Why Wiping Out Insurgents Won't Bring Peace to Sri Lanka
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
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.