Why Sri Lanka Burns, Part III

A Tamil woman picks tea on a plantation.
A Tamil woman picks tea on a plantation.

Given the position of Sri Lanka’s Tamils as a minority on the island and a pawn in the struggle between competing groups of the majority Sinhalese, the Tamils have legitimate grievances against the government.  But despite its claims, the LTTE’s ultimate goal has little to do with the redress of those grievances.  Rather (much like the various Sinhalese leaderships) the goal of the LTTE is to control the Tamils.

To understand this dynamic, it’s necessary to know a bit about the role of caste in Sri Lanka.  Among both Sinhalese and Tamils, the high castes are the majority.  This differs markedly from India, where there are many more low-caste people than high caste.  The LTTE, despite its vociferous claims, represents not the Tamil people as a whole, but the low-caste Tamil people who were the most powerless among their disempowered ethnic minority.  (They do not, however, and do not claim to, represent the Plantation Tamils who were brought as laborers from India by the British– these belong to an even lower caste, and the LTTE has no use for them.)

Politically, this means that on a level playing field, the LTTE could never win a demicratic election.  Their constituency is a minority within the minority.  Rather, they have gained power by (1) eliminating all opposition within the Tamil community, and (2) using the war and the cycle of violence as a tool to increase their own support.  Their own fight has been as much against the high-caste Tamils as against the Sinhalese.

Although interesting changes appeared on the horizon during the four years of cease-fire, at its root the LTTE is an organization that doesn’t know what to do with peace.  They don’t approve of democratic process.  They don’t permit dissent.  Such niceties threaten their control, and are met with violence and finality.  And they view the Tamils of the east, who differ significantly in culture, as a people worthy of colonization– the ricebasket of the north.

This puts the Tamil people in an impossible situation: forced to choose between a government that doesn’t want them and a rebel group that can’t afford democracy but which claims to speak for them all.  The current situation in the war zone is a perfect example: The LTTE uses them as human shields, the government attacks anyway.  The LTTE shoots those who try to escape, and the government interns those who survive.

At times, partricularly after a quarter-million Tamils were held as human shields in Jaffna ahead of the 1996 government offensive, the Tamil people’s rejection of the LTTE has appeared so complete that it was impossible to imagine a resurgence of LTTE popularity.  Yet using the cycle of violence– attacking the Sinhalese and letting Tamil civilians bear the brunt of the government’s retaliation– LTTE became once again the only possible hope for the Tamils.

As LTTE endures what appears to be an inevitable battlefield defeat, fades into the jungle, and returns to the guerilla tactics at which it excels, it will no doubt seek to reposition itself not as the organization that held two hundred thousand civilians in a battle zone against their will, but as the only combatant that has any political interest in the Tamils whatsoever.