The historical use of the word “terrorist” clearly indicates that the word is a political tool and is never used in its intended sense. According to political intellectual Noam Chomsky, if we apply the terrorism laws espoused by the United States against their own policies, we will find that the United States is the world’s leading terrorist state.
The United States has overthrown democratically elected governments in Latin America; destroyed Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War; destabilized the Middle East; conducts drone operations killing innocent men, women and children; the United States indefinitely detains individuals in Guantanamo Bay without due process, among several other egregious acts. The United States, despite committing such horrendous actions, is never labeled as a terrorist state.
The United States has used the word “terrorist” against Fidel Castro who sought to liberate his country by overthrowing a U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. The United States labeled Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, and only recently did Mandela get removed from the terrorist list. The United States labeled Saddam Hussein as a “terrorist” despite the fact that during the 1980s, the United States was providing weapons technology to Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, the United States supports one of the most radical nations in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia, which has killed innocent women and children in Yemen, and continues to terrorize its own citizens through brutal forms of punishment and executions.
Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sri Lankan Minister of Foreign Affairs, made it his mission to travel to several countries and encourage foreign governments to proscribe the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a terrorist organization. This was completely the wrong approach. It should be acknowledged, first and foremost, that the LTTE did have legitimate grievances. However, the LTTE’s approach to tackling such grievances was immensely counterproductive and the Tamils are worse off now than they ever were before the civil war. Nevertheless, by labeling the LTTE as a terrorist entity it works to unjustly undermine those grievances.
When I interviewed Erik Solheim, the Norway-led peace negotiator between the LTTE and Sri Lankan government, he voiced disapproval of Kadirgamar’s actions. Erik Solheim cited that proscribing the LTTE as a terrorist organization caused foreign governments to disengage with Prabhakaran and the political leadership of the LTTE. Prabhakaran was the sole decision maker within the LTTE; as a result, direct engagement with Prabhakaran was a crucial factor in bringing a peaceful end to the civil war.
During the Indo-Lanka talks, Prabhakaran voiced frustrations against Rajiv Gandhi for undermining his authority and not directly negotiating with him. Subsequently, Prabhakran felt isolated and coerced by India and he lashed out and conducted an all-out assault against Indian Peacekeeping forces, and consequently innocent Tamils were the victims of the battle.
“If Prabhakaran had been able to speak with [leaders] in other nations from Europe, India, United States and other places it would have been a much better strategy,” Solheim stated. Due to the lack of direct engagement with Prabhakaran, Solheim stated, Prabhakaran’s views during the peace process were very narrow.
Anytime an organization is labeled as a terrorist entity, negotiations between the state and terrorist entity are automatically on an uneven playing field—where the superior power, along with its allies, attempts to undermine legitimate grievances. For example, legitimate grievances were undermined during negotiations between Israel-Palestine, with the Oslo Accords which scholars such as Norman Finkelstein asserted only worked to impose the Israeli status quo.
The breakdown of the peace talks and the designation of the LTTE as a terrorist organization by the European Union, United States, Canada, and much of the Western world caused Prabhakaran to feel isolated and he resorted to conducting an all-out assault. Consequently, the civil war ended in a bloody manner with an estimated 40,000 civilians killed during the final stages of the war. Egregious human rights violations were committed by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government during the final stages. The LTTE resorted to using its own civilians as human shields during the final stages of the war, with the LTTE shooting Tamils who fled rebel held territory.
Bob Rae and Erik Solheim, two individuals who played key roles during the peace process, stated that a good portion of the peace process was spent teaching the senior LTTE officials about the basics of federalism. LTTE senior leaders such as Thamilselvan and Col.Karuna were flown abroad to nations like France to learn about federalism. However, as acknowledged by both Bob Rae and Erik Solheim, this was completely useless because it was only Prabhakaran who was the sole decision maker within the LTTE.
A plausible reason why Prabhakaran blatantly rejected constitutional reforms such as the Indo-Lanka accord and the GL-Neelan package, and proceeded to kill those who proposed constitutional reforms was because Prabhakaran did not understand the necessity of federalism and ignorantly viewed separatism as the only answer. Erik Solheim, during my interview, stated that Anton Balasingham was an educated man who understood the value of federalism. This is clearly witnessed when Anton Balasingham, after Neelan Tiruchelvam’s killing, praised the original GL-Neelan package as workable and expressed regret over the missed opportunity for the LTTE to negotiate with the proposal. This is something Prabhakran never did. Solheim, furthermore, stated that arguments between Prabhakran and Balasingham were very common due to Prabhakaran’s narrow vision of the separatist ideology. If Prabhakaran had been directly educated on the principles and benefits of federalism, it could have paved the way for him to being more open to constitutional reforms as solution to the conflict.
Western nations needed to have directly engaged with Prabhakaran and taught him about what federalism was. Prabhakaran should have been flown out of the country, on diplomatic immunity, with Western leaders having directly engaged with Prabhakaran on the benefits of federalism. If Western leaders had directly engaged with Prabhakran in such a direct manner, the international community would have put immense pressure on the LTTE to accept a federalist proposal and LTTE front organizations could no longer state that Western governments were ignoring the grievances of the Tamil people
Nonetheless, this level of direct engagement with Prabhakaran did not occur.
Now that the civil war is over, in order to address the legitimate grievances of the Tamil people, the Sirisena government must further work to engage in negotiations with the Tamil political parties and devise a constitution that gives autonomy and devolutionary powers to the minorities while working to preserve the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka as a whole.