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LTTE has to change its strategy

M. Mayilvaganam is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
Ashok K. Behuria is Senior Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 13, 2007

    The annual “Heroes’ Day” speech delivered by LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran on November 27, amid continuing attacks by the government forces, brought out in no uncertain terms his dissatisfaction with the international community’s approach towards the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The LTTE supremo came down heavily on the international community for displaying, what he called, “partisan and unjust conduct”, which “severely undermined the confidence” of Tamil people on them. On the whole “it has paved the way for the breakdown of the ceasefire and the peace efforts.” According to the LTTE chief, “even the countries that are the guardians of the peace efforts succumbed to the deception of the Sinhala State” and listed “freedom movement as a terrorist organisation”. In reality, there is a general perception among the Tamils of Sri Lanka that the indiscriminate anti-terrorist policies of the Western countries have boosted the morale of the belligerent Sinhalese elite.

    Prabhakaran’s “Heroes’ Day” speeches apart from self-validation are also significant pointers to the action plan of the rebel group for the ensuing year. The tone and tenor of these speeches seek to galvanise the cadres and the diaspora community for the Tamil cause. In fact, the “Heroes’ Day” celebrations have now assumed the status of an annual festival among the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Notably, this year’s speech was defensive and less on the rhetoric, capturing more the mood of disappointment over the military strategy employed by the Rajapaksa government than sharpening the political line.

    Prabhakaran’s criticism of international community is in response to the steps taken by some of the western governments to check pro-LTTE activities in their countries. After the ban by EU, there were cases of LTTE operatives nabbed by security forces and cases of LTTE networks isolated and busted in Europe and North America. Such cases must have come as a setback for the LTTE operations, especially when Colombo had shifted a gear with its plans of military assault on the North.

    In fact, over the past two years, the LTTE repeatedly appealed to “the international community” to pressurise the Colombo government to reach a deal but with little success. In his speech last year, Prabhakaran had emphasised that the LTTE had bent over backwards to maintain the ceasefire and negotiate an agreement despite grave provocations from the Lankan government. But as the Lankan army mounted its offensives and the EU banned LTTE, it alleged that international community was not playing an impartial role in the crisis.

    The Lankan government has, on the other hand, sold it convincingly to the international community that it was the LTTE which provoked the government forces by launching suicide attacks and aerial raids. The mutual mudslinging has served the interests of the spoilers on both sides and reversed the peace process.

    However, the fact that the Sri Lankan government is looking away from the path of dialogue and negotiation, strengthens the suspicion among the Tamils that many powerful countries around the world tacitly approve of these policies. Prabhakaran’s assertion that the international community is responsible for the failure of the peace process is grounded in this larger feeling of dismay among the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Many neutral observers also agree that the government has no alternate peace plan or political solution at the moment. It would rather parade its military victory in the East as a possible alternative to an otherwise improbable dialogic process of seeking a southern political consensus on “what-to-offer” to the disgruntled Tamils.

    Prabhakaran is not entirely off the mark when he says that “no political party in the South has the political honesty or firmness in policy to find a just solution to the Tamil national question”. The efforts at various levels to generate a power-sharing arrangement that would be acceptable to the Tamils have failed because of the competitive jingoism by political parties. If one political party or leader would bring in some idea at the table others would unite and rubbish it as inimical to the integrity of the Sri Lankan state. The latest body to frame a devolution proposal, which was composed of relatively less hawkish politicians and legal experts known for their progressive outlook, could only produce four different drafts. The only consensus that they can possibly arrive at ever is to deny any meaningful delegation of power to the Tamils that can resolve the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka.

    While Prabhakaran’s perceptions of the southern political parties and politicians are shared by many impartial analysts in Sri Lanka and outside, his observations about international community are likely to be regarded as a naïve and desperate attempt to invoke the sympathy of the observers at the international level towards the genuine aspirations of the Tamils. However, now that the LTTE, as a militant organisation, stands at a critical period in its history, such irate remarks are more likely to earn disfavour than inspire sympathy of the external actors.

    Moreover, there is a significant section within the “international community”, which is critical of the policies of the Sri Lankan government. The Sri Lankan government is equally wary of “international community” in that sense. It should ideally be the strategy of the Tamil leadership (LTTE included) to show their sense of gratitude to these forces which may not be in the decision-making structures but having the ability to subject the issue to wider debate at the international level.

    In his speech, the LTTE supremo also warned the government for overstretching itself by putting “its feet too wide apart in our land (one in East and the other in the North) as it did during past battles”. He claimed that the Sinhala nation had fallen into the trap set by the LTTE by getting into the East where they would be “forced to commit large numbers of troops to rule land without people”. Calling Operation “Ellalan”— the combined Black Tiger and Tamil Eelam Air Force attack — a success, he warned that “those who plan to destroy the Tamil nation will, in the end, be forced to face their own destruction”. Prabhakaran also indirectly alluded to the success of LTTE’s militant strategy in his speech and said that “only when we proved our military prowess and only when we were militarily in a position of strength that the Sinhala nation signed the ceasefire agreement”.

    There is an old argument that a militarily weak LTTE would be a sitting-duck for the militarily stronger Sri Lankan armed force. Moreover, no government in Colombo is likely to concede any meaningful autonomy to a weakened Tamil community, if LTTE were to be neutralised militarily. Even if these are genuine arguments, they do not cut much ice with the so called “international community”, which has no patience for militant tactics. The LTTE leadership has to understand that they are operating in an environment where militancy has lost all its legitimacy whatsoever. A great deal of LTTE’s effort ought to be directed towards strengthening its political face. This has to be supplemented with a genuine desire to arrive at a peaceful settlement.

    Otherwise, even if the Tigers have legitimate grievances, their tactics would leave them on the wrong side of history. While one may not doubt the capacity of the Tamil community to bounce back even after any eventual military defeat, it is infinitely wiser to secure the legitimate demands through the backing of the international community by adopting a non-militant approach as a revised strategy. This will also put the Sri Lankan government on the defensive. There is also a small but sympathetic constituency of silent peace-makers amongst the Sinhalese civil society who bear no animosity towards the Tamils and would like to support a transformed LTTE. The LTTE has to work towards changing its image from that of a ruthless war-making machine to a reasonable political entity fighting for the genuine rights of the Tamils.

    In such circumstances, the LTTE has no other option but to learn to work with the international community and inspire their confidence in their strategy. Militant posturing will only indirectly contribute to the Sri Lankan government’s arguments that LTTE could never be trusted with any political commitment to sustain any dialogue for peace