ForeignPolicy

Why Wiping Out Insurgents Won't Bring Peace to Sri Lanka

The Tamil Tigers are the product, not the cause, of Sri Lanka’s deadly politics.

Over the course of a long and brutal war with Sri Lanka’s armed forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE or the ‘Tamil Tigers’) has emerged as one of the world’s most formidable insurgent groups.  Today, however, the mighty Tigers are on the verge of an absolute military defeat.  Will their demise bring peace to Sri Lanka? 

The LTTE is a ruthless organization; one that resorts to child soldiers and 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 repeatedly condemned the LTTE’s callous ways, totalitarian structure, and uncompromising, maximalist demands.  The LTTE has assassinated many such detractors.   

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 is 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 Tamil civilians directly at risk.    

This convenient 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.   

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 more affluent among the island’s Tamil minority to keep its Sinhalese majority in check, and in return, gave these Tamils the best government jobs and privileged access to education (upper class Sinhalese were also advantaged, though Tamils were disproportionately favored).  This miserable balance only 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 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 Sinhala language and religion (Buddhism).  It saw Sri Lanka as for the Sinhalese alone, and insisted that the Tamil minority acquiesce to its subservient position.  In the first few decades following independence, Sri Lanka’s Tamils were gradually 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 dramatically shrank their employment and educational opportunities.  Sinhalese farmers were encouraged to settle in and around the island’s north-east, in an obvious attempt to dilute 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 unusually 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 that called for armed struggle and secession.  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 soldiers by Tamil rebels – led to more than 1,000 deaths.   

As an insurgent force, the LTTE has been inordinately 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.   

In many ways, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state have been reflections of each other’s stinginess and inflexibility.  Both share culpability for perpetuating a war that has lasted 26 years, claimed some 100,000 lives (about 30,000 in the last two years alone), and produced a thick stream of refugees.  Both, moreover, have squandered opportunities for peace, though 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.   

To most governments, the bloodbath in Sri Lanka is the consequence of a sovereign power besieged by a brutal domestic insurgency.  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 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 31 countries, including the United States, 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 American government – or any other government for that matter – to accept the argument that the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE have mirrored each other’s unyielding approach, 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 decaying democracy and ugly human rights record from the eyes of the international community – that is, of course, if the latter cares to sustain its gaze at this small and strategically unimportant island once the worst of the crisis is over.