutal extremists who killed their own Tamil people, in order to enforce unquestioning obedience, just as readily as their suicide bombers killed the majority Sinhalese population. But that doesn’t mean that Sri Lanka can just go back to the kind of country it was before the fighting began in 1983. The Tamils had a reason to revolt.

Tamil-speaking Hindus have been part of Sri Lanka’s complex ethnic and religious mosaic for centuries, but they are only 12 percent of the population. They got along well enough with the Sinhalese-speaking, Buddhist majority when the island was first united under British imperial rule in the early 19th century, but after that the relationship went rapidly downhill.

The British, in typical divide-and-rule style, favoured the Tamil minority in education and in civil service jobs. Sinhalese resentment grew rapidly, and the first Sinhalese-Tamil riots were in 1939. As in the subsequent bouts of killing, most of the victims were Tamils.

Once independence arrived in 1948, the Sinhalese used their majority to pass laws giving members of their own community preference for university entrance and government jobs, and Sinhala was declared the sole national language. As Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic nationalism grew more extreme, some of the riots in the 1960s and 1970s verged on anti-Tamil pogroms.

By the late 1970s the process of setting up a shadow Tamil state in the north and north-east had begun. Open war broke out in 1983, with the Tamil Tigers rapidly eliminating the rival Tamil separatist groups and establishing totalitarian control over the population under their rule.

Twenty-six years later, the Tamil Tigers’ army has finally been crushed, and the Sri Lankan state (in practice, the Sinhalese state) is triumphant. But the 12 percent of the population who are Tamils will still not accept unequal status, and they are not going away.

This is the time when a peace that gives the Tamils equal rights and autonomous local governments in the areas where they are a majority could secure the country’s future, but it is most unlikely to happen.

Sinhalese nationalism is as intolerant as ever, and now it is triumphalist to boot. Moreover, the rapid growth of a “national security state” under President Rajapakse has undermined democracy and largely silenced criticism of government policies. The forecast, therefore, is for a reversion to guerilla war in the north, and continuing campaigns of murder by both the government and Tamil extremists in the rest of the country.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 10. (“It was…friends”; “Like…assailants”; and “The British…Tamils”)

Back to War in Sri Lanka

15 January 2006

Back to War in Sri Lanka

By Gwynne Dyer

Wars only end when one side wins, or both sides conclude that they can’t gain any more by fighting. Neither side can actually win in Sri Lanka, but too many people on both sides still believe they can get a better deal by more fighting, so it’s back to the war that they suspended in 2002.

In the past month, about seventy soldiers and sailors have been killed in a number of attacks that the government blames on the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, while the LTTE claims that at least forty Tamil civilians have been killed in attacks by government forces. On Saturday, even the Norwegian-led international peace monitors came under grenade attack in their eastern base at Batticaloa. At some point in the next month or so, either newly elected President Mahinda Rajapakse or Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran will probably declare the ceasefire over, but for practical purposes it already is.

That’s a shame, but it’s hardly a surprise. There have been no actual peace talks since 2003, and the Tamil Tigers’ “time out” has more or less expired. (Like other nationalist groups that employ terrorist attacks, and particularly suicide attacks, as part of their struggle, the LTTE came under strong American pressure to change its ways after 9/11, but the passage of time and the growing distractions that the US faces on other fronts have now largely freed it from that pressure.) Besides, every twist and turn of political manoeuvring within the government was taking it farther away from the kind of deal the Tamils wanted.

Sri Lanka is no more complex in ethnic or religious terms than many of its neighbours in South and South-East Asia, but it has fallen into a pit of ethnic hatred and violence from which it is now very hard to escape. The Sinhala-speaking Buddhists who make up three-quarters of the country’s 18 million people have shared the island with the Tamil-speakers of the north and north-east (who are Hindu or Muslim) for almost two millennia, but it took the machinations of the British empire and the demagoguery of democratic politicians to turn them into enemies.

Having overthrown the Buddhist kingdom of Kandy in 1815, the new British rulers found that Tamils were more willing to work for them than the old Sinhala elite that had just lost power. The colonial administration depended heavily on Tamils, who benefited greatly as a result, but after independence in 1948 the shoe was on the other foot. During the 50s and 60s the most successful Sinhala politicians were those who tried to destroy the Tamils’ advantages by making Sinhala the only official language and restricting the government jobs and university places open to Tamils.

They also laid the foundations for civil war: by 1976 most Tamils backed parties that demanded autonomy from the central government for Tamil-majority areas. In 1983, after a series of ghastly anti-Tamil pogroms in the capital, the Tamil Tigers took over from elected politicians in the north and the insurgency began. But neither the Tigers nor the army could win, despite 64,000 dead and over a million refugees. When the two sides agreed on a ceasefire in 2002, the front lines were not very different from those of 1983.

It was time for a compromise, and LTTE leader Prabhakaran did have one in mind. In response to signs that the government might be ready to negotiate autonomy for Tamil areas, he stopped demanding independence and began speaking of a “homeland” that might still remain part of Sri Lanka. But he definitely intended to keep full control over that “homeland” — and meanwhile the usual erosion of purpose occurred on the Sinhala side.

The Sinhalese have spent the past two decades arguing with one another about what terms to offer the Tamils, but the hard-line nationalists on the Sinhala side win most of the arguments. The president for the past eleven years, Chandrika Kumaratunga, talked endlessly about a peace deal with the Tamils, but every time one of the Sinhala nationalist parties that supported her objected to the terms she was offering, she made them harsher.

When a new prime minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, won the 2001 elections with the support of a coalition of opposition parties and tried to offer the Tamils better terms, she accused him of betraying the country and eventually suspended parliament in late 2003 in order to halt the peace process. So Wickramasinghe ran for the presidency last November against Kumaratunga’s chosen successor, Mahinda Rajapakse. He would have won, too — except that by then the Tamil Tigers had given up on the peace talks.

If Tamils had voted in large numbers, they would certainly have supported Wickramasinghe, but the Tigers ordered them to abstain, so Rajapakse scored a narrow victory instead. And Rajapakse, once willing to talk about autonomy, has been getting steadily less conciliatory as his dependence on Sinhala ultra-nationalist parties has deepened.

The Tamil Tigers, despairing of any Sinhala politician being able to deliver the goods, had already decided to re-start the war: the electoral boycott that brought Rajapakse to power was just a device to shift the blame onto the Sinhalese. So now the war is re-starting, and although everybody knows that the final deal must include a Tamil autonomous area, many thousands more will die before the next attempt at a negotiated settlement.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“That’s…wanted”; and “It was time…side”)