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The Tiger's Claw


8 November 2003

A constitutional coup in Sri Lanka jeopardised a promising dialogue, writes Christopher Kremmer in Kilinochchi.

THE graves are numbered in thousands, ranked like the battalions of a ghost army trudging through slanting light that turns golden towards sunset. In northern Sri Lanka this is sacred ground, consecrated with the blood of martyrs in a vicious 20-year civil war on an otherwise heavenly Indian Ocean island.

At Kanagapuram cemetery, the tombstones record the names of the fallen and where they fell. Elephant Pass. Mullaittivu. Paranthan. Kilinochchi. Milestones along the epic journey of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam towards what they hope will be self-determination for the country's minority Tamils, and a homeland they call Eelam. The war has claimed at least 65,000 lives.

"We are ready to bury so many more. We have plenty of space," says Thiyaga Rajah, an attendant at Kanagapuram. After this week's constitutional coup by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, they may well have to. Acting while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was abroad, the President sacked three cabinet ministers, suspended parliament and sent troops to guard important installations. The show of force was seen as undermining Wickremesinghe's peace overtures to the Tamil rebels.

Kanagapuram is in the heart of the Wanni jungle, where Kumaratunga's previous efforts to crush Tamil separatism have foundered. Sidelining the army's best generals during the 1990s, she took personal charge of the military campaign, sending hundreds of young Sinhalese soldiers to their deaths in a futile bid to capture a 75-kilometre stretch of the A9 highway between Vavuniya

and Kilinochchi.

The Tigers not only resisted the offensive, but took the battle to the capital, Colombo, in August 2001 with an audacious raid on Bandaranaike International Airport. At least 13 aircraft, including three fighter jets and two Sri Lankan Airways passenger planes, were destroyed. The attack rocked the country's economy, which for the first time since independence shrank in 2001. Later that year, war-weary voters punished the President by giving her political opponents control of the parliament.

In February last year, Wickremesinghe took the political gamble of his life by signing a ceasefire agreement with the Tamil Tigers. He knew the risks. Cosying up to the rebels had proven fatal for previous leaders, including president Ranasinghe Premadasa, assassinated by the LTTE after co-operating with them. Twenty months on, the ceasefire has lasted longer than any before it, and last week, in an unprecedented move towards reconciliation, the LTTE outlined in detail its terms for ending its secession struggle within a united Sri Lankan state.

The Tigers are seeking control of eight districts comprising the northern and eastern provinces. For five years before elections, they would be responsible for law and order, taxation and government spending, and would even control the seas adjacent to the two provinces. It seems like a big ask, but in much of the north-east, the Tigers already control all of these things.

The A9, or Kandy Road as it is also known, traverses the Tamil heartland, tracking east along the spine of the Jaffna Peninsula. Near the village of Muhamali, a Red Cross flag marks the ceasefire line. At the eastern end of a 500-metre no-man's land, a mound of earth is decorated with painted tin cans that spell out the acronym "L-T-T-E". In a nearby thatched hut, sparrow-thin young women dressed in dark-brown sari uniforms smack travel documents with rubber stamps. Tiger bureaucracy is quiet and efficient.

The oppressive presence of troops, so common in government-controlled parts of the north, is not apparent here. LTTE fighters in their striped camouflage uniforms and with cyanide capsules around their necks in case of capture, stay out of sight.

Along the road to Elephant Pass, signs bearing the skull and crossbones mark kilometre after kilometre of uncleared minefields. Rusting armoured vehicles mark battlefields where the Tamil insurgents cut their teeth with a string of improbable victories. They transformed themselves from a band of a few dozen gunmen into a conventional force of 20,000 troops boasting army, navy and even limited airforce capabilities.TO OUTSIDERS, the ferocity of the Tigers' resistance is unsettling, a product of fanaticism rather than valour. Its roots lie in Tamil reaction to a political system dominated by Sinhalese Buddhists since Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948. Outnumbered in the new democracy, they were marginalised as successive governments made Sinhala the national language and raised Buddhism above other religions. There were periodic outbreaks of mob violence, in some cases abetted by the authorities, against the 20 per cent Tamil minority. Sinhalese police turned a blind eye as Tamils were butchered and their businesses looted in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1974, 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1983. Tamils of Indian origin were stripped of their citizenship.

In the early '70s a small group of dissidents began to form around a Jaffna Tamil, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who believed violent resistance was the only path to equality and security for Tamils. Calling themselves Tamil Tigers, Prabhakaran's group would move on to bigger things, receiving training in Palestinian militant camps and being patronised by India.

According to official estimates, the LTTE has been responsible for 54 suicide attacks since 1987, including the January 1996 "Black Tigers" attack in Colombo, when a truck crammed with explosives was rammed into the Central Bank headquarters, housed, somewhat prophetically, in twin skyscrapers called the World Trade Centre. Sixty people died and 1500 were injured.

Since September 11, 2001, the world has been told it must fight terrorists, not talk to them. But the complexities of an ethnically divided, economically fragile, and psychologically damaged nation like Sri Lanka mock the simplistic rhetoric of the war on terrorism. Western governments even the Bush Administration have supported the country's peace process despite the fact the US, Britain, Australia and India have all outlawed the Tigers, and tried to disrupt their funding.

The country most affected by the group's activities Sri Lanka lifted its ban in order to negotiate with them. "Yesterday's terrorist is today's freedom fighter," the Foreign Minister, Tyronne Fernando, says. "History is replete with examples of leaders who made war before they made peace . . . If there is peace in Sri Lanka, then I see no reason why Prabhakaran should not walk the streets of Colombo a free man."

In Kilinochchi, the Tigers' de facto capital, Prabhakaran is more than just free; he's in charge. Since the ceasefire, the LTTE's formidable organisational skills have been turned to reconstruction, and in the past year gleaming new buildings have arisen in the midst of others destroyed by war. Norwegian mediators and Western diplomats are frequent visitors.

After a long drive on a severely rutted road, it's nice to find a comfortable hotel even if it's run by one of the world's most feared terrorist groups. At the 1-9 Lodge, owned and operated by the Tigers, the fish curry is hot and the beer is cold. In the reception area a framed portrait of the LTTE leader holds pride of place. A stocky man, 48, and married with three children, his eyes transfix, angry and haunted. FOR years, Colombo tried to strangle the Tigers, imposing a strict embargo on the import of such basic items as fertilisers, fuel and pen-light batteries into the Wanni. Now, reluctant to abandon all claims to the area, the Government continues to provide postal, banking and other services, parallel to the LTTE administration.

Foreign aid organisations are pitching in. New police headquarters, courts and the offices of various LTTE front organisations for women and students have sprung up in the past year, forming the core of the Tigers' civil administration. The Tigers levy duties on goods passing through their territories, and the system is free of the corruption afflicting most South Asian countries.

While facilities in Kilinochchi are rudimentary, the population is well dressed. A dirt lane leads to the Tigers' Peace Secretariat and former Prabhakaran body guard and Jaffna commander, and now chief peace negotiator, S. P. Thamilselvan. Thamilselvan's faultless grooming and soft-spoken manner belie his rugged past. "We are now in this position with international recognition and negotiating as an equal partner with the Government because of our strength," he says through an interpreter.

Many Sri Lankans apparently including Kumaratunga still fear that strength. They suspect the Tigers will soak up the peace dividend and then declare independence anyway. What the sceptics don't mention is the LTTE could have done so long ago. No matter what the Sri Lankan Army does, it is unlikely to destroy the rebels militarily.

Both sides have the capacity to continue the pointless conflict, but not to win it. Both have much to gain from a negotiated settlement. But the national interest has little chance in the opportunistic political climate in the south.

Before this week's crisis, the economy had pulled out of the downward spiral Kumaratunga's war precipitated. Economic growth last year was 3.5 per cent, and headed for 6 per cent this year. The Commerce Minister, Ravi Karunanayake, interviewed last week before the President suspended parliament, foresaw the crisis. He believes Kumaratunga is sabotaging the peace for her own ends: "She's just jealous of the success of the Government one person's madness can bring an entire country to a standstill."

Kumaratunga's actions may have unwittingly put the spotlight on the real problem: a constitution that allows one party to hold the presidency while another controls the parliament. If the peace process collapses as a result of this week's events, the blame will fall on the political establishment, not the LTTE. Most Sri Lankans support the peace process. An election may be the best way to resolve the stand-off.

The crisis will sorely test the Tigers' patience. But the ethnic arithmetic of the island means they will never achieve a secure future by force. That's reflected in their decision to consider a federal solution of Tamil autonomy without secession, and to return to the negotiating table after suspending talks in April

The road to peace is as long and cratered as the A9. Credible reports suggest the LTTE is continuing to target moderate rivals within the Tamil community. It's also still recruiting children living in the areas it controls, brainwashing some of them to enter the hallowed ranks of the suicide bombers. Government forces, too, are using the respite to train and re-equip in the event the peace talks fail.

Before this week, cool heads like Fernando were still in the ascendant: "I think we have to look at the root causes of terrorism. If we go back to war, both sides will lose."

Suddenly, failure seems dangerously possible. Unless Sri Lankans and the politicians they elect can summon the courage to invest in peace, their future is likely to be one of endless war.

-- The Sydney Morning Herald


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