Santhia died of kidney failure in a Jakarta hospital in October 2017. She was only 42. Years earlier, she and her infant son fled Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India. They tried to reach Australia, but were stranded in Indonesia. In this series Red Flag editor Ben Hillier tries to piece together her story and explain the rise and fall of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“Homelands”), of which she was a high-ranking cadre. This is the fourth of six instalments. Read parts one, twothree and five.

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Peace talks were met with relief across the island, but not by everyone. Buddhist clerics, having initially supported the ceasefire, initiated a national mobilisation for holy war when the government seemed to contemplate a federal solution to the Tamil question. “With protest marches, sit-in strikes and press releases [they] mobilised the population”, University of Münster academic Mirjam Weiberg-Salzmann writes. 

“The leaders of the different Buddhist sects … spoke out for a ban on the LTTE, against the union of the northern and eastern provinces, against the retreat of the security forces from the north, for the preservation of the state, against a federal system, and against a transitional government under the LTTE in the north.”

The army too was unnerved. After more than half a decade ruling Jaffna, it now had to contend with a population growing assertive in the knowledge that its oppressors were restricted in their ability to wage violence – both by the terms of the ceasefire and by the growth of the Tiger apparatus. Major general Gunaratne lamented the “insults, humiliation and ridicule” endured by 40,000 “security” personnel occupying the peninsula when he was a brigade commander:

“Segments of society in the North and East, which had respected and feared us during the war, started to look at us with disrespect and contempt … I would say the situation in Jaffna Peninsula was the worst … Hordes of LTTE who entered the areas under government control were highly successful in brainwashing the youth with their anti-government, anti-Sinhalese and anti-army rhetoric …

“The hundreds of jobless youth who used to loiter around at junctions were rejuvenated by the LTTE presence. Three wheeler drivers were acting with a newfound sense of authority and drove around as if they owned the roads. Driving in the middle of the road, they blocked army vehicles from overtaking, ignoring the blaring horns. Youth on motorcycles would ride around perniciously, overtaking army vehicles whilst loudly spewing filth at us … Soldiers who ventured into towns to purchase something were abused … Such attitude and anger was instigated by the LTTE, who gave youth the strength to defy authority or even a symbol of authority.”

For all the particularities of the Eelam national struggle, it shares something with every movement for liberation: there always emerges a Gunaratne – some proud authority unable to comprehend the hatred of the people whose everyday deference is interpreted as a sincere display of love, rather than a performance later cursed in private. Tiger cadres were dedicated, talented and hard working, but their skills were limited to more mundane and practical arts than “brainwashing”. Three wheeler drivers were restive from years of military occupation; all they needed to own the roads was confidence, and knowledge that they would be supported in their actions.

While the brigade commander licked the psychological wounds inflicted by youths displaying a lack of respect for men in uniform, the Tiger de facto state took firmer form in the Vanni, consolidating the power and authority of the LTTE. A nascent apparatus had developed after the withdrawal of Indian troops in 1990, when the Tigers took Jaffna – the first time that the organisation gained control of large, contiguous land areas and took responsibility for the administration of a significant civilian population. 

With the town’s reoccupation by the Sri Lankan military in 1995, the influx of refugees to the Vanni strained existing infrastructure. This came on top of a Colombo blockade of LTTE-controlled areas. “Basic goods such as Panadol, sugar, soap and sanitary products all were banned”, says Maran, who lived and worked under the LTTE administration in the Vanni between 1995 and 2004. “We never saw petrol; however, kerosene was smuggled from India by boat. But we built an economy that could maintain itself despite this.”

Much of the Tiger apparatus was reconfigured toward service provision – a shadow administration supplementing the meagre services provided by the existing government bureaucracy. (If Colombo had abandoned the administrative apparatus in LTTE-controlled territory, it would have been viewed by all as a concession to Tamil demands for self-rule. So it kept alive a skeleton bureaucracy.)

With the cessation of hostilities, the Tiger state grew more expansive and sophisticated as trade resumed, revenues rose and as a political space opened with the easing of the security situation. “This was a very hopeful period for Tamils across the island and in Tamil Eelam as well as the diaspora”, Maran says. The de facto state included a police force and judicial system, education and health institutions, and child care, banking and land management divisions among others. Former cadres and civilians talk with pride of three areas of Tiger rule: efforts to eliminate the caste system, women’s social gains and law and order. Each area harboured its own contradictions born of the limitations of war, of the society in which the experiments were undertaken and of the LTTE’s strategic approach to national liberation.

First, in the elimination casteism, the Tigers succeeded within their own ranks: lower caste Tamils were heavily represented among Tiger cadres and leadership. And their sacrifices as soldiers of the people were venerated throughout Eelam. Within the de facto state, there were also significant gains. N. Malathy, who worked in several human rights and welfare institutions in the Vanni from 2005 to 2009, but who was not a member of the Tigers, recounts in her memoir, A fleeting moment in my country:

“South Asian thought patterns, even today, are ridden with caste categorisation. Widespread egalitarian thought is foreign to the region … The ideologies of the LTTE, which urged the downtrodden to take an active role in the liberation struggle, had challenged this mode of thought. In Vanni, at least within the wider LTTE community, this had created a social context where the old caste- and class-based thought processes had been challenged.”

Among the Tamil population there were also gains. One example was hairdressers, a lower caste. Upper caste people previously never deigned to go to a salon; they believed themselves dirtied by association. Instead, barbers would come to their homes. The hairdressers’ association, supported by the LTTE, eliminated this practice. This might seem trivial, but the caste system was full of practices that in myriad ways sapped the dignity of lower caste people.

But the challenges of the military siege, combined with the demands for social cohesion, created mixed results. For example, one man in the north, from the fisher caste, explains that Tigers could turn a blind eye to existing caste practices because of the conflict arising from the organisation’s dual goals of furthering social equality and maintaining national unity. The LTTE was in control, but some wealthier and upper caste Tamils accepted Tiger power only pragmatically, rather than enthusiastically. National unity, of all classes and castes, therefore resulted in concessions to avoid strife on all fronts.

The gains of, and contradictions within, the struggle for equality of the sexes have been noted. It is worth quoting Malathy again for a picture of life on the ground under the de facto state. She stands out as one of the few observers writing in the English language combining sympathy for, and criticism of, LTTE rule:

“Militarism permitted many liberating characteristics for women. The training improved their demeanour that was otherwise conditioned by a culture that demanded a strictly subordinate role. Participation in battles raised their status to that of the LTTE men in the eyes of the general population. It gave them the freedom to act in the public space in ways that were clearly different from the rest of the women. This … had a flow on effect for the civilian women too. There were many non-military areas in which Vanni society exhibited greater pro-women character than the wider Tamil society …

“Just observing the number of women on the streets during peak hours dressed for work, it was obvious that a greater percentage of women in Vanni went to work outside the home. There were also more women in civilian clothes riding motorbikes on Vanni roads compared to the rest of the island. Women, both LTTE members as well as civilians, occupied the public space in large numbers. They were very visible on the roads and in the LTTE institutions. This gave Vanni a uniquely pro-woman character, which was absent elsewhere on the island…

“Yet, visually, the most obvious sign of oppressive habits among civilian women in Vanni was also the practice of wearing the saree [a traditional dress designed for modesty and which restricts the sort of activities a wearer can easily perform] by even those employed in LTTE civilian institutions. Thousands of civilian women worked in such institutions, and they were all compelled to wear the saree in a uniform style determined by the LTTE institution. The contrast was striking for anyone who cared to observe it.

“Many young women have told me that they resisted applying for jobs in LTTE institutions because of the compulsion to wear the saree. Almost all women resisted this practice. LTTE women were vocal about their resistance and they were never subjected to it. Civilian women on the other hand were subjected to this rule … These different tensions acting on the issue of female attire accurately captured the status of women’s issues in general in Vanni.”

Finally there is the question of law and order. In Western countries, this usually is the terrain of the political right because policing is a means to check the oppressed sections of the population and ensure economic and political stability for the ruling elite. But for an oppressed society under siege and engaged in resistance, disorder and uncertainty are diabolical enemies. They foster suspicion, sap solidarity’s resolve and breed demoralisation, fracturing the unity of purpose without which no struggle for liberation can succeed.

Those who live in Jaffna consistently raise two benefits of LTTE law and order: Tiger vengeance against gendered violence, which created a space for women to walk alone in the evening and at night without harassment; and Tiger crackdowns on anti-social behaviour, which led to the absence of drugs and drunks on the street. Both of these were considered vital for enabling popular participation in the struggle, for generating trust in Tiger rule and for preventing the growth of a class of addicts and felons who could easily be bribed or blackmailed by agents of the Sri Lankan government.

Yet limitations in the LTTE’s strategy for liberation became evident. Tiger ascendency among the armed factions in the 1980s at times involved the ruthless eradication of competitors. They were not alone in dishing out violence; most factions engaged in, to put it diplomatically, unsavoury practices. The pressures for this are obvious. Those taking the road of armed struggle are bound to be more adept at, and prone to, using violence to resolve differences, rather than debating things out and winning people through reason and argument. It is one of the great weaknesses of armed struggle as a strategy, rather than a sometime tactic, that it results in authoritarianism. Anecdotally, this was the case under Tiger rule, other political forces complaining of intimidation at the hands of LTTE cadres.

The state-building project also brought out contradictions in the LTTE’s nationalist project. Oppressed nations have a right to self-determination, including the right to secession. But the creation of a new state within the confines of world imperialism will always result in new divisions between rulers and ruled, or the solidification and codification of existing divisions that may temporarily be papered over during the struggle for liberation. The Tiger de facto state expressed these cleavages as the movement morphed from armed struggle to administrative rule. Malathy notes an emerging contradiction between devotion to the cause and distance from the people:

“Though only a very small percentage of those living in Vanni at this time were bona fide LTTE members … the majority of working people in Vanni had a close relative from this pool. This factor strongly coloured the social space in Vanni at this time and gave the entire society an LTTE flavour. LTTE institutions were also the major employer, and as a result civilians were further drawn into the LTTE ambit. The large number of LTTE families with children now living in the wider community also brought in another layer of interconnectedness.

“This growing interconnectedness was constantly negated by some of the activities of the LTTE. Foremost among these activities was the everpresent recruitment drive of the LTTE. During this period, the bureaucratic lethargy in some LTTE institutions also came under constant criticism … I repeatedly heard people saying that the LTTE was increasing its distance from the people.”

One illustration of this was the institution of conscription in 2006. As the peace process faltered, military considerations again came to the fore. But the Tigers’ recruitment drives fell short and the leadership demanded of each family one recruit to its armed wing. This created much debate – and also consternation – within the general population and among Tiger cadres.

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The ceasefire and peace talks resulted from Tiger strength, forcing Colombo politicians to the negotiating table when a military solution appeared distant. But after several years, the balance of power shifted. An influx of foreign NGOs and the imposition of international benchmarks for peace weighed on the LTTE. The warfare between the Sri Lankan military and the Tigers was asymmetric. The Sri Lankans had far greater conventional strength; the Tigers, despite their advances, still relied on ambush, stealth and political conviction. They also employed suicide bombings, which are a modern hallmark of relative military weakness. This weakness was compounded by international pressure. 

“A fleeting moment was written immediately after I got out of the internment camp and thus based solely on what I observed during those years in Vanni under the ceasefire agreement and later as it broke down”, Malathy says via email from her home in New Zealand. “During those years I observed the blatant bias of NGOs and the UN agencies.” Gunaratne and the Sri Lankan military hierarchy argue that the peace process was a time-buying rearmament exercise by the LTTE, but the liberation movement was being pressured by the UN and NGOs to adopt “international norms” of warfare between states, which further weakened the Tigers’ fighting position. As Radha D’Souza, a writer and critic now based at the University of Westminster, notes:

“The struggle for a Tamil homeland was not wanting in sustained popular support, heroism and courage, discipline or sacrifices. The struggle got mired in the peace process. The peace process was the beginning of the end of the Tamil struggle for a homeland. The peace process softened up the resistance of a war weary nation …

“The demand for international social and cultural standards from the LTTE without statehood enabled the peacemakers and international media to discredit the claims of the entire Tamil nation … [and put] organised Tamil resistance on hold. After the softening up was achieved the peacemakers packed up and left, leaving the ground open for a full scale military operation by the Sri Lankan state.”