Print edition : October 22, 2004

Thirty years after militant Tamil nationalism came to the fore in Sri Lanka, its core demand - greater sharing of political powers between the state and the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces of the country - remains elusive. The island-nation, particularly its Tamils, have lived through the armed conflict, which saw the bloodiest of battles and terror campaigns in contemporary South Asia.

LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran inspecting a parade of women cadre in the Wanni in August.-AFP

A mix of individual and ideological differences saw the birth of several groups, but the major three were the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS), the Kuttimani-Thangamani group and the Tamil National Tigers (TNT). The mid-1980s saw the rise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), which trace their roots to the TNT, and the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), which was formed following differences within the EROS. The Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), which evolved from the Kuttimani-Thangamani group, was the dominant group until it was decimated by the LTTE in 1986. The Tigers grew as an armed military force when all the other groups joined the political mainstream after the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement.

Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist assertion, which was spawned by local fervour, subsequently drew support from across the Palk Strait. Indian involvement, which led to the introduction of the Provincial Council system, ended with the humiliating return of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) and the subsequent assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

If the January 1974 police action at the International Tamil Research Conference was among the factors that catalysed the formation of Tamil militant groups, the political rhetoric since then also set the tone for the branding and killing of those with different political views - a tragic continuum that has debilitated the vibrant and enterprising Sri Lankan Tamil society.

For an exclusive first-person assessment of what militancy has meant for the island's Tamils, the quest for a solution to the vital national issue and its social impact, V.S. Sambandan sought the views of leaders of parties that had given up armed struggle and joined parliamentary politics.

All the leaders seemed to agree that the shift to parliamentary politics was influenced by two key events - the parties that made the transition to democratic politics were victims of internecine warfare and were buoyant with hopes about the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. The ex-militants also share the apprehension over the Sri Lankan state's ability to address the core issues of Tamil nationalism.

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