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Familiar History

This week LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapaharan will deliver his annual Heroes’ Day address, in which he will set out the organisation’s future strategy for the Tamil liberation struggle. Mr. Pirapaharan’s speech comes this year during a period of intense war. It has been suggested by some analysts - and by the euphoric Sinhalese - that things have never been so difficult for the LTTE. Such calculations stem from poor memory and a simplistic logic. We note that, like now, the end of the LTTE has been confidently promised by Colombo many times before, not least in 1995, 1997 and 1998. And on each occasion the overwhelming numerical and firepower superiority of the Sinhala military was self-evident.
 
In 1995 Mr. Pirapaharan’s speech was delivered soon after the LTTE had escaped from Jaffna, having ferociously resisted the encircling Sinhala army which vastly outnumbered and outgunned its fighters. The annihilation of the LTTE in Jaffna that President Chandrika Kumaratunga promised (and was universally considered a certainty) failed to materialise - and not for want of humanitarian restraint on the military’s part. In 1997 Mr. Pirapaharan’s speech was delivered with the Sinhala army’s Operation ‘Jaya Sikirui’ (Victory Assured) boring steadily into the Vanni from Vavuniya and Mullaitivu. At the time, lest it be forgotten, the SLA was already holding Kilinochchi, Paranthan, Elephant Pass and the entire Jaffna peninsula while the LTTE was ‘confined’ to the lower eastern Vanni. The end of the LTTE was again declared inevitable and the state even began lavish preparations to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence (then, as now, Sinhala hubris couldn’t be contained: the main site of celebration was supposed to be Kandy, the ancient seat of Sinhala power. The infamous attack on the venue near the Temple of the Tooth instead compelled a low-key event in Colombo on Feb 4, 1998). In 1998, the Heroes Day speech was delivered with the LTTE having recaptured Kilinochchi town (and not Paranthan) but having had to give up Mankulam instead. Although President Kumaratunga had given up on Jaya Sikirui (i.e. linking Jaffna to Vavuniya), the military now pressed towards Mullaitivu. Indeed, when the LTTE unleashed its massive counter attack, Operation Unceasing Waves 3, a few weeks before Heroes Day 1999, the SLA was only four miles from its main bases there.
 
In short, over the past two decades, whilst territory has been won and lost, the LTTE has gone steadily from strength to strength and the Tamil struggle has gathered further momentum. For much of its history, despite a reputation for delivering sudden hammer blows, the Tiger has generally fought with its back to the wall. It is on the logic of attrition that the protracted war of liberation has turned. Nothing has changed today. Yes, the Sinhala military has never been this powerful. But neither has the Tiger.
 
What is qualitatively different between the late nineties and now is the clarity of the ethnic faultline in Sri Lanka. Since independence the island’s core problem has been Sinhala domination and first discrimination, then also persecution, of the Tamils. In the global liberal bubble of the nineties, this fundamental truth was subsumed amidst the logics of underdevelopment (‘poverty causes conflict’), resource wars and so on. A fiction was propagated that Tamils can live with dignity in a country where Sinhala majoritarianism is institutionalised. That fiction has been laid bare by the developments of the past three years, in which Sri Lanka has moved further along the path to naked ethnocracy. It is the return of this clarity that has underpinned the agitation in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
 
It is also why Tamils and Sinhalese are polarised as never before. Indeed, it is as the Sinhalese have become more and more confident of winning the war against the Tigers that the overt racism against Tamils (and even the perplexed Muslims) has become blatant. If President Mahinda Rajapakse holds an election now, he will sweep the Sinhala vote and not just because of the military ‘news’ from the north. Ethnic hierarchy is, for many of those celebrating in the south, the right order of things in the island. That is why, despite the self-deluding optimism of some international actors, there will be no meaningful political solution proposed, no peace process pursued. Not unless, that is, the LTTE blunts the Sinhala sword - again. The international community is hoping the Sinhalese win this war. Much international assistance is pending this outcome. Nonetheless, Mr. Pirapaharan’s Heroes’ Day address is, as ever, much anticipated by them also this week.