Life under the Tamil Tigers
Review by Chris Slee
A fleeting moment in my country: the last years of the LTTE de-facto state
by N. Malathy; foreword by Radha d’Souza
Clarity Press, Atlanta 2012
May 30, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- “Can the readers who did not experience this imagine what it is like to watch the complete destruction of one’s country: the physical destruction, the destruction of the governance structures, the complete dispersal of its people, and massacres on a massive scale? Has there ever been such complete destruction of a country in history? The only reason why it is not seen as such is because my country was only in the minds of its people, but was not recognized by the global system of states.”
This book tells us about N. Malathy’s country -- the Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. It tells of a period when a substantial part of the Tamil homeland was governed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It tells us a lot about how they governed, and what sort of society existed under their rule. And it tells us how this society was destroyed as the Sri Lankan army invaded the LTTE-ruled area, culminating in the final defeat of the LTTE in May 2009.
Malathy is a member of the Tamil diaspora who lives in New Zealand. In February 2002 a ceasefire was signed between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. Later that year Malathy, like many overseas Tamils, took the opportunity to visit the LTTE-controlled area, staying for six weeks. She returned, staying for three months in 2004, then returned again in 2005, intending to stay permanently. She lived in Kilinochchi, a town in the Vanni region of northern Sri Lanka, which was the capital of the LTTE’s de facto state.
She worked for various organisations including the North East Secretariat on Human Rights (NESOHR), the LTTE Peace Secretariat, a women’s organisation and an orphanage.
Following the renewed outbreak of war Malathy accompanied the people of Kilinochchi who were evacuated by the retreating LTTE in 2008. She left the diminishing LTTE-controlled area in March 2009 and was interned for several months in a detention camp run by the Sri Lankan government.
To me, the most interesting part of the book is her description of life under the LTTE during the ceasefire period.
The LTTE performed many of the functions of government. The LTTE, or organisations under its leadership, played a major role in health, child care for children of working parents, care of orphans, and social welfare generally. It had its own courts and police force.
During the war the LTTE ran a primary health-care system in remote areas. After the signing of the ceasefire, this was supplemented by other health-care institutions. Several destroyed hospitals were rebuilt. Medical experts from the Tamil diaspora visited and provided free specialist treatment, including plastic surgery, for those injured in the war.
Some Sri Lankan government civilian institutions continued to operate in LTTE-controlled areas during the ceasefire. At the local level, there was a great deal of cooperation between the personnel of LTTE-led institutions and Sri Lankan government institutions, particularly in the health sector.
In the case of education, the LTTE did not try to set up an alternative school system, but tried to influence the curriculum of the government system. During the ceasefire there was a drive to ensure that every child attended school.
Several educational institutions for school leavers were set up with the assistance of the Tamil diaspora, including information technology education services. Plans for further expansion of post-secondary education were cut short by the renewed outbreak of war.
The LTTE established homes for destitute children whose parents had been killed in the war, had disappeared or were unable to care for them. Malathy visited many such homes and worked in one. She also visited the child-care centres provided for children of poor working parents, where children were given food and medical care. She says that the child care provided in these institutions was “very impressive”, despite scarce resources.
During the ceasefire the LTTE provided public transport, banking and other services in the areas it controlled.
Malathy argues that women made gains under LTTE rule.
The LTTE had some all-female military units whose members were highly respected and very self-confident. “The training improved their demeanour that was otherwise conditioned by a culture that demanded a strictly subordinate role. Participation in battles raised their status to that of the LTTE men in the eyes of the general population”.
According to Malathy, women in LTTE-controlled Vanni had a greater participation in work outside the home and were more visible in public space than elsewhere on the island.
Women played a major role in the LTTE legal system: “The police force, as well as the lawyers and the judges, had nearly 50 percent female members.”
According to Malathy, a “unique kind of feminism” existed in the LTTE area: “LTTE women, women employed by the LTTE institutions, and self employed women were all interconnected through the many LTTE institutions, resulting in a unique female culture. These women openly and routinely discussed domestic violence and other problems faced by women. They were all on the lookout for women who needed a helping hand”.
Malathy spoke to many female LTTE members about their reasons for joining. The most common reason was a desire to punish the Sri Lankan military for killing members of their families. Another reason was a desire to avoid rape and sexual harassment by the armed forces. Joining the LTTE made them feel empowered rather than potential victims. Other reasons included rebellion against traditional culture, and escape from a poverty-stricken or abusive family environment.
Malathy observed that caste-consciousness was much less evident in LTTE-controlled Vanni than elsewhere on the island.
During the ceasefire period various United Nations agencies and international NGOs operated in Vanni. Malathy, in her work for the NESOHR and the LTTE Peace Secretariat, had a lot of dealings with them. While they did some useful work, Malathy argues that they also displayed political bias against the LTTE.
Several international bodies waged a high-profile public campaign against the LTTE around the issue of child soldiers (defined as those under 18 years of age). Many LTTE leaders had themselves joined the armed struggle when younger than 18, due to their experience of oppression at the hands of the Sri Lankan state. Nevertheless, the LTTE did eventually agree to cease recruiting people under 18 years (though once full-scale war broke out again this policy began to be disregarded).
Malathy criticises international agencies and NGOs for their disproportionate focus on child soldiers while neglecting other more important human-rights issues. This reflected both the political bias of these bodies and their desire to use the child soldier issue for fundraising. Malathy quotes a UN official as saying privately that this was “a sexy issue for the media”.
While working for the NESOHR, Malathy helped in documenting human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan armed forces and pro-government paramilitary groups. She spoke to people whose relatives had been murdered, or had disappeared after being taken away by the army or paramilitaries.
While abuses had declined after the signing of the ceasefire agreement in February 2002, they began to rise again. There was a steady increase in murders by government death squads. One example was the murder of Tamil National Alliance member of parliament Joseph Pararajasingham as he attended Christmas mass in a church in Batticaloa in December 2005.
There were also numerous massacres by aerial bombardment. Malathy helped produce a documentary entitled Kfir Fodder, on the bombardment of a fishing village in 2007 by Israeli-supplied Kfir jets of the Sri Lankan air force.
Malathy also wrote a report documenting the use of cluster bombs against civilian targets by the Sri Lankan air force. International news agencies ignored this report.
The Western media also ignored reports on the use of phosphorus bombs.
By 2006, the Sri Lankan Army had launched a full-scale war in the east of the island, though the government did not formally renounce the ceasefire agreement until January 2008. With military aid from many foreign powers, the army defeated the LTTE in the east and invaded the north.
As the Sri Lankan army advanced towards Kilinochchi, the LTTE evacuated the civilian population (including Malathy) to what was thought to be a safer area further from the front line. But as the army closed in, there were no safe areas. LTTE members and civilians alike faced continual bombardment.
After leaving the LTTE zone, Malathy was sent to the Manik Farm detention camp, along with 300,000 other people. Conditions were horrific: “The military, with batons or guns in hand, treated all of us like criminals. The military did not hesitate to use them to beat men and women and even the elderly. When the military were angered, they liberally used their boots too, to attack the people.” The camp was crowded and disease was rife.
By December 2009 most detainees had been released, but those who returned home faced harassment and even torture by pro-government paramilitaries.
The book is primarily based on Malathy’s personal experiences and observations, but she does make a few brief comments on the role of international powers in the defeat of the LTTE. All the major powers supported the Sri Lankan government: “The LTTE fought a ruthless state alone, with only the support of the Tamil diaspora and without the support of any other state. Despite this, it was the most successful armed group in moving towards its goal. It almost succeeded in taking on the world. This was the most unsettling feature of the LTTE – it was the sheep that learned to open the gate, and thus must be shot.”
Malathy looks at the specific motives of India and China. India was worried at the possible impact that an independent Tamil state on the island of Sri Lanka would have on its own oppressed minorities: “An incorruptible armed rebel movement in its backyard is a threat to any state oppressing its own minorities and its lower castes”. 
China wanted access to Hambantota harbour in southern Sri Lanka to help “protect its oil supply routes from the Middle East and prevent US/NATO dominance in the Indian Ocean”.
The Western powers led by the United States also supported the Sri Lankan government. This book does not deal with Western military aid to the government, except for a few passing references.
However Malathy does discuss the Western propaganda campaign against the LTTE: “The Western block has pursued an unbalanced policy of discrediting the LTTE, picking on every slippage in its conduct while ignoring the decades of Lankan government atrocities to which the LTTE was reacting. Furthermore, the Western block denies outright the right to secede, despite repeated demonstrations that no other just resolution is possible”.
In this book Malathy does not analyse the West’s motives for this “unbalanced policy”. Elsewhere she has been quoted as saying that the LTTE “created an alternative model and that’s why for the West it has to be destroyed”.
Malathy sees the international NGOs as part of the Western campaign. During the ceasefire period they focused on campaigning against the LTTE, particularly over the child soldier issue, while largely ignoring the crimes of the Sri Lankan army. After the LTTE was defeated, they increased their criticism of human rights violations and war crimes by the Sri Lankan government, but still remain hostile to the demand for an independent Tamil state.
Malathy acknowledges that the LTTE “erred many times and in many ways”. But she argues that during its period of rule over part of the Tamil homeland, the LTTE achieved a lot: “Impressive social changes occurred in the Vanni under LTTE... The pervasive caste-consciousness of South Asia was eliminated. Vanni held the promise of progressive ideals for women in the society and of a government oriented toward the well being of the people. Infusing people with the spirit of struggle, it united them as one people. Indeed, it held the promise for many more social changes that would have benefited Tamils and perhaps even the whole of South Asia. This powerful example has now been destroyed.”
It is important to understand why many Tamils (though by no means all) supported the LTTE. Governments and media portray the LTTE as terrorists, and support for the LTTE as support for terrorism.
The LTTE did carry out some terrorist acts, though not on the scale of the state terrorism practiced by the Sri Lankan government. However the majority of LTTE members played no role in any acts of terrorism. They fought for freedom against a racist and murderous regime.
The depiction of the LTTE as a terrorist organisation has an impact on Australian citizens of Tamil origin, and on Tamil refugees coming to Australia.
In 2007, three Australian Tamils who had raised money for aid projects in LTTE-controlled areas were arrested on terrorism charges. They were accused of belonging to, and assisting, the LTTE, which the prosecution claimed was a terrorist organisation. In 2010 the charges were dropped, and the three men received good behaviour bonds after pleading guilty to a lesser offence; but the charges had an intimidating effect on Australia’s Tamil community.
Today about 50 Tamils who have been recognised as refugees are nevertheless being detained indefinitely because ASIO considers them to be a security threat – presumably because of their alleged links to the LTTE.
Malathy’s book helps show why such links (if they exist) are not evidence of support for terrorism.
1. Malathy, p. 132
2. See pp. 126-7
3. p. 38
4. p. 105
5. p. 106
6. pp. 106-107
7. See p. 79-80
8. p. 91
9. p. 174
10. pp. 144, 174
11. p. 150
12. p. 161
13. p. 158
14. p. 159
15. See pp. 62-63 on Australian aid for “human rights training” of the Sri Lankan Army; and p. 70 on the use of Western pilots to fly Sri Lankan military helicopters and train Sri Lankan pilots.
17. Tamilnet, May 11, 2013.
18. See Malathy, pp. 159-161
20. p. 161