By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS,
New Delhi : Over a quarter century after Tamil militancy erupted in Sri Lanka, the once formidable Tamil Tigers are in dire straits, vanquished but not crushed by a rampaging military.
Less than seven years ago, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its founder leader Velupillai Prabhakaran looked like the masters of Sri Lanka’s northeast after virtually bringing Colombo to its knees.
Today, in a dramatic reversal of fortunes, the Sri Lankan military has brought the very same region under its control barring a small stretch in the northeastern district of Mullaitivu.
This is where Prabhakaran, 54 and father of three, is now holed up, apparently in deep underground bunkers chiselled long ago out of hard rocks, still guarded by committed men and women ready to die for him.
But although the LTTE has declared it will fight on, there is hardly anyone outside the group who believes that its dream of carving out an independent state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority can ever become a reality.
Tamil activists who too once shared the dream are blaming it all on Prabhakaran, a school dropout who shaped a ragtag LTTE of the 1970s into the world’s most feared insurgent group.
“From when we all took to the gun for the Tamil cause, we are today not in zero but in minus,” said Dharmalingam Sidharthan, a former Prabhakaran associate who broke away from him a long time ago.
“The Tigers have finished off the Tamil cause,” the former MP told IANS over telephone from Colombo. “All this happened because Prabhakaran wanted to be the sole spokesman of the Tamil people and so did away with even Tamils who disagreed with him.
“After years and years of bloodshed, (Tamil) people are fed up. This is the beginning of the end for the LTTE,” he said. “Even if they (Tigers) survive, they can never recapture the territory they have lost.”
Agreed human rights activist Rajan Hoole: “Today the Tamils are in a bigger mess than in 1983 (when militancy began). At least we didn’t have anarchy then, one could live in the northeast. Life is insecure now. The hijacking of the Tamil struggle by the LTTE was a disaster.”
The LTTE was just one of five militant groups in the early 1980s. But as militancy ballooned after 1983, partly with India’s covert support, the LTTE decimated other Tamil groups. It grew from strength to strength, taking on the Indian Army in Sri Lanka’s northeast in 1987-90.
As the Tigers later set up a de facto Tamil state in the northeast, while at the same fighting the military, they assassinated former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa only two years later.
By then the LTTE had mastered suicide attacks. Prabhakaran became a “wanted” man in India, which in 1992 outlawed the group it once harboured. The LTTE is now banned in some 30 countries including the US.
The Norway-backed 2002 ceasefire agreement brought glory to the Tigers. But its refusal to come to any settlement added to the unravelling of the peace process by 2005-06. By then the LTTE had suffered a crippling split in the eastern province.
Tamil and other sources say that the LTTE now controls just 300 sq km of land in Mullaitivu district, a third of which are impregnable forests. It also has a presence in nearby jungles. The LTTE is still estimated to have some 2,000 guerrillas, half of whom can be called “hardcore”.
Sri Lankan sources say they would have seized even the area now with the LTTE but for the presence of a large number of Tamil civilians, the greatest sufferers in the seemingly unending war.
While a much smaller LTTE took on the Indian troops about 20 years ago, long-term survival in the present scenario could be much more difficult, say Tamil sources.
Colombo’s aim is to cut off all supplies to the cornered Tigers by occupying areas around the forests and choking the winding coast. Without food, medicines and new shipments of arms and ammunition, it is believed, the LTTE will have to give up.
But LTTE supporters assert they will never wave the white flag. At the same time, Sri Lanka has no desire for any further peace talks. A repeat of the guerrilla war of the 1980s seems unlikely. Amid the chaos, all eyes are again on Prabhakaran, the Jaffna man who started it all.