Ancient Tamil script. Photo by Ravages
The LTTE’s claim to be ‘sole representatives’ of the Tamil People has always confused me. I’ve known quite a few Tamils who have no connection to the LTTE or Sri Lanka at all. I also know a lot of Tamils who live in Colombo and vote and pay taxes here. However, those people are as diverse and divided as anybody else I know, and I’m curious as to how they came to have a sole representative. So, I checked the numbers, and there’s no possible way the LTTE can be the sole rep of any demographic slice. The LTTE has direct control of about 200,000 out of the 3.6 million Tamils in Sri Lanka. They have indirect control of 1.36 million. That is at best half, and a fraction of the 74 million Tamils in the world.
They are also fractured in the East and don’t allow a free vote in the North, so I don’t see how they’re really representative. They may wave the bloody flag of Tamil suffering and be the only ones live enough to sit at a negotiation table, but that doesn’t make them a sole representative. It doesn’t make Tamil suffering any less real, it just means that the LTTE doesn’t really represent them in any real way. And I’m not even talking ideology, I’m talking numbers. Their violence exaggerates their moral strength.
The first claim, that the LTTE represents the Tamil people, is obviously false. There are over 74 million Tamil people worthwhile in various nations. “The oldest Tamil communities are those of southern India and northeastern Sri Lanka. There are also a number of Tamil emigrant communities scattered around the world, especially in central Sri Lanka, Malaysia, South Africa and Singapore, with more recent emigrants found in Australia, Canada, the United States, and Europe (Wikipedia).”
The highest concentration of Tamils is in India (Tamil Nadu) and I know Tamils from Singapore, Malaysia etc who don’t identify with Sri Lanka or the Wanni at all. They’re definitely Tamil, but the “Tamil people” are united more by language and culture than any particular land. If they do have a land it’s probably India. That is why I don’t think it’s accurate to say the LTTE represents the ‘Tamil People’. Most Tamils have nothing to do with this island, and they vote for their own leadership in their respective countries.
To repeat myself, the LTTE is not the sole representative of the 74 million Tamil people by an stretch of the imagination.
Sri Lankan Tamils
So, let’s refine the term ‘Tamil People’ to mean ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’. In Sri Lanka as a whole there are an estimated 3.6 million Tamil people, loosely defined as Tamil speaking. According to the 2001 Census, there are about 750,000 Sri Lankan Tamils and 850,000 Indian Tamils in government controlled areas (Excluding Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullativu, Kilinochchi, and Batticaloa). So, let’s say 1.6 million total. Sri Lanka has grown about 22% since then. Of course, the Tamil population has grown at a lower rate. Let’s say there are 1.8 million Tamils in Sri Lanka proper, a growth of less than 20% from the last census. I don’t know where they got the 3.6 million figure, but it is for 2005.
Anyways, the point is that there are at most 1.8 million Tamils in the North and East. There are 1.8 million Tamils in the rest of the country, like Colombo and Nuwara Eliya. So it’s pretty much half and half. The Tamils in Sri Lanka pay taxes and vote and hold office in Sri Lanka. I don’t know if they sympathize with the LTTE, but they certainly have more interactions with GoSL and the LTTE is by no means their ‘sole representative’. That means that the LTTE represents – at the most – half of the Sri Lankan Tamils. I mean, Nuwara Eliya isn’t trying to secede.
Which is to say, the LTTE is certainly not the representative of all Sri Lankan Tamils, because half of them live in the democratic part of Sri Lanka, pay taxes, vote here, etc. Note that I’m not saying that there aren’t LTTE sympathizers, I’m just saying that the LTTE is not the sole representative. In fact, those people could’ve voted with their feet and gone abroad or to the NorthEast, and they haven’t. Whatever their freedom fighter merits, the LTTE can’t really claim to represent Sri Lankan Tamils.
North East Tamils
This is the land the LTTE claims as Tamil Eelam. Unfortunately, since the NorthEast is so unstable, the government hasn’t been able to conduct a proper census there since 1981. All this data is therefore patchy, but I’ve tried to err in the oppositions favor. According to the 2001 Census data, they estimated that the total SL population is 18.7 million. There were about 17 million people outside the NorthEast. Therefore we can guess that there are 1.7 million people in the NorthEast.
However, these people are not all Tamil. Tamils accounted for 73% of the NorthEast in 1981. Let’s say due to war and whatnot that number is now 80%. That means about 1.36 million Tamils in the NorthEast. However, that’s not the end of the story. According to Sarvi at Point Pedro,
Though LTTE controls about 50% of the total land area of the N&E Province only about 15% of the total population of the N&E Province actually lives in LTTE controlled areas (Point Pedro Working Paper)
So, let’s be generous and say that the all people in those areas are Tamil. That’s still only 200,000 people. Let me repeat that. The LTTE is controls the lives of about 200,000 people. They have an indirect influence on another 1.16 million. Still, that is very very far from being the sole representative of even NorthEast Tamils.
This is not to say that people in Government controlled areas don’t support the LTTE. Again, my only point is that the LTTE can’t claim to be the sole representative of even the NorthEast Tamils.
I won’t go much into this, but the North and the East are very different places. This article on Native Sri Lankan Tamils is a good place to start. Note that this doesn’t include ‘Indian’ Tamils who live primarily in the GOSL hilly country. Anyways, the North and East have different cultures, caste practices, and levels of development. Now they also have competing ‘sole representives’ since the LTTE’s Eastern Commander Karuna broke away from the group.
This was actually not the first sign of tension between North and East. In 2002, Prabhakaran sacked Karikalan as Special Political Commissar for Batticaloa-Amparai (East). The sacking was partly because Norway didn’t meet with the East separately, and Karikalan responded saying,
“[A]ny decisions that are arrived at with the top hierarchy could not be implemented without cooperation from regional leaders. “Solutions to real problems can be achieved by holding discussions with the regional commanders in areas where such problems really exist. Instead of doing so, making attempts to resolve problems by talking to our hierarchy will not help because solutions about the exact field situation, the ongoing problems and how to resolve it won’t be available there. Matters should be resolved through discussing issues in places where they exist. Unity cannot be reached through commandments or insistence,” Karikalan told the newspaper [Virakesari] (Jeyaraj in The Hindu’s Frontline).”
The guy sacking Karikalan was Karuna, and in 2004 he completely broke off from the LTTE. He claimed it was because the LTTE wasn’t paying due attention to Eastern Tamils and the LTTE claimed that Karuna was corrupt. There’s an interesting report from Hindu Frontline and Wikipedia says
In March 2004, Karuna broke away from the mainstream LTTE after he alleged they were ignoring the interests of the eastern Tamil people. The LTTE alleges that the real reason he broke way because the LTTE’s intelligence wing was closing in on him for corruption and violating the LTTE code of conducts. The Tigers reacted by launching attacks against Karuna’s forces, and heavy clashes ensued. The LTTE claimed they fully evicted his fources from the district he controlled.
However, the Karuna Faction, as it has now been dubbed, continues to maintain a stronghold in the southeast of Sri Lanka with a force estimated to number a few hundred. They continue to regularly attack the LTTE, causing heavy casualties.
Regardless, this also calls into doubt the claims to represent the NorthEast in any fashion.
I’d like to reiterate that Tamils in Sri Lanka have valid concerns and a separate state may be an option, I don’t know. All I am saying is that, aside from the moral repugnance of a sole representative, the numbers simply don’t hold up. There are 74 million ‘Tamil People’ who the LTTE definitely doesn’t represent. Of the 3.6 million million Tamils in Sri Lanka, only about 200,000 are in LTTE controlled areas. Even if you give them every Tamil in the NorthEast then that’s still only 1.36 million, and that is assuming that all Tamils think the same which, being people, I doubt. Even make huge assumptions in their favor, there’s still no way to look at the numbers that makes the LTTE sole representatives of any slice of the Tamil people, besides the hefty sliver that is Prabhakaran. Again again, this does not mean that the Tamil people don’t have serious concerns about life, limb, property and dignity. They do. I believe that my nation is slowly growing to be less of a collective ass, though it may be too little too late. All I am arguing here is that the LTTE is not the sole representative of anybody. Like Al Qaeda, they claim a broad and vague suffering as their property. However, like Al Qaeda, they are not a representative body by any stretch.