When will it be enough? Photo by Ananthan
After 25 years of peaceful negotiations, many Tamil people were frustrated with the lack of results. Today, after more than 25 years of terrorism and violence, you have to wonder if they’re frustrated. With non-violence the Tamil people didn’t move forward, but the violence has proved much worse. 25 years of terrorism and war has actually taken life backwards. The North and East have higher infant/maternal morality, poverty rates, malaria rates, etc than the rest of the country, and worse than before. The NE is descending to Sub-Saharan levels while Sri Lanka proper is plodding ahead. Of course, to take medicine as an example, sometimes you have to cut to save. A skilled surgeon can hurt you so that you can heal better. However, a physicians first oath is to do no harm, to choose the best treatment, even if that’s no treatment. Anyone hacking away for 25 years is simply a butcher.
Sri Lankan Tamils consistently tried political solutions to the ethnic conflict, and consistently got kicked in the balls. They were, in fact, active and valuable participants in the civil service since colonial days. However, the denial of citizenship to Estate Tamils dropped their Parliamentary representation to 20% from 33%. This meant the Sinhalese could effectively get a 2/3 majority and pass legislation like the Sinhala-Only policy. This, in turn, resulted in many Tamil civil servants losing their jobs, further disenfranchising them. In response the Federal Party staged a peaceful satyagraha sit-down. In one of the most personally saddening turns for me, this non-violent protest was broken up by nationalist thugs. That was a point, a break point. One of many.
At first, Tamil politicians pushed for a federal system through the Federal Party. This met with suspicion and resistance from many Sinhalese. In the 1960s, the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike proceeded to nationalize most missionary schools in the country, secularizing them and changing the language of instruction from English to Sinhala and Tamil. After this, it became rare for Sinhalese and Tamil children to attend school together. Without the advantage of English education, it became increasingly difficult for Tamil youth to gain access to coveted civil service jobs, and unemployment rose.
The name of the country was changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka in 1970, a name of Sinhalese origin that angered and alienated many Tamils.
The concept of a separate nation, Tamil Eelam, was proposed by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976. TULF was a coalition of parties who went on to campaign in the 1977 elections for an independent state for Tamils in Sri Lanka. They won most of the Tamil seats, but the government later banned them from Parliament for advocating an independent state (Wikipedia)
So, there was systematic discrimination against Tamils in issues of language, voting rights, civil service, and education. Not to mention riots in 58, 77, and 83, and more. There was a serious ethnic problem. There is an ethnic problem. Obviously.
In the age of the AK, there was of course a militant response to this frustration. The LTTE began as common assassins, bank robbers and thugs and, um, well they haven’t come far. There were also myriad other militant groups who, in turn, had their leaders killed and dragged through the streets by the LTTE. So, what you got was the most virulent strain of insurgent, practicing suicide bombing, assassination, extortion, child recruitment, etc. Basically, it was survival of the shittiest.
However, to take the medical metaphor, sometimes a cancer requires drastic surgery. In fact, modern cancer treatments are almost totally destructive, colloquially called slash, burn and poison (surgery, radiation and chemo). Perhaps what the LTTE did was violent but necessary. Perhaps they achieved results that 25+ years of peaceful political negotiation did not. Generally, a better life for the Tamil people.
Under the LTTE, the Tamil people have seen endless war, hunger, privation, restricted travel, taxation without representation, extortion, the death of thousands of fighters and the conscription of generations of children. Basically, life in the North and East sucks. Most everybody who can has got out, and there are so few working age men left that the LTTE pretty much has to recruit women and children. The LTTE is a purely military/terrorist organization and GoSL still provides most civil services in the area. Their ability to provide health care and education, however, is curtailed by the LTTE as the government agents understandably find it difficult to work.
What this means is that the North and East lag far behind the rest of the country on most Millennium Development Goal indicators. Notably, the NE accounts for 70% of malaria cases, while only 69% of kids receive proper immunizations, mother die in childbirth due to a lack of midwives, and around 90% of students dropped out of Killinochi schools in 2001.
In pure number terms, the economy of the North and East grew by an average of 12.4% during the cease-fire, compared to 3.4% before (Jansz, Consequences of Another War). All in all, this means that the people of the North and East are undergoing huge sacrifices for the war. The only question is whether the sacrifices are worth it.
Role of GoSL
It is unfair to blame the LTTE entirely for these hardships. It is the government that shut off the road and cellular towers and is effectively starving the North and East now. Their bombings and occupation directly impact peoples lives. However, the assassination of our Foreign Minister, attempts on Army Commander and Defense Minister, and terrorist attacks on civilian buses in the South are obvious triggers. Worse, the LTTE knows that they are triggers, and they are willfully provoking war. It’s one thing to be attacked, but to bait your opponent and hope for a violent reprisal is deeply cynical.
Regardless, if the LTTE wasn’t the default representative and if violence and terrorism was their modus operandi, the people of the North and East would be in much better shape. Again, however, the question is whether it’s worth it.
After 25 years of non-violent struggle, Tamil people were frustrated. After 25 years of violent struggle, one supposes they’d be frustrated as well. Raw time has seen the repeal of Sinhala Only policy, an end to widespread racial rioting, and the broad acceptance of a Federal Solution. The violence and terrorism, however, has won only hardship. Worse, there seems to be no end in sight. Sri Lanka can lose this war, but the LTTE cannot win. The stalemate can go on forever.
For 25 years of assassination, extortion, terrorism and violence, the LTTE has not won anything worth having. They have destroyed generations of Tamil youth and children, become international pariahs and brought misery to the North and East. In hindsight, a political situation was a better idea.
In medicine there is a time for drastic surgery, and there is a time to sit back and let the body heal. You don’t do surgery if it’s going to go on forever and if it destroys the body. You don’t cut for pride. At this point, however, the LTTEs butchery has gone on for years and it shows no sign of ending. At some point you have to wonder whether you sacrificed more than you had in the first place. The LTTE has had time to try terrorism and they have failed. They have made their land worse than when they started, and the temporary sacrifices they asked for have become a permanent police state. They have failed where a political situation could have succeeded.