– A resumé on SL Tamil politics –
by Kusal Perera
But all four were there. And only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others?
Who believes him?
Everybody. It’s the only version they know.
People are bloody ignorant apes. – (from Samuel Beckett’s stage play “Waiting for Godot”)
There is much to talk about the post “present conflict”, by what ever name one calls it. The LTTE political boss Nadesan refuses to accept the coming period as a “post – LTTE” period. Could it be “post Prabhakaran” then?
There are questions about Prabhakaran and what he would do next after this massive humanitarian debacle and the biggest military beating in his entire history. He first appeared as a promising guerrilla leader and established himself as a decisive character in Tamil politics with a promise to establish an independent Tamil Eelam. That being so, he is a man with an abundance of (self) confidence, uncompromising tenacity and with a very conspicuous place in Tamil history.
The role of Prabhakaran and his singularly led LTTE therefore needs a political evaluation at this point of time in Sri Lankan politics, for the simple reason he broke all limits in political thinking to position “Tamil Nationalism” as a global issue with a very strong voice that no one else would have ever dared to think of as possible. This therefore leads to the inevitable question, “what then went wrong for Prabhakaran and the LTTE ? What about his promise of a Thamil Eelam ?”
Justification of armed Tamil politics
Within Tamil nationalism, “armed politics” emerged as an alternative in the early 70’s. Democratic Tamil political leadership(s) was discussed as spent and impotent in meeting Tamil aspirations even before the 70’s. In the first ever political resolution for a separate Eelam State mooted by the FP youth federation at the April 1969 Uduvil convention of the FP, the youth were explicit in their assessment of democratic politics being unable to meet Tamil aspirations. This resolution was withdrawn by the youth federation on the insistence of “Thanthai Chelva” (S.J.V) but the distrust on their leadership amongst youth remained and grew.
Starting from the disfranchising of Indian Tamil labour in 1948 under D.S., moving through colonisation programmes that very conspicuously changed the demographic pattern in the East to the disadvantage of minorities during the early 1950’s, the Official Languages Act that made Sinhala the only official language since 1956 under Bandaranayake, all negotiations and agreements entered into – B.C. Pact of 1957 and the D.C. Pact of 1965 – with the Sinhala political leaderships in power, the 1972 Republican Constitution and then to the geographical and linguistic Standardisation of University Admissions in 1974, were all clear evidence against democratic Tamil politics being unable to stake a rightful claim in this Sinhala nation State. This also led to a very valid argument that Sinhala political leaderships irrespective of their political differences would not honour any negotiated agreement in accommodating Tamil aspirations.
On that it was argued, the Tamil society in Sri Lanka needs to establish their own nation State to take charge of their own fate. The failure of the TULF led by late Amirthalingam to carry through the unanimously adopted resolution at the 1974 Waddukodai Conference to establish a separate Thamil State that in 1977 general elections was given a resounding mandate by the Tamil people, further justified the armed struggle in place of democratic politics. Yet, this struggle for a Thamil Eelam remained one waged by different armed groups that did not see much fraternal support beyond the SL Tamil society and the shores of Sri Lanka . Their later search for safe houses in Tamil Nadu was due to rival clashes and the ruthless repression President Jayawardne ordered for in 1979 under General “Bull” Weeratunge.
The Delhi administration’s covert support to the “boys” around 1980 under PM Indira Gandhi was the first Indian and foreign intervention in armed Tamil politics, Delhi provided arms training, weapons and funds to the SL Tamil armed groups to fight for their perceived separate Thamil State. This provoked a political discussion on how much the “Eelam struggle” could depend on Indian support. Within the LTTE, a horribly regimented group from its very beginning, this wasn’t anything to discuss about. But it was very much a topic within the PLOTE then that was influenced by Maoism and was more political. The PLOTE had seen the Eelam struggle similar to the East Pakistani “Mukti Bahini” struggle in establishing an independent Bangladesh . Mukti Bahini was first militarily supported by Delhi , but was subsequently crushed savagely to install the Awami League in power. This doubt on India in PLOTE thinking when felt by the Indian RAW, antagonised Delhi and PLOTE was eventually starved out. Other groups like the EPRLF meanwhile decided to go the Indian way.
A new Thamil ideology for SL Tamil politics
The growth of the LTTE is attributed to its independence totally focused in establishing a Thamil Eelam. The Tamil society was still not certain though, how it would separate out from the larger SL State. The TULF as the traditional political party that lived on a strong democratic history was still there accepted in mainstream Tamil politics and hesitant about the next step. The LTTE thus moved on a path that gave them a very aggressive nationalist platform based on the historical roots of the Chola Empire, the grand emergence of Tamil dominance in whole of South India and beyond from 09th to about 13th Century. The Chola Empire and the rich and unique Dravidian culture it inspired provided a very strong nationalist psyche to strengthen the dream of a proud Thamil nation. The snarling “Tiger” emblem picked from Chola history signified the aggressiveness of this chosen Thamil nationalism.
The LTTE was thus fighting with a new Thamilean culture that led to a cult of “martyrdom”. It led Tamil youth to commit suicide for the dreamland of an Eelam State . All the “heroes’ cemeteries”, the many colourful pandal for heroes, the “Mahaveer day” that culminates with the leader’s “Mahaveer” speech, comes with the martial arts and the rituals that wrapped up heroism in Chola culture. This was pure Thamil nationalism above “Marxist deviations” and modern world interpretations of national liberation which made the LTTE different to all others.
Yet the Tamil nationalism of the LTTE had to live on the “Thamil homeland” that was sealed by bringing all differing Tamil groups across Tamil politics. The “Joint Thimpu Declaration” in 1985 laid it clear that further negotiations should accept the right of self determination of the Tamil people as a “Nation”. The Tamil people have a historically established “homeland” defined as the Northern and the Eastern provinces together, was beyond any debate or argument, it said.
This nationalist platform with a “homeland” for the Tamil “Nation” like that of the Palestinians who claim their right to a Palestinian State with a right to their homeland, provided the LTTE with a reach to mobilise an unusually strong support base that had not been gathered by any armed group for any cause, in such an extensive scale. The Tamil Diaspora was systematically brought in to provide the LTTE with a very consistent international voice, funds, communication expertise and technology, procurement of arms and a new generation of Tamil professionals and specialists. This Thamil nationalism also radicalised the periphery of Tamil Nadu politics and turned it into a pressure bloc that impacted on TN electoral politics.
The Diaspora became a key factor in the growth of the LTTE as the single Thamil organisation that took over Tamil representation. The argument that the LTTE usurped such single status by eliminating other armed Tamil groups and respected Tamil leaders can be explained by saying that the LTTE could do it that way on two counts. One was the ideology of a broader Tamil nation based on the aggressive Chola Empire of the Raja Rajas and two, the independence the LTTE gained over the Tamil society in Sri Lanka , on the strength of the Tamil Diaspora.
Such was the background to all successful military operations carried out by the LTTE from mid 1980’s to the successful annexation of Vanni land in late 1990’s. Though vulnerable, in the Eastern province some coastal stretches in the Batticoloa district from Kokkadicholai to parts of Verugal Aaru too were taken over by the LTTE during this same period.
By then, within Tamil politics, the line was clearly drawn. Only moderates who accepted the LTTE hegemony in Tamil politics could live politically. That was how the TNA came into being and existed. All others were forced to live with State patronage and thus play politics according to Southern political needs. The 2002 February cease fire agreement (CFA) with the Ranil Wickramasinghe government was possible only because of the Diaspora plus armed strength.
Stalemate in negotiating a democratic solution
The 2002 CFA went defunct after a year and a few months of its signing. The LTTE and Prabhakaran with military successes behind them worked towards a situation they thought would push the UNP government into agreeing with them on their terms and conditions. Their respected ideologue Anton Balasingham, perhaps the only person who could argue politics with the Tiger Supremo, once said in private while negotiations were on in Oslo that it took many years for him to convince Prabhakaran to accept the theoretical principle of “internal self determination”. Thus with “self determination” still there on the table though with a different dressing, negotiations were hard and frustrating.
After all, with thousands of youthful lives already sacrificed for a separate Thamil State , the LTTE and Prabhakaran could not possibly turn around and say anything less. Anything less before politically preparing the LTTE into accepting a negotiated settlement based on a system of power sharing. Any thing less before a long preparatory period, would have made Prabhakaran another “Amirthalingam”. Therefore the onus of developing confidence in the Sinhala and Tamil societies and keeping the LTTE at the negotiating table fell on Wickramasinghe’s government.
The Wickramasinghe government was far short of that responsibility in handling the 25 year conflict and was politically irresponsible. Neither did their cabinet of ministers ever have serious discussions among themselves on how the government should work towards confidence building to strengthen discussions and campaign politically in the South, nor did the UNP as a political party ever developed a discourse within the party and in society. Wickramasinghe as PM did not accept he had a serious responsibility towards the society in bringing the Executive Presidency into a consensus in strengthening the CFA and negotiating peace. Wickramasignhe was a leader who is awfully scared of people mobilised into political activity. He thus preferred the international community to push the LTTE into accepting what he thought he could be comfortable with in reaching the Southern voter.
All agreements on different “interim mechanisms” with gorgeous labels did not come through because of these diverse or differing agendas by the two negotiating parties. It thus gave way to a “fork reaction”. In the South, it allowed confirmed anti UNP parties and groupings to move together with the Sinhala racist groups and elements in defeating the UNP government. Its logical path was through an anti CFA, anti Norway and anti negotiation platform. In the North-East, the LTTE was also working towards defeating the UNP. It feared Wickramasinghe would network international pressure to accept what they did not want to accept, after a 25 year armed struggle. The UNP had thus effectively paved the way for both Sinhala and Tamil politics to oppose it and its negotiating process. In other words, the UNP leadership had pushed both the Sinhala extremists and the extremist Tamil Tigers to oppose a democratic, negotiated solution to the conflict.
It was in such a complex polarisation of nationalist extremism, the Wickramasinghe government was dismantled in January 2004 using the executive powers with President Kumaratunge. The Delhi administration that was not happy with Wickramasignhe’s approach in broaching peace with the LTTE and Prabhakaran, had also given its nod.
Miscalculating politics on military pride
This political polarisation set the stage for Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the presidential elections as the SLFP candidate in 2005 November, with all Sinhala groups and parties from moderates to extremists including the JVP, flocking round him. This was clearly an extension of the anti-Norwegian, anti-CFA and anti-devolution platform that evolved due to the UNP government’s failure to politically utilise the CFA. Rajapaksa’s presidential campaign thus gave form to Sinhala chauvinist content with a simple campaign slogan “for a Unitary State ” to defeat Tamil separatism.
The LTTE decision to go on a polls boycott was a military strategy more than a political decision. Its leadership believed they could once again militarily dictate terms in defining SL politics, if they manipulated the elections to have Rajapaksa as President. The LTTE was no doubt seen as deciding politics in the South on many occasions before. They were projected as formidable and militarily decisive.
From surviving the fierce and determined National Security Minister Athulathmudali’s military strategies to taking on the hefty IPKF, the LTTE gained stronger international recognition as an unbeatable armed group. They thereafter took on the SL army under Presidents Premadasa and Kumratunge, all the time improving their image as an uncompromising and committed organisation. Prabhakaran in turn was considered a mastermind in modern day warfare from guerrilla to conventional war.
Such perceptions and egos were formed forgetting the fact that the LTTE in all their previous struggles survived only with the advantage of having another ally though in proxy. They came out of the Vadamarachchi onslaught somewhat battered and after most of the Tamil people in the Jaffna peninsula were forced to flee, thanks to the Delhi administration that forgot SL is a sovereign State. The LTTE would not have survived the IPKF without President Premadasa’s overt and covert support against the IPKF. All through Premadasa and Kumaratunge presidencies, the LTTE had the advantage of strong anti war, pro devolution campaigns in the South that imposed restrictions on how the war is waged. In fact during the Kumaratunge rule Minister Ratwatte complained that peace campaigns organised and supported by the government itself were having a negative impact on his war efforts.
Within this path of emergence to military dominance, at the time of the 2002 February CFA, all other armed groups had splintered, had been usurped by Indian intelligence needs, had folded up totally while some had buckled under the intense brutality of the LTTE compelling them to seek refuge under the security of the SL State. Democratic players like the TULF and the ACTC whose political arena was also restricted by the LTTE’s ruthless presence were forced to play front roles to the LTTE. The decision of the LTTE prevailed over Tamil politics. Prabhakaran’s decision to boycott the 2005 November presidential elections was accordingly a decision imposed on the Tamil people. The modus operandi was thus quite clear.
The spread and strength of the Tamil Diaspora to impress upon the international community was one that was taken for granted and as an advantage in deciding the polls boycott. The advantage was assessed against a Sinhala regime without Kadirgamar as a would be Tamil Prime Minister and a very convincing Foreign Minister. The hard stand of a Sinhala regime on a unitary State that would not even allow a dialogue on power sharing was the pivotal issue of campaigning. With a much publicised mini ad hoc State in hand with its own administration, own banking system and taxes, policing of the Vanni society, its own law college and a legal system accepted by the Vanni Tamil people, the argument that Tamil people have only one option and that is to exercise their right for self determination was thought to be a very strong argument. Yet, what was not talked of was their political system that ran the mini State. That would have exposed the military authority which totally suppressed a political process.
Misreading the Sinhala psyche under Rajapaksa
The LTTE meanwhile overlooked the possibility of a Sinhala regime waging war that could defeat them. They failed to assess the political impact of a bifurcation of their constitutionally linked homeland they would not be able to hold militarily together. They under played Karuna Amman who had by then betrayed them whole sale. The LTTE also ignored the Tamil psyche in the Vanni that was nurturing peaceful aspirations after many decades, with the CFA in 2002 allowing them access to a growing free market with new values, new promises and new comforts.
Worst is that the LTTE leadership did not want to account for the social psyche an extreme Sinhala government could mould in the South and the political impact it would have in waging war against them. It also failed to see this Sinhala extremism positioning itself within a very strong global campaign against terrorism after the 09/11 debacle in New York . Politically inept in understanding international relations, the LTTE failed to picture them in a different foreign relations canvas when the Rajapaksa government realigns its foreign relations to suit its own Sinhala agenda. A new canvas where the Diaspora would be totally absent. In short, the LTTE leadership could not foresee a brutal situation that would rob them of their mini Thamil State , when a Sinhala leadership under Rajapaksa is brought to office. LTTE had rarely worked on alternatives.
The LTTE leadership was therefore pitched against a Sinhala government that rallied the South on its promise to fight against Thamil separatism. It was up against a world community that preferred to see them as “terrorists” on their past. They little realised this Rajapaksa regime had realigned its foreign relations with countries like China , Pakistan , Iran and Russia that were not only far away from Diasporic pressure, but were also not bothered about Human Rights violations.
The LTTE was thus left with an international community that was willing to accommodate the Rajapaksa regime’s war against LTTE “terrorism”, if the cry of the Tamil civilians could be reduced in volume. The role India would play to hold on to its “big brother” status in South Asian geo politics, was also shifted in favour of the Rajapaksa regime with its new foreign alliance and the potential it showed in curbing the LTTE militarily.
Teething Sinhala extremism for the final bite
All of it together made it difficult or impossible for the LTTE leadership to stand against a regime that was equally ruthless in its push for military supremacy on a hardened Sinhala platform. Thus for the first time the LTTE proved immature in their military strategy. When they started retreating, the plight of the civilians was no concern, unless their agony could be internationally campaigned on.
They first started moving out of the Eastern Province with token resistance offered. The argument was the LTTE would defend their Vanni mini State with all resources gathered within it. That left to be proved, the government took political advantage of this retreat by holding provincial elections to establish a nominal Tamil Chief Minister, marketed as a democratic evolution out of liberating the East from LTTE “terrorism”. It proved that the LTTE had no credible answer to counter this development against them.
Subsequent military offensives by the Rajapaksa regime first launched from the West coast in Mannar and then moving across Vanni to the East coast, forced the LTTE to roll their mini State part by part, district by district, leaving the land they controlled for over 06 years totally empty and at the hands of the military. The LTTE proved it could not this time face a multi pronged conventional war, despite their reputation. They ended trapped in an ever reducing patch of land declared as a “no fire zone” by the government security forces in the Mullaitivu coast.
The brutality with which this whole war was waged by the Rajapaksa regime can never be underscored and can never be justified. Its brutality was not limited to the North –East only. Was never limited to persecuting the Tamil people only, though they were the most ruthlessly hounded. This war waged by the Rajapaksa regime dismantled the long standing democratic structures of the whole society and has overturned social values. It has totally violated democratic and human rights of the people. Has throttled media freedom and coerced all media to obey its dictates. It has paved the way for a politico military regime that no longer represents the elected government and is not responsible to the people. It has eroded the sovereignty of the people with an intimidating social psyche, in the name of eliminating Tamil “terrorism”.
Yet all of it does not help the LTTE leadership to shun its part of the responsibility in throwing a whole Tamil society into savage decimation. Its a catastrophic situation that has now emerged as a result of the decision taken by the LTTE Supremo in forcing 04 lakhs of Tamil people out of voting with no political options given. The Jaffna peninsula has gone under military occupation as never before. Whole of Vanni is uprooted and displaced. Thousands have died, hundreds die daily and thousands of others agonise within their painful, nomadic and hungry living. Many thousands are caged in as refugees with no promise of a decent human future. The once linked homeland of the Tamil people lies bifurcated. The promise of a Thamil homeland has to bleed in waiting.
“Gentlemen, I don’t know what came over me. Forgive me. Forget all I said …… I don’t remember exactly what it was, but you may be sure there wasn’t a word of truth in it …… Do I look like a man that can be made to suffer? Frankly? (He rummages in his pockets.) What have I done with my pipe?”
(A line from Pozzo: a character in Samuel Beckett’s stage play “Waiting for Godot”)
The dead and the wounded would be history. Martyrs do not have a role any more. They would perhaps live in Diasporic literature. Another debate, another discussion would ensue in the Diaspora, in the comforts of intellectual idealism about the future of Tamil nationalism. On the salty lands of North – East, it would be a new start with the old war by yet another generation.
But, to those who live here in this beleaguered old paradise, is there a place to intervene within this unfolding tragedy ? Create a pluralistic democracy and prevent the next generation from going through the same human tragedy? Well, I have no ready made answer. May be, we could discuss too.