The Tamil Tigers are No More
Well, looks like the long running Sri Lankan Civil War is over, as the Sri Lankan government has overrun the last rebel stronghold and killed the rebel’s main leaders. The war started in 1983 and there was nothing particularly civil about it. About 90,000 people died, a comparable figure in the USA would be over a million deaths. The war was noted for the rebel’s (The Tamil Tigers) pioneering use of suicide vests and female suicide bombers. There were atrocities committed on both sides though, such is usually (always?) the case in war.
It’s a war I haven’t mentioned much, both because of its ugliness and its long and complex history. I’ll summarize quickly before making a few points, if I make any egrigious errors I’m sure someone will be kind enough to point them out. Basically the Tamils are a minority group in Sri Lanka that has been fighting for an independent Tamil state of its own. The Tigers obviously enjoyed at least moderate public support to fight for so long. In fact they were one of the few insurgent groups to field a navy and an air force. The Sea Tigers and the Air Tigers respectively. They, at least many of the Tamils, felt that they were a discriminated against minority in Sri Lanka, and deserved a homeland to call their own.
Whatever the justice of their cause, the Tigers were their own worst enemies. They made some spectacularly ill conceived terrorist attacks and assassinations, in fact the Tigers managed to kill two heads of state, India’s and Sri Lanka’s, a record for an insurgent group I believe. This not only struck all sorts of people as abhorrent and hurt the Tiger’s popularity, it’s also made other heads of state not terribly inclined to throw their support behind the Tigers. In fact a number of nations had classified the Tigers as a terrorist organization. Lack of international support is a huge handicap when trying to form a nation under fire, and in the Tiger’s case it was their ultimate death knell since their funding and weapons all had to come from overseas.
So this war is a rare case of military force being successfully used to destroy an insurgency. The insurgency did last 26 years, though there were long periods where there was little fighting and it seemed diplomacy might end the war. And the insurgency had long ago morphed into a conventional civil war as well. So while this may hearten those enthusiastic about using force to crush insurgencies, this war was special case and there were reasons why a military approach proved successful. Granted it’s not absolutely certain there will be no further troubles, but if the Sinhalese victors are at all magnanimous in victory I suspect the average Tamil is perfectly happy to have the war over.
So why did the Tigers lose? Well, as I explained above, they managed to lose the PR war by ill-conceived terrorist attacks and assassinations. They were also on an island with no bordering states to provide sanctuary and supply. Having to sneak all your weapons in by boat is a severe handicap in a war. The Tigers were also a personality led movement. By that I mean they were created and led by one individual the entire war, one Velupillai Prabhakaran. He got into Tamil politics at an early age, in fact at age 21 he personally assassinated a Tamil leader who he felt had betrayed the Tamil people. I dunno, but I must say that I would have a hard time admiring or following a leader whose idea of politics was to personally kill his critics. I have a Tamil friend who said Prabhakaran was just a thug, and I certainly wouldn’t argue with her.
Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but thugs make poor leaders. I mean, the Tamils had a defacto nation, but from my limited reading they seem to have repeatedly pushed the limits of what they had achieved and precipitated another round of fighting. This last period of fighting seems to have been started by the Tamils cutting off the water to 15,000 villagers in government territories. I think if the Tamil Tigers had leadership that was more diplomatic, there might today be an autonomous Tamil nation in Sri Lanka. That’s just a guess though, and since his can be said in many situations, not terribly insightful. And the human capacity to make decisions that will continue the violence is our stock-in-trade as a species. Sigh.
One last bit of weirdness, guess where the Sri Lankan military got all the equipment and ammunition they needed to crush the Tamil Tigers? From Pakistan of course. And to make the situation even more bizarre, India is believed to have roiled the pot on occasions by being behind some terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka. The world is a complicated place, and all governments are capable of murderous acts. (They pretty much claim to hold a licence to do so. ) This was an interesting little conflict in some ways, a microcosm of the evil that men do. In any event, I hope that the people of Sri Lanka can put it behind them and rebuild their shattered isle. I mean, they do live in a tropical paradise for God’s sake. God rest the souls of all who died, God heal all those who survived, and Goddammit don’t do it again.
(The above image is being used legally as far as I can determine, it is by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence and may be used for news purposes so long as it is not modified. It is one of two Air Tiger suicide aircraft that attempted a 9/11 style attack against the capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo, earlier this year. Both planes were shot down, and only two people on the ground died, which is why it didn’t make the news. It was a futile last gasp by the Tigers, even if the attack had killed a few hundred people this would have just made the Sri Lankans more determined to carry on with their military campaign.)