KM de Silva’s Sri Lanka and the Defeat of the LTTE (Penguin books, 2012 ISBN 9780143416524) looks at the rise and fall of LTTE in the context of South Asia and the India-Sri Lanka relationship, says R Hariharan. The story of Velupillai Prabhakaran’s rise from the backwoods of Jaffna to build the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of the most dreaded terrorist organisations, and his fall in the battlefield can be told in many ways. Sri Lanka historian KM de Silva in his latest book looks at the rise and fall of the LTTE in the larger context of South Asia and the India-Sri Lanka relationship.
The book is a sequel to his earlier work, Reaping the Whirlwind: Ethnic Politics, Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. It is made up of four monographs dealing with different aspects of the common theme of ethnic conflict. Although the lengthy introduction has tried to link up the four monographs, some issues are featured in more than one narrative. For instance, reference to India’s assertive intervention, which prevented Gen Cyril Ranatunge’s rout of the LTTE in 1987 in Jaffna, figures in three different parts of the book. (Would the rout of LTTE have eliminated the ethnic conflict is a moot question?) Deft editing to provide linkups could have improved the reading of the book.
The first narrative — the travails of Sri Lanka as a south Asian democracy — provides insights on the failure of political negotiations in the island nation. An interesting case study comparing the conflicts in Jammu & Kashmir and Sri Lanka brings out the role of external powers in influencing internal situations. The author’s point on the failure of Jaffna Tamils to forge a pan-Tamil political front with Plantation Tamils due to caste and class differences is a valid one. In fact, Jaffna Tamils’ ‘superiority’ mindset was reflected within the LTTE leadership as well. This led to Batticaloa LTTE leader Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna Amman to break away from Prabhakaran with detrimental effect on LTTE’s performance in the Eelam War.
This part also analyses the failure of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leadership to understand the true nature of LTTE and Prabhakaran’s ambition to be the sole leader of Tamils. In fact, when I broached the subject with the late TULF leader Amirthalingam, he rued the day he helped Prabhakaran in the early days. Later the TULF leader paid the price for his grievous error when LTTE cadre who ostensibly came to ‘meet’ him gunned him down.
The second narrative, analysing the militarisation of Sri Lanka, provides insights on political changes that impacted security services during Sirimavo Bandaranayak’s regime. According to the author, this affected the national character of the security forces making it a largely Sinhala Buddhist force. Security forces became a victim of political meddling for a long time; this affected their operations against the LTTE in the later years.
In examining the seeds of separatism in this part, Prof de Silva builds a well-argued case against Tamil’s three basic grievances — university admissions policy, language policy and state sector employment — to conclude they are based on false premises. But the analysis of ‘false premises’ misses the history’s glaring footnote — the kernel of truth in the Tamil argument — that enabled Tamil insurgency to hold out against Sri Lanka’s might for over 25 years. The growth of LTTE was the logical consequence of Sinhala polity’s failure to convince the Tamils of the rationale of its actions. Though his analysis is from a Sinhala rather than Sri Lankan perspective, it gives the majority Sinhala’s reasoning that influenced the country’s political responses to the ethnic question.
The demoralising defeats of the Sri Lankan Army and the rise of the LTTE between 1990 and 2000 are dealt with in the third part. This was a period of political drift with the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) rivalry neutralising each other’s efforts to achieve ethnic reconciliation. The failure of the draft constitution painstakingly formulated in 2000 is a case in point. In this period LTTE had also hobbled the Tamil polity from undertaking creative initiatives. The failure of the peace process in 2002 was a consequence of the disastrous UNP-SLFP cohabitation and Prabhakaran’s faith in the power of the gun than in peace talks. Prabhakaran failed to recognise a powerful President in Mahinda Rajapaksa and a skilful army commander in Gen Sarath Fonseka, determined to wipe out LTTE. One cannot but agree with the author’s comment on the dubious way in which President Rajapaksa deprived Gen Fonseka of the credit for the victory against the LTTE.
The most valuable chapter in this part is the one dealing with the challenges of militarisation from 1986 to 2011. The author emphasises the need to recruit Tamils and other minorities in armed forces as part of the national integration process. His concern on retaining the oversized army even after the war and sidelining of Parliament in national security affairs reflects the mood of civil society. In tandem with the control of the armed forces in the hands of the President and his brother and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, militarisation appears to have come to stay.
The last part on reconstruction and rehabilitation in war-torn north is rather sketchy, probably because it is a developing story. It has been written with a lot of sympathy for the people of the war-torn region. His stress on the need to return the land occupied by security forces to the rightful owners reflects this concern.
Overall, this is a well-researched and thought-provoking book, though chronology of events and topics moving forward and backward does not make for easy reading. The maps are useful to understand the military operations.