By: Reihana Mohideen, born in Sri Lanka, now living in the Philippines
May 21, 2009 — “To save the lives of our people is the need of the hour. Mindful of this, we have already announced to the world our position to silence our guns to save our people”, said Selvarasa Pathmanathan, the head of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) International Diplomatic Relations on May 17, thus flagging the military defeat of the LTTE.
While the military defeat of the LTTE does not necessarily mean its demise, and it most certainly does not represent the end of the struggle for Tamil self-determination in Sri Lanka, nevertheless it is a major setback to the struggle for a Tamil Eelam.
And while calls for a political settlement of the conflict must be supported, the possibility of a genuine political settlement, i.e. peace with justice, is probably far less likely today than when the Tigers were still a powerful military force willing to negotiate a political settlement. The Tigers are in a far weaker position to negotiate a political settlement for a liberated Tamil homeland today than they have been in previous years.
At the same time, the Sinhalese government victory is a veritable double-edged sword. The Tamil struggle will rise again and it could take more desperate forms. The fact that the Sinhalese army feels compelled to hold Tamil youth prisoners in military camps, and according to defence ministry spokesperson Lakshman Hullugalle, even for up to two years if necessary, is an acknowledgement of this possibility.
The defeat of the Tigers, one of the most powerful liberation armies in the world, which controlled northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka, does come as a shock. How was the Sinhalese government able to defeat a disciplined armed force, with substantial support among the Tamil population? While international intervention, such as military support to the Sinhala government by imperialist countries such as the UK and Israel are factors that weighed against the Tigers, the strategy of the LTTE itself needs to come under scrutiny, particularly by those very Tamil youth who will continue the struggle for Tamil self-determination.
While the LTTE has carried out a heroic struggle for the self-determination of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, one of the main limitations of the LTTE was that it primarily pursued a military strategy and not a political strategy based on mobilising the Tamil masses and building solidarity amongst the Sinhalese and Muslim populations in the rest of the island. The militarisation of the struggle by the LTTE also resulted in human rights violations of Tamils by the LTTE in Tiger-controlled areas. The centralised and hierarchical military structures, and the refusal to accommodate different political views and currents which exist (until today) within the movement for Tamil self-determination, all contributed to weakening the Tamil liberation struggle.
As Australian socialist and solidarity activist for Tamil self-determination Chris Slee, writing in Green Left Weekly points out, the military strategy pursued by the LTTE also led to the alienation of potential allies. The LTTE was unable to build strong alliances with sections of the Sinhala and Muslim populations. As Slee notes, “The Tigers sometimes disregarded the need to win support among Sinhalese workers, peasants and students in southern Sri Lanka for the right of Tamils to national self-determination. This also applied to the Tamil-speaking Muslims of eastern Sri Lanka. The absence of a mass anti-war movement in southern Sri Lanka is a key obstacle to the success of the Tamil self-determination struggle. The LTTE has been willing to negotiate with Sinhalese political leaders whenever they showed any signs of wanting to reach a peaceful solution. But the LTTE has not made a serious effort to get its message directly to the Sinhalese masses, bypassing the politicians whose promises of peace have been deceptive.”
While the lack of a strong anti-war movement in southern Sri Lanka primarily reflects the weakness and political limitations of the Sri Lankan left, the military strategy of the LTTE and the tactics which flowed from this, such as the bombing campaigns in the south which killed civilians, have also alienated the Sri Lankan masses from supporting the Tamil struggle for self-determination.
While our main focus has to be building the international solidarity campaign to free the Tamil population imprisoned in the Sinhala army camps, for the withdrawal of the Sinhala army from Tamil territory and putting pressure on the Sinhala government for a political settlement to the Tamil question, the left — especially in Sri Lanka and within the Tamil population — has the responsibility to provide a critical framework to develop a political strategy to continue and renew the Tamil struggle for self-determination. This does not mean relinquishing support of the right of Tamil people under occupation to take up arms against an occupying Sinhala army. In the current situation, however, emphasis on political struggles and campaigns is clearly to the advantage of the Tamil fighters and peoples, and this will also be the case in the mid-term.
[Reihana Mohideen is socialist activist and writer, born in Sri Lanka, now living in the Philippines. She is a leader of the Partido Lakas ng Masa (Party of the Laboring Masses) of the Philippines and head of its international relations department. This article first appeared at Mohideen’s blog, Socialista Feminista, and has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author’s permission.