Tamil city of Batticaloa on Sri Lankas 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.
1983 the Hindu Tamils of the northeast, 18% of Sri
Lankas 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
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.
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.
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
couldnt 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 LTTEs
heavy use of child soldiers.
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
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.
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. Theyre everywhere
and can do everything: raise taxes, requisition vehicles,
organise labour. No one would think of going against
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 nations bedside."
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."
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.
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."
4 November 2003 President Chandrika Kumaratunga (nationalist
left Peoples 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.
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
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
leaders birthday (8).
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.
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 dont
know who to talk to anymore," says SP Tamilselvan,
head of the LTTE political wing and the movements
unofficial number two, who was maimed in action. "We
are for peace, but if they give us war, its
the LTTEs duty to defend the Tamils."
a federal Sri Lanka the Tigers would have to accept
Colombos 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.
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.
and its peninsula mark the islands 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.
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.
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
a bunker in Jaffna VK Jakan, head of the Eelam Peoples
Democratic Party (EPDP) and former member of parliament,
says: "Since the ceasefire, five of our executives
have been killed and 20 others disappeared."
The EPDPs hands are far from clean. But the
LTTEs 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, Im dead."
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.
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 Asias
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."
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 countrys future lies
with federalism, not with ethnic cleansing."
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
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
Eelam means country.
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.
The Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) uprising
and suppression most likely caused 30,000 deaths
The Scottish philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, defined
Leviathan as a strong state to which men abandon
their freedom in exchange for security.
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
Narayan Swamy, Tigers of Lanka, updated edition,
Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo, 2003.
Public opinion poll published in December 2003 by
the CPA, Colombo. (www.cpalanka.org)
See Pattens statement.
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
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International press
release, 7 August 2003.
by Jeremiah Cullinane
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