How strong are the boys?

Print edition : January 15, 2010

TO the Western media they are guerillas, insurgents, separatists and rebels; sections of the Indian press describe them as nationalists, patriots and liberation fighters; back home the state which they oppose feels they are extremists, Marxists and plain terrorists; the people whose cause they claim to serve refer to them as the boys or the movement. Their own self-perception is that of revolutionary freedom-fighters seeking to liberate their people from oppression.

They are the militant organisations of the Sri Lankan Tamils who have adopted armed resistance as their creed in a bid to establish an independent state Eelam, comprising the Northern and Eastern provinces of the island. All militants are united on three aspects. A common aim Eelam is one. Common opposition to the present regime is another. Violent struggle as the means to the end is the third. But there ends the unity. Personality clashes in the upper echelons of the movements, differences of ideological opinion, disagreement on strategy and methods, and so on are some reasons keeping the militants apart.

Another point is the multiplicity of the groups. A recent count put the number at 23. They are of different kinds and hues.

The famous five are the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOT), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS).

Divided they fell. (From left) K. Padmanabha, Sri Sabaratnam, V. Balakumar and V. Prabakaran in 1986.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Obstacles in the way of [their] unity are strategic differences. Umamaheswaran of PLOT holds the following view: Our differences with LTTE on the matter are basic. We are of the opinion that the hit and run actions of LTTE are putting back the liberation struggle and playing into the hands of [President J.R.] Jayewardene.... This is a short-sighted policy in the long run. I am sure that LTTE too will realise this.

EPRLF spokesman Varadarajaperumal says his front does not believe in guerilla warfare as a strategy but merely as a tactic. We do not believe in conventional war also. It was not adopted in any revolutionary struggle, he says.

R. Vasudeva, additional secretary-general of PLOT, says that in the Sri Lankan context, hit and run policies alone will not succeed. Those tactics alone are not enough. A peoples army is also necessary.

Balakumar of EROS rejects the perpetuation of hit and run tactics. The hit and run policy is effective in the beginning of a guerilla war, thereafter it becomes redundant, he says.

TELOs Sri Sabaratnam says, The hit and run tactics were useful to demoralise the enemy when the militant groups were not ready to meet the enemy face to face. All the militant groups that matter are now in a position to meet the enemy face to face when necessary and inflict heavy losses by full-fledged military action.... We are not engaged in guerilla warfare exclusively. All we can say is that all militant groups that matter are now in a position to carry on a protracted war of national liberation.

Anton Balasingham of the Tigers says there is some confusion over the concept of peoples war. Peoples war is not popular insurrection. Guerilla warfare is an aspect of a peoples war. Gradually and systematically, guerilla warfare would clearly evolve into popular warfare. Units of Tamil guerillas will continue with their protracted warfare until the final war of liberation. He is also hopeful of unity. No fundamental contradictions exist as far as objectives are concerned all major groups are committed to similar aims like the formation of an independent socialist Eelam and armed revolutionary struggle as the means to achieve this. Differences lie in methods of armed resistance, which can be resolved by discussions and negotiation.

Positive signs of a future union lie in the roots of the past itself. An analysis of the origins of each group shows the common seed was sown in 1970 when medium-wise standardisation policies discriminating against Tamils in the higher education sphere were introduced. Student disgruntlement snowballed into open dissent. The demonstration effect of the abortive armed insurgency by Sinhala radicals as well as the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 gave momentum to this dissent. The Pan-Sinhala constitution of 1972, the teargassing of the crowd at the World Tamil Research Conference in 1974 and the suicide of youth leader Sivakumaran helped fuel these feelings to the point of revolt. Most militant leaders have worked together before.

There is no serious ideological cleavage among the Tamil militants. All the groups are committed to a socialist State of Eelam, and EPRLF and EROS are considered truly radical. Common origin, common purpose and lack of basic ideological differences are indeed notable. A group of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka is now actively engaged in promoting unity.

There are other factors which also add impetus to the drive for unity. The Tamil people facing great hardship in Sri Lanka are constantly pressuring the groups to unite. The average Sri Lankan Tamil is not partisan towards any group. To him all militants are the boys and the current inter-group rivalry demoralises him greatly. If the groups do not take heed of this, they run the risk of losing their support among the people.

Many expatriate Tamils who are the main funding agencies are becoming slowly disillusioned. Several of them are actively engaged in promoting unity.

Last but not least is the growing awareness that taking on the armed might of an organised state requires a pooling of resources and coordinated effort. Such unity would also mean more funds, more arms and more men. Significant political and diplomatic advances in the international arena could also be made. And so the search for militant unity goes on. Time is short and the waters continue to rise. History will record whether the militants will sink or swim together and also how they relate to the overall movement of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, especially the political component represented by TULF [Tamil United Liberation Front].

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