By Shlomi Yass –
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was a secular, nationalist terrorist organization active in Sri Lanka from 1976 until May 2009. The LTTE demanded the establishment of an independent Tamil country in the north and north-east of Sri Lanka, following the systematic discrimination perpetrated by the Sinhalese majority (Buddhist), against the Tamil minority (Hindu).
Initially, the LTTE acted on a small scale. As the level of violence increased, they formed a military-like command structure, and, at their peak, controlled 5800 square miles and consisted of approximately 30-35,000 members. The LTTE is the only terrorist organization to have successfully assassinated two world leaders (India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the President of Sri Lanka Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993). Furthermore, the LTTE killed numerous politicians, military officials, academics and intellectuals.
At the onset of the final campaign in January 2009, the military took control of the LTTE’s active capital, Kilinochchi. As the LTTE retreated, they used thousands of trapped civilians as human shields and reportedly shot at civilians trying to flee. Despite heavy international pressure, prompting the government to designate safe zones for civilians, repeated shelling continued to penetrate those zones. The fighting continued until May 16, 2009 at which time the military took full control of LTTE-controlled area.
Ending the reign of LTTE terror was the result of a decisive decision taken by Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and members of his government. There were several factors leading to the President’s decision. First, Sri Lanka is a social democracy, thereby allowing it to use means that liberal-democracies would not. Second, every previous attempt at negotiating between the government and the LTTE failed. Third, years of violence severely crippled the Sri Lankan economy and fourth, on-going terror coupled with the fear that the LTTE would acquire sophisticated weapons harmed their legitimacy.
It seems, however, that the most significant factor was the President’s decision to use the same means as the LTTE. In an interview I conducted with Donald Perera, the former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Israel, he stated “when the government finally realized that the terrorists were ruining the country and that every time someone left home they did not know if they would return, the President decided to wipe them out.”
Despite using the word “terrorism”, there is not one universally agreed upon definition. However, a majority of definitions of “terrorism” contain several similarities: aspects of violence and power, political aspects, a component of fear and psychological influences and a civilian aspect. Dr. Boaz Ganor has suggested defining terrorism as “the intentional use or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims”.
As seen in the case of Sri Lanka, the lack of a universal definition of terrorism diminishes the ability to define uniform standards for assigning responsibilities to both state and terror group actors, for more effectively countering terrorism and in defining the legal boundaries in such situations, etc.
Terrorism as a Response to Terrorism
The LTTE posed a challenge to the authority of the government and an actual threat to the military. Besides the LTTE’s political arm, their military arm included sea, air cyber and land units as well as units of children and women. According to the Los Angeles Times, the LTTE carried out more suicide bombings than Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda combined.
Compared to the LTTE’s tactics, some of the government’s means in response included: preventing media coverage, ignoring the United Nations and human rights groups as well as isolating and perpetrating fear upon the Tamil population. Between 1983 and 2009, thousands of civilians died and hundreds of thousands were displaced.
Why were the LTTE perceived as the “bad guys” whereas the government the “good guys” when both sides used violence against citizens for political aims – meaning terrorism? The answer might lie in the limited notion that sees the existence of terrorism as relying on only two variables – motivation and capability. This presumes that in order to effectively fight terrorism only these two variables need to be addressed.
However, as the LTTE possessed both motivation and capability, they lacked a third component – legitimacy. Contrary to the LTTE, the government presented a single and unified approach on all levels and leveraged the failures of all prior negotiations as a justification to generate an aggressive campaign of legitimacy both domestically and internationally. Until 2007, the LTTE was considered as a terrorist organization by 32 countries. Hence, despite the pressure and criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups, Sri Lanka was not considered a state-sponsor of terrorism.
In conclusion, even though the LTTE, after 30 years of bloodshed, did not achieve their ultimate goal, in order for the Sri Lankan government to maintain stability, they must recognize the basic demands of the Tamil population. Further, they must allow the Tamil population to re-enter political life, and reduce the insecurities felt by the Tamils through integrating them as citizens with full and equal rights.
*The author has a master’s degree in government-counter-terrorism and homeland security, and is an intern at the Military and Strategic Affairs Program, INSS.