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How to Kill Civilians in the Name of “Human Rights”: Lessons from Sri Lanka

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How to Kill Civilians in the Name of “Human Rights”: Lessons from Sri Lanka
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After a conflict of more than a quarter of a century of terrorism and civil war that killed 70,000 people, Sri Lankans finally think they have defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), perhaps the world’s most murderous terrorist organization. Why and how a small country of 21 million succeeded in defeating such a group where much bigger powers have failed is a good lesson for those who study terrorism and counterinsurgency. These lessons are primarily political and legal, but also military and diplomatic, and they include both successes and pitfalls in a small country’s road to peace and development.

Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean country the size of West Virginia, has a diverse population—81 percent is Sinhalese, most of them Buddhist; some 11 percent are Tamils, who are generally Hindus, either immigrants from India or native. Eight percent of the population are Muslims. As is so often the case in the former British Empire, the native group most adept to Western education and adaptable to British interests—in this case the Tamils—were disproportionately represented among the educated at the time of independence (1948), and thus resented by the majority. Free elections repeatedly brought to power Sinhalese populists/socialists. Tamils were pushed aside and the majority language declared the only official one. The result was, and to some extent remains, Tamil resentment and demands for autonomy, at least in the northern (Jaffna) and Eastern (Trincomalee) areas where they predominate.

Key to understanding why the LTTE lasted for so long and why India was involved in Sri Lanka on and off at various times is the fact that some 60 million Tamils live in three southern Indian states, primarily Tamil Nadu, and many of those support the LTTE out of ethnic solidarity. Equally, if not more, important, there is a large (ca. 800,000) Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, mostly in Canada, the UK, Australia, the U.S., and southeast Asia. This diaspora is radicalized and, like most diasporas living in safety, more radical than co-nationals in the country of origin. It still provides the funds, propaganda support, and public relations vital to the LTTE’s survival.

The LTTE pretends to fight for a separate Tamil state (Tamil Eelam) in the northern and eastern parts of the island, and it has actually established a de facto state in those areas for almost a decade , complete with administration, courts, taxation, education, etc.—until it lost it all following the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) offensive since the beginning of 2008. What did that “state” look like?

    “Though receiving considerable popular support, the LTTE regime was (is) a command state. It has always been a military outfit and the insurrectionary war situation hardly encouraged anything other than dictatorship, but [Vellupillai Prabhakaran]’s personal proclivities and the veneration he received as a demi-god would have accentuated this characteristic. Command state meant (means) command economy. State enterprises in transport, restaurants, etc. augmented the returns from taxation and import duties. A critical dimension of its local resources was the supply of monies from the SL government in Colombo, namely, salaries and pensions paid to a wide range of Tamil-speaking administrators, including health officials, who were employees of the central state.”[1]

To begin with, the LTTE , despite its claims and effective propaganda, does not represent the Tamils. It never submitted itself to elections; to the contrary, it is a quasi-cult terror group, subservient to the whims of one person, Prabhakaran. His decisions, rather than any nationalist goal, send people to their death, train them for death, preferably from childhood, and have long murdered any moderate or nonviolent Tamil politician in the country. In that, and many other respects, the LTTE are similar to other cult-like revolutionary terrorists, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of Abdullah Ocalan in Turkey and Abimael Guzman’s Communist Party of Peru, a.k.a. Shining Path. Compared to those, Stalin and Mao had and officially claimed fewer powers. To comprehend LTTE, imagine Jim Jones’ Temple cult of Guyana in possession of a “navy” and “air force,” as well as (at its height) some 20,000 fanatical and armed zombie followers.

Prabhakaran imposed a blood tax on the people under his control. Each family had to provide a son to the LTTE—a pattern condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN. LTTE made every follower bear a cyanide pill (thus few “Tigers” were ever captured) and established special units, such as the “black Tigers,” for murder and assassination. In fact, until the early 1990s, the LTTE led the world in suicide bombings, with victims including a president and many ministers of Sri Lanka, as well as a former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi (1991). Unsurprisingly, the UN, EU, U.S., and India all declared the LTTE a terrorist group. Still, in the rich West, pro-LTTE groups were allowed to collect funds (and occasional recruits), always illegally and under threat, usually under the pretext of “freedom of expression” but, in places like Canada, for electoral considerations.


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