|Photo: Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai|
Over the past three decades, the LTTE has been portrayed as a brutal organisation, with its structure, motivations and strategies all shrouded in secrecy. Some have rejected the force as politically bankrupt and irredeemably nihilist, while others have claimed (and continue to claim) it to be the only entity that has a chance of steering the political future of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Over the last few years, however, a greater degree of sober public analysis has emerged on the LTTE. This has been due to several factors: the internationalised Norwegian-led peace process; the no-war situation, in which dissident voices from within the Tamil polity were able to bring to light some of the inner workings of the Tamil Tigers; and also the split in the organisation, with its former Eastern Command being used as a paramilitary arm of the government against the LTTE. Few will disagree, however, that the Tigers have radically changed the security situation and the political landscape in Sri Lanka, mainly through its military strategies and guerrilla tactics. Indeed, the LTTE’s growth and survival over the last 30 years were solely dependent on its singular focus on militarism. In this context, the organisation’s weakening, caused by defeats on the battlefield over the last two years, become significantly more difficult to explain, as it is its subordination of politics to conventional military efforts that could well be the cause for its seemingly irreversible decline.
During the early years of the LTTE, in the mid-1970s, the force was made up of a small group of middle-class Tamil youths, who came mostly from the Jaffna peninsula. It was inspired by the ‘hit and run’ tactics that had been used by sections of the anti-colonial movements in India and in Ireland. Following on the early-20th-century legacy of the militant freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, the LTTE focused on assassinations in an environment conducive to urban guerrilla warfare, where bicycle-riding youths with pistols assassinated policemen and individuals labelled as ‘traitors’. These attacks, largely restricted to the Jaffna peninsula, were financed by the looting of banks. Over the next several years, state repression in response to such armed activity escalated, including the introduction of draconian measures such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the abduction and murder of politicised Tamil youths, and the burning of the Jaffna Library. Subsequently, the armed groups, especially the Tamil Tigers, took on larger operations, such as attacking police stations and army convoys. At this time, the LTTE consisted of no more than 30 fulltime members, divided into cells.
It was following the July 1983 state-sponsored riots, in which more than 2000 Tamil civilians were massacred, triggered by the LTTE’s attack on an army convoy that had killed 13 soldiers, that the Tigers and other armed groups mushroomed in size and number. Suddenly, thousands of youths joined them, along with broader political and material support from the Tamil people in general. The post-1983 environment, combined with the activities of armed groups with support bases in India, led the Sri Lankan Army to be pushed back to their barracks in many parts of the north. The hit-and-run tactics were transformed into full-blown guerrilla warfare, with the support of Indian training in camps in Tamil Nadu and financial support from expatriate Tamils in the West. This period also led to a dramatic increase in killings and torture within many of the armed groups, including the LTTE, as the militant leaderships attempted to control their quickly growing organisations amidst an environment of mistrust and fear.
Combined military gains and attempts to put forward a joint coalition of the four major armed groups – known as the Eelam National Liberation Front, or ENLF – were short lived. Much of this failure was due to the LTTE, which decided to take advantage of the internal tensions within the other armed groups by moving to eliminate the competitors. This began in April 1986 in Jaffna, with the massacre of hundreds of cadres of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO). But such an internecine war necessarily weakened the military gains that had been achieved by the rebel groups. In May 1987, the Sri Lankan armed forces made rapid gains culminating in an attack on Vadamarachy, in northern Jaffna, known as Operation Liberation, only to be halted by pressure and outright intervention by New Delhi. While the training in India of the few hundred LTTE cadres was meant to be in guerrilla warfare, it was essentially training for a conventional army. This is significant, as the LTTE attempted to face Operation Liberation on conventional military terms for the first time, and could not withstand the significant man- and firepower, and particularly the air assaults, of the Colombo government.
Following the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, Indian intervention and the deployment of the Indian Peacekeeping Forces (IPKF) introduced a third force into the conflict. The LTTE subsequently chose to challenge this new force, as it viewed Indian intervention as undermining its ‘sole representation’ of the Tamil community, in a political process that was intended to lead to electoral representation by a number of Tamil political actors. New Delhi, on the other hand, viewed Tamil armed groups, including the LTTE, as means towards political ends, both in terms of its hegemony in the region and a political settlement towards Tamil grievances. With the resumption of unpredicted hostilities by the LTTE, the Indians proved to be ill prepared and overconfident in their ability to control the LTTE. The latter, in turn, used calculated provocations that led to large civilian casualties from attacks by Indian forces, undermining the people’s initial support for the IPKF. While the Peacekeeping Force was eventually able to establish its presence and push the LTTE into the jungle – thereby reducing them again to conducting hit-and-run operations – many believe that the IPKF did not actually want to completely eliminate the LTTE, due to the lingering tensions between New Delhi and Colombo. In this murky terrain, the government of Ranasinghe Premadasa, which did not want to see the implementation of the Indo-Lanka Accord and was resentful of the Indian intervention, went so far as to make a deal with the LTTE, including providing it with arms, in the hopes of forcing the Indians to withdraw.
By March 1990, the withdrawal of the IPKF was indeed complete. This provided the opportunity for the LTTE to decimate the remaining Tamil armed groups and political formations, including the leadership of the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). The resumption of the war with the Premadasa government, in the early 1990s, had with it the element of surprise that the LTTE often used. In June 1990, it massacred hundreds of policemen who had surrendered in the Eastern Province. The Premadasa government, unprepared for the eventuality of war, had asked a large number of besieged police stations to surrender, not expecting the LTTE to massacre them. The rebel forces were subsequently able to expand their control in the east.
In the north, meanwhile, the LTTE used this period to establish quasi-state structures in areas of Jaffna that were under its control; this period also marked a major transformation of the Tigers into a conventional armed force. A number of operational structures were established, which ultimately led to significant changes in the organisation’s functioning. These changes also necessarily led to a qualitative change in the LTTE’s relationship with the people, as they institutionalised overt exploitation exemplified by new structures of taxation, increasing recruitment of children by dubious methods, and the institution of a ‘pass’ system for civilians travelling outside its territory. It was this period that also witnessed the Kattankudy and Eravur Mosque massacres of August 1990 in the east, where about 150 Muslims at prayer were massacred by the LTTE; followed by the ethnic cleansing of the entire population of Muslims from the Northern Province, numbering close to 75,000 people, within two days in late October 1990. These acts of brutality against the Muslim population, which would alienate the Muslim community in the future, were carried out like military operations, and foreshadowed the emergence of exclusivist state structures.
While the LTTE had from the beginning asked its cadres to carry cyanide capsules in case of capture (so they could commit suicide rather than be tortured into divulging information), it was during the early 1990s that suicide squads were developed into the Black Tigers. This was an elite group of suicide cadres who were used to assassinate important targets, or as human bombs in the course of military operations. Likewise, the force of Sea Tigers was also raised in order to attack the Sri Lankan Navy.
The increasing lack of support from the people, leading to the dearth of voluntary recruits, led the LTTE to resort to forced recruitment and a more sophisticated use of propaganda. This also led to the deployment of larger numbers of women and child recruits. In addition, the Tigers developed an extensive international network for arms procurement, by tapping the financial support of Tamil expatriates and the businesses started by the LTTE itself in the West. Furthermore, an intelligence wing, consisting of international, military and internal intelligence, was developed in order to control the organisation, infiltrate the state and carry out assassinations.
The LTTE’s transformation into a conventional force saw some major military victories, including the Mullaitivu army camp attack in 1996 and the Elephant Pass army camp attack in 2000. These battles not only pointed to extensive intelligence-gathering on the part of the LTTE, but also to considerable use of manpower and suicide cadres, resulting in the sacrifice of hundreds of cadres as cannon fodder. Nine years earlier, a failed attempt to capture Elephant Pass had led to the deaths of hundreds of Tamil Tigers. Indeed, the LTTE’s persistence and willingness to sacrifice cadres in large numbers has been a crucial part of its successes. The Tigers also began to videotape their major battles, to use the footage for propaganda purposes, particularly to mobilise support and raise funds from the Tamil diaspora.
Tiger training, mid-2006
Together with the organisation itself, its military aims became grander. The Katunayake Airport attack in 2001, by 14 LTTE suicide cadres, was an important milestone in crippling the Sri Lankan economy, as it led, among other things, to sharply increased import insurance. The organisation was also successful in assassinating political leaders in Colombo, the army top brass and Tamils opposed to the LTTE. It was a combination of these military attacks and high-profile assassinations that eventually gave the Tigers the image of being something of an invincible force. Assassinations in particular served to politically destabilise governments, providing room for the organisation to recoup – even if such actions inevitably undermined any long-term progress on the political front.
The Norwegian-aided peace process and the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) further entrenched the LTTE as a conventional force. The LTTE used the no-war situation to further transform its military structures, including a massive recruitment campaign. The CFA also ensured clear forward-defence lines and demarcation of territorial borders, and the legitimacy awarded by the internationalised peace process was used to build state-like structures with the support of expatriate and donor funds. However, this development reduced its flexibility to fight a guerrilla war. On the other hand, the split in the LTTE – with its Eastern Command, led by Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan (aka ‘Karuna’), rebelling in 2004 – weakened the organisation’s conventional strength, as it lost a large part of its manpower and effective control of the east.
By 2006, the ceasefire had collapsed, after the LTTE escalated the violence. In fact, the LTTE strategised to help elect Mahinda Rajapakse, who was backed by Sinhalese extremists, through an enforced boycott by Tamil voters, who were expected to vote mainly for his opponent. The LTTE then systematically provoked the Rajapakse government, to test its strength on the battlefield; since then, however it has faced major defeats. The Colombo military proved to be far more capable in conventional warfare than its adversary, with significantly more advanced firepower, whether in air bombing, shelling or the use of multi-barrel fire. Not only has the LTTE been crippled on the conventional war front, with steady loss of territory over the last two years, it has also been unable to take forward its ‘dirty war’. The LTTE’s intelligence network has been crippled by the counter-intelligence efforts of the Sri Lankan military, as reflected by the organisation’s inability to succeed in attacking high-profile targets in recent years. The last successful major assassination by the LTTE was that of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005, whereas the security forces have been successful in targeting senior LTTE leaders over the past year, including political-wing leader S P Tamilselvan in November 2007, and deputy intelligence leader ‘Colonel’ Charles in January 2008. In recent months, the Tigers have been reduced to attacking ‘soft’ targets, such as civilian buses.
The evolution of the LTTE has been characterised by one constant – its pyramidal structure, with the entire organisation built around its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. The organisation rests on a fragile balance around the personality cult of Prabhakaran and the demand for Tamil Eelam. While its previous political advisor, the late Anton Balasingham, described the LTTE as a politico-military organisation, in practice politics was always subordinated to the military agenda. While the international community engaged extensively with Balasingham and the LTTE’s political wing during the Norwegian-led peace process, in reality the political wing has always been in existence merely to justify the military actions.
In building the organisation as a military institution, there has been a complete lack of internal political debate, with the LTTE cadres reduced to mere fighters. In fact, there is little critical discussion about military matters in general, with a clear top-down command structure that even limits critical feedback on military setbacks. The LTTE’s strength as well as its limitations are centred around complete loyalty to Prabhakaran, internal fear and, most of all, the suicide cult extensively used to pursue military gains. The LTTE’s former senior commanders, such as Karuna and Mahendrarajah Mahattya, have shown little political maturity, reflecting the lack of political development of even the deputy leaders. Although they were held in very high esteem while in the organisation, they were incapable of putting forward any serious alternative political vision.
The continued extreme demand for a separate Tamil Eelam, coupled with the unwillingness to engage with any political process, has inhibited the LTTE’s military advances from transforming into political gains. Rather, the LTTE seems to believe that its own relationship with the Tamil people would be threatened if there were political progress and the state moved toward addressing grievances of the Tamil people. It is such an exclusivist politics, particularly the Tigers’ claim of ‘sole representation’, that has made it impossible to form any sustainable alliance in partnership with other Tamil organisations. Furthermore, by engaging in attacks on civilians, the LTTE has also isolated itself from the island’s Muslim and Sinhalese communities. This inability to engage politically with other actors has, furthermore, isolated it further from the international community.
Two decades after the LTTE’s decision to fight India, followed by its assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the negative attitude is beginning to prove militarily costly. Indian surveillance and support for the Colombo government are both significantly contributing to the weakening of the LTTE. Despite the legitimacy given it by the West during the Norwegian-aided peace process, including peace negotiations and tours of Europe for Tigers negotiators, the LTTE engaged arrogantly with the Western interlocutors. It refused to attend the Tokyo donor conference in June 2003 attended by some 50 governments and 20 multilateral organisations, nor did it respond to human-rights-related concerns, including on child soldiers and political killings. Ultimately, this intransigence culminated in the Canadian and EU bans on the LTTE, in April and June 2006, respectively. Such international isolation has weakened the LTTE’s political and financial base in the Tamil diaspora, and also crippled its international arms-smuggling network.
The recent military defeats suffered by the LTTE have surfaced during discussions of the possibility of the organisation reverting to action as a guerrilla force. But such a change is unlikely for a number of reasons. The LTTE’s own mindset has changed as it transformed itself into a conventional force, with Prabhakaran emphasising that his force now has a full spectrum of land, sea and air capabilities. While this illusion of an emerging state with a full fledged conventional military helped mobilise support in the diaspora, in reality there are serious limitations to the organisation’s capacity. The transformation in the LTTE hierarchy, including in terms of military status and position, has also alienated the organisation from the masses – a critical relationship for any guerrilla war. Finally, the Tamil people in general are suffering from severe fatigue after a quarter-century of conflict, and few youths today join the LTTE voluntarily.
In the event that Prabhakaran is at some point killed or removed from the scene due to illness, the absence of politicisation among the LTTE cadres would mean that the organisation would most likely not be able to continue as a sustainable resistance movement. Instead, the apolitical LTTE cadres would undoubtedly disperse, to be appropriated by the state, function as isolated cells or be reduced to criminal activities. Ultimately, armed resistance needs to be transformed into political gains, all within a sustainable timeframe. Many Tamil moderates now argue that the LTTE has done more than any other actor to destroy the Tamil community. In counting on gains through its strength as a conventional military force, and dragging out the war in Sri Lanka for two and a half decades, the LTTE may well have missed the opportunity to even entrench its own position. The LTTE’s singular focus on its own military strength, to the detriment of political gains and support from the people on the ground, all while ensuring its emergence as the dominant Tamil armed force, could now well be the cause of its demise.
~ Anonymous is a Tamil democracy activist.