Observations on the LTTE from a Kurdish Comrade
I would like to offer my deep condolences to the people of Tamil Eelam for their immense losses in recent months.
As a Kurd, I have followed the liberation struggle of Tamils in Sri Lanka-along with my own people’s fight for an independent state-since mid-1980s, when I first saw the pictures of uniformed female cadres of the LTTE in Jaffna and fell in love with them. The LTTE, in my view, is the gold-standard for all national liberation struggles despite its defeat. And what a glorious defeat it was! My people suffered many defeats too; in 1925, 1938, 1946, 1975, 1988, 1991 and 1999. None could match the glory of LTTE’s fight to the death. This was a struggle against overwhelming odds that ended in martyrdom for your leaders, but their memories and their struggle will live in songs and stories of all Tamil people for a thousand years to come.
That the LTTE managed to keep its leader and senior cadres alive right down to the last day and the last fire-fight before they too succumbed to the vastly superior man and fire power of the SLA is a testament to the intelligence, strength, discipline and dedication of the organisation. V. Prabhakaran and his senior commanders could have ordered the rank and file LTTE personnel to lay down their arms, before fleeing the island for a third country. The fact that they -as well as their families-did not flee the conflict zone nor surrendered, but chose to fight to the death like tens of thousands of other LTTE cadres that preceded them is a lesson to all leaders who ask others to sacrifice their lives for a cause. I doubt many insurgent leaders, Kurds included, would show as much courage and offer as much personal sacrifice in similar circumstances.
Compared to armed Kurdish movements, the LTTE had many strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths were too numerous to count. Its weaknesses and mistakes were few but deadly in the long run. In my view, there are two generalised, structural weaknesses of the LTTE, followed by a few specific mistakes they made.
Firstly, the LTTE was extremely inflexible in its political expectations. In the absence of international support for an independent homeland, an autonomy agreement for a federal Tamil state in Sri Lanka was the most realistic outcome for the LTTE. It was the responsibility of a new generation of Tamils to take the struggle to its next stage, if Sri Lankan state continued to be ill-disposed towards Tamil people. By then, of course, the federal Tamil state would have gained some international recognition for the status quo and thus would have been far less isolated as a ‘terrorist’ outfit. That V. Prabakharan instructed his bodyguards to shoot him if he deviated from the demand for independence is a clear sign of the inflexibility of the LTTE leadership.
Secondly, the LTTE put unnecessary emphasis on revenge and retaliation. As Clausewitz famously said, “war is politics by other means”. In politics,-as in war-revenge and retaliation is always secondary to the main objective. Every political act must be judged by its consequences; that is, whether it helps bring the main objective closer to reality, not whether it satisfies primitive urges for some injustice done in the past. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and many attacks on Sinhala leadership, some of whom were useful and could have been of further use to Tamil struggle in time, are cases in point.
In more specific mistakes, the LTTE should have pushed on to re-capture Jaffna at all costs after liberating the Elephant Pass in 1999, even if this meant losing ground elsewhere. The cost could have been very high with tens of thousands of SLA soldiers still occupying the peninsula but the SL political and military forces were in complete disarray. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity was lost and the LTTE eventually found itself fighting on more than one front.
The ceasefire agreement of 2002, following the 9/11 events, was correct; perhaps inevitable. However, the Indian Ocean Tsunami of late 2004 and its devastating effect on Tamil territory should have humbled Prabakharan and the LTTE into seeking a genuine half-way compromise with the SL government. It should be noted that the Tsunami and its effects ended the Aceh independence movement and it should have played a role in LTTE’s political calculation as well.
Another grave error was the boycotting of elections in 2005 that brought hardliners to government in Sri Lanka. As a general rule, people should never ever be asked to refrain from voting in an election under any circumstances. The benefits of election boycotts, such as refreshing community spirit and as gestures of dissatisfaction, are small and ephemeral. They are far outweighed by the dangers as well as the real and lasting costs of handing the power to a less amenable adversary.
Karuna’s rebellion should also have been foreseen and dealt with quite early and sincerely. As a faraway, non-Tamil observer, nothing disappointed me in LTTE as much as the Tiger vs Tiger violence. I can imagine its demoralising effect on all Tamils. As a Kurd, I am not unfamiliar with infighting among our people and between many of our political parties, but never has a single, Kurdish military outfit turned its guns on to itself. Perhaps, Karuna was also motivated by Prabhakaran’s inflexibility, the effects of the Tsunami and the result of election boycott of 2005.
If, as was charged, Prabhakaran committed the grave error of ‘narrow regionalism’ in LTTE, then Karuna could have only compounded the error with his rebellion. (’Narrow regionalism’, that is, giving preferential treatment to people of certain regions, is considered a great sin among Kurdish movements. Still, it’s inevitable and widespread) But more likely, being the supremo of the Eastern Tamils must have gotten to Karuna’s head, and he must have considered himself a better leader for the entire LTTE than Prabhakaran.
History will never forgive Karuna for betraying his commitment and turning his guns on his leader and comrades no matter what the real reasons for his defection might be. The best and most honourable action for Karuna, as well as for his movement and for his people, was to either resign altogether from all his functions and duties within the LTTE -after voicing his grievances in private, even if it meant death for him-or seek a less active role in the movement.
He did neither, preferring to be an active turncoat. Beloved, respected and trusted neither by Tamils nor Sinhalese, Karuna will surely meet a violent end, with each side crediting the other for it, and with very few people shedding tears for his demise.
People of Tamil Eelam are smart, talented and resourceful. You shall rise again from your ashes. By ballots or bullets, Tamil Eelam shall become a reality so long as you keep up your hopes and dreams alive.
– Shexmus Amed