Listen to this article:
Ever since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was militarily crushed in May 2009, it has been asked repeatedly: Can the group be resurrected by Sri Lankan Tamils? I insisted then and I insist now: the LTTE is dead for ever.
Of course, the LTTE will live in the minds of many, both Tamils and non-Tamils. Those who admired and those who suffered at its hands will both remember the Tigers for what it did to them and how it turned the once idyllic island nation of Sri Lanka into a land of blood and gore.
Periodically, one hears from Sri Lanka or sections of the Tamil diaspora that the foundation of another LTTE may be needed to continue the unfinished battle for Tamil Eelam. Recently, a group of Tamils met over the web and pledged to renew the struggle to carve out a traditional Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka, that too with India’s help. There can be nothing more fanciful than this.
Insurgent groups (call them military or terrorist outfits if you like) are not born in a vacuum. The LTTE took shape in certain historical circumstances when large sections of Tamils felt disadvantaged. That was also the time when Sri Lanka was not a militarised nation, and its army, despite quelling the 1971 JVP insurrection, lacked the killer punch it later acquired.
In his formative years, Velupillai Prabhakaran and his small band of young men were ready to dent the Sri Lankan state bit by bit and escape by sea to Tamil Nadu whenever the situation became too hot for them in Jaffna. Life was a constant struggle then, and many nights Prabhakaran went to bed hungry. All this earned him a certain following which in turn helped him to grow.
After the 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo, the Tamil militants found sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. Training camps came up in India, which provided a shady umbrella under which everyone – moderates and militants – could take shelter. Terrorism was not too dirty a word in the 1980s, more so if the victim country was in the Third World. As long as the violence was mostly confined to Sri Lanka’s northeast, the West was not too bothered.
None of the above is true today, except perhaps for the still lingering feelings among sections of Tamils of being discriminated by a Sinhalese-dominated state. Indeed, one factor which is valid today didn’t even exist when the LTTE was taking baby steps in the world of militancy.
A major reason why another LTTE will never emerge is the LTTE itself. The sheer hypocrisy of the Tigers and its leadership and the manner in which they lorded over the mass of helpless and trapped Tamil civilians in the northeast right till its own demise cannot and will never be forgiven by the victims.
Here was a group that mercilessly killed any Tamil who was ready to shake hands with the Sri Lankan state, but was more than ready to embrace Colombo when its own end was near. Here was an outfit that dubbed Tamils who advocated truce as “traitors” but actually ended up raising white flags when it could no more take on the Sri Lankan military might. Here was an organisation that assassinated leaders from India and Sri Lanka without any compunction but begged the international community to arrange an “honourable” exit for its cornered LTTE chief in May 2009. And Prabhakaran cut birthday cakes for his children in his underground lair even as his fighters snatched teenage boys and girls from poor Tamil families and forced them to fight and die for the cause of Tamil Eelam.
Even if a section of the Tamil diaspora – which funded the war while leading comfortable lives in the West – were to announce the formation of a LTTE, it will have no takers in Sri Lanka including in the northeast, where ordinary people, still furious over how the Tigers broke up families, will be the first to report to the state the activities of suspicious characters.
For decades when he was Prabhakaran’s bodyguard and later the commander of the LTTE in Sri Lanka’s east, Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan alias Karuna was a darling of those who dreamt of a Tamil Eelam. When he revolted in April 2004 and broke away, he was dubbed a traitor. But grant it to him, the man knew the LTTE inside out. Two days after Prabhakaran was killed and he helped confirmed the death by identifying the body, Karuna told me that the LTTE’s rebirth was impossible. “There are no circumstances, no conditions for such a thing to happen. People are fed up with all this violence. There are absolutely no chances of another LTTE coming up.”
This was also a point made by two former women LTTE fighters who I met in India after the war ended in Sri Lanka.
One of them, who belonged to a middle class family in a village in Kilinochchi district, blamed the LTTE for leaving the Tamil community on its knees after promising them the moon. “After so many years of fighting for Tamil Eelam, after losing so many fighters and people, after so much destruction, where are we? Tamils have nothing today. This long, long war has helped us gain nothing. On the contrary, we have lost whatever little we had when militancy started.”
These are the despondent but real voices one needs to take into account while discussing the departed LTTE. Those who dream about reorganising the Tigers while living in the safety of distant lands are either naive or are trying to take the Tamil community for a ride. It is not a coincidence that there has been no LTTE 2.0 even 12 years after its decimation. An Indian security expert who was allowed to meet two so-called LTTE remnants in a Colombo prison after the end of the war told his Sri Lankan counterparts that both were “jokers” and should not be taken seriously. They were suspected to be “rebuilding” the LTTE.
Of course, periodic reports of LTTE’s “revival” is music to the ears of the pro-LTTE diaspora and, believe it or not, also to Colombo – which gets the perfect excuse to drive away more and more Tamils from the coastal regions and replace them with members of the Sinhalese community. Such unfounded reports also permit the Sri Lankan government to justify its continued control over Tamil civilian areas in the island nation’s north and east in the name of “High Security Zones”. Even after its death, the LTTE seems to have the ability to keep tormenting the Tamils.
M.R. Narayan Swamy, a long-time Sri Lanka watcher, is the author of three books on the ethnic conflict, including an unauthorised biography of Prabhakaran.