This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Taming The Tigers

From February 2009:


While our attention is focussed on Gaza and Afghanistan and what the Saint Barack O’Bama might do about Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, there is – not all that far from where I’m typing this, as distances go, just a couple of thousand kilometres – the last acts of one of the world’s longest running conflicts may just be playing themselves out in the jungles of northern Sri Lanka.

For the geographically challenged: Sri Lanka is that teardrop-shaped island just south of India, sitting in the Indian Ocean. India is that triangular thing sticking out of South Asia. Got it? Good.

Whenever I hear a claim along these lines: “all Muslims may not be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims” – I love to think of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It is a rebel organisation based in Sri Lanka, allegedly fighting for the liberation of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population (concentrated in the north and parts of the east of the island) from domination by the Sinhala-speaking majority. It is also a Hindu organisation which is responsible for the ethnic cleansing of all Muslims from territories under its control – they were given just two hours’ notice to leave in 1990 – and which has exterminated all rival organisations (I’ll speak about that in a moment).

The LTTE obeys only its supremo, Velupillai Pirabhakaran (also spelt Prabhakaran and Prabakaran), seen here sitting front and centre with some of the personnel of his group's now defunct air force,
who was once a virtual demigod for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. I believe they used to worship him. But that was then. Nowadays things are probably slightly different, but before talking about the reasons for that difference, it might be an idea to check a bit of potted history...

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic nation, but most of its population belongs to the Sinhala ethnic group, with the Tamils being the largest ethnic minority (there are small numbers of indigenous tribespeople and Eurasians, known in Sri Lanka as Burghers). Both the Sinhalese and the Tamils are, historically speaking, arrivals from India, although both are loath to admit that now. The island, once known as Ceylon, was under British rule for a couple of hundred years, and like all their colonial projects, the British used the pliant sections of the locals as their proxies. In India the Brits chose the Tamils and Bengalis as their proxies; in Sri Lanka it was the Tamils. Therefore the middle class among the Tamil population was given preference in education and employment in the civil services, and while the British occupation lasted this was all very well. But when the Brits quit, the Sinhala majority decided that it was their turn to rule, and in a story so very, very familiar in postcolonial societies, they turned on the Tamils, disenfranchised them, virtually blocked them off from employment, limited the  number of Tamils allowed to join institutions of higher learning, declared Sri Lanka (as the nation’s army chief repeated a few weeks ago) a Sinhala nation, and pushed the Tamils into a position where they had to flee or fight. Those who could, fled – the rich to Europe and North America, the poor to refugee camps in India. And those who could not flee, or chose not to, fought, for a separate Tamil nation, Eelam.
Among the first to fight was a young man named Velupillai Pirabhakaran. This was in the earlyb 1970s.

Now, India, in the 1970s, was a nation still warm from the afterglow of the so-called victory over Pakistan in the (allegedly fought for humanitarian reasons) 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. That war had been marked by millions of refugees in Indian camps and Indian forces arming and training Bangladeshi insurgents, and the then government had gained a lot electorally after the facile victory that had followed. Now there was a humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, many thousands of Tamil refugees in India, and India’s own Tamil population was restive and unhappy. So the government decided more electoral gains were possible if it helped the nascent Tamil rebels in their revolution. So it cheerfully began training and financing the plethora of Tamil rebel groups that sprang up, groups such as the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) – and the LTTE. Yes, India, which now claims to be a frontline state in the “war on terror”, was a prominent sponsor of terror groups, just like the rest of the other warriors on terror.

By the mid 1980s, the Sri Lankan Tamil areas were largely under the control of various rebel groups which were getting stronger and stronger. In response the Sri Lankan government began a fairly typical fascist measure; organised anti-Tamil pogroms in Sinhala majority areas and a blockade of Tamil majority areas, especially in the north of the country, near India. The rebel groups in the meantime began their own attempts at establishing a pecking order – and the LTTE, after holding a unity meet of the other main groups forming the so-called Eelam National Liberation Front, set out to eliminate them, destroying the TELO in less than a week (29 April to 5 May 1986). It then forced the minor groups, of which there were some twenty, to merge themselves in it.

The LTTE therefore now controlled not only the territory it had itself captured but the territory the other groups it had defeated had won, and could then claim that, as the military arm of the Tamils, it was their ‘saviour’ and had the right to speak for them. It brooked, of course, no dissent, and also was highly innovative militarily. Among other things it pioneered the use of suicide bombers as a weapon. To date it has used probably more suicide bombers than all other terror groups in the world put together. It held the northern city of Jaffna, much of the east of the country, and vast swathes of forest in between. It had a “navy” of speedboats, called the Sea Tigers, was financed by the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora (those who had been rich enough to flee Sinhala racism) and had a fleet of merchant ships to bring it arms and other necessities from abroad. In Sri Lanka its men – and its women, who had their own units - were highly organised, trained and disciplined. Here are some of its troops drilling:

It was in these circumstances that the Sri Lankan government’s attempts to starve the Tamils into submission raised a storm in India and led the Indian government to make a symbolic drop of relief materials from An 32 transports over Jaffna. And then there were a lot of talks which further led to the Indian government sending in part of the Indian Army into Sri Lanka in order to “maintain peace’, i.e. to disarm the LTTE and other Tamil groups. The LTTE, highly suspicious of Indian intentions, refused to disarm and shortly afterwards the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) launched an all-out attack on LTTE positions with attack helicopters, paratroopers and armour. Instead of surrendering meekly, the LTTE kicked Indian ass so royally that to this day we haven’t been told just how many Indian soldiers died in the two years (1987 to 1989) of the Indian military presence in Sri Lanka. The IPKF withdrew eventually, and the LTTE, which naturally emerged stronger, got its revenge in 1991 when it blew away Rajiv Gandhi, former Indian Prime Minister and the man who had sent in the IPKF in the first place. By this time India had burned its fingers so badly that it decided to keep off Sri Lanka permanently. The rest of the Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups had collapsed by then and the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government were left to contend alone for the control of the north and East of the country. They both used their weapons – intimidation, suicide attacks (the suicide wing is called the Black Tigers) and ethnic cleansing on the LTTE side along with forcible recruitment of children, and indiscriminate shelling and bombing of civilians on the government’s part.

To cut a long story short, what followed was a decade and more of combat and lengthy “sitzkriegs” where nothing much happened, to be followed by more combat; the LTTE took back Jaffna, lost it to the government, struck back by taking strategic areas that cut off access to the city except by sea and air, and finally by 2002 both sides reached an exhausted truce, with – of all nations – Norway as mediator. I suppose they couldn’t find another country that was willing to take on the thankless job. Pirabhakaran by then was displaying increasing signs of megalomania – he had his own deputy executed and humiliated his own best field commander, nom de plume “Colonel Karuna”, into leaving the organisation with 6500 of his soldiers. Karuna’s defection meant that the LTTE ceased to exist in the Eastern provinces – Karuna and all his men were eastern Tamils and resented Pirabhakaran’s Northern clique. Also, after the Global War Of Terror was launched, the LTTE’s foreign funding was drying up. But Pirabhakaran’s megalomania and by now advanced divorce from reality meant that the “peace talks’ went nowhere, the LTTE pulled out of negotiations, and by 2007 fighting had begun again. Only this time things weren’t going quite Pirabhakaran’s way...

Despite the loss of the Eastern province, when the ceasefire broke down the LTTE still controlled 15000 square kilometres of territory. But this time there were no outside sources of help, the foreign funds had dried up, and the Sri Lankan army, at last, showing some amount of real professional competence (bolstered by Indian military aid) began making steady advances on all fronts. Here they cross a flooded road...
The LTTE used its tiny air force of Zlin light aircraft (imaginatively called the Air Tigers) to launch some spectacular symbolic attacks on Sri Lankan targets, flying all the way to Colombo and back without being shot down, but these attacks achieved, in concrete terms, nothing. The government continued to advance, faster and faster, and though it lost men in fair numbers, the LTTE lost more. (In this picture, LTTE men walking past dead Sri Lankan soldiers):

By January the LTTE had lost its capital of Killinocchi, and a few days ago it finally lost the last town under its control, Mullaitivu (where the Sri Lankan government captured this LTTE submarine):

From 15000 square kilometres, the LTTE domain has shrunk to some 300 square kilometres of forest, and its last remaining thousand or so soldiers are virtually trapped. But they have along with them some 250,000 to 300,000 Sri Lankan Tamil civilians who are de facto human shields whatever the LTTE might pretend. These human shields are of little use for two reasons; first, the Sinhala government of Sri Lanka   hardly considers the Tamils human beings and, like the Zionazi pseudostate (with whom Colombo has close ties and whose Kfir fighters it uses) it has no compunction about killing civilians if they get in its way. The second reason is that the Indian government, ignoring protests from some of the Indian Tamil parties (eager to score brownie points with elections approaching), haven’t done more than advise the Sri Lankans to try and get the civilians out of the fighting. Fat chance. Both sides want the civilians to stay, the government because it doesn’t risk LTTE sneaking out disguised as civilians and because it doesn’t give a damn about them anyway, and the LTTE because their fate makes great propaganda. So up to three hundred civilian Tamils may have died in a single day’s shelling, and the others are starving in the jungles, but who really cares.

So what does the future hold? First, even though a lot of Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils online are evidently in denial, forecasting (like the Nazis of early 1945) a shattering counteroffensive, the LTTE is finished militarily as a conventional force. It no longer has any armour, artillery, or navy. Its airfields have been captured and its five aeroplanes probably dismantled and hidden. Recruitments have dried up. Nobody knows where Pirabhakaran is. He may have fled, he may be dead, he may be trapped in the tiny patch the LTTE still controls. But even if he is killed or captured, the LTTE is unlikely to vanish. It will sputter on as a guerrilla group using hit and run tactics, perhaps indefinitely; but as Che Guevara said, no guerrilla group can win a decisive victory unless it becomes strong enough to launch a conventional war. This the LTTE has tried and lost. There is no reason to think it will succeed second time around.

Any comparison between Sri Lanka and Afghanistan or Iraq is fallacious. Everyone knows that the occupation of those nations can’t be sustained in the long run. As long as the guerrillas survive there, they can outlast the occupation and they win just by staying in existence. But the Sinhalese are going nowhere. Even an indefinite guerrilla campaign won’t win Eelam.

So what does India do now? The Sri Lankan government is unlikely to suddenly become friendly to the Tamils after winning its war. Instead, it may become even more vindictive.

First, the creation of Eelam would never have been a good thing for India. Probably the worst mistake in post-independent Indian history was the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Bangladesh was supposed to be a land flowing with milk and honey once the Pakistanis were kicked out. Nowadays, instead, the Bangladeshis reflexively support Pakistan, blame India for all their problems, and shelter more terrorist groups than Pakistan does. So, just suppose the LTTE did win Eelam. What then? Would it begin a battle for Indian Tamil areas to join Eelam? Would it then demand that Indian Tamils owe it fealty? What about Indian Tamils who might not think Pirabhakaran is God Almighty? What about the Indian Tamils settled in other parts of the country, just in case India is willing to let the Indian state of Tamil Nadu go to Eelam (fat chance)? Who answers these questions?

I hope somebody, somewhere remembers that Sri Lankan Tamils are Sri Lankan Tamils. They are not Indian citizens and while humanitarianism is all very well India’s primary responsibility is to its own people. It’s not as if Indians have no problems of their own. There are ways of pressurising Lanka including diplomatic and economic measures and making noise internationally about Sinhala chauvinism and racism. Supporting the LTTE would achieve nothing except a connection with a group responsible for, among others:

1. The murder of large numbers of fellow Tamils including members of other militant anti-Sinhalese groups like the TELO;
2. The murder of Rajiv Gandhi and many prominent Sri Lankan politicians
3. The murders of large numbers of innocent bystanders during bomb attacks including suicide attacks
4. The ethnic cleansing of Tamil Muslims who were ordered out of LTTE controlled areas in 1990 at just two hours' notice
5. The holding of masses of Tamil civilians as human shields
6. The forcible conscription of child soldiers.

On the other hand, the Sri Lankan government is a bunch of racist thugs with one of the worst records of press freedom in the world, where journalists are routinely murdered and non-Sinhalese treated as unpersons. Sucking up to these people is hardly likely to be either moral or even cynically advantageous. And India’s own human rights record is such a perfect mess that it has no standing to lecture anyone anyway.

So, this country should leave that country alone. We’ve meddled enough as it is. But leaving things alone never won a vote.


Imagine this scenario: a strip of land, nowhere more than five hundred metres wide, about 40 kilometres long, with the sea on one side and a lagoon on the other. It is covered with coconut groves – a classic beach scene if there ever was one, palm fronds waving in the breeze, golden sands, blue seas, all the rest of it.

The only problem – below those waving palm fronds are people. Maybe a hundred and fifty thousand or two hundred thousand people. All crammed into those twenty square kilometres. Not holidaymakers, oh no – they’re men and women, old and young, children, and babes in arms. They’re ragged, starving, and cowering among those golden sands, burrowing into them for shelter.

Why? Because among them are the last remnants of a murderous, fascist rebel movement; and because, facing them across the lagoon, are the troops of a murderous, fascist army.

Welcome to the last stages of one of the oldest civil wars in the world.

Sometime ago I had written a post about the final stages of the Sri Lankan  civil war, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on its last legs and reeling backwards to defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA). Those of you who don’t know anything about this splendid little war ought to read that first.

After the events I alluded to in that blog post, the LTTE has lost the last little bit of territory it had under its control, but as it retreated, it has emptied out towns and villages and driven the population along with it as human shields, with their lives hostage for a ceasefire. 

It has used two of its Zlin 143 aeroplanes in a kamikaze attack on the Sri Lankan Air Force base in Colombo, unsuccessfully but spectacularly. As usual for the LTTE, the pilots got a hero’s send-off by the LTTE supremo, Velupillai Pirabhakaran, himself.
Not that it did them any good, as this wreckage of one of those planes shows:

As the LTTE’s territory shrank steadily, it became increasingly desperate for a ceasefire to allow its top brass to escape and a chance to regroup and rearm. The hostages it held were perfect for this – of course, officially they weren’t hostages. They were going along with the LTTE of their own volition, because they didn’t want to live under the SLA. You know how it is.

As the LTTE’s territory shrank, with the capture of the last LTTE held town, Puthukkudiyirippu, the government of Sri Lanka set up the so-called Safe Zone (the green rectangle in the map, above) which was supposed to be a safe area for the civilians. Naturally the LTTE set up artillery positions in the Safe Zone (human shields available and all) and the SLA retaliated by shelling the zone. Meanwhile the remaining area under LTTE control shrank and shrank rapidly till it was down to just one square kilometre. That square kilometre fell in three days with the killing of over five hundred LTTE members, including many women.
What’s left of the LTTE, except undoubtedly a few scattered in the rear of the army and probably gearing up for a guerrilla conflict, are all in the Safe Zone, which is now a misnomer if there was ever one.

Why did those last LTTE members, trapped in one square kilometre, fight to the death? It wasn’t because they were fanatical “dead-enders” like the Japanese on Iwo Jima or Guadalcanal. It was because their families were held hostage by the LTTE top brass in the Safe Zone and they were ordered to “not even think of returning alive” – or else.

Strange the actions of the LTTE, who call themselves the saviours of the Tamil people, whom they kill to prevent them from running away from their benevolent rule.

Meanwhile, the pressure grows from Tamils in Britain and elsewhere for a ceasefire, which is also the LTTE’s primary demand. It might be a bit odd to most of us that these people never asked for a ceasefire when the LTTE was winning, even though Tamils in large numbers were dying, including children conscripted by the LTTE and used in human wave attacks. Or maybe that wasn’t all that odd, after all.

Of course, whatever the pressure, the SLA isn’t going to agree to a ceasefire. Why the hell should it? A roughly analogous situation would be the Russians and Western Allies agreeing to a Nazi demand for a ceasefire when Berlin was surrounded in April 1945 and the end of the war was clearly only days away. The so-called “humanitarian” angle doesn’t matter to the SLA either, since they’re Sinhalese who hate the Tamils.

It’s only a matter of days, therefore, that the Safe Zone will fall. It would be interesting to see what the LTTE does then. Most likely, it’s going to turn its guns on the human shields and kill as many as possible and try to blame the carnage on the SLA. Pirabhakaran himself, if he’s still in the area, may well commit suicide; he’s far too well-known to be able to sneak away with the surviving civilians. If he’s captured alive, it will be really interesting to watch the events that will follow. Who’s going to have first crack at trying him? Will India demand an extradition? After all, he (allegedly) killed the Indian ex-Premier Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. What happens if (or rather when) Sri Lanka refuses?

Of course, for the Sri Lankan Tamils, recent events have been a disaster. The Sinhalese are triumphantly victorious and in no mood to give quarter; they are racially motivated and will impose strictly victor’s peace on the Tamils, who now have no way of retaliation. The LTTE has destroyed all rivals, both militant and pacifist. Once it’s gone, the Tamils will have to be content with what the Sinhalese will leave for them. And that is the legacy of the LTTE.

In the meantime, a bizarre and funny sideshow is being played out around the LTTE in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A small-time politician named Vaiko, who’s always been fanatically pro-Pirabhakaran and has had himself photographed with the man himself (in LTTE uniform, no less)
has threatened a “bloodbath” if the great Velupillai is harmed. I don’t exactly know how he intends to make good his threat. Maybe he controls a private militia; most Indian political parties do. But, either way, his bloodbath will be confined to Tamil Nadu, whose population is almost exclusively Tamil. How the hell this will help persuade the SLA to end the war is something I can’t wrap my brain around. You might be able to do better on that.

Hold on a minute. The SLA isn’t exactly enamoured of the Tamils, is it, whether they are Indian or Sri Lankan? Assuming they would be happy to see large scale Tamil casualties, and assuming they kill Pirabhakaran or he kills himself, it might be an idea for the SLA’s General Sarath Fonseka to pack his head in a box and send it to Vaiko. Fonseka, who said recently that Sri Lanka was for the Sinhalese only, ought to fix it so that Pirabhakaran’s head pops out like a jack-in-the-box and blinks its eyes at Vaiko. The shock might make him have a fatal heart attack, which will at least remove one of the worst opportunistic politicos India is cursed with.

Pirabhakaran might have some use in death then, at least, after all.

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