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.
Sri Lanka bungled its case diplomatically and very quickly lost an international propaganda war to the LTTE, which established a large overseas network of supporters. Tamils in the diaspora gave money willingly or were regularly strong-armed for contributions. A large arms-smuggling network was set up.
Most of the world did not see what was happening in Sri Lanka, and outsiders were willing to believe that the Tigers were leading a legitimate fight for an oppressed minority and were the victims of official human rights abuses, not the instigators of terror. The voices of unarmed moderate Tamils were never heard. Most of them were soon silenced.
Indian troops intervened openly in Sri Lanka in 1987, but to disarm the LTTE, not aid it. Rajiv Gandhi, reversing his mother’s earlier policies, had signed an agreement with Sri Lanka to end the rebellion and send peacekeepers. The Indian intervention turned disastrous, as the Indians took many casualties in a standoff with the LTTE. At the same time the Indian military presence on the island provoked a catastrophic and unbelievably brutal Sinhala nationalist uprising in the south.
By the early 1990s Sri Lanka and its important tourist industry were in tatters. But India had suffered also. In 1991, the Tiger leader Prabhakaran, abandoned and humiliated by Indian troops in Jaffna, ordered the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, who was duly blown up by a female Tamil suicide bomber while campaigning in Tamil Nadu.
International public opinion was shifting by then, and in the succeeding decade the LTTE was added to terrorist lists in the United States, Canada, Europe and India. The Sri Lankan army began to make gains; the Tiger movement split. After a 2002 truce fell apart and fighting resumed in 2006, even pacifists among the Sinhalese conceded reluctantly that perhaps a decisive military victory was the only way out of the horror that had befallen the island.
In India, Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, Sonia, is now leader of the Congress Party, which dominates the governing coalition and which has refused calls to intervene in Sri Lanka again. Congress faces an election battle this year and political opponents in Tamil Nadu appear willing to make a campaign cause of the government’s unwillingness to stop Sri Lanka crushing the LTTE. Opposition Tamil Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party and communists are both accusing New Delhi of betrayal.
What has been lost in Sri Lanka? A reasonably egalitarian society with human development measures that still exceed India’s–in better health care, near-universal education and literacy, protected rights for women and numerous other factors–descended on all sides into brutality for long enough to numb too many consciences. (Buddhist monks are among the fiercest of Sinhala nationalists.) Political civility has given way to the culture of the tinted-glass, gun-infested SUV. Resentment still lingers among distrustful Tamils; the LTTE, now cornered in a still-sizable patch of jungle and reliant on abducted child soldiers, may strike again with new ferocity. Suicide is part of its ethos.
Sri Lanka, a small country without powerful international backers, still has not made its case in the West, where old habits and perceptions die hard. Last year a group of Western democracy and human rights groups led a successful campaign to deny Sri Lankans a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council (where such nations as China, Cuba, Pakistan and Azerbaijan enjoy membership.) A cause for smug satisfaction, perhaps, but no contest, really, in targeting a small and tormented nation. If peace can be achieved, Sri Lanka deserves better than that.