Why the liberation Tigers are Not liberation fighters

At its worst, a little learning can indeed be a dangerous thing, but at any time it can be exceedingly annoying. As Marx once expostulated "ignorance never helped anyone yet". In recent days the Sri Lankan press has seen the most careless flinging about of analogies, with the LTTE being written of in the same paragraphs as the IRA, the ANC, Hezbollah, Hamas and Nepal’s Maoists. Either the Sri Lankan state or the LTTE is urged to adopt these situations/movements as a model. This is simply ridiculous because one cannot profitably compare apples and oranges, chalk and cheese. The LTTE, while certainly not unique, does not belong to the any of the categories that the earlier mentioned movements or struggles belong to.

The relationship between the UK and Ireland was a colonial one, with the UK being a metropolitan imperialist power, and Ireland being Britain’s first and oldest colony. Britain invaded, occupied and settled Ireland with Scottish Presbyterians. Sri Lanka is a former colony, not a former colonial power, and its relationship with the largely Tamil North, though arguably iniquitous, is certainly not – and could not have been—a colonial one. The IRA’s struggle was therefore a residual national liberation struggle, complicated by the demographics (the Protestant minority of the North whose elected MPs were vital to the balance of power in Westminster).

After three decades the Provisional IRA realized that a military victory over the British presence was impossible to achieve. The LTTE has not realized that. The LTTE murdered or attempted to murder those it negotiated with (Premadasa, CBK), moderate ethnic politicians (Amirthalingam), foreign intermediaries (Rajiv Gandhi) and its own negotiators (Mahattaya). The equivalent conduct would have been the IRA murdering Tony Blair, John Hume, George Mitchell and Martin MacGuinness. The IRA had a powerful political arm, the Sinn Fein, which had been in existence for decades. It contested elections in Northern Ireland since the early 1980s, though it refused to take its seats in the Stormont parliament. The LTTE registered a political party as late as 1990, dissolved it in short order, arresting and murdering its chairman, Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahattaya. The IRA did no such thing, because the IRA was no such monstrosity.

The IRA agreed to a settlement which entailed the de-commissioning of weapons under international auspices. The political contours of the settlement fell well short of what the IRA had fought for: troops out of Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland out of the UK. Northern Ireland remains very much part of the UK, the IRA shares power with their Protestant foes and Britain remains a unitary state, unconverted to federalism but with devolution of power. The LTTE has done no such thing because it is no such creature.

Contrary to the nonsensical nattering of some columnists, it is not the case that the Tigers were not offered a reasonable alternative to Tamil Eelam. India did so, with the Indo-Lanka Accord. Though Sinhala chauvinist limited the scope of devolution, Prabhakaran did not go to war against the Sinhala Army – which was "gated" by the IPKF—but against the Indian peacekeeping force, proceeding to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi on Indian soil in 1991. Premadasa was willing to give Prabhakaran "the North east on a silver platter" according to Anita Pratap (Island of Blood), but that wasn’t good enough. Nor was Chandrika’s offer of a restructuring of the Sri Lankan polity into a union of regions. True, Sinhala opinion was opposed to it, but it is not as if Prabhakaran sat down and concurred. He had broken off contacts by blowing up two naval gunboats in Trincomalee harbour—and for his pains, lost Jaffna at the end of that year, never to regain it. Contrary to the lie that federalism was never on the horizon, it is the Tigers that pulled back from and disowned the Oslo understanding to "explore a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka". Anton Balasingham wrote a tract disclaiming any such understanding and provoked even the Norwegians into releasing the minutes of the talks containing that understanding. Lastly, we have the example of the LTTE’s sabotage of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesingthe’s Presidential campaign, which, had it been successful, would have resulted in a discussion – though not inevitably an acceptance – of the ISGA and/or PTOMS.

Given that both the structural situation and the actors are very different from Sri Lanka and the LTTE, the Northern Ireland model is no model at all.

Things turn even more irksome for the informed reader when encountering references to the ANC, Hezbollah, Hamas and Nepal’s Maoists as recommended models for the Tigers.

The ANC fought for majority rule against apartheid which was a form of entrenched minority rule. Sri Lanka’s only experience with minority rule was under colonialism. A democracy however flawed, Sri Lanka’s system is one of majority rule and its problems arguably are in balancing majority rule with minority rights. The LTTE’s struggle is for a separate state in which the country’s minority would be the majority. The ANC was a multiracial organization while the LTTE is mono-ethnic. The ANC was scrupulous in its exercise of violence, carefully targeting its attacks and eschewing violence against civilians or which could affect them. For the mono-ethnic Tigers, terrorism is a major mode of struggle, in a cause which is the direct opposite of majority rule.

Hezbollah, which as a guerrilla army stands in the same relation to the Tigers as the Jimi Hendrix Experience does to Abba, was formed in 1982 with the support of Iran’s Pasdaran, as a direct result of and response to a cross-border invasion and partial occupation by a foreign power, Israel. With a solid political base and Parliamentary representation, it is a classic resistance movement against external invasion. The Sri Lankan armed forces have not invaded any other country (not for a millennium anyway), so an armed movement against it cannot be resistance movement against the foreign invaders of a sovereign country, nor can it be compared with such a movement. Furthermore the Hezbollah did not wage war against Iran or Syria and proceed to murder either an Iranian or Syrian leader, as the Tigers did to the IPKF and India’s Rajiv Gandhi.

Hamas, though much less successful than the Hezbollah, is also a resistance movement against foreign occupation and annexation, in violation of four decades of UN Security Council and General Assembly Resolutions.

Nepal’s Maoists waged a revolutionary war against an entrenched hereditary monarchy. Sri Lanka is a democracy. In any case Nepal’s Maoists have been the first to make the point, on the record to the Hindu, that the Tigers are nothing like them whatsoever, and that the LTTE has no political program or ideology other than that of separatism pure and simple.

I am not splitting hairs. My fundamental points are these:

Firstly, given the character of their causes and the enemies they fought against, the intrinsic nature of their struggles and the absence of serious reform options, every one of these movements, the ANC, IRA, Hamas, Hezbollah, Nepal’s Maoists were/are waging legitimate armed struggles which fall into the category of Just Wars, although their methods have not always been just or legitimate, unlike those of the Cuban, Nicaraguan, Vietnamese and Chinese liberation struggles. Neither in its content nor in its conduct is the armed struggle of the LTTE just and legitimate.

Secondly, in analytical terms, the LTTE has to be compared with other armed separatist or secessionist movements, and more specifically, with separatist movements waging war against sovereign democratic states (Chechnya, Kashmir, Nagaland, the Moros, Kurds, the Basque ETA) rather than autocracies (Eritrea). The corollary is that the Sri Lankan conflict has to be compared with situations of independent national states with electoral democratic systems, facing separatist insurgencies.

Thirdly, since the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 the main obstacle to peace in Sri Lanka is not that Tamil nationalism has not been offered a reasonable alternative to separatism. It is that the LTTE has an inflated self-image of what it can and should hold out for, which does not correspond to its performance as an armed movement. That is a subset of the larger problem, namely that Tamil nationalism has a sense of superiority which is mirrored neither by the military achievement of its armed spearhead the LTTE nor by collective arithmetical strength within the polity. It is a problem of the false consciousness of Tamil nationalism – may I say Jaffna Tamil nationalism – and its selected or self selected vanguard, the Tigers.

(The views expressed here are the personal ones of the writer).

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