Features » June 2, 2003
The Buddha’s Teardrop
For 20 years, the Tamil Tigers have fought a vicious, separatist war against the Sri Lankan government. Can a tenuous ceasefire last?
For 20 years this road has been closed to the Sri Lankan public, as the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought a brutal war for a separate Tamil state in the country’s northeast. The road’s opening in February 2002 was a huge step in reconnecting the divided country. But one suspects the government committee that settled on the highway’s name inhabits a world of either naïve hopefulness or dark irony.
In February, Sri Lanka celebrated one year of ceasefire. But the peace talks have been mired in acrimony and mutual distrust after a series of setbacks, including an incident in March when the Sri Lankan navy blew up an LTTE vessel, killing 11 “Sea Tigers.” Throughout the ceasefire, both the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and the LTTE continued to recruit soldiers and stockpile arms. The LTTE says the government has done nothing to resettle Tamils displaced by the war, and the Tamil people have yet to see the dividends of peace. In late April, the LTTE unilaterally pulled out of peace talks. Guns have not yet been fired, but the country is once again poised for war.
The mostly Hindu Tamils are the largest minority in this mostly Sinhalese and Buddhist country. South of India, the teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka was once an idyllic tourist haven, with long beaches, tropical jungles, and the ruins of ancient Buddhist cities. More than 64,000 lives were lost in two decades of conflict, out of a population of only 20 million. Now many Sri Lankans call the island “the Buddha’s teardrop.”
Relentless shelling rendered much of northern Sri Lanka a no-man’s-land and crippled the Sri Lankan economy, but it did not bring the Tigers autonomy. Although the LTTE holds some territory, it never regained control of the Jaffna peninsula on the island’s northern tip, taken by the army in 1995.
When the LTTE—notorious for car-bombing, political assassination, and suicide attacks on civilian targets—first agreed to holster its guns and discuss alternatives to its chief aim of a separate Tamil state, the group shocked Sri Lanka. But after the United States, Britain and India added the Tamil Tigers to their lists of foreign terrorist organizations, the LTTE realized world public opinion was shifting against them. Their main source of funds from Indian Tamils and the Tamil diaspora became largely inaccessible, frozen in accounts in Britain and India.
Teitur Torkelsson, spokesman for the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission overseeing the ceasefire, believes 9/11 was a turning point for the Tigers. “The international environment no longer has tolerance for armed conflict,” he says. “What the LTTE very much longs for is international recognition. And you cannot have that now with an armed struggle—especially when it uses suicide bombing techniques, child recruitment or any other violation of human rights.”
After Sri Lanka gained its independence from Britain in 1948, the newly democratic state began discriminating against the mostly Hindu Tamil people, who make up 18 percent of the island’s population. The state made Sinhala the sole official language, forced many Tamils out of government jobs, and began regular attacks on Tamils. To Villupillai Prabakaran, a teen-aged smuggler and car thief, an independent Tamil state was the only option. So in 1976, he and his friends, steeped in the revolutionary theory of Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, founded the LTTE.
The conflict exploded in 1983, when hundreds of Tamil civilians were killed in state-sanctioned pogroms after the Tigers ambushed an SLA patrol. The slaughter helped win widespread support for Prabakaran’s armed struggle. Under his military direction from deep inside the northern jungles, the LTTE quickly established itself as one of the most brutally efficient guerrilla groups in the world.
The north of Sri Lanka is made up of lush, arable wetlands and jungles lapped by the ocean and seared by an equatorial sun. It is perfect land for cultivating rice, coconuts and bananas, and for fishing in the Indian Ocean. As the Tigers discovered, it is also ideal guerrilla territory. With homemade plastic explosives and tanks captured from the SLA, the LTTE managed to beat back government forces again and again. Despite the SLA’s modern armored personnel carriers, helicopter gunships, and multibarrel rocket launchers—and despite assistance to Sri Lanka from Indian and even U.S. forces—the LTTE has caused immeasurable destruction against the state. In July 2001, they virtually attacked the country’s international airport, blowing up half its commercial fleet as it sat on the tarmac.
At the sixth and latest round of peace talks, the LTTE hoped the Tamils would be assured of regional autonomy. Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s chief negotiator, has repeatedly staked the success of the peace talks on three demands of the Tigers: official recognition of the Tamil homeland, nationality and right to self-determination. But the question that dogs the LTTE is whether it can transform from a cultlike terrorist organization into a mainstream political entity.
In the Singhalese-majority south, many find the idea of Prabakaran becoming a legitimate politician laughable. Prabakaran is wanted in India for orchestrating the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. In November, he was convicted in absentia to 200 years in prison by a Sri Lankan court for a 1996 attack on the Central Bank of Colombo, which killed nearly 100 people. Interpol has also issued an alert for Prabakaran’s arrest. He has consolidated his power for almost 30 years by eliminating rival groups and establishing a cult of personality that borders on deification.
At the Tigers’ first press conference in almost two decades—after signing the 2002 ceasefire agreement—Prabakaran claimed he and his organization were democratizing. For the first time in years, he said, they were meeting with other political organizations and explaining their actions to the Sri Lankan government. Many involved in the peace talks say that despite the stops and starts, Sri Lanka simply has to believe the Tigers are able to change.
“The LTTE has taken actions in the past which are fascistic and terroristic in nature, there are no two ways about that,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, an advisor to the peace talks. “The challenge to the LTTE is whether they can make that transition, or whether that process is too painful and leads to self-destruction. But what is important is to yoke the two sides into a just and peaceful political settlement.”
The territory of the Tamils cuts a boomerang-shaped swath across the north and east of the island. The Tamil people say they have inhabited this land since 237 B.C. “The Sinhalese community has no legitimate power over the Tamils, neither by conquest nor by consent,” according to Father Bernard, a Tamil Catholic priest in Jaffna. “We were an independent nation, we had our kings and our kingdoms before the British came. So it’s a matter of regaining a lost territory.” Like many, Bernard initially opposed the Tamils taking up arms. But the mass torture, rape and disappearing of Tamil youth by Sri Lankan forces in the ’80s and ’90s convinced him otherwise. “If the language of nonviolence is not understood, then we are forced to speak a language that is understood,” he insists.
Amnesty International has repeatedly condemned both the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government for human rights violations. In Jaffna, Cerlil Vilsami is still waiting for the return of his son, who has been missing since the SLA detained him over five years ago: “He must be here, I think, but we don’t know where. The government is not giving us any answers. What are we to do?” After Vilsami’s son disappeared, his daughter joined the LTTE to avenge her brother. She was killed in battle six months later.
But the civilian population of northern Sri Lanka continues to suffer the most from the fallout of war. The local infrastructure has been completely destroyed. More than 200,000 people have fled the country to live as refugees in India or the West. Almost a million Sri Lankans, mostly fishermen and farmers, have been internally displaced by the war. Many can’t return to their land because of unexploded ordnance; others have had their land expropriated by the SLA for so-called High Security Zones. Some have been living in refugee camps for more than a decade. The Jaffna peninsula is now a web of SLA military installations, with 40,000 troops keeping a lid on the heart of Tamil culture.
The train line stops just south of the Tamil region. To cross into rebel-held territory, you must pass through a series of high security SLA checkpoints, flanked by machine gun stands. Troops wielding Kalashnikovs unload every passenger from commuter buses to check their papers. They hold up trucks for hours to empty out their cargoes of lumber or rice. This is the beginning of the Highway for Peace and Unity.
Half a mile down the road, the trucks have to unload their cargo all over again at the LTTE checkpoint. Although there is no pretense of peace or unity at the checkpoint, there are also no guns. The slim, young Tamil border guards wear Madras shirts and chinos, or belted shirts and trousers for the women. They look like particularly fastidious college students. You would never guess that they are one of the most feared and ruthless guerrilla armies in the world.
Once you pass through the LTTE checkpoint, you leave Sri Lanka and enter Tamil Eelam, the unofficial nation the Tigers have created. Tamil Eelam runs on a different time zone (Indian time); they have their own Tamil police force, jails, judicial system, and semi-extortionate system of tax collection. Recently the Tigers inaugurated the first Bank of Tamil Eelam. Everyone here is Tamil, and everyone is working for the LTTE movement. Hand-painted propaganda posters dot the scarred landscape. One billboard depicts the two choices the LTTE claims Tamil women have: being raped and murdered by Sri Lankan soldiers or joining the Tiger movement, armed with a Chinese-made T-56 in the jungle.
In true Maoist fashion, the Tigers are masters of propaganda. Only since the ceasefire have they begun to speak to the media; visits to their jungle training camps are still completely out of the question, and minders follow journalists wherever they go. When you do speak to the Tiger cadres, they have the eerie habit of repeating each other, and constantly refer to “our leader,” meaning Prabakaran.
“If our leader says war there is war, and if he says peace, there is peace,” asserts Thami Larasu, a tall, shy 22-year-old in the LTTE’s political wing. The Tigers speak of Prabakaran in almost godlike terms. In fact, organized religion is discouraged, and every morning, Tiger cadres salute an image of Prabakaran while reciting the LTTE pledge. Their flag is like a post-apocalyptic high school football banner: a roaring tiger backed by a pair of crossed Kalashnikovs, pouncing with claws bared from a cartoonish explosion.
Ask anyone in Tamil territory what makes the Tigers effective, and they will make the same gesture: They clutch an imaginary vial around their neck. Even after one year of ceasefire, the mandatory ornament of every LTTE member is a vial of cyanide on a necklace. If captured alive, they will bite on the cyanide capsule, dying in two minutes of unimaginable pain.
The suicide culture of the Tigers is clearly what drives its success. Military analysts believe that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda have studied the tactics of the LTTE, especially their ruthless use of suicide bombers, or Black Tigers. Becoming a Black Tiger is considered the highest of honors by the LTTE. The night before they embark on their mission, the Black Tigers eat their “last supper” with Prabakaran. After their rice and curry, they pose for a snapshot with the leader. The photo memorializing them is hung on the wall of martyrs that night, even before they blow themselves up. There is no going back.
The Tigers videotape and archive everything for fundraising and recruiting: lost battles and failed suicide missions as well as military victories. They create videos of each Black Tiger before they are sent to their death. These “memory tapes” are surreal music videos starring the suicide-bomber-to-be. The Black Tigers, in LTTE uniform, pose in the grass or smile coyly back at the camera from a boat, the wind ruffling their hair, soft music dubbed over the soundtrack. What follows is a hand-held video clip of the human torpedo carrying out his or her deadly mission.
One of the LTTE’s greatest military strengths is its unnerving discipline. Drinking and smoking are banned on pain of expulsion, and love affairs are forbidden before the age of 25 for women and 28 for men. A militant Maoist version of feminism also characterizes the Tigers. Unlike in Sri Lanka proper, dowry is illegal in Tamil Eelam. Adultery and rape are considered the worst of crimes, and are punishable by death. In Tamil Eelam, four men have been executed for rape in the past several years. Every Tamil will remind you that whatever atrocities the Tigers are guilty of, rape is not one of them.
In the LTTE “martyrs’ cemetery” in Kilinochchi, thousands of markers line the ground. Most of the graves are without bodies, and none mentions the birth date of the fighter. The LTTE says more than 17,600 Tigers have been killed. Sitting under a tree near the graves of his comrades, Larasu explains that he joined the movement when he was 16, after his school was shelled by Indian forces. Like most Tigers, he says he joined voluntarily. The LTTE leadership claims that the Sri Lankan forces did most of their recruiting for them. Many women say it was the rape and torture of their family members that drove them to the LTTE as teenagers, or younger.
But in the south, it is rumored that the LTTE has doubled the size of its forces since the ceasefire began. And in villages across rebel-held Sri Lanka, parents whisper of their children being coerced or forced to join the LTTE. Few dare to speak of child recruitment publicly. UNICEF has recorded 700 complaints of child conscription since the ceasefire came into effect, though there is little it can do to change the practice.
The fallout of a war that has trained a generation of children to kill will be felt on this island for decades to come. In Kilinochchi, the wooden markers of the Black Tigers’ empty graves bleach in the sun to the color of bone.
What do you want to see from our coverage of the 2020 presidential candidates?
As our editorial team maps our plan for how to cover the 2020 Democratic primary, we want to hear from you:
It only takes a minute to answer this short, three-question survey, but your input will help shape our coverage for months to come. That’s why we want to make sure you have a chance to share your thoughts.