[Marxism] Who are the Tamil Tigers

Stuart Munckton stuartmunckton at gmail.com
Sun Apr 26 23:43:10 MDT 2009

Who are the Tamil Tigers?
Chris Slee
25 April 2009


*The Sri Lankan government claims to be on the verge of totally defeating
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE — also known as the Tamil
Tigers). The LTTE has fought for more than 30 years for an independent state
for the Tamil people on the northern and eastern parts of the island.*

 The roots of the conflict lie in a long history of state-sponsored
oppression of the Tamils, which eventually led some Tamil youth to take up

When the British granted independence to Sri Lanka in 1948, power was handed
to politicians drawn mainly from the upper classes of the majority Sinhala
ethnic group.

These politicians used racism as a tool to divide the working class.

Second-class citizens

Tamil plantation workers were deprived of citizenship rights. Sinhalese was
declared the sole official language of Sri Lanka, making Tamil language
speakers second-class citizens. Knowledge of Sinhalese became necessary for
public service jobs, excluding most Tamils.

Discrimination was also applied in education.

For many years, Tamils opposed discrimination by peaceful means, including
demonstrations, sit-ins and taking part in elections. But peaceful protests
were met by violent repression, carried out by the police and army as well
as racist Sinhalese mobs incited to violence by politicians and Buddhist

There was a series of pogroms against Tamils, culminating in the murder of
an estimated 3000 people in the government-instigated 1983 “Black July”

LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham said: “The anti-Tamil riots that
periodically erupted in the island should not be viewed as spontaneous
outbursts of inter-communal violence between the two communities.

“All major racial conflagrations that erupted violently against the Tamil
people were inspired and masterminded by the Sinhala regimes as a part of a
genocidal programme.

“Violent anti-Tamil riots exploded in the island in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1974,
1977, 1979, 1981, and in July 1983. In these racial holocausts thousands of
Tamils, including women and children, were massacred in the most gruesome
manner, billions of rupees worth of Tamil property was destroyed and
hundreds of thousands made refugees.

“The state’s armed forces colluded with the Sinhalese hooligans and vandals
in their violent rampage of arson, rape and mass murder.”

Self-determination struggle

This boosted Tamil nationalist sentiment. In 1977, the Tamil United
Liberation Front won 17 seats in the Sri Lankan parliament on a platform of
Tamil self-determination.

The repression of peaceful protest led many Tamil youth to violent methods.
The LTTE was formed in 1972 under the leadership of Vellupillai Prabakharan,
then a 17-year-old. He is remains LTTE leader.

The LTTE carried out its first major armed action in 1978.

After Black July, support for the LTTE grew among Tamils. It dramatically
stepped up its war against the Sri Lankan Army.

The SLA could not defeat the Tigers, despite brutal repression that included
civilian massacres.

In 1987, India sent a “peacekeeping force” to Sri Lanka, with the stated aim
of protecting the Tamils from SLA violence.

However, the Indian government did not want an independent Tamil state. The
Indian army began repressing the LTTE.

After the Indian troops withdrew in 1990, fighting again broke out between
the SLA and the Tigers.

In 2002, a ceasefire was signed between the LTTE and the United National
Party (UNP) government. But the government failed to offer Tamils a just
solution that could guarantee a lasting peace.

Pro-government paramilitary groups, in collusion with the SLA, continued
violent attacks against Tamils.

The UNP government, which claimed to want peace, was replaced in 2004 by a
more openly chauvinist government — a coalition led by the Sri Lanka Freedom
Party (SLFP).

Violence escalated into full-scale war. Tiger-controlled areas were
bombarded. Blockades prevented food and other necessities from entering
these areas.

For several decades, the LTTE was a very effective fighting force. It
inflicted big defeats on the SLA, often killing hundreds of troops in a
single battle.

It controlled large areas in the north and east of the island.

The LTTE developed innovative tactics, such as the use of light aircraft to
carry out bombing raids on government targets, including in the capital

But over the past two years, the government seems to have captured nearly
all former LTTE-controlled areas.

On January 2, the government captured Kilinochchi, which had been the
administrative centre for LTTE-controlled areas. This followed five months
of aerial and artillery bombardment of the town.

The SLA’s gains are partly due to aid from imperialist powers. Israel has
supplied Kfir jets to the Sri Lankan air force, which has used them to bomb
Tamil areas.

However, this alone cannot explain the scale of the SLA’s successes. It is
necessary to also look at the strategy and tactics of the Tigers.

Tigers’ strengths and limitations

The LTTE was formed by young people angry at the oppression of Tamils and
disillusioned with failed peaceful methods of struggle.

They were also disillusioned by the sell-outs of Sri Lanka’s main left
parties (some of whom had abandoned previous support for Tamil rights to
join coalition governments with the SLFP).

Tamil youth didn’t see any prospect of an alliance with Sinhala workers and
peasants against the Sinhalese ruling class.

This led them to focus on the military struggle. They succeeded in building
a formidable fighting force.

The LTTE has fought courageously and persistently against the Sri Lankan and
Indian armies in an effort to win self-determination for the Tamil people.
It has also been willing to seek a peaceful solution when it appeared that
the Sri Lankan government might be willing to agree.

The LTTE has strong support from the Tamils in the north and east of the
island. This is indicated by election results (20 members of the pro-LTTE
Tamil National Alliance were elected to Sri Lanka's parliament in 2004) and
by the big attendance at LTTE-organised rallies during the ceasefire.

Yet the goal of self-determination has not yet been attained. A Tamil
homeland seems a long way off.

This is not solely due to the military power of the Sri Lankan state or its
backing by imperialist powers (important though that is). It is also due to
the political limitations of the LTTE.

A one-sided emphasis on military struggle led to mistakes, including the
alienation of potential allies.

The Tigers sometimes disregarded the need to win support among Sinhalese
workers, peasants and students in southern Sri Lanka for the right of Tamils
to self-determination. This also applied to the Tamil-speaking Muslims of
eastern Sri Lanka.

The absence of a mass anti-war movement in southern Sri Lanka is a key
obstacle to the success of the Tamil self-determination struggle. For
instance, the US anti-war movement played a key role in forcing the
withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam.

The LTTE has been willing to negotiate with Sinhalese political leaders
whenever they showed any signs of wanting to reach a peaceful solution. But
the LTTE has not made a serious effort to get its message directly to the
Sinhalese masses, bypassing the politicians whose promises of peace have
been deceptive.

The lack of a strong anti-war movement in southern Sri Lanka reflects the
weakness and political limitations of the Sri Lankan left. But some actions
by LTTE have also helped to alienate the Sinhalese masses.

The LTTE has sometimes responded to SLA atrocities by carrying out
atrocities of its own, including massacres of Sinhalese civilians. The LTTE
has at various times carried out bombing campaigns in Colombo and elsewhere
in the south.

These actions helped alienate the Sinhalese workers from the Tamil struggle.
When the targets were military, such attacks could be justified, but this
was not always the case.

Errors by the LTTE also helped alienate the Tamil-speaking Muslims.

Some Muslim youth joined the LTTE in its early years. But the government,
with the aid of some Muslim politicians, was able to instigate clashes
between Tamils and Muslims.

This led the LTTE to become suspicious of Muslims, to such an extent that it
expelled them en masse from the Jaffna region. The LTTE later made efforts
to rebuild relations with the Muslims, but suspicions were not completely

The LTTE’s militaristic way of thinking has also led to the repression of
dissent among the Tamils themselves.

Support Tamil liberation

These problems should not, however, negate support for the right of Tamils
to self-determination. In particular, there is the need for the removal of
the occupying SLA from Tamil areas.

The Tigers can be criticised, but the main blame for the violence lies with
the Sri Lankan government. The cycle of violence was initiated by the
government, and the government’s denial of the right of Tamils to
self-determination remains the main obstacle to peace.

Self-determination means that the Tamils can freely choose whether to form a
separate Tamil state, be part of a united Sri Lanka or have some
intermediate form such as a federation.

The LTTE has stated its willingness to consider a federal structure.

“Unity” imposed by the SLA through violent repression is not real unity.
Such unity requires ongoing repression of Tamils and prepares conditions for
a new war.

Some commentators believe the LTTE will continue as a guerrilla force
(small-scale attacks are continuing in the east, which the government has
claimed to fully control for the past two years). Others predict the LTTE’s
imminent collapse.

But even if the government wins a complete military victory, the occupation
of Tamil areas by the SLA can not bring lasting peace. Occupation will
always breed resistance.

From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue
#792<http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/2009/792>29 April 2009.

"The free market is perfectly natural... do you think I am some kind of
dummy?" — Jarvis Cocker

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" — Oscar Wilde

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