Neil DeVotta


Sri Lanka’s Lions (Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist government) and Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) continue their savage war that is now slaughtering thousands of innocent Tamil civilians caught in the crossfire.  The government claims to go out of its way to minimize civilian casualties, despite having relied on a strategy of deliberately and indiscriminately bombing areas filled with Tamil civilians; the LTTE, which is branded a terrorist group by over thirty countries, claims it is fighting to liberate Tamils-even as it forcibly recruits civilians, including child soldiers, to fight government forces and uses these trapped Tamils as human shields; and the international community, which claims to care about the plight of innocent civilians, stands impotently on the sidelines as beleaguered Tamils are being murdered.


The present nationalist Mahinda Rajapaksa government came to power in November 2005 by adopting a hard-line stance against the LTTE.  With the rebels having used previous rounds of peace talks to rearm, regroup, and continue their quest for Eelam (a Tamil state) and Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, being unwilling to settle for anything short of a separate state, the new government was convinced that defeating the LTTE militarily was the only way to end the war.  This was contrary to the view of most analysts and the international community, which believed that there was no military solution to the twenty-six year old conflict and only a political solution, through which the predominantly Tamil northeast was provided meaningful devolution, could resolve the civil war.  What all these naysayers failed to recognize was the extent to which the Rajapaksa regime was willing to resort to terrorism to defeat terrorism.    


The current phase of the war-branded Eelam War IV-began in July 2006 when the LTTE closed the sluice gates of the Mavil Aru anicut in the Eastern Province and cut off water to over 15,000 farming families.  What began as a military operation to retake the anicut gradually morphed into an ever widening campaign against the LTTE, leading to major rebel outposts and towns being captured and the rebels and Tamils in their midst pushed into a dense jungle area.  Whereas three years ago the LTTE controlled nearly 15,000 square kilometers and ran a de facto state complete with numerous institutions, it is now relegated to an area under 75 square kilometers.  The LTTE’s naval capabilities, which played a crucial role transporting weapons and supplies, have been destroyed; its seven airstrips that facilitated bombing missions using light aircraft are now in government hands; thousands of its cadres have been killed so that the group is now likely down to around 750 hard core fighters; and it has lost much of its vaunted conventional capabilities.  The remaining LTTE cadres may resort to guerrilla warfare for sometime, especially if their leader Prabhakaran stays alive; but the group has now ceased to be a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.     


The Sri Lankan government resorted to various strategies to ensure the military’s momentum.  It used the state-owned press to underreport military casualties and inflate LTTE deaths, thereby preserving military morale and public support for the war.  It kept increasing troop strength to hold on to territory captured from the LTTE, thus preventing the rebels from shifting operations into cleared areas (a tactic that had worked well for them in the past).  It adopted a no-holds-barred policy against journalists who reported on military setbacks, branding them traitors and resorting to intimidation, beatings, and murder to muzzle the press.  Consequently, over a dozen journalists have been killed since 2006 and nearly 30 have fled the country, with most of those remaining practicing self-censorship or focusing on issues unrelated to the military and war.  The government also used anti-LTTE Tamil paramilitaries and military death squads to eliminate anyone suspected of ties to the rebels.  Furthermore, it continuously bombed strategic sites within LTTE areas without regard to civilian casualties.  Indeed, the military’s artillery has deliberately targeted civilian areas, including hospitals. 


One grand design of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists is to change the demographics in the northeast so that ultimately Sinhalese Buddhists become a majority in all nine provinces of Sri Lanka.  This squares with their belief that Sri Lanka is the designated sanctuary for Sinhalese Buddhists and all others who live their do so only thanks to Sinhalese Buddhist sufferance.  From the standpoint of these nationalists-and they include many leading protagonists in the current government-the more Tamils are killed, displaced, and forced to flee abroad as refugees the sooner will the nationalist project be fulfilled.  Many military leaders and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists also automatically assume that Tamil civilians living in rebel areas are LTTE supporters and potential recruits and hence justify targeting them; and this despite some Tamils in these areas having clandestinely shared information with military intelligence on LTTE whereabouts.  The carefree bombings conducted against Tamil civilians must be seen in this light.  With NGOs and monitors disallowed operating near battle zones, government forces targeting Tamils violate the most fundamental rules of war with absolute impunity.  In short, the current climate allows murder, torture, rape, and extortion to go unpunished when especially the perpetrator is a military personnel and the victim is Tamil.       


The LTTE has long sought to ensure control over a certain amount of territory and the Tamil population living within it even while fighting to obtain Eelam.  The former allows the group to maintain a conventional war capability, while the latter enables recruitment (voluntary and coerced), taxation, extortion, and the trappings of a state.  The civilians also become human shields, which suits the LTTE-especially if the civilian presence deters military assaults.  But with the Rajapaksa government exhibiting no qualms about bombing civilian areas, the LTTE has been unable to protect its civilian base even as it exploits civilians. 


Many Tamils soured on the LTTE after the group took to suicide terrorism, resorted to the forcible recruitment of children, and began killing fellow Tamils who disagreed with it.  Indeed, over the course of its existence the LTTE has likely killed more Tamils than the Sri Lankan military.  But by shooting at those who have been trying to flee LTTE areas, the group has taken its depravity to new heights, making clear the group’s leaders care more about their safety and megalomaniac ambitions than the survival of the Tamil population.  For instance, nearly 200,000 civilians are currently trapped in the ever shrinking LTTE area, and they are surrounded by nearly 50,000 military forces.  If the military continues with its onslaught, many innocent civilians would get killed.  If, on the other hand, the military bides its time and forces the remaining LTTE cadres to exhaust their supplies before moving in, these civilians will likely starve to death.  Either way, the LTTE’s policy of using civilians as human shields will have contributed to the deaths of thousands of Tamils.  It is thus with good reason that one refugee who managed to make it to a government operated camp noted, “By the time the Tigers get a separate state, there won’t be any people [left to live in it].” 


It was decades of majoritarian discrimination that birthed the Tamil quest for separatism.  The LTTE systematically eliminated or co-opted other separatist organizations, became the strongest group among Tamils, and claimed to be their sole representative.  Yet the methods the LTTE employed to fight for Eelam undermined support for the movement within and without the Tamil community.  A major reason the international community has, in the main, adopted a standoffish stance to the Tamils’ unfolding tragedy is due to the LTTE’s intransigence.  For instance, the one country that could have forced a different trajectory to the ongoing carnage in Sri Lanka is India.  But with the LTTE having assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991, India too has become its nemesis and now helps the Sri Lankan government defeat the rebels (notwithstanding protests among some quarters in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu). 


Even Tamils who strongly disapproved of LTTE tactics tolerated the group because they believed its military prowess was all that was left for their community to extract concessions from the Sri Lankan government.  With the LTTE on the verge of being defeated, Tamils will come out of the ethnic conflict more marginalized than ever.  Sri Lanka’s nationalists are determined to enforce a victor’s peace, whereby Tamils get treated as third class citizens.  Thus one can expect the current crop of nationalist government leaders to introduce cosmetic policies that allows India and the international community to feign satisfaction, but major changes that accommodate Tamils’ longstanding legitimate grievances will not be in the offing.  Nationalist commentators are already trolling out the line that Sri Lanka cannot concede too much to Tamils even after the LTTE is fully defeated because the island must continue to guard against the quest for Eelam among the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora.  Such logic should serve to block Tamils in the Diaspora from returning in large numbers to resettle ancestral lands or invest in the northeast even as it justifies other ethnocentric policies that further strengthens Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarianism.  This is now easier to do given the lack of unity even among anti-LTTE Tamil politicians who in any case are beholden to the government for their security.  Once the Tigers are completely declawed, it would be even easier for the government to play Tamil political groups against each other and spread Sinhalese Buddhist preferences in the northeast via a policy of ethnic flooding.    


What is actually in store for Tamils can be gleaned from what the government and military are contemplating.  Military leaders want to recruit even more soldiers to build up the country’s combined military strength beyond 300,000 troops-which would place little Sri Lanka with 21 million people among the twenty countries with the most number of active duty troops-and thus ensure there are sufficient superintendents to oversee the post-civil war northeast.  There is talk of settling soldiers and other Sinhalese in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, thereby guaranteeing the region’s demographics get altered and also ensuring the majority community benefits from post-conflict development.  The military has already announced a preference to keep Tamils who have fled rebel areas in camps for at least three years so that remnants of the LTTE will not have direct access to the Tamil population.  Most refugees are currently housed in torrid conditions, even as they are exploited to burnish the government’s image.  For instance, government propagandists have been passing around photographs of benign looking soldiers helping refugees even as the military strictly controls access to those in the camps.  Human rights organizations and the foreign media have protested against the attempt to keep Tamils in camps for long durations.  But such criticisms have rarely deterred this particular government, which partly seeks legitimacy among Sinhalese Buddhists by appearing to stick it to so-called foreign busybodies who they claim are part of an international conspiracy to undermine Buddhism, the Sinhalese, and Sri Lanka.


In short, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government cares most for what Sinhalese Buddhists think and want; it cares little for what the international community thinks and prefers.  As for the Tamils: they appear destined to be treated as the dregs of Sri Lankan society.  And therein lays the source for continued ethnic turmoil-assuming sufficient numbers of Sri Lankan Tamils survive the LTTE’s  autogenocide and the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime’s ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide.    


(Neil deVotta is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Hartwick College, New York.  He can be reached at 

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