Who are the Tamil Tigers?

By Chris Slee

April 25, 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 arms. 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.

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The Tamil people need support; Sign the statement against the war on the Tamil people of Sri Lanka

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

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.”

National self-determination struggle

This repression 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 Sri Lankan Army 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 Sri Lankan Army 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 Sri Lankan Army 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 Sri Lankan Army, continued violent attacks against Tamils.

The UNP government, which claimed to want peace, was replaced in 2004 by a more openly Sinhala-chauvinist government — a coalition led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Violence escalated into full-scale war. LTTE-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 Sri Lankan Army, 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 Colombo.

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

On January 2, 2009, 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 Sri Lankan Army’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 Sri Lankan Army’s successes. It is necessary to also look at the strategy and tactics of the LTTE.

LTTE's 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 national 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 Tamil people 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 national 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 national 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 Sri Lankan Army 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 overcome.

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 national self-determination. In particular, there is the need for the removal of the occupying Sri Lankan Army from Tamil areas. 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 national self-determination remains the main obstacle to peace.

National 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 Sri Lankan Army 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 Sri Lankan Army cannot bring lasting peace. Occupation will always breed resistance.

[Chris Slee is member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist organisation affiliated to the Socialist Alliance of Australia. He a long-time activist in solidarity with the Tamil people’s struggle. This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #792, April 29, 2009.]