The Death of the Tamil Tigers

The Sri Lankan government’s endgame shelling of areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers has reached its conclusion — a massive defeat for the secessionist movement and the death of its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The Associated Press reported the details of Prabhakaran’s death:

Senior [Sri Lankan] military officials said Prabhakaran was surrounded early Monday with the last of his fighters.  He and his top deputies drove in an armor-plated van accompanied by a bus filled with armed rebels toward approaching Sri Lankan forces, sparking a two-hour firefight … Troops eventually fired a rocket at the van, ending the battle, the officials said.

This may mark the death of the organized militant movement that Prabhakaran began building in 1976.  The Tamil Tigers, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, grew to control significant territory and operate as a state-within-a-state in Sri Lanka.  At their height, they controls some 15,000 square kilometers in the country.

In their final hours, they had been cornered into less than a square kilometer of land.

The LTTE’s ideology was grounded in the notion of a separatist movement for Sri Lanka’s Hindu Tamil communities, communities that that make up 12% of the country’s population and have experienced discrimination under the Buddhist Sinhala-dominated national government. But Shyam Tekwani argues in the left-of-center Indian magazine Tehelka that the LTTE leader was a destructive force for Tamil community interests, and that he did much to stymy any Tamil leadership that threatened his authority.

Writing without the knowledge of Prabhakaran’s looming death, Tekwani hypothesized what the LTTE leader’s next steps would be:

His long-term objective, however, will be to foil every effort made by Colombo to redress Tamil grievances and also ensure that he, and only he, remains the sole leader of the Tamils. No moderate Tamil leader or group will be allowed to take his place. Any attempt to nurture a new leadership will be foiled by assassinations and acts of terror — just as he had, in the mid-80s, done the biggest disservice to the Tamil cause by systematically wiping out the leaders of the other militant Tamil groups that existed and decimating their organisations in a move to emerge as the sole representative of the Tamil cause.

The death of Prabhakaran and his remaining lieutenants marks the end of a bloody battle in which the Sri Lankan military conducted heavy shelling on civilian areas.  Over the years of warfare, some 70,000 people may have died.  Thousands of civilians may have been killed in this final spasm of violence, though this may have as much to do with possible LTTE tactics of leveraging civilian deaths to win the propaganda war.

According to Amnesty International:

“Both the Tigers and Sri-Lankan military have been violating the laws of war,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.  “Over the last several months, according to witnesses, the Tamil Tigers have used civilians trapped in the conflict zone as human shields against government forces and when they have tried to flee, they have been attacked by the Tigers.   “Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan military has used heavy artillery, which is indiscriminate when used in densely populated areas, causing civilian deaths and injuries.”

And then there is the moving final letter of one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent journalists, Lasantha Wickrematunge.  The editor of the Sri Lankan Sunday Leader was assassinated in January of this year.  His paper has been characterized as an independent voice against Sri Lankan government corruption and human rights abuses.

Wickrematunge is believed to have penned this editorial just days before his murder.  He thought he would be killed soon — he alleged by government-affiliated thugs — and his final piece was to be published in the event of his assassination.  His writing is worth quoting at length:

We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

Speaking for his newspaper, Wickrematunge wrote:

… we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urge government to view Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labelled traitors; and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.

And finally:

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tamil Tigers. The LTTE is among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is for ever called into question by this savagery – much of it unknown to the public because of censorship.

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