The Tamil Question in Sri Lanka Part 2

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was posted on The Agonist on May 6th, 2010


The rise of Tamil separatist militancy.


Most Tamil militant groups began life as student organisations. In 1970,  Ponnuthurai Satvaseelan formed the Tamil Students League. The Tamil Youth League was founded in 1973. The General Union of Eelam Students was founded in London and gave birth to the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students,  from which split the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front, which, in turn, became the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) which currently has one of its members, Douglas Devenanda as a government minister. The EPDP has a paramilitary wing.
Before 1987, India provided training for the armed militant groups, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).

There were about 30 other minor groups.

In 1972, a group of students formed a militant group called the Tamil New Tigers (TNT). One member of this group was Vellupillai Prabakharan, who was born in Jaffna in November 1954. On July 27 1975, the former mayor of Jaffna, SLFP politician Alfred Durayappah, was assassinated. Prabakharan later claimed that he had fired the fatal shot.

The TNT became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and by means of murder and intimidation became the dominant Tamil separatist group in Sri Lanka. Separatist militancy was further fanned by the anti-Tamil riots, which followed the 1977 general election, in which the UNP came to power. The LTTE were proscribed in 1978, by which time most of its rivals had been eliminated.

Colonel Karuna (nom de guerre of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) the leader of LTTE forces in the Eastern province broke with Prabakharan in 2004 to form the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP). The aim of this grouping was to challenge the dominance of the northern Tigers around the leadership of Prabhakharan and to defend the special interests of eastern Tamils. There was a split even in this breakaway group and rivalry between Karuna and a former child soldier Pillayan (nom de guerre of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan) led to some fatalities. Pillayan became leader of the TMVP and when government forces won control of the Eastern province and he was sworn in as Chief Minister of the province on May 16, 2008. At a disarmament ceremony in Batticaloa, on March 9 2009, the TMVP handed over its weapons to the Sri Lankan army. Pillayan said, “We tell the government and the international community that we have given up arms because we believe in democracy.” Also on March 9, Karuna joined the ruling party Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and accepted a ministerial portfolio.

Tamil homeland

The call for a separate Tamil nation in the north and east of the country was not feasible because 70% of Tamils in Sri Lanka live outside the area claimed as a homeland. The land claimed as Eelam was not exclusively Tamil except where the LTTE had carried out ethnic cleansing to drive out Sinhalese and Muslims.

When discussions were taking place on an Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, Lloyd George complained that he could not stop De Valera banging on about Cromwell. In more recent negotiations on Northern Ireland, Jonathan Powell made the same complaint about Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. The Sinhala and Tamil nationalists who comment on my articles are armchair warriors and amateur historians who like to teach me lessons in ancient history.

The origins of the”Jaffna Tamils” are shrouded in myth and legend. Such myths play an atavistic role in helping an ethnic group form a sustaining identity. These fictions can turn poisonous and lead to delusion and death. In Sri Lanka, the Jaffna kingdom, which existed in the north and some parts of the east from the 13th century to the early 17th century, has provided the foundation myth of a Tamil homeland, Eelam, which was the Tamil Tigers’ leader Prabakharan’s justification for sending women and children to their deaths.

Many historians have challenged the foundation myths, with their emphasis on ancient animosities between Tamils and Sinhalese. A Sinhalese, Professor CR de Silva, has argued that the Tamil king Elara had much support from the Sinhalese and that Buddhism in the north did not suffer under his rule. A Tamil scholar, Devanesan Nesiah has argued that the two communities had enjoyed friendly co-existence over many centuries and that hostility was a political construct that was kept alive by the Sinhalese leadership and used from time to time for political purposes.

The territory claimed by the LTTE as their sovereign nation of Tamil Eelam covers the Northern and Eastern provinces. The Jaffna Kingdom, also known as the Kingdom of Aryacakravarti, only covered the Northern Province. The kingdom lasted from 1215-1619 CE. The kingdom’s independent existence ended when the Portuguese defeated King Cankili II.

The origins of the kingdom are obscure and still the subject of controversy among historians. Among mainstream historians, such as K.M. de Silva, S.Pathmanathan and Karthigesu Indrapala, the widely accepted view is that the Kingdom of Aryacakravarti began with the invasion of a previously unknown chieftain called Magha, who claimed to be from Kalinga in modern India. He deposed the ruling King Parakrama Pandu of Pollonnaruwa with the help of his soldiers and mercenaries from the Kalinga, modern Kerala and Damila regions in India.

For a brief period, in the early to mid-fourteenth century, the Aryacakravarti kingdom was the chief power in the island of Sri Lanka and other kingdoms were subordinate to it. However, the kingdom was eventually overpowered by the rival Kingdom of Kotte, around 1450.

The Tamil separatists’ claim to the Eastern province is mainly based on a document called “the Cleghorn minute”. Hugh Cleghorn was a Scottish professor of history and part-time secret agent. He helped the British oust the Dutch by buying off a force of Swiss mercenaries manning the Dutch fort in Colombo. He was rewarded with 5,000 pounds and the post of Chief Secretary of Ceylon under the first British Governor, Lord North. The two did not get on and North was soon referring to him as ”that madman Cleghorn”. Cleghorn resigned after 15 months in 1800. The minute on the basis of which separatists claim the north and the east refers to two different nations occupying the island of Ceylon from ancient times, with the Malabars (Tamils) occupying the north and east. Tamil separatists always omit the last sentence in which Cleghorn says the Sinhalese originate from Siam. Critics say this howler invalidates the rest of the minute.

Jaffna District, which is the Tamil heartland, was once home to some 5,500 Muslim families before the LTTE expelled them allowing them only hours to leave. “At five o’clock the LTTE announced for us to come immediately to the Jinnah grounds. The LTTE leader told us that within two hours, all the Muslims must leave the [Jaffna] peninsula,” said Mohammed Yassin.

There are large numbers of Muslims and Sinhalese in the Eastern Province who would not accept a Tamil state. Even eastern Tamils grew tired of dominance by northern Tamils and broke away from Prabakharan. Former Tigers Karuna and Pillayan joined the central government.

Whatever about the myths, the Jaffna Tamils and their ancestors have undoubtedly lived on the island for at least 1,500 years and cannot justly be regarded as alien newcomers or ”blow-ins” as we say in Ireland .

July 1983 and the aftermath.

The immediate cause of the long and bloody civil war was the events of July 1983, ”Black July”. Over many years there had been incidents where ill-disciplined police or military had carried out savage reprisals, rather in the manner of the Black and Tans in Ireland, on innocent Tamils. July 1983 was a paradigm shift in terror. Thirteen soldiers were killed by the LTTE. Anti-Tamil riots ensued and lasted for ten days with property being destroyed and up to 3,000 people being killed and 200,000 displaced.

From President Jayewardene’s residence, shops could be seen going up in flames but no curfew was called and police disappeared from the streets. Marauding gangs armed with axes and cans of petrol went around Colombo with electoral rolls identifying Tamil homes and businesses. The inhabitants were doused in petrol and set alight.

A Norwegian woman tourist recalled seeing a mob setting fire to a bus with about 20 Tamils inside it. Those who climbed out the windows were pushed back in and the doors were sealed while they burned alive, screaming horribly. In another incident, a mob chopped two Tamil girls aged 18 and 11 with knives; the younger girl was beheaded with an axe, the older one raped by 20 men and then doused in petrol.

These horrific events left an indelible mark on the Tamil psyche. Atrocities were perpetrated on innocent Tamils all over the country and many fled to the north for refuge. Those who could afford to fled abroad, from where they provided ongoing financial support for the LTTE.

There were also reports of incredible courage shown by selfless Sinhalese people trying to protect their Tamil friends and neighbours and even strangers.

The Sri Lankan government did nothing to counter the prevailing impression that it had connived in the slaughter. At a time when it was imperative to appease the Tamil people if there was ever to be any faint hope of keeping them happily within the nation, parliament enacted the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which required all members to disavow separatism. Sixteen TULF members vacated their seats and left a vacuum which was filled by the TNA.

Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian and anthropologist looked back on these events from the perspective of 25 years: ”The militant movement for separation gathered thousands of new Tamil recruits and a rejuvenation of commitment among most SL Tamils, as well a wave of support in international quarters. Sri Lanka also received pariah status on the world stage.”

July 1983 was, indeed a turning point for Sri Lankan Tamils and for Sri Lanka. In the immediate aftermath many fled to Tamil Nadu, where those of a militant tendency were trained and armed by the Indian government. Many who might not want to engage in violence themselves fled to Canada, Australia and Europe. Many of them prospered and supported the armed struggle vicariously by providing funding. Many Tamils who remained in Sri Lanka were disillusioned at the futility of trying to defend their interests by peaceful means within the existing state apparatus.

The LTTE proved efficient at destroying any other Tamil groups that threatened to undermine their dominance. Elements of the international community were able to build a false picture of the LTTE as romantic freedom fighters.

In Tamil Nadu, where thousands of Indians took to the streets to denounce Sri Lanka and to call on Indira Gandhi to do something about what they called genocide. She came to a decision that would have lasting consequences including the death of her own son.

Training Camps in India.

Sri Lankan Tamil militants had been getting training abroad since 1975. A Sri Lankan Tamil called Eliyathambi Ratnasabapathy (Ratna for short) living in London, organised study groups at his Wandsworth home on the guerrilla struggles then going on in various countries. He had links with the PLO and arranged training from them in Lebanon in the use of firearms. There were survival courses and training in a variety of guerrilla tactics. Douglas Devananda, now a minister in the Sri Lanka government complained: ”We were asked to wear boots 24 hours a day. They gave us plenty of cheese and oranges but there was no rice.”

In 1981, retired Indian army officers had helped set up training camps around Madras in Tamil Nadu and trained around 30 men from the TELO and the LTTE.

Tamil youths were flocking to the militant groups for many reasons. One strong reason, according to MR Narayan Swami, Prabhakaran’s biographer,  was, ”a strong rumour had begun to circulate in Tamil areas. India, the giant of south Asia, which so many Sri Lankan Tamils regarded as their cultural motherland, was ready to accept, train and arm young Tamils willing to fight for Eelam.”

Tamil Nadu governments had long provided a haven for Tamil separatist militants from Sri Lanka. The central government under Indira Gandhi connived in this and tolerated the existence of bases and training camps in other parts of India. The origins of these bases go back to before the riots of 1983.

Mrs Gandhi was at odds with Junius Richard ”˜Dickie’ Jayawardene, Prime Minister and later Executive President of Sri Lanka, as he reversed Mrs Bandaranaike’s attempts to establish a socialistic command economy and turned Sri Lanka towards liberal free-market economic policies. The two neighbouring leaders also disagreed about foreign policy, especially Afghanistan and the Falklands. Mrs Gandhi also regarded Dickie as too pro-Western”. He allowed a Voice of America station in Sri Lanka and opened up Trincomalee harbour to Western commercial interests.

Indira Gandhi decided that she would give Tamil militants the support of the Indian government and of the Indian secret service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Word soon spread through the north of Sri Lanka that Mrs Gandhi was prepared to train and arm Tamil guerrillas and hundreds of young men and women left their homes to travel to Tamil Nadu.

Training began in Dehra Dun in Uttar Pradesh in September 1983. Subramanian Swami said that training was carried out at a RAW base at Chakrata north of Dehra Dun. That area was selected because the high mountains and military establishments provided cover for what was going on. From then on hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamil boys travelled by train from Madras to New Delhi and then on to Dehra Dun by trucks and buses. One group was detained by Indian police, who had not been appraised of what was going on, before leaving Tamil Nadu. The police took their names and addresses before RAW intervened.

PS Suryanayarana, in his book, The Peace Trap, quotes Tamil Tiger leader Prabakharan as saying that he first met RAW officials in Pondicherry but did not specify a date. According to MR Narayan Swamy, Prabakharan’s biographer, between 1983 and 1987, RAW trained 1,200 Sri Lankan Tamils in the use of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, self-loading rifles, and 84mm rocket launchers and in laying mines. Some were also given training in diving and under-sea sabotage.

Arms deliveries to various groups began in 1984 and went on almost up to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987. India persistently denied in public that it was training Sri Lankans and disavowed any aim of splitting up the Sri Lankan state. There was comprehensive coverage in India Today of training camps in India and reports appeared in western newspapers in April 1984.

General Vernon Walters, an emissary of the Reagan administration, informed the Indian government on two visits, in 1983 and 1984, that he had evidence of the training camps. He produced photographs and the addresses of Sri Lankan militants living in Tamil Nadu.Former Sri Lankan national security minister, Lalith Athulathmudalali, has said: ”By 1986, Indian diplomats privately admitted that RAW was training people”.

However, India had no real interest in the separatist cause. Douglas Devananda has said: “We realised that they were only trying to use us in their game plan.” Sources in all Tamil groups now assert that India’s motive was to teach Colombo a lesson for being too pro-Western.

It was widely rumoured that Mrs Gandhi was planning to emulate Turkish action in North Cyprus and actually take over at least part of Sri Lanka by military force. Shankar Rajee says an Indian Army officer told him: ”we need a scout force to lead us. You are not going to do the real fighting but be prepared.”
By 1985 the numerical strength of the Tamil militants would have equalled that of the Sri Lankan armed forces. The LTTE’s main bases were at Salem and Madurai.

Delhi Accord

Indian facilitation led to talks in Bhutan in 1985 between the Sri Lanka government and representatives of various Tamil groups. There were no positive results but further talks brokered by India led to the Delhi Accord, which set out a framework for ethnic reconciliation and devolution of power to the provinces. The TULF went along with this but the other Tamil groups were reluctant and eventually TULF had to withdraw their assent.

Despite the accord between the two governments, sporadic ethnic violence continued in the north and east of Sri Lanka and the Indian government made little serious effort to stop its territory being used as a base for Tamil militant activity. Rajiv Gandhi found his options limited because the Sri Lankan Tamil separatist groups all had their supporters among government and opposition parties alike in Tamil Nadu. However, none of these parties were able to keep the peace among the rival Sri Lankan factions.

Part of the accord with India was that Sri Lankan forces in Jaffna would stay in their barracks. The LTTE took advantage of this to mine the roads leading to the barracks and convert makeshift barricades into concrete bunkers. The Sri Lanka army could only be supplied by air and the LTTE effectively took control of Jaffna. The LTTE also set about eliminating their Tamil rivals and attacking soft Sinhalese targets to the embarrassment of the government forces that seemed unable to stop them.

As the Sri Lanka army improved its equipment and training and got help from Pakistan, India reverted from mediation to attacking Sri Lanka’s human rights record. The Sri Lanka government had treated the Delhi Accord as ”a reasonable basis for negotiation and settlement” but India was now condemning the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to combat terrorism at the same time as India harboured those threatening to overthrow the Sri Lankan state.

In 1986, there were three months of complex negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the TULF. The outcome was a set of proposals sent to India in September. There was an obstacle in that Tamil groups in general pressed for a single provincial unit joining the northern and eastern provinces as a single Tamil ethno-region. The Sri Lankan government were against this because of strong Sinhalese, and Muslim, opposition to the idea of the east as a predominantly Tamil region. By conceding the east, the government would allow its electoral base and stability to be eroded.

The main difficulty, however, was that these complex considerations were taking place in a fantasy world. It was akin to the British and Irish government having civilised discussions with each other and the Ulster Unionists and the Social and Democratic Labour Party, while it was the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Volunteer force bombing and kneecapping people.

William Clarance of the UNHCR put it thus: ”Essentially, the Accord was an agreement between the two governments, deciding over the heads of the Sri Lankan Tamils, the shape of their political future.”

The Indian and Sri Lankan governments were keen to deal with the TULF as the main representative of Tamil opinion in Sri Lanka but this was divorced from reality. The TULF had voluntarily exiled themselves in Tamil Nadu, thereby effectively cutting themselves off from Sri Lankan Tamils. The LTTE had filled the vacuum left by the TULF. The LTTE was determined to accept nothing less than a separate state of Eelam and were not prepared to recognise the lead role of the TULF.

Rajiv Gandhi’s dilemma now was how to persuade the Tamil separatists to accept what he believed to be a workable framework for an honourable peace. The LTTE alone refused to accept. For the first time the Indian government tried to impose restrictions on the LTTE’s activities in Tamil Nadu. Amid rumours of a unilateral declaration of independence, Sri Lankan forces tried to clear the north and east of LTTE fighters and largely succeeded with the rebels fleeing to the Jaffna peninsula.

Indian Peacekeeping Force

The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed on 29 July 1987. When Rajiv Gandhi was inspecting a guard of honour prior to leaving Colombo for India in July 1987, a Sinhalese naval rating struck him a heavy blow with his rifle. This symbolised the resentment of many Sri Lankans at India’s interference.

The intention was to use the might of the Indian Army to bring a swift end to the ethnic conflict in the north and east of Sri Lanka. India blithely expected the LTTE to hand over its arms to the IPKF but the Tigers refused to go beyond a token handover and firmly resisted IPKF efforts to disarm them. The LTTE was as ready to fight the Indians as it was to fight the Sinhalese.

The Indians at first sent 10,000 troops but unexpected resistance from the LTTE led to an increase to 100,000, some estimate more.

The Tamil Tigers fought the Indians and the Sinhalese were not happy about the Indian intervention. Even the cabinet was split, with Prime Minister Premadasa opposed to it as was security minister Athulathmudalali. The Marxist Sinhala nationalist party the JVP were bitterly opposed as were many Buddhist monks.

Sri Lanka accused India of violating its sovereignty and international law by sending the Indian air force to drop food supplies on Jaffna. The Tamil Nadu chief minister, MG Ramachandran made a well-publicised gift of $3.3 million to the LTTE.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Premadasa had been opposed to the accord from the outset. When he succeeded Jayawardene as president in December 1988, tensions between Sri Lanka and India increased. Premadasa saw the removal of the IPKF as essential to restoring order to the south after the bloody JVP uprising because the Sinhalese nationalist JVP traded on bitter opposition to Indian interference.

Withdrawal was completed in March 1990. Over 1,000 Indian soldiers had been killed and over 2,000 wounded. The financial cost to India of its intervention in Sri Lanka was put at around $1.25 billion.

The cost was, in fact, far higher. Rajiv Gandhi’s mother was the architect of India’s interventionist policy. He oversaw its intensification and he paid the ultimate price. On 21 May, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi attended his last public meeting at Sriperumbudur, about 30 miles from Madras in Tamil Nadu. He was campaigning for the Congress candidate for the area. At 10.10 p.m, a female Black Tiger called Thenmuli Rajaratnam, known as Gayatri or Dhanu approached Gandhi and greeted him. She bent down to touch his feet in the traditional Hindu expression of respect and detonated an explosive belt tucked under her dress containing 700 grammes of RDX. The assassination was caught on film through the lens of a local photographer, whose camera and film were found at the site. The cameraman himself also died in the blast but the camera remained intact.

Judge Thomas of the Supreme Court of India ruled that the killing was carried out because of the personal animosity towards Gandhi of LTTE leader Prabakharan. Four of the conspirators were sentenced, in their absence, to death. Sri Lanka’s President Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE in 1993.

The Indian Position Today

In more recent years, Tamil Nadu state governments have failed to give unconditional support to the LTTE. This has allowed the Congress Party, in power in Delhi since 2004, to take a more hostile position to the separatists. The Tigers lost the image of responsible negotiators they had tried to cultivate during the period of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA).

Radar equipment has been supplied by India to the Sri Lankan government. India’s secret service has discreetly provided intelligence, particularly naval, and training for pilots and radar operators.

The Indian government is now acting as a moderating broker and discussing with the Sri Lankan government the importance of reconciliation and a just settlement for Sri Lankan Tamils. Discussions focus on the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka constitution, which, it is hoped, will provide opportunities for a federal solution to Tamil grievances.

May 6th, 2010