Thursday, April 23, 2009

r.i.p. ltte.

an op-ed i wrote on the tamil tigers...

R.I.P. LTTE

Conventional defeat seems to be all but inevitable for Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As a student of foreign affairs with a particular interest in guerilla warfare, the news coming out of Sri Lanka is nothing short of mind-blowing.

And even though you might not know it, this conflict has probably shaken and shaped you, too, in an even more literal sense. If you’ve ever gotten low to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” or T.I.’s “Swagger Like Us,” you’ve gotten down with the global cultural reverberations of one of Asia’s longest standing armed conflicts. M.I.A.’s father and the namesake of her debut album, Arul Pragasam, helped found the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), which would go on to host Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) training of the LTTE and its reclusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, as well as other Tamil militant groups.

Speaking as a completely detached observer, defeat for the Tamil Tigers would mark the end of one the most innovative and interesting guerilla movements of all time. Their soldiers are known to carry cyanide capsules that they are trained to swallow in the event of capture. The Tamil Tigers invented the suicide belt and were the first militant organization to use female suicide bombers, culminating the assassination of the ninth Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, by a female LTTE suicide bomber. The LTTE, a secular national liberation movement purportedly representing a predominantly Hindu population, has conducted more suicide bombings than any other militant organization in the world, including Islamist organizations more familiar to Americans like Hamas and Al-Qaeda.

Though the history is complicated, the origins of the conflict can be traced back to Sri Lanka’s independence from Great Britain in 1948. Sri Lanka’s democratic system meant that power was held by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, which instituted discriminatory practices during rising ethnic tensions like banning Tamil language publications, limiting the amount of Tamils that could attend university, and even denying some Tamil’s Sri Lankan citizenship. The ethnic tensions escalated into increasingly organized violence which led to Tamil separatism and the beginning of an all-out Sri Lankan Civil War in 1983.

Having a Baha'i family that fled comparable persecution by the Islamist government of Iran, my natural inclination is to feel sympathy for the Tamils. Ideally, unequal treatment on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity would be solved without resorting to separatism. Instead, a discriminatory state that (de facto or de jure) represents one particular race, religion, or ethnicity would adapt and begin to govern for all its people equally.

If every instance of unequal treatment were solved by dividing and establishing separate states, our world would be plagued by state division on the basis of all our innumerable differences on an enormous scale. It seems obvious to me that if purportedly democratic states are not compelled to reconcile with their minorities through the restoration of equal treatment under the law, (I am reminded of Lady Justice’s blindfold,) then democracy simply means majority rule, no matter how benign or brutal.

That said, it’s an unfortunate reality that sometimes historical momentum makes this practically impossible, though I maintain that separatism only becomes necessary as a result of human intolerance, typically on all sides. Having admitted that separatism can become necessary, the critical question is, “When does it become necessary?” In that answer lies the ultimate historical legitimacy of Tamil separatism beyond the LTTE.

It seems to me the government of Sri Lanka can still influence the answer by the way it chooses to treat its Tamil minority in the aftermath of the LTTE’s impending military defeat. Should Sri Lanka choose to continue to persecute its Tamil minority, the Sri Lankan government will carve a favorable epithet for the LTTE that will inspire continued unconventional warfare. Should Sri Lanka instead choose to come to terms with its own mistakes and delegitimize the grassroots support for the often brutal LTTE by ensuring equal treatment for the Tamil minority, the end of the Tamil Tigers could be the beginning of an enduring and welcome peace in Sri Lanka.

As the Sri Lankan Army advances and refugees pour out of the last LTTE bastion by the thousands, the outcome remains to be seen. But if the trend is any indication, then the eulogizing might as well begin now… R.I.P. to the victims of the conflict, and R.I.P. to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.