On 2 January, the Sri Lanka armed forces brought the town of Kilinochchi, the administrative capital of the Tamil Tigers, back under government control. The win was not entirely unexpected, as speculation that the military was attempting to recapture the town, which the government lost in 1990, was rife by November last year. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had, however, ridiculed Colombo’s effort to capture the city, dismissing it as a daydream of President Mahinda Rajapakse. Yet Kilinochchi fell to the security forces within a span of weeks, with the LTTE’s famed military machinery collapsing like a pack of cards.
What happened? How was it that an organisation once described as the most ruthless guerrilla fighting force in the world folded up so quickly? What explains the fall of Kilinochchi?
The answer lies in the Tamil people’s changing perception of the LTTE. Unlike the reality in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Tamils saw the armed struggle as an extension of their political fight for equal rights, in the current context they were beginning to recognise the LTTE as part of an oppressive structure. In following his dream of supreme power in an independent Tamil Eelam nation state, Prabhakaran and the LTTE killed thousands of Tamil men and women who, though deeply committed to the cause of the Tamil people, did not espouse the LTTE ideology. Among others, Tamil intellectuals such as Rajini Thiranagama, Neelan Tiruchelvam and Appapillai Amirthalingam, as well as politicians of the calibre of Sam Thambimuttu and Yogeswaran, were all murdered.
With their cold-blooded killing of thousands and their subjugation of the organisations these individuals represented, the LTTE projected an aura of invincibility, instilling great fear in the Tamil fold. This fear drove many to blindly support any act by the LTTE, even leading some to inform on their neighbours for disloyalty to the group – encouraged acts that ultimately created an atmosphere of distrust akin to that of Nazi Germany. An absolute and abject culture of silence was soon built up within the Tamil community. Sullen and repressed, people began accepting LTTE diktat, not daring to disagree. In addition to this emotional burden, the LTTE also treated the public under their command with contempt: heaping taxes on them, instituting unreasonable laws (such as taxes on government and public servants, and even on items such as sand or bricks for construction or bricks) and forcing Tamils to perform numerous indefensible tasks, including providing a child to the organisation on pain of death.
The Tigers’ tyrannical and disdainful treatment of Tamils resulted in the community moving further and further away from the group in spirit, but continuing to obey its orders due to a lack of alternatives. Whereas militant youths had initially joined the struggle out of a sense of common purpose, this spirit of unity had vanished by the middle of this decade. They were now fighting because they had been ordered to do so, and were afraid to refuse. Commitment to a cause had giving way to conscription. For every Tamil youth it killed, the LTTE was now gaining at least a dozen enemies. Fear still prevented the growing dissidents from taking concrete action, but history has shown that an oppressed people will eventually find ways to get back at their oppressors. Soon, information on enemy positions and movements began to dry up. The majority of the people no longer went out of their way to offer protection to cadres, hide arms and ammunition or provide food. And at the crucial moment during battles, the new recruits began to cut and run. They began either surrendering to the Sri Lankan military or even informing the security forces about LTTE fighting strategies and plans.
Amidst such an evolution, Prabhakaran was already on the run before the fall of Kilinochchi, but that event had grave repercussions for the movement. The longstanding myth of invincibility had already been shattered following the fall of the east, and the capture of the northern bases. By January, the LTTE’s defeat seemed imminent, finally giving the Tamil community the courage to begin criticising and later providing information on a guerrilla force that had so long inspired fear and hate. In this situation, one would have expected Prabhakaran to chew on the cyanide capsule he is said to wear around his neck. But chew on the capsule he will not. Prabhakaran’s strength (and weakness) has been his total commitment to his idea: he does not have the capacity to change, can never give up the idea of a separate state while he remains at the helm. What this means is that the Tamils living in the small area still under LTTE control will have to continue to suffer a little longer, until the few remaining cadres are vanquished or desert.
The tragedy of it all is that history will ultimately remember Prabhakaran as the man who failed to grasp the many opportunities given to him. When in power, for instance, President Chandrika Kumaratunga offered him complete control of the then-amalgamated Northern and Eastern Provinces, which he rejected – and later attempted to assassinate her. Despite the steadfastness described earlier, Prabhakaran has also always been exceedingly cunning, and has always been at pains to protect himself. Thus, even as this article is being written, potentially reliable information suggests that the rebel leader might no longer even be in Sri Lanka. Indeed, the rapid folding of LTTE resistance to the Sri Lankan military is the surest signal that he may have already fled the country. If their leader were indeed gone, the cadre would see no reason to defend a particular position unto death; thus, the military would be able to overrun LTTE defences in rapid succession.
Even if such rumours are not true, the vanquished LTTE is still in no position to conduct a long, drawn-out guerrilla war. The common man is now battle-weary, tired of this war without end, this immoral war where brother kills brother. And without popular support, recruiting guerrilla fighters is simply not possible.
Looking back, moving forward
Against this backdrop, what will be the fate of Sri Lankan Tamils? Where do they go from here? Where do they stand as a community in the face of a military victory that is seen by many Sinhalese as their win over Tamils? Perhaps prophetic are President Rajapakse’s own words, spoken from his quarters in Kandy on 17 January 2009: “Soon the lion flag will fly from every housetop from Point Pedro to Dondra Head … from Colombo to Trincomalee.” What this means for Tamils is that the community may well have to learn to live in the shadow of the conqueror. The community vision of a land where Tamils could live free, as equals with other communities, died a long time ago. As with every dream, it is now time to wake up and take stock of the realities.
It is also time to face the horrific mistakes and crimes that were committed by Tamils in the name of that dream of independence. It is time to accept that recent leaders representing the community – be they from the LTTE, other militant groups or the politicians in Parliament – all let Tamils down, more often than not treating the people as their vassals. In his (or her) own way, at different times and to varying degrees, each of these leaders oppressed the very people on whose behalf he (or she) was taking up arms. It is time for Tamils to make peace with and amends to their neighbours in the Muslim community for the degradation, ethnic cleansing and untold suffering they have experienced at the hands of the Tamils’ self-styled ‘sole representatives’, while the Tamil community silently watched with nary a word of opposition. It is a time to ensure that Tamils will never again let themselves be blinded, nor be wilfully blind nor condone crimes and faults committed by members of their community.
On the political front, the community must never forget the many chances that were offered but rejected out of hand. Nor should Tamils sink to cheering wildly and in gross ingratitude, biting the very hand that fed them, as occurred during the war against the Indian Peace-Keeping Force during the 1980s and with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Tamils have much soul-searching and community-building to do, to ensure that they not allow the victor to impose a new oppressor from within Tamil ranks upon the community. While there will be no separate state, Tamil political parties will need to make the most of powers to be devolved under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, in order to rebuild the shattered lives, economy, education and spirit of the Tamil people and land.