Tamils: Former LTTE de facto state -- a resident’s view
For more on the Tamil struggle, click HERE.
By Chris Slee, Melbourne
October 16, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Ragu, a Tamil man now living in Australia, spent 16 years living in areas under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The LTTE was formed in 1972 by young people angry at decades of discrimination and repression against the Tamil people by successive racist Sri Lankan governments. It fought for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. After small-scale armed clashes in the late 1970s, full-scale war began in 1983. The LTTE was defeated in 2009.
Ragu spoke to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal about his experiences living in LTTE-controlled areas.
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Ragu was born on the Jaffna peninsula, the northernmost part of Sri Lanka. When he was young, his parents left for India to escape the repression. The family returned in 1988.
Meanwhile an “Indian peacekeeping force” (IKPF) had been sent to Sri Lanka in 1987. However, the Indian army did not bring peace. Instead war broke out between the IPKF and the LTTE.
The Indian army carried out massacres. A friend of Ragu’s father was killed in the well-known Jaffna hospital massacre. Women and girls were raped.
Some Tamil groups collaborated with the IPKF. According to Ragu, “these groups were responsible for many rapes, murders and disappearances of Tamils”. One such group was the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF).
Ragu’s family lived in a village on the Jaffna peninsula. The village was under the control of the Indian army by day, but LTTE members came into the village by night. The EPRLF had a camp in the village, which was guarded by the IPKF. Ragu describes a massacre carried out by this group: “On that day we were in church for mass. The church was surrounded by EPRLF members and they searched everyone. They wanted revenge because they lost some of their members in a fight which occurred the previous night. They chose a young man and dragged him out of the church and killed him immediately. Hundreds of people were in the church at the time. In total more than 10 people were killed by the EPRLF that morning; one of them was my uncle.”
The Indian army left Ragu’s village in 1989, and left the Jaffna peninsula altogether in 1990. When the Indian troops left, the LTTE was soon in full control. (In some areas there was fighting between the LTTE and the EPRLF, but not in Ragu’s village, because the EPRLF had already left.)
The people celebrated the departure of the Indian troops with a flag-raising ceremony and fireworks. According to Ragu, “That was the first time we saw our national flag. Everyone was very thrilled and proud to have a national flag.”
When the Indian troops left there was a brief period of peace. The LTTE began to perform some of the functions of government in Tamil areas.
In 1989 the LTTE formed a political party called the “People’s Front of Liberation Tigers” PFLT. It was registered as a political party by the Sri Lankan election commissioner, with the tiger as its symbol.
According to Ragu, “the LTTE managed all administration processes through this political wing in the early 1990s. Village level functional groups were formed. This group would include respected individuals from the same village. All of them would be appointed by the PFLT committee. Around five to 10 people could be in the village functional board. This board handled all small problems and normal activities in the village”.
Later the system was changed. “After the LTTE started its own police and juridical system, this village-level board system was abandoned. The LTTE had its own police and courts, as well as an agriculture ministry. Local courts dealt with local disputes. An education committee included teachers and other people.”
According to Ragu, the people of the village continued to support the LTTE.
Soon after the Indian army left, a new war soon broke out between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army. The army imposed restrictions on the supply of food to LTTE-controlled areas, and banned the supply of many goods including batteries, petrol and kerosene. Electricity was cut off.
The LTTE responded by bringing goods by boat from India. They set up generators so that school students could study at night.
In 1992 the army captured Ragu’s village. He moved to another village, the first of many displacements.
In 1996, with Jaffna peninsula under heavy attack from the army, Ragu joined 200,000 other people in a mass evacuation from the peninsula to the nearby Vanni region. He was transported across the Jaffna lagoon by boat.
He and many others went to the town of Kilinochchi, which became the LTTE’s capital. After the last remaining army base in the Vanni region was captured by the LTTE in July 1996, “the whole of Vanni was free”.
However, this did not last long. The Sri Lankan government carried out several offensives against the Vanni area. Kilinochchi was captured by the government in late 1996, but recaptured by the LTTE in 1998. Ragu had to move frequently to avoid the fighting. From 1999 onwards the LTTE expanded the area under its control.
The LTTE became the de facto government of the Vanni region. But while the LTTE remained in ultimate control, it allowed civilians to take charge of certain departments and run them fairly independently.
Education, for example, was run by a committee headed by a Catholic priest. The education committee largely kept the same curriculum as the Sri Lankan education system, but made changes in some areas, for example history. Because the official version of Sri Lankan history taught in schools was distorted, the LTTE created its own history book.
The LTTE built hospitals in the Vanni region, and brought in equipment and medicine by sea. The LTTE had its own courts and police. It established its own law college. The teachers in this college had previously worked as lawyers or judges in the Sri Lankan legal system. The laws in the LTTE zone were largely based on Sri Lankan laws, which were in turn inherited from British rule, but with some changes (such as increased penalties for rape).
Nadesan, who became head of the LTTE’s police, had once been in the Sri Lankan police before joining the LTTE. Para, the head of the LTTE’s judicial department, had been a lawyer in the Sri Lankan judicial system.
There were no local government elections in LTTE controlled areas. However there were elections for representatives of certain occupational groups. Fisher people elected representatives to the LTTE’s fishing department, and farmers elected representatives to the agriculture department.
The LTTE had its own taxation system, including taxes imposed at entry and exit points to the LTTE zone. This caused some resentment, but in Ragu’s opinion it was “necessary and fair”.
The LTTE improved the pay and conditions of some particularly disadvantaged workers. Toddy tappers were workers who climbed Palmyra trees to extract a fluid used in making toddy, an alcoholic drink. This was a very dangerous job. The LTTE introduced a minimum wage and a pension scheme for toddy tappers.
Toddy tapping had traditionally been done by members of a low-status caste in Tamil society. The LTTE, as part of its campaign to break down caste prejudice, hoped to raise the status of toddy tapping and open it up to people from all castes. However, Ragu says, they were unsuccessful in this, due to “the mentality of Tamil society”.
Similarly the LTTE tried to raise the status of hairdressing workers (also traditionally of a low caste) by introducing salons where workers were paid wages, rather than the previous system of personal service where hairdressing workers went to their employer’s home to cut their hair.
In Ragu’s view, “the LTTE tried hard to break down caste prejudice and succeeded to some extent. Caste-based violence or discrimination did not occur in the LTTE-controlled area. The LTTE eliminated caste discrimination by tough laws and actions, but not all people mentally changed. Some did not abandon their caste-oriented mentality, but hid it.”
The LTTE began recruiting women as fighters in 1984, establishing separate women’s units. In the 2001 battle for Elephant Pass, which was decisive in forcing the government to negotiate, 70 per cent of the LTTE fighters were women.
Ragu says that women were treated equally within the LTTE, but the position of women in the broader society did not change to the same extent. The LTTE was not completely successful in changing social norms and customs. According to Ragu, “They tried hard and succeeded to some extent. The LTTE tried to eliminate the dowry system, which is still a compulsory donation to the groom’s family. They introduced a tough law, but they were unsuccessful. However, in my opinion the LTTE greatly reduced the inequality of women and men in the society.”
Following the election of a new Sri Lankan government in December 2001, the LTTE declared a ceasefire and the government responded in kind. A ceasefire agreement was signed in February 2002. The LTTE’s position as the de facto government of a substantial area of land was recognised under the agreement.
Ragu left for Australia to study in 2004. At that time the ceasefire agreement was still in place. But renewed war prevented him from returning. His family remained in Tamil Eelam.
In December 2004 the coastal areas of Sri Lanka were devastated by a tsunami. Tamil areas were among those hardest hit. According to Ragu, “The LTTE’s response was impressive. They deployed all their members in rescuing people and recovering bodies. Despite limited resources they rescued many people.”
However the Sri Lankan government blocked necessary supplies, such as diesel fuel, from going to the LTTE zone. At that time the president and the prime minister of Sri Lanka belonged to opposing parties. President Chandrika Kumaratunga vetoed a tsunami recovery plan agreed to between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and the LTTE.
Another problem was the high level of corruption in the Sri Lankan government. According to Ragu, the LTTE administration was not corrupt.
Soon afterwards war broke out again. The Sri Lankan government, with military aid from the United States, Israel, India, China and other countries, succeeded in capturing the Tamil areas previously under LTTE rule. During the final few weeks, tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the bombardment of the diminishing LTTE-controlled area. The war ended in May 2009, but Tamil areas remain under military occupation.
The LTTE’s de facto state no longer exists. But it is important to be aware that the LTTE was more than just an armed group. It was a de facto government with the support of many Tamils.
In Australia, the portrayal of the LTTE as a terrorist organisation has dire consequences for Tamils accused of having been members or supporters. In 2007, three Australian citizens of Tamil origin who had been involved in sending aid to people in LTTE-controlled areas were arrested on charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation. While this charge was dropped, they were convicted of “making assets available to a proscribed entity”.
Forty Tamils who have been officially recognised as refugees by the Australian government are nevertheless detained indefinitely because of alleged links to the LTTE. They should be freed immediately.