In the late fall of 1978, I was approached by a Sri Lankan Tamil rights group, which visited the office of the socialist weekly in London where I was then working and entreated me to pay a visit to their country. I say “their” country, though they actually referred to it as “Ceylon”: the British colonial name that continued to be the country’s name after independence in 1948. It was only changed in 1972. The word Lanka is simply the name for island in Sanskrit, and the prefix Sri has a connotation of holiness, and the alteration generally reflected the aspirations and preferences of the Sinhalese-speaking and Buddhist majority. So the difference in emphasis there was pretty large to begin with.
On the face of it, though, all these Tamil comrades wanted was some humanitarian reportage. A bad cyclone had just hit the eastern coast of the island, around the town of Batticaloa, in areas of high Tamil population density. They feared that the government would not exert itself very much to bring relief to a Tamil area and asked me to act as an observer.
So I spent some time that December in the cyclone-ravaged towns and villages of the stricken district and discovered that, indeed, the aid effort was greatly inadequate (with material often diverted to the black market or appropriated by the army). I also discovered the strong sense of second-class citizenhood that many Tamils felt. Many of them were indigenous to the island, while others had been brought over on rafts in the 19th century by the British from the Tamil areas of south India, as indentured laborers to work the plantations that still produce the world’s most delicious tea. Since they tend to be slightly smaller and darker than the Sinhalese, and more proletarianized, and are less likely to be Buddhist and more likely to be Hindu, the Tamils had been looked down upon and subjected to numerous forms of discrimination. I became interested, wrote a few articles, made a few speeches at Tamil flood-relief dinners in London, lampooned the Buddhist-nationalist extremists who worshipped the Buddha’s tooth and had organized anti-Tamil pogroms, and began to make Tamil friends.
I also became vaguely aware that, behind the general litany of Tamil complaints and grievances, many of them justified, there was another force altogether. It was referred to in rather hushed tones as “the Tigers,” and its sympathizers could often be detected by their habit of referring not to Sri Lanka or even to Ceylon but to “Eelam”: the name of a future Tamils-only state. Unwittingly, I was present during the early stirrings of this organization—which had a good deal of support, as irredentist and ultra-nationalist movements so often do, among the diaspora. There are many high-earning communities of Tamils in other countries of the British Commonwealth as well as in Europe and North America, and their support was a major contributing factor to the duration of Asia’s longest insurgency or (if you prefer) civil war: one that may possibly just have ended.
Even if you add the two recognized Tamil populations of Sri Lanka together, they do not amount to even one-fifth of the overall population. But at the height of their desperado militancy, a decade or so ago, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, controlled perhaps one-third of the country’s territory, including the Batticaloa-Trincomalee coastline in the east and the Jaffna peninsula in the north. There was never any possibility that the Sinhala parties, or indeed many of the urban Tamils, would accept such a fait accompli. Nor was there any chance that China and Pakistan would allow such an obviously strategic island, with its former Royal Navy harbors and ports, to become partitioned in favor of a minority with such strong links to India.
Under the leadership of the late Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE enormously overplayed its hand. It established a dictatorship in the areas it controlled and recruited both child-soldiers and suicide-bombers. One of the latter even assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991: a truly suicidal thing to do, given the need of the Tamils for Indian sympathy. The hardening of Sinhala sentiment, the inevitable splits and defections that arose from the Jonestown style of Prabhakaran, and, perhaps above all, the acquisition of warplanes and other materiel from China and Pakistan eventually gave traction to the central government in Colombo. Deciding to fight as a conventional army that belonged to a separate state, the LTTE has now been defeated as a conventional army, and its state has ceased to exist. Not since the British defeated the Malayan Communists, who were too much restricted to the Malay Chinese population, in the 1940s and 1950s, has any major Asian rebellion been so utterly defeated.
There remains, as there always did, the question of the Tamil population itself. It doesn’t seem overwhelmingly likely that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victorious regime, currently engaging in a spasm of triumphalism, is in the strongest position to offer a hand to the civilian Tamil leadership. But it would be a very agreeable surprise if it did.
It’s just not true, as some liberals tend to believe, that insurgencies, once under way, have history on their side. As well as by nations like Britain and Russia, they can be beaten by determined Third World states, such as Algeria in the 1990s and even Iraq in the present decade. Insurgent leaderships often make mistakes on the “hearts and minds” front, just as governments do, and governments are not always stupid to ban the press from the front line, tell the human rights agencies to stay the hell out of the way, and rely on the popular yearning for law and order. It can also be important to bear in mind, as in Sri Lanka became crucial, that majorities have rights, too.