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Warring nationalisms and future of Sri Lankan politics

Ahilan Kadirgamar in conversation with Prachi Patankar
Date Published: 
July 1, 2009

On May 18, 2009, the Government of Sri Lanka declared an end to the civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or the Tigers), killing their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Since January 2008, the Sri Lankan Government was waging a “final” assault against the Tigers, who have fought a civil war for the last 25 years against the Sinhalese majority Government, calling for a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil ethnic minority. Over the last few months, tens of thousands of Tamil civilians trapped in the conflict zone were being used by the LTTE as human shields against Government forces that were also shelling them indiscriminately. International agencies have accused both sides of human rights abuses and war crimes. These civilians are now being held as “internally displaced persons” in Government-controlled “welfare camps” surrounded by barbed wire fences and the army guards with no clear resettlement timetable.

Many are now looking at the future of Sri Lankan politics in a “post-LTTE” scenario. To understand the conflict, we speak to Ahilan Kadirgamar, a Sri Lankan Tamil activist and spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF), about the history of the conflict, solidarity, and the future of Sri Lankan politics.

What are the ethnic and linguistic groups in Sri Lanka that we should have a sense of to understand the situation there?

The Sinhalese community makes up 73 percent of the Sri Lankan population, and the majority are Buddhists. Historically there has also been a Tamil minority. The Tamil-speaking Muslim community claims a separate ethnic identity. There is an Up-Country Tamil community brought over from India by the British to work in the plantations. Besides these ethno-linguistic and religious identities, the issue of caste within both Tamil and Sinhalese communities is historically important.

What are the social, economic, and political conditions that led to the emergence of armed politics in the Tamil community?

The postcolonial state came with a certain ethnicization of politics. It ushered in a series of discriminatory legislations against the Tamil community. The 1971 standardization policy required middle-class Tamil students from the north to get higher marks to enter universities. Although university entrance was a small percentage of the society, ideologically it was seen as a major act of discrimination against Tamil youth. Responding to such majoritarian and Sinhala nationalist maneuvers by the political leadership, a militant Tamil nationalist movement emerged primarily in the Jaffna peninsula, a stronghold of the Tamil middle class and elite in the north. As it grew, there were periodic riots against Tamils.  In 1983, government-sponsored groups systematically massacred about 2,000 Tamils in the south and destroyed their homes. Subsequently, Tamil militant movements were able to recruit thousands of more youths into their ranks.

What was the diversity of the Tamil militant groups that emerged?

Two strands came into Tamil armed politics. One was from the base of the Federal Party, the major parliamentary party, which later became the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). They mobilized around nationalist lines encouraging ideas of sole leadership and “traitors” within the Tamil community. In 1976, they put forward a call for a separate state. Influenced by this politics, youth of that generation formed armed groups like the LTTE and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) with mostly militarist and Tamil nationalist outlooks.

The other influence came from the Left, particularly from the Communist Party. With this ideological influence, groups like Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) attempted to mobilize people around various issues, including caste. Tamil nationalism eclipsed these movements. In 1986, the Tigers massacred hundreds of cadres of TELO in Jaffna. In the late 1980s, they assassinated the leaders of TULF. In essence, the Tigers systematically eliminated the entire Tamil political leadership with the claim of “sole representation” of the Tamil community.

What relationship did the Tamil militancy have with struggles outside of Sri Lanka?

In the late 1970s, links were made between these militant groups and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] as well as other armed Palestine liberation groups in Lebanon. This was a time of certain hope for armed struggle and liberation. Although they didn’t gain extensive training or political influence, symbolically it was important. Similarly, they got training and intelligence from the Indian Government. Some groups like PLOTE also made links with Marxist-Leninist groups in India.

How would you characterize the ideology and the agenda of the LTTE? How have they built their base and power?

LTTE’s goal is a separate state for the Tamil population, “Tamil Eelam,” in the north and east. They wanted to achieve this by building a powerful militarist organization able to fight the Sri Lankan army. They never had an independent political wing nor were they keen on building a base in the Tamil society. They were clear that for the Tamil community there was only one organization, the LTTE. Their ideology is centered on their leader, Prabhakaran, whom they believed to be the only one that knew how to achieve Tamil Eelam.

By eliminating other political groups, LTTE was able to create this hegemonic hold over people.  By default, they became the only group that the diaspora could support. They built a powerful infrastructure in the diaspora, controlling all social spaces, from weekend Tamil schools to traditional dance festivals. Through their businesses, institutions, and fundraising, the diaspora became the main financial and the political base of the LTTE.

They also built a parasitic structure to rule the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. LTTE taxed and extorted people but never provided any services. The State provided services like health and education within the LTTE controlled area. The Muslim community, which the Tigers couldn’t control, was not seen as part of the Tamil community. In the east, the Tigers gunned down two mosques while people prayed, killing 150 people and severing Tamil-Muslim relations. In 1990, the entire northern Muslim community, about 75,000 people, was ethnically cleansed and evicted within 24-48 hours.

How would you characterize the tactics of the LTTE? What has been the make up of the organization in terms of its leadership and cadres?

Until recently, LTTE had an extensive base area in the north, and they have a very sophisticated armed structure. Their cadres came initially from the middle classes. With the escalation of war, affluent communities in Sri Lanka populated the diaspora. So, LTTE started forced conscription. They also forcefully recruited women and children, who were given rigorous training and used as cannon fodder. Unable to match the military might of the State, the LTTE pioneered suicide bombing, using them both in their military operations and to assassinate high profile targets.

The film No More Tears Sister features the story of Rajani Thiranagama, the Sri Lankan human activist and founder of University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) who was assassinated by the LTTE in 1989. How does her story speak to the LTTE politics?

UTHR was born in the 1980s through a need for academics from the University of Jaffna to create a democratic political space in an increasingly militarized society.  In the book Broken Palmyra, they documented the abuses of all the armed actors: the Sri Lankan State, Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF), and the LTTE. Rajani, being a feminist and a Marxist, also questioned any emancipatory future for women in LTTE’s project for Tamil Eelam. Her assassination was the first after IPKF announced their withdrawal. Soon, thousands of Tamil dissenters and remnants of various armed groups, many belonging to the left groups, were tortured and killed by the Tigers. This idea of “elimination of the traitor” has been central to LTTE’s hold on the Tamil community.

There have been extremely courageous individuals like Rajani who have inspired us in the younger generation. Their courage is a reminder that this struggle could have taken different paths.

Some anti-imperialists in the US have heard similar charges made about the Palestinian struggle, when Israel is shamelessly massacring them. Although they might question a specific organization’s tactics, they support their right to resist and see these as legitimate struggles for self-determination. Palestinians and Tamils also share the experience of each being victims of sham peace accords signed in Norway, with an illegitimate party chosen as their sole representative.

I don’t see the continuing armed struggle in Sri Lanka as a liberation struggle. Often, very simplistic parallels get made with the Palestinian struggle. While we might be supportive of the Tamil people and Palestinian’s right to self-determination, the means by which that struggle has been taken forward and the end goal has different implications. One must ask, does the struggle against abuses by the State have emancipatory potential or does it entrench another repressive force in the leadership of those communities? LTTE, with their claim of sole representation and intolerance of dissent, has lost legitimacy within the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.

We need to reframe the “national question,” as it is historically known in Sri Lanka and go beyond formulaic solutions based on the “right to self-determination.” Does it make sense to have a separate state in Sri Lanka? What would happen to the Dalits, Muslims, up-country Tamils? These questions need to be grappled with by the people in the region. The Sinhala community has not colonized the Tamil community. This was a clash between two elite/middle-class communities, both with the Sinhala and the Tamil leadership. The resolution of this conflict may well be a bourgeois democratic solution.

What has been the stance and role of India, US, UK, and Israel, and how significant players are they?

Terrorism as a discourse has a long history in Sri Lanka. Ironically, since September 11, when the US asks the Sri Lankan Government to show restraint, they respond with, “We are fighting a war on terror.” The Israeli State has given considerable support to Sri Lanka starting in the 1980s. According to accounts by a former Mossad agent, it was simultaneously training the Sri Lanka Army and the Tigers in the 1980s. China has become an important actor in economic, political, and military support. In 2002 a Norwegian-mediated ceasefire was brokered with participation by both the EU and Japan as the co-chairs of the donor conference. The US, EU, and Japan (biggest donor country for decades) have been supportive of the Sri Lankan Government to “eradicate terrorism.”

The strengthening of the US/India relationship has defined Sri Lanka’s relationship to the two. India supported Tamil militancy in the 1980s. In 1987, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi tried to create some solution with the Indo-Lanka accord. After the Indian withdrawal and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the Tigers in 1991, India took a hands-off policy. Recently, the Indian Government has been very supportive of the Sri Lankan Government in the war effort and economic engagement. 

The maneuvering of these great powers has an impact on the situation of the civilians, which we must challenge. What is the predicament of civilians when the Sri Lankan State launches this brutal war on terror? There is the conventional war but there is also the dirty war by which thousands have been abducted, tortured, disappeared, and killed.

What has been the role of the Tamil diaspora? Recently, there were huge mobilizations calling for an end to the genocide—close to 100,000 people—which excited many Sri Lankan as well as Indian Tamils and others.

The Tamil diaspora is genuinely concerned about the humanitarian situation. The Government has indiscriminately bombed and shelled civilian areas. The conditions in the so-called “welfare camps” are horrible. The reports also show that the LTTE has been shooting civilians who have attempted to flee. Many in the diaspora have relatives who might be stuck there. However, these protests are colored with LTTE flags and slogans that say, “ Prabhakaran is our leader.” This blatant support for the Tigers and the silence on their assault on the civilians does nothing to help the situation on the ground.

Arundhati Roy, a Booker prize winning Indian author and activist, wrote in a recent article on Sri Lanka: “…tens of thousands of people are being barricaded into concentration camps, while more than 200,000 face starvation, and a genocide waits to happen.” British born rapper MIA, a prominent Sri Lankan Tamil who has used her prominence to give voice to the Tamil cause by playing on third world anti-imperialism, talked about the situation in Sri Lanka in a recent TV interview. What do you think about these high-profile attempts to highlight the current situation in the country?

I recently saw MIA’s interview on the Tavis Smiley show. She is right in saying that greater international attention needs to be paid to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is not a place of geo-political importance, so it lacks such attention. She also makes a very clear distinction between the Tigers and the Tamil people. Arundhati Roy’s point about the need for much attention in India, particularly outside of Tamil Nadu state, is indeed welcome. But, Arundhati Roy, like the diaspora, is silent about the role of the LTTE in this current crisis.

While MIA has been saying that genocide is happening, Arundhati Roy says that genocide is about to happen. The State is indeed carrying out a brutal war, however, the language of concentration camps and genocide does not reflect the situation and only further ethnicizes politics. That’s partly what the 2002 Norwegian Peace process did; it framed the conflict in Sri Lanka as a conflict between two ethnic communities. Such ethnicization and polarization of politics does not provide a way forward after this brutal civil war. Ordinary Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka have very good relations. Tamils living in other parts of the country are not systematically targeted. People forget that the two most brutal years in Sri Lanka were in the late 1980s when tens of thousands of educated and unemployed Sinhalese youth, responding to the worsening economic conditions, took up arms and were brutally massacred by the State. That reign of terror was not ethnic in character.

The January 8 assassination of the prominent journalist, Lasantha Wickremetunge, who was strongly critical of the Government, has been attributed to state-linked actors. Predicting his assassination, he wrote that his paper “is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident, or disabled.”

In the context of war politics and Sinhala nationalist mobilization, there is a systematic attack on dissent and media freedom in Sri Lanka. We need tremendous solidarity for dissenting journalists and human rights defenders.

What are some of the more positive initiatives in the diaspora about the Sri Lankan question, including SLDF?

SLDF is a small voluntary organization founded in 2002. We have done campaigns around the issue of child soldiers and extrajudicial killings. We had public discussions between the Tamil and the Muslim community in London. Our challenge is to neutralize the negative role played by the Tamil diaspora. Now a second generation of Tamil activists and artists are working with us, which is very encouraging. We need more open and vibrant debate within the diaspora about the way forward in Sri Lanka. The diaspora needs to go beyond the ideological framing of the armed actors and listen to the concerns of ordinary people and minorities in Sri Lanka.

As the humanitarian situation worsens, how do you see Sri Lanka’s political landscape shifting? Even if the LTTE is defeated, and perhaps especially if it is, won’t Sinhala nationalism and state authoritarianism against Tamils continue to be unleashed? What are your hopes for the people of Sri Lanka in the years and decades to come?

There is a history and politics to the current crisis, which needs to be resolved. Much of the politics has been framed around either negotiating with the LTTE or fighting them. With its demise, there will be more space to discuss a political solution. The challenge will be to revive the devolution debate and make parallels between the concerns of minorities and all communities around caste, class, and other contradictions that reside between state and society. It’s only through this that we can think about creating the kind of movement that can seriously challenge the state structures and various regimes that rule Sri Lanka. We need much more extensive devolution of power. We need to rid Sri Lanka of the authoritarian structure of the executive presidency.

These debates need to be revived as part of the process of democratization with greater participation from people. The last few years have been hijacked by the warring nationalisms, which tend to reinforce each other. Sinhala nationalism, which was more dormant in the last few years, has come back with a vengeance. They both have to be marginalized and politically defeated. There is a role for activists and intellectuals to figure out ways to engender this debate while thinking about daily abuses and human rights violations against minorities. It’s a real challenge. We are at a crossroads. The global economic crisis is also hitting Sri Lanka, which may put pressure on the State. Another generation needs to emerge to create a new form of politics with a broader sense of justice along caste, class, ethnic, and gender lines.

Ahilan Kadirgamar is a Sri Lankan Tamil activist and spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Democracy Form (SLDF).

Prachi Patankar is an activist, educator, and an arts administrator based in New York.  She is also a member of the Organizing Collective of the South Asian Solidarity Initiative (SASI).