In recent days, events of importance to South Asia have been unfolding in Sri Lanka, where decades of civil war have all but destroyed the international reputation of what was once the region’s most progressive and democratic country. The Sri Lankan army, on the march against an armed ethnic Tamil movement, has seized the rebels’ de facto capital and is closing in on the last strongholds of the group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The LTTE, pioneers of the suicide bomber and the cyanide capsule, and the most totalitarian and lethal guerrilla organization in contemporary Asia, have suffered “a body blow from which there can be no recovery as far as anyone knows,” an editorial said Monday in the Hindu, one of India’s leading publications. The paper, whose editor, N. Ram, knows the Tigers well, called this an existential crisis for the LTTE “the gravest it has faced in three decades of armed struggle.”
The story is far from over, however, and the fallout of this unexpected military success will extend beyond the shores of the Indian Ocean island nation formerly known as Ceylon. In Sri Lanka itself there are fears within the Sinhalese majority that a wave of ethnic triumphalism will shatter the chances of healing a bloody ethnic rift and rebuilding a shared nation. And across the Palk Straits in India’s Tamil Nadu state, there is already a clamor to come to the aid of fellow Tamils, reigniting a visceral fear of Tamil chauvinism among Indian political leaders.
India has been entangled in the fate of the Tigers for many years, beginning in the 1970s when the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave the go-ahead to Indian intelligence agencies to aid and train Sri Lankan rebels to undercut a pro-Western Sri Lankan government she mistrusted. There were nearly a half-dozen Tamil groups in the field then and most of them established bases in Tamil Nadu. In the 1980s, journalists searching for the Tamil Tiger leadership found it in a residential neighborhood of Madras, now Chennai.
Grievances among ethnic Tamils, whose historical and cultural heartland has been Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna peninsula since the third century BC, were rooted in steps taken by successive Sri Lankan governments, dominated by a Sinhalese Buddhist majority, to marginalize Tamils and their language. Tamils are largely Hindu, though there are Christians in both ethnic groups. Many Jaffna Tamils (distinct from the Indian Tamils of the highland tea country farther south) had been educated in American missionary schools, spoke English and were favored by British colonial administrators for government jobs.
Tamils were killing Tamils in this civil war before it became an island-wide, inter-ethnic conflict. By the late 1970s, the LTTE, under a ruthless and shadowy leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, had begun systematically to eliminate competing guerrilla groups and moderate mainstream Tamil politicians who tried to rectify wrongs within the political arena in Colombo, the island capital. Sri Lanka has had democratically elected governments since independence in 1948.
In 1983, a wider national war began after the Tamil Tigers murdered a group of thirteen Sri Lankan troops, and the Sinhalese government allowed, if not actually encouraged, an inflamed mob to attack Tamils and Tamil property in Colombo. The LTTE unleashed a terror campaign hallmarked by bombings and assassinations that killed thousands of innocent people almost at random and decimated a generation of Sri Lankan political leaders, Tamil and Sinhala. The Tigers also assassinated the country’s leading human rights lawyer, Neelan Tiruchelvam, a Tamil who gave his life trying to bridge ethnic divides. Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka military became more heavy-handed and brutal.