Crouching Tigers

Written by Muzamil Jaleel | colombo | Updated: May 12 2009, 03:55am hrs
At a time when the Sri Lankan armed forces are only 800 metres away from a decisive last battle to flush out the LTTEs top leadership, this may well be the end of the Tigers as a conventional army that at one point occupied and ruled 15,000 square kilometers of the islands north and east. This military victory, however, is not a solution to a problem which is rooted in the history of an ethnic chasm which draws upon the consistent discrimination of the Tamil minority by a Sinhalese-dominated government. But it has opened a real opportunity for a new beginning.

The defeat of the Tigers in this war - dubbed as Eelam IV has exposed the hubris of the LTTE. A careful look at the rise of the Tigers reveals how this group became a fascist and dictatorial organisation which made every move to consolidate its own grip rather than to attain the political rights for the community whose cause it espoused.

The journey that began in the intervening night of July 23 and 24 in 1983 when a small band of Tigers led by Prabhakaran conducted its first-ever lethal ambush against the Sri Lankan Army near the University of Jaffna, soon turned into a senseless terror campaign. In years that followed, Tigers massacred civilians, sent suicide bombers to attack Colombo, strike the airport and assassinate two heads of state including Indias former PM Rajiv Gandhi. The Tigers killed and silenced every other Tamil voice and exhibited a murderous intolerance to any disagreement. The murder of Amirthalingam who had been the most respected political voice of Tamils in Sri Lanka showed how far the Tigers can go to establish their sole representative character. Later, the Tigers assassinated two of the brightest Tamil intellectuals, Neelan Thiruchelvam and Kethesh Loganathan, who stood for the cause of the Tamil minority but refrained from joining the Tigers.

Experts believe that the reason for the hegemonic and repressive tactics of the Tigers has always been its chief Prabhakaran who even killed his close friend and confidant Mahattaya for challenging his leadership. Mahattaya was Prabhakarans deputy in the LTTE before he was unceremoniously sidelined and later assassinated.

Col Karuna Amman the Tiger commander from the East who switched sides to join the government in 2004, says that Prabhakarans thirst for blood and gore has long transcended the cause of the Tamils. He never wanted peace, he said. The successes in the battlefield of the LTTE have blinded him and made him unable to understand that there has to be a time when a settlement to this issue has to be negotiated.

The biggest mistake of the Tiger chief, Karuna recalls, was to order the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. It turned into a suicidal decision for LTTE, he said. The only country in the world which had been helping Sri Lankan Tamils to achieve their cause turned our biggest enemy over night. But, he said, Prabhakaran never regretted Rajiv Gandhis assassination.

In fact, there is a litany of strategic blunders that Prabhakaran committed ever since the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi two decades ago. The sudden ultimatum to the Tamil-speaking Muslims from Jaffna peninsula and the north, followed by the infamous mosque massacre in 1990 not only put a question mark over the Tigers real motives and weakened their claim to fight for a Tamil homeland but forced the Ceylon Moors (as the Sri Lankan Muslims who form more than 9% of the island population are called) to side with the government in the bitter ethnic conflict. Although the entire Muslim population was forced to leave the Jaffna peninsula and north (around 5% of the population), the Tigers could not evict them from the East where they form a substantial 23% of the population. Prabhakaran had really started to think he is king undisputed king, Karuna says. He is dismissive towards any idea that questions his penchant for war. And in his scheme of things, Tigers and Tamils have to be synonymous you cannot be a Tamil if you do not extended unconditional support to the LTTE. Then, LTTE is Prabhakaran, nothing less, nothing more.

Indeed, the abandoning of the peace process and an end to the ceasefire with Colombo proved to be the last blunder the Tiger chief committed. The assassination of Sri Lankas foreign minister Laxman Kadirgamar and later the abortive attempt to kill President Rajapakasas younger brother defence secretary Goytaba Rajapakasa and the Army chief helped Colombo to wage what they term the fight to the finish military campaign. And from August, 2006 when the military campaign began from the western coast to oust the LTTE, Prabhakaran and his men have lost almost the entire 15,000 square kilometers they occupied at the time of the ceasefire in 2002.

Even if Prabhakaran escapes his last corral on the thin strip of the coastline where his men are hiding behind a human shield of thousands of Tamil civilians, it is unlikely that the Tigers will ever regain the centre-stage of this protracted ethnic conflict. This in itself has provided a rare opportunity to resolve the dispute permanently.