Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tamil Militancy - Bullets in the Heart

Tamil Militancy – Bullets in the Heart
The ICG's submission to the Sub Commitee  on Human Rights of the European Parliament, Meeting of 6 December 2010 ( is an excellent analysis of the post-conflict environment in Sri Lanka. Certainly worth a read.  It is perhaps the most accurate and balanced account of the current state of play I have seen.

The Sri Lankan military decimated the LTTE in May 2009, killing its top leaders, including its elusive leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, and ending one of the longest and bloodiest insurgencies in the world.

Despite the group’s decisive annihilation, its supporters in the West are keeping the dream of a Tamil homeland - Eelam - alive.

LTTE supporters number thousands in the West. But it has virtually no fighters. Those who survived the military onslaught of 2009 are mostly in Sri Lankan custody or living as displaced persons.  Of the estimated 12,000 people who surrendered or were detained at the end of the war on suspicion of involvement with the LTTE, many, perhaps most, have now been released. The latest numbers according to ICRC – despite the lack of public registers – suggest that some 5,400 remain in detention, with 600-700 of these identified for legal prosecution. Those who have been released to their home areas are subject to frequent and arbitrary questioning by the police and military. However, the absence of independent monitoring of either the detention or “reintegration” of suspected LTTE cadres remains very worrying.

During my recent visit to Sri Lanka, I spoke to many Sri Lankans and foreign aid workers about the future of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka.  While views differed about its future trajectories, all agreed that the silencing of guns did not mean the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka. The movement now relied on the activism of the international diaspora to raise money and to continue weaving dreams of a Tamil homeland. ( LTTE supporters in the Tamil diaspora are, however, a divided lot.)  Current conditions in Sri Lanka are still fanning the smoldering  flames of discontent. 

The Political Landscape in Sri LankaAssessments about the situation of Tamils are as diverse as the range of actors in the post-war environment.  Government and military officials paint a rosy picture of life in the North and East. The Sri Lankan Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, Brigadier Sudantha Ranasinghe, portrayed the official view most graphically, explaining that “killing and capturing LTTE cadres was a fact of life” when he was in the army.  “It was my duty.”  Now, however, he was putting his “heart and soul” into working with Tamil communities in the post-war phase of rehabilitation and reconciliation.  “We no longer have bullets in the heart,” he said.

For a Senior Analyst at a leading policy think tank, and one of the most respected analysts of Tamil militancy,  the political situation in Sri Lanka remains deeply worrying, despite official proclamations that the Truth and Reconciliation process is on track.

“The unique opportunity the Sri Lankan government has to build a lasting and a just peace after the defeat of the LTTE is rapidly being lost. Democratic governance more generally has deteriorated since the end of the war”.

This analyst was not alone in his view that the Government was feeding Tamil grievances and sowing the seeds of future conflict. Tamil politicians, Heads of International Organizations and journalists I spoke to agreed that prospects for reconciliation between ethnic communities continued to be undermined by the government’s lack of serious interest in constitutional reforms that would address the political marginalisation of Tamil-speaking people.

Occasional meetings between the President and leaders of the Tamil National Alliance and the pro-government alliance of Tamil parties known as the Tamil Political Forum are positive and necessary. To date, however, there is still no sign of any structured and inclusive process of negotiations or constitutional dialogue. Indeed, President Rajapaksa has made clear that he does not support devolution of power to the provincial level as long requested by Tamils and other minorities.  

To be fair, following international pressure the government has worked to resettle the nearly 300,000 people displaced from their homes by the last two years of fighting.  The large majority have left the military-run camps in which they were locked for months. This is good news. Nonetheless, according to the most recent government figures, available from the UN and repeated in a recent ICG report more than 20,000 people remain in the camps and another 70,000 live with host families and are not back on their own land. Those who have returned home face huge problems, including a lack of housing and other infrastructure, few economic opportunities, continued security presence and difficulties farming their land and fishing off the coasts.

According to a high profile Tamil politician who asked to remain anonymous because of his affiliation with the Governing party, there was little evidence that the Sri Lankan government was approaching these issue with the requisite transparency and urgency. This could be seen in the restrictions placed on the activities of local and international humanitarian NGOs.  The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was ordered last year to close its remaining offices in the Northern Province, after previously being blocked from working in government detention camps for LTTE suspects.

Representatives of an international organisation confirmed that agencies were currently permitted to do little more than deliver tangible material goods.. None of the crucial post-war work of building the capacity of civil society, dealing with the psychosocial damage from the war, tracing missing persons, or attending to the needs of war widows, orphans, the disabled, the elderly– was officially permitted. A senior ICRC representative said he recently saw a government list of 14 international organisations that were likely to be asked to leave the country in coming months.  It may not be a direct request, more a gradual sacking by denying visas over time.

The thousands of troops stationed in the the North and East closely monitor the few development activities permitted by the government. Crucial decisions are made by the military and predominantly Sinhalese officials in Colombo, chiefly by the Presidential Task Force headed by the President’s brother Basil Rajapaksa. In this context, the growing numbers of Sinhalese moving to the north has fed fears by Tamils that the government plans to change the ethnic make-up of the Tamil-majority north. The Government’s repeated promises that all of the 70,000 or more Muslims forcibly evicted from the north by the LTTE in 1990 would be allowed to return home, while promising, has been undermined by the distrust generated by failure to involve Tamil community groups in the decision making processes.  This is sowing the seeds of renewed ethnic conflict.

Since the end of the counter-insurgency campaign, there have been fewer extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Nonetheless, reports of kidnappings, disappearances and politically motivated killings do continue according to the ICG and other organisations, and the apparatus established to destroy the LTTE remains in place. There have still been no proper investigations, much less prosecutions, in any of the thousands of disappearances or more high profile political killings from the war.

The Diaspora and Links to other Terrorist Groups

With the continuing hardships, Tamils have been leaving Sri Lanka in droves, seeking the protection of established communities in Europe, Canada, Australia and India.  Most of these Tamils are tired of war and violence.  Ironically, the Tamils who suffered the least in Sri Lanka’s conflict are now working to build the foundations of a future Tamil uprising.  Attention has inevitably turned to the activities of the politicized Tamil diaspora.  Stories linger of the Diaspora’s attempts to raise funds internationally for humanitarian and long-term military purposes, and efforts to build strategic links with other terrorist outfits, including the Maoists in India.

 Following these rumours, the Tamil movement in India and the UK sought to downplay the links.  In an open letter to an Indian minister, the vanquished Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) described as “totally untrue” claims by Indian officials that the Tigers had links with Indian Maoists. The letter, dated 5 November and reproduced by pro-LTTE websites believed to be operated from the West, was copied to External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi. The letter was signed by “R.M. Supan, Coordinator of LTTE Head Office”. Supan is believed to be the nom de guerre of the person heading the media wing of what remains of the LTTE.

The letter did little to convince Indian authorities whose intelligence authorities observed that remnants of the Tamil terror outfit were trying to regroup in Tamil Nadu in South India. The Indian government extended the ban on Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in late 2010 by another two years following these intelligence reports. 

Policy Responses

Memories of injustice will be difficult to erase, nor should they be. Tamils grievances are well-founded and must be addressed as a matter of justice. Diasporic nationalism is especially dangerous because it is easier to vent frustrations from a distance. The anger is building and as a leading Tamil human rights lawyer explained, “it will reach boiling point as it has in the past.” 

Policy makers in Australia and other asylum seeker-receiving countries will need to take a hard look at the factors which led to the diaspora activism which sustained LTTE terrorism for such a long period of time in the past.  Apart from the triumphalism of the Sri Lankan government and the hardships that Tamils continue to endure , there is also what can be called ‘long distance nationalism.’  Furthermore, it is clear that certain dislocations related to their reception in host countries were also responsible for diaspora activism in the past. The difficulties in accessing desirable employment, feelings of alienation in a different cultural setting and perhaps discrimination and scape-goating by the media are some of the reasons for continued activism. While most of these reasons appear to be disappearing, there is still a cohort in the diaspora that supports LTTE politics perhaps in a different form. One form is the Transnational Government for Tamil Eelam (TGTE).  Prescribing the LTTE and affiliated groups as Terrorist Organisations would send a clear message that support for Tamil militancy will not be tolerated in Australia, but it will also serve to feed feelings of dislocation and discrimination. It is appropriate for Australian policy makers to make it clear that LTTE sympathisers would have to leave their fantasies of revenge behind.

Australia and other Western countries should encourage their Tamil Diaspora communities to examine the actions of the LTTE throughout the war and to initiate a process of reflection on the destructive effects on all communities from the LTTE’s militarism and elimination of moderate voices.

Australia has an important role to play in encouraging Sri Lanka towards a path of durable peace. It still contributes a significant amount of development assistance to Sri Lanka, both directly and to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). It is incumbent on Australia to ensure that development projects, especially in the north and east, do not help institutionalise an unjust peace or fuel new grievances and violent conflict, particularly with regard to the use and ownership of land. Unfortunately, under current conditions in the north and east, where local communities and their Tamil and Muslim political representatives have little involvement in the physical and economic reconstruction taking place, it is extremely hard for international development assistance to be “conflict sensitive” without much more active monitoring and political engagement.  Australia should join more influential players and institutions to press the World Bank and the ADB to tie the delivery of their aid to more inclusive, participatory and democratic forms of planning and implementation, especially in the north and east, and to develop a more coordinated and principled approach to humanitarian and development assistance.  The aim would be to encourage the Sri Lankan government to adopt more democratic and rights-friendly policies.

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