The snared tiger


The defeat of the LTTE and the shift in the political life of Sri Lanka

The center-left government led by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, perked up by the recent military victories against the Tamil guerrilla, is flooding the country with an unprecedented offensive of propaganda and nationalism. The media unanimously rejoice over the conquest of strategic positions and hail the upcoming final victory against the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) "terrorists". The Sinhala right-wing party UNP (United National Party) joins the chorus, while the country's third party, JVP (People's Liberation Front), has fallen victim to an unprecedented crisis.

But let us go on in an orderly way.

After almost thirty years of civil war, it seems that the conflict opposing the Tigers to the Sri Lankan regime has come to a decisive shift. On November 15th the Tigers had to give up Pooneryn, a small town on the North-Eastern coast, which had been under their control for fifteen years. On January 2nd the Sinhala army, after a siege that lasted weeks, seized Kilinochchi, the Tigers' military stronghold, a real nerve centre among the liberated LTTE-controlled zones. A few days after this, the army won the Elephant Pass as well, which is the entry to the Jaffna peninsula. One week ago, confirming its overwhelming advance, the army finally seized Mullaitivu. This meant a series of scalding defeats for the Tigers, who are considered one of the fiercest guerrilla movements in the world -- even the most effective and redoubtable one, according to US counter-terrorism analysts.

The Sri Lankan regime is rejoicing and trumpeting everywhere that the annihilation of LTTE is at hand and will only be a matter of days. If this is true, and the Tigers have to exit the stage because of these defeats, it would indeed be a historical event destined to have crucial consequences on the political life of Sri Lanka. Indeed, apart from the period from 1987 to 1989, characterized by the JVP's attempted uprising (which also ended in a bloodshed), the conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the army has been the central issue in the country since the end of the Seventies.

The armed struggle of the Tamil people was not an invention of Velupillai Pirapaharan (the legendary leader of the Tigers). Anyone who is at all familiar with the history of the island knows that the Tamil minority suffers from avery real oppression. Sri Lanka claims to be a democratic state, but in fact, the Sinhala exclusivity of the state is even more blatant than its being capitalist. The Tigers, at the end of the Seventies, were only one among many guerrilla movements which raised the question of self-determination and therefore came to the strategy of armed struggle for national liberation. Those movements, nearly everyone of which was founded by far left intellectuals, only came to the decision to take up arms when all other attempts to guarantee full rights to the Tamil minority had failed.

Pirapaharan's Tigers only became the main guerrilla force through years of struggle. This was in part thanks to their determination in fighting the army, which guarantees the supremacy of the Sinhala majority. But ultimately, they only gained hegemony after having mercilessly wiped out the other guerrilla groups who were willing to accept some kind of self-determination without calling for secession. Once they had gained supremacy, the Tigers did not abandon either their militarist approach towards the enemy, nor their extreme sectarianism towards other Tamil political forces. Those two factors, which have made up the Tigers' strength for a long period, can help us understand the reasons for their present dà©bacle.

War is always the continuation of politics by other means. We must therefore understand firstly the political reasons of the defeats that the Tigers have been suffering in the last months. The first reason is that popular support is failing them precisely among the Tamil. A liberation war, rightful as it may be, cannot last forever, all the more so if the people live amidst hardships and lack everything, even food to feed their children. There were moments when the Tigers, being on the offensive, could have signed favourable agreements with the teetering Sri Lankan governments. Instead, Pirapaharan always bet everything on the complete victory, on secession as the only strategical option, on the use of terror to frighten the enemy. This line did not only alienate wide sectors of the Tamil population, already weary from the merciless way the Tigers imposed their absolute supremacy in the liberated areas. It also allowed the Sri Lankan governments to consolidate a wide social consensus among the Sinhala majority on the specular idea that no compromise was possible and the only possible solution was to annihilate the Tigers. Instead of seeking a connection with the non-Tamil population (Sinhala but also Muslim), instead of aiming at splitting the political block between the Sinhala right and left, Pirapaharan's hard line (which turned out to be an adventurist one) helped the most chauvinist wing of the Sinhala alliance to obtain and steady their supremacy, also among the Muslim minority (which in spite of being of Tamil language has never supported the Tigers). It is thanks to this wide consensus that the regular troops' morale is high again, after years of discouragement.

What is happening to the Sinhala left is a clear proof of what we are saying. On top of the weakness of established Tamil supporters in the Sri Lankan left, prospects for the emergence of leftist support of the Tamil struggle is also hindered by Pirapaharan's extreme sectarianism and nationalism. It is symptomatic that the main left-wing party of the country, the JVP, though it deems the unity of the country as inviolable and sacred (i.e. they consider themselves as the Tigers' sworn enemy), recently underwent an important rightist split. This split was led by the party's most popular leader, Wimal Weerawansa, who immediately after being expelled from the party, formed a block with the chauvinist right on the basis of an aggressive Sinhala nationalism. The old leader of the JVP, Amarasinghe, will have to reflect on this. Indeed he had decided, at the beginning of the year 2000, to position the JVP within the politics of Sinhala nationalism and populism. It is true that this positioning allowed the JVP to become the third party of the country, but now that chauvinism has been unleashed, it overwhelms and tears to pieces the JVP itself.

The jubilation of the Sri Lankan government is very well understandable: not only are they obtaining military victories in the North against the Tamil guerrilla, but they are also gaining cross-party consensus in the South, and they think they have opened a new phase in the political life of the country, with a brutal downsizing of the radical left and a symmetric strengthening of the chauvinist and fascistoid right.

There are of course other reasons explaining the present defeats of the Tigers. Some are more closely related to the field of military strategy. The first was the decision to keep the liberated areas at all costs, refusing to think in time of a quick precautionary withdrawal, in order to save most of their forces to allow a counter-offensive in better conditions. But the reason of this mistake is political as well. The leading group around Pirapaharan did not only underestimate the enemy's strength, but they also overestimated their own, and, more importantly, remained prisoners of their own symbolism, of the image of their own legendary invincibility. Pirapaharan used this myth not only in order to keep his troops disciplined and fierce, nor only to terrify enemy soldiers, but also as a means to gain consensus among the Tamil and strengthen his hegemony.

The collapse of this myth among the masses could be more important than the loss of some strategical zones in marking the beginning of the end for the LTTE.

Moreno Pasquinelli