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The Tigers' soft image

Print edition : Jan 05, 2002 T+T-

LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran's speeches in the past three years have been the organisation's statements of objectives. In the present context, their focus is on ending its international isolation.

"The Tamil national question, which has assumed the characteristic of a civil war, is essentially a political issue. We still hold a firm belief that this issue can be resolved by peaceful means. If there is genuine will and determination on the part of the Sinhalese leadership, there is a possibility for peace and settlement."

"We are not enemies of the Sinhalese people nor is our struggle against them. It is because of the oppressive policy of the racist Sinhala politicians that contradictions arose between the Sinhala and Tamil nations, resulting in a war... We call upon the Sinhala people to identify and renounce the racist forces committed to militarism and war and to offer justice to the Tamils in order to put an end to this bloody war and to bring about permanent peace."

THESE two quotations are from the Heroes' Day speech by V. Prabakaran, chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, on November 27, 2001. The speech, an annual event, was delivered a week before the parliamentary elections, which saw the defeat of the People's Alliance (P.A.) government and the victory of the United National Front (UNF) led by the United National Party (UNP).

Prabakaran's speech has to be analysed in the backdrop of the increasing international isolation of the LTTE and the objectives of the organisation: exploit the contradictions in Sinhala society, defeat the P.A., influence post-election politics by encouraging the formation and victory of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA), isolate pro-Chandrika Kumaratunga political forces such as the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) led by Douglas Devananda, and formulate short-term and long-term objectives with reference to the international community and domestic constituents.

What are the immediate objectives of the LTTE? Foremost, it wants to come out of the growing international isolation. India, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada have banned the LTTE. The European Union and Australia are likely to follow suit. The killing of innocent civilians, the attack on Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, the assassination of Neelan Tiruchelvam, the savage attack on the Katunayake Air Force base and Bandaranaike international airport, and the use of young hoys and girls as cannon fodder in the ethnic conflict have created a sense of revulsion among large sections of the intelligentsia in different parts of the world.

In his Heroes' Day speech in 1998 Prabakaran had expressed his unhappiness over the "lukewarm international response" to the "monumental human tragedy" faced by the Tamils. He added that he was saddened by the fact that the untold sufferings of the Tamil people have not yet touched the "conscience of the world community". Misguided by a sophisticated "misinformation campaign", the world has "uncritically assimilated the preposterous theories advanced by the Sri Lankan state".

The Tigers' inability to win friends and influence people was explained by Anton Balasingham, political adviser of the LTTE, as follows: "Before the LTTE could argue its case, the world had already passed judgment on the Tigers. Alienated and isolated from the world by lack of communication and media access, the Tigers could not present their side of the story. The Sri Lankan government succeeded in winning the world on to its side by an effective global misinformation campaign."

Prabakaran's speeches during the last three years have been desperate attempts to win back international support. He has shown the "velvet glove" to project the "soft image" of the LTTE as a liberation organisation that is an "aggrieved party" and a "victim of oppression", a "peace loving group" pitted against "war mongers". He has highlighted the cooperation the LTTE extended to the Norwegian peace initiative. To quote Prabakaran: "We declared a unilateral ceasefire for four months to help facilitate the peace process." However, the inept handling of the Norwegian initiative by Colombo enabled him to mobilise sympathy and support from foreign governments. The operations by the Sri Lankan security forces in LTTE-controlled areas and the removal of Norwegian negotiatior Eric Solheim were criticised even by countries that by no stretch of the imagination could be considered as being sympathetic to the LTTE cause.

The attempts of the P.A., led by President Kumaratunga, to cling on to power even after losing its majority in Parliament paved the way for the politics of opportunism, which brought the P.A. and the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) together. In 1994 Kumaratunga contested the parliamentary elections on the slogan 'peace with justice and honour to the Tamils'. She received the wholehearted support of Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims.

In the recent elections the pendulum swung to the other extreme. She adopted a Sinhala chauvinist line and accused the UNP of entering into a secret agreement with Prabakaran to divide the country. The LTTE exploited the contradictions to its advantage. Speaking at a Tamil rally in London on December 1, Balasingham remarked that the UNP would win the elections. "That is what we also want," he added. The lead editorial in the London-based Tamil Guardian made a direct call to the Tamil voters to cast their ballots in favour of the UNP. It warned that the consequences would be severe if the Sinhala community returned a government with a mandate for war.

PRABAKARAN appealed to the international community, especially the Western democratic nations, to "provide a clear and comprehensive definition of the concept of terrorism that would distinguish between freedom struggles based on the right to self-determination and blind terrorist acts based on fanaticism". The international community, he said, could not ignore the phenomenon of state terrorism "practised internally by some repressive regimes". "We are not terrorists. We are not mentally demented as to commit blind acts of violence impelled by racist and religious fanaticism," he emphasised. "We are fighting and sacrificing our lives for the love of a noble cause, that is human freedom. We are freedom fighters."

While the international community has realised the necessity to cooperate with one another to combat terrorism, there is no unanimity on the precise definition of terrorism. The Regional Convention of Terrorism of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is silent on the issue. The United Nations has not reached a consensus. During the Cold War years it used to be said that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

Prof. Paul Wilkinson, a specialist on the subject of terrorism, has highlighted five major characteristics of this unique form of political violence. They are: It is premeditated and aims to create a climate of extreme fear or terror; it is directed at a wider audience or target than the immediate victims of the violence; it involves attacks on random and symbolic targets, including civilians; the acts of violence committed are seen by the society in which they occur as extra-normal, in the literal sense that they breach social norms, thus causing outrage; it is generally used to influence political behaviour, for example, to force opponents into conceding some or all of the perpetrators' demands, to provoke an over-reaction, to serve as a catalyst for a more general conflict or to publicise a political or religious cause, to inspire followers to emulate violent attacks, to give vent to deep hatred and the thirst for revenge, and to help undermine governments and institutions designated as enemies by the terrorists.

The LTTE has employed all the five instruments with ruthless efficiency. The fight for its political objectives is a no-holds-barred one. During the initial phase of the conflict Indian observers of the Sri Lankan scene explained away the violence as a response to state terrorism. As time passed, the Tigers got brutalised. In November 1984, they attacked Sinhalese civilians resettled in Mullaithivu district. The savage attack on innocent Buddhist pilgrims in Anuradhapura on May 14, 1985, probably marked the beginning of the fall of the Tamil liberation struggle. As the authors of The Broken Palmyrah have pointed out: "The seal was set on this change by the LTTE asserting a murderous ascendancy on the Tamil society by using the same methods perfected in the Anuradhapura massacre, to destroy its rival militant groups. The LTTE thus became qualitatively a different phenomenon to what obtained earlier and by its very violation became trapped in its history of blood."

The Sri Lankan Tamils complain, and rightly so, that they were discriminated against by successive Sinhalese-dominated governments. But how have the Tigers treated the Muslims, who are an integral part of the Tamil-speaking peoples? All parts of Sri Lanka are in varying degree multi-ethnic, but the only mono-ethnic part in Sri Lanka is the Jaffna peninsula and the LTTE-controlled area in the Wanni jungles.

Neelan Tiruchelvam described the tragedy of the Sri Lankan situation thus: "The violence of the victim soon consumed the victim and the victim also became possessed by the demons of racial bigotry and intolerance, which had characterised the oppressor. These are seen in the fratricidal violence between Tamils and Muslims, in the massacres at Kathankudy mosque, in Welikanda and Medirigiya and in the forcible expulsion of Muslims from the Mannar and Jaffna districts."

The negative image of the LTTE, which Sri Lanka watchers throughout the world have recognised, should not make Sri Lankans oblivious to another important facet. As B. Raman, a former senior official in the Government of India, pointed out recently, the LTTE is also the "most intelligent and futuristic-thinking terrorist organisation of the world, which manages to think of innovative solutions to the difficulties faced by it and has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of determined cadres volunteering for suicide missions to carry out these solutions".

Explaining the significance of the LTTE attack on the Katunayake airport, Raman said: "The Sri Lankan armed forces, blinded by misplaced elation over the success of their air strikes against the LTTE, failed to take the basic precaution of pre-empting the only option available to the LTTE... namely, penetrate the air bases and destroy the aircraft on the ground. This shows that the Sri Lankan military and the political leadership is none the wiser after nearly two decades of counter-insurgency operations and continues to fight the LTTE more with weapons than with their mind."

WHAT is the LTTE's negotiating strategy? Will Prabakaran settle for a solution within a united Sri Lanka? An understanding of the LTTE's stance in earlier negotiations can help in analysing the implications of Prabakaran's message on these crucial issues.

The first negotiations in which the LTTE participated - as an integral part of the Eelam National Liberation Front (ENLF) (comprising the EPRLF, the LTTE, TELO and EROS) - were the two rounds in Thimphu, Bhutan, in July and August 1985. The People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which were outside the ENLF, broadly agreed with the political strategy set forth by the ENLF. However, the Tamil militant groups were reluctant participants; senior officials of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's external intelligence agency, told them bluntly that if they did not go to Thimphu "neither Indian soil nor Indian sea would be available to them".

It was apparent from the beginning that the talks were bound to fail. The Tamil militants, according to Loganathan Keetheswaran (who represented the EPRLF in the talks), "subjected the Sri Lankan delegation to a series of lectures on what constituted the ethnic question and why the burden lay with Colombo to come out with a solution "worthy of our consideration". To buttress their claims, they put forward four cardinal principles, which came to be known as the Thimphu principles. These included: recognition of the Tamils as a distinct nationality; recognition of the traditional homeland of the Tamils and guarantee of its territorial integrity; recognition of the inalienable right of self-determination; and conferment of citizenship on all Tamils who looked upon the island as their country. The first three principles were deliberately couched in vague terms.

To the Sinhalese leaders, who at that time viewed even federalism as the first step towards separation, these principles were a red rag to a bull. The Sri Lankan delegation responded within a legal framework and rejected the principles outright. The Thimpu talks ended in fiasco.

It must be pointed out that Prabakaran was convinced that the Thimphu talks would not lead to a political solution. At the same time, he did not want to cross swords with New Delhi. Lawrence Thilakar and Sivakumaran represented the LTTE in the first round of talks; Yogaratnam Yogi joined the second round. They were instructed to keep a low profile; as a result, most of the verbal acrobatics was performed by Satyendra of TELO and the TULF leaders.

The second round related to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987. Prabakaran was taken aback when he was confronted with the fait accompli of the Accord in New Delhi. His hopes of putting forward his demands to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and negotiating with Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene to finalise the agreement were shattered. However, Prabakaran made use of the opportunity to salvage his position as much as possible. In his view the LTTE was the sole representative of the Tamil people and his survival was inextricably linked to the survival of the Tamil people. As several writers have pointed out, Prabakaran received "financial incentives" from New Delhi; he received the assurance of majority representation in the interim administration and, above all, he was going to make only a "symbolic gesture" of surrendering arms.

The LTTE viewed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord as a clever device to snatch away the fruits of their hard-won struggle. Prabakaran made it clear that he had no faith in the Accord. Former Indian High Commissioner to Colombo J.N. Dixit, in his book Assignment Colombo, with the benefit of hindsight, has made a correct assessment of Prabakaran: "One over-arching miscalculation of India was our underestimating Prabakaran's passionate, even obsessive, commitment to the cause of Tamil Eelam, his authoritarian and single-minded nature, his tactical cleverness and his resilience in adversity. The second miscalculation about him and his cadres was that India and Sri Lanka together could persuade other Tamil groups and the Tamil population in general to join the mainstream of democratic politics, bypassing the LTTE."

President Ranasinghe Premadasa's negotiations with the LTTE spanned the period May 1989 to June 1990. The two hitherto antagonistic forces came together because they found a convergence of interests: get the Indian Peace-keeping Force (IPKF) out of Sri Lanka. Bradman Weerakoon, who was Adviser to Premadasa on international relations, has given rare insights into the Premadasa-LTTE negotiations. During the negotiations, Colombo made several gestures to the LTTE. Said Weerakoon: "These included the permission for the LTTE delegates who came to Colombo to have their own armed security, allocation of an entire floor of a five-star hotel in Colombo, a secret supply of money and weapons to the LTTE to fight the IPKF, arrangements for Prabakaran's wife and children to be brought from abroad and flown to the Wanni and Premadasa conceding the demand to publicly call for the IPKF to be withdrawn."

The honeymoon lasted until the IPKF left the island on March 30, 1990. The vacuum left by the IPKF was filled by the LTTE and it gained complete control of the northeast of Sri Lanka. Weerakoon highlights the fact that during the 14 months of negotiations, "there is no record of any serious political talks". After the IPKF left, Prabakaran put forward two demands: the dissolution of the North East Provincial Council and repeal of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. The government rejected the two demands and the Second Eelam War commenced.

THE LTTE's negotiations with President Kumaratunga from November 1994 to April 1995 reveal that the two parties were speaking in different wavelengths. Following her victory in the 1994 elections, Kumaratunga had pledged that she would bring about "ethnic reconciliation" in the island. She expressed her readiness to start negotiations with the LTTE "without any pre-conditions" and held out the promise of peace with honour for the Tamils. As a first step in this direction, the government lifted the embargo on certain items as a gesture of goodwill. How did Prabakaran respond? In his book, Politics of Duplicity - Re-visiting the Jaffna Talks, Balasingham has written: "From the outset, Mr. Prabakaran, the leader of the LTTE, was sceptical of Chandrika's gesture. He felt it was a political gimmick to win the support of the Tamils and the Sinhalese for the forthcoming presidential elections. I advised him to respond to her positively. 'She is a new leader emerging on the Sri Lankan political horizon articulating progressive politics. It would be politically prudent on our part to initiate a dialogue with her government to find out whether or not she is genuine in resolving the problems of the Tamils'."

Prabakaran concurred with Balasingham's views. As a "positive step" to the government's "conciliatory gesture", the Tigers released 10 policemen who were in their custody as "prisoners of war". Simultaneously Prabakaran demanded the lifting of the "economic embargo completely", which would pave the way for the restoration of normalcy in the Tamil areas.

As the exchange of letters and the talks revealed, there was a basic difference in the approach of the two parties. The peace process, according to the LTTE, should proceed in two stages. The early stages of negotiations should address the restoration of normalcy and the creation of a peaceful environment. After normalcy was restored talks could commence to find a peaceful solution. Colombo, on the other hand, maintained that there should be simultaneous talks relating to the day-to-day problems of the people and finding a political solution. Finally, the LTTE accused the government of acting in "bad faith" and started the Third Eelam War in April 1995.

Chandrika Kumaratunga explained the LTTE behaviour to N. Ram, Editor of Frontline, as follows: "The LTTE will do what they have always done - that is, drag on and on and on until they build themselves up again militarily and then start attacking again" (Frontline, January 1, 1999). Is history repeating itself? Is the LTTE laying a peace -trap?

The LTTE used the interval between negotiations to carry forward its policy of annihilation of political opponents. Thus A. Amirthalingam, the TULF leader, was killed even as talks were going on with the Premadasa government. The LTTE also killed Gamini Dissanayake during the Kumaratunga-LTTE negotiations. Neither Premadasa nor Kumaratunga said anything against the LTTE, fearing that such statements would adversely affect the ongoing talks. According to media reports then, Balasingham had issued veiled threats to Douglas Devananda and his followers. Balasingham had said that LTTE members were roaming the streets "looking to embrace and kiss Douglas Devananda". Will the new government under Ranil Wickremasinghe provide sufficient security to all political leaders, irrespective of their political affiliation?

Prabakaran has made it clear that the talks cannot be held unless the ban on the LTTE is lifted. To quote him: "For us to participate in political negotiations freely as equal partners, as the authentic political force with the status of the legitimate representative of our people, the ban imposed on our movement should be lifted. This is the collective aspiration of the Tamil people."

According to Balasingham, if the ban is not lifted there will be no peace in the Sinhalese areas. According to some reports, Balasingham is reported to have said: "We have a plan of our own. We will bring back Jaffna and Batticaloa under our control. We will take Jaffna by war or by peaceful means."

In the present context, an atmosphere for peaceful negotiations can be created if Colombo declares a unilateral ceasefire. Colombo should also lift the ban on the movement of essential goods and medicines so that the civilian population in the LTTE-controlled areas is not put to any hardship. At the same time, the members of the Tamil National Alliance should be asked to persuade the LTTE to spell out the details of the constitutional settlement that it has in mind. Most Sri Lanka watchers in India believe that lifting the ban on the LTTE should be considered only when a negotiated settlement is reached and the Tigers renounce violence.

If the Indian experience is of any value, it should be highlighted that negotiations have taken place and continue to take place with militant organisations that are banned. G. Parthasarathy, as the emissary of the Indian government, negotiated with Laldenga of the Mizo National Front (MNF)for a peaceful settlement of the Mizo problem. The MNF remained a banned organisation during the period of the negotiations. The same holds true of Nagaland. High functionaries of the Union Home Ministry have held negotiations with representatives of the banned National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) in Bangkok and Amsterdam. These negotiations resulted in a ceasefire in Nagaland. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee recently held discussions with some important leaders of the NCSN(I-M) in Japan. Although the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka has its own unique features, it would be prudent on the part of Colombo to learn from the experience of other countries that have faced threats to national security.

The phenomenon of Tamil militancy is the direct consequence of two parallel developments in the island nation: blatant discrimination in language, education, employment opportunities and land colonisation, which got compounded with state terrorism, and the growing frustration with the TULF and its parliamentary struggles. In the late 1970s and in the early 1980s several militant groups emerged and the most organised among them was the LTTE. It systematically eliminated its political opponents and gradually emerged as the only credible fighting force in the Tamil areas. Sri Sabaratnam and his colleagues in TELO, Padmanabha and his comrades in the EPRLF, followers of PLOTE and EROS - all belonging to rival militant groups - were victims of the death squads of the LTTE. Even the trusted lieutenant of Prabakaran for many years, Mahataya, was assassinated when differences arose between them.

THE predicament of the TULF was far worse. In an intervention in Parliament, explaining the consequences of the Sixth Amendment, which effectively "disenfranchised" the northeast, Neelan Tiruchelvam remarked: "I wish to briefly recall the terrible personal tragedies that followed. Of the 14 members who forfeited their parliamentary seats, four were brutally murdered, while two others died in exile in Canada. Two faded out of politics and had more peaceful deaths, while a third died of heart attack on the eve of a visit abroad." Neelan did not realise at that time that his life would be snuffed out by an LTTE suicide bomber. While the TULF members condemned the assassination, they did not have the courage to blame the LTTE for the dastardly act. Those who could have led and guided the Tamils in a critical phase of their political evolution were frightened into silence. What is still worse is that most of them have become apologists for the LTTE. As Rajan Hoole sums up in his book Sri Lanka - The Arrogance of Power - Myths, Decadence and Murder: "The power of Prabakaran comes from the powerlessness of the people."

It is well known that the devolution proposals formulated by President Kumaratunga had the full backing of Tiruchelvam and Sambandan. In fact, they made their contributions in fine-tuning some of the important provisions. The reverse metamorphosis of the TULF - from a frog to a tadpole - is brought out vividly in Hoole's book. The following extract from the book sums up the decline and fall of Tamil moderates. "To the correspondent of a leading Indian daily, a key TULF official, a lawyer, was giving fairly cogent reasons for their rejection of the proposals. Their conversation was interrupted by a telephone call from the MP noted for pro-LTTE noises. He had just arrived from Batticaloa. After switching to Tamil and inquiring from the MP whether he had gone to Parliament, the official added, "Good if they can pass the Constitution without our getting involved." The lady, whose ears pricked up, asked the official, "I am sorry I overheard what you said. Now tell me, what is your real position, is it what you have been telling me all this time, or what I just overheard?" The official fumblingly spoke of threats to their life. The well-informed lady cautioned the official not to have illusions of being taken off the LTTE's hit-list in return for disingenuous gestures. The TULF's negative approach to the constitutional proposals was purely thus, a survival calculation. Their survival game is one of continually telling the Tamil people that there is no hope under the Sri Lankan polity - the oxygen of LTTE politics."

TODAY, the post-election scenario does not offer much hope for peace and stability in the island. The hopes entertained by the LTTE and the TNA that Ranil Wickremasinghe would have to depend on the TNA for political survival have been shattered. Ranil has formed the government with the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). When Parliament is convened, it is certain that the TNA would demand the lifting of the ban on the LTTE. In other words, for the first time, the voice of the Tigers will be heard clear and loud. The JVP and the P.A. can be expected to oppose stoutly the demand for the lifting of the ban. The UNP's dependence on the SLMC has other consequences. There is no love lost between the Muslims and the Tigers, and on crucial issues such as an interim administration in the northeast and the merger of the north and the east the UNP will have to take Muslim sensitivities into consideration.

Political stability in the island hinges on a cooperative partnership between the Prime Minister and the President. Kumaratunga is unlikely to forget the fact that the UNP adopted a negative approach and denied her the requisite two-thirds majority required for enacting the vital draft constitutional proposals. History may repeat itself, the P.A. is likely to pursue the same negative approach towards the present government. Without a bipartisan consensus, which looks a distant dream at present, days of political turbulence are ahead in Sri Lanka.

Professor V. Suryanarayan is former Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.

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