By E.A. Selvanathan
Some commentators have predicted that since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) lost the Tamil heartland of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka to the Sri Lankan armed forces, it is the end of the liberation struggle for the Tamil nation. The aim of this article is to review the recent Sri Lankan military offensive and the current situation of the liberation struggle for Tamil Eelam.
Two nations, Tamil Eelam and a Sinhala nation called Sri Lanka, coexisted in the island over 2000 years. During their rule, the British unified the two nations and named the whole island Ceylon, granted independence in 1948. Ceylon became a republic with a changed name, Sri Lanka, in 1972.
Between 1948 and 1972, the Tamil people used non-violent political means to protest against the successive Sinhala governments' increasing oppression and discrimination. The armed struggle for independence began in 1972. The main organised group fighting for the independence of the Tamil homeland is the LTTE.
In 1990, the LTTE managed to regain control of part of the Jaffna Peninsula (home to more than 800,000 Tamils) and ran a de facto government with the support of the Tamil population. Since 1990, the people in the peninsula have been deprived of basic facilities such as electricity, water, medicine and food items by the Sri Lankan government.
A new government led by Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power in late 1994 with a mandate to bring peace to the island. Mrs Kumaratunga's father served as prime minister during the 1950s and introduced the "Sinhala only" national language bill in 1956. Her mother also served as a prime minister in the 1970s, during which time she removed the merit system of university admissions, changed the constituition to remove minority and religious rights and renamed the whole island Sri Lanka in 1972.
In July 1995, the new government began a military offensive code named "Leap Forward" to capture the Jaffna Peninsula. The civilian population were ordered to go and stay in churches and schools. In the bombing that followed, several churches, places of worship and schools were indiscriminately bombed; hundreds of men, women and children were killed and many more wounded.
In October 1995, President Kumaratunga declared war on the Tamil nation with slogans "War for Peace" and "Liberation for Tamils from the LTTE". "Operation Sunshine" used about 35,000 troops to capture the capital of the LTTE's northern stronghold, Jaffna. Since the start of this operation, the military actions of the Sri Lankans have resulted in the death of hundreds of innocent civilians and the wounding of thousands of others.
The civilian population, who could not trust the Sri Lankan military, left their homes and moved to southern parts of the peninsula which were still under LTTE control. More than 500,000 civilians were displaced.
After 50 days of fighting, the LTTE left Jaffna city and the northern part of the peninsula and moved with the civilians trying to flee the advancing Sri Lankan army into the southern part of the peninsula, such as Thenmaradchi, Vadamaradchi and Vanni. Thenmaradchi and Vadamaradchi are part of the peninsula and Vanni is the mainland, separated from the peninsula by a lagoon called Killali.
The cost of Operation Sunshine was nearly 2000 human lives and millions of dollars of damage to civilian property.
Even though the Sri Lankan armed forces managed to capture the northern part of the Jaffna Peninsula, they could not capture the people or halt the exodus of 500,000 Tamil people into LTTE-controlled areas.
While more than half a million Tamil people were displaced, living under trees and alongside roads without food, medicine, sanitation facilities or shelter from monsoonal rains, the Sri Lankan government celebrated the capture of Jaffna with fireworks.
Offers by international agencies (including the UN) of food, medicine and shelter for the displaced (to be distributed by these agencies) were rejected by the Sri Lankan government. Despite the hardships the displaced civilians faced, they did not return to their homes in government-controlled areas, fearing for their safety after learning of the inhumane treatment dealt to those few (mainly elderly and sick) who had been left in these areas.
Since July 1995, the Sri Lankan government has banned any independent media representative from entering the northern parts of the country. Thus foreign governments are prevented from obtaining information from independent sources.
Many defence analysts have concluded that Operation Sunshine was a hollow military victory and a political defeat for the Sri Lankan government. Consequently, it has been waiting for an opportunity to reverse this outcome. In April, the Sri Lankan armed forces launched another offensive, "Sunshine 2", to capture the remaining Jaffna Peninsula, paying no regard to the safety of the civilian population and the displaced.
According to military analysts, the government's strategy is to capture as many as possible of the Tamil civilians displaced as a result of Operation Sunshine and forced to live as refugees in Thenmaradchi and Vadamaradchi.
As the Sri Lankan army began moving towards Thenmaradchi and Vadamaradchi, people started to flee to Vanni, across the Killali lagoon, with the help of the LTTE. To trap the fleeing population, the Sri Lankan army directed its artillery shells on the fleeing Tamil civilians, who had choked all the roads leading to the Killali embarkation point. Air Force planes and MI24 helicopters launched indiscriminate aerial bombardments around Killali and at the boats carrying the civilians across the lagoon.
The main purpose of this bombing was to terrorise the fleeing civilians and force a substantial proportion of them back to Valigamam (captured by the government forces in December 1995) to enable the government to establish a form of civil administration under military occupation. This administration, under the pretext of rehabilitating the Tamil people, continues to petition other countries for money which is channelled directly into funding the war.
The Sri Lankan army has managed to trap nearly 150,000 Tamil civilians under its control.
While the LTTE has lost control of more than 50% of the Jaffna Peninsula, it has gained superiority in the Eastern Province, as the Sri Lankan army had to move a large number of troops from the east to the north. Recent successful attacks on major army camps in the east are evidence for the LTTE gaining superiority in this region. Recent isolated attacks against the Sri Lankan army in the Jaffna Peninsula show that the LTTE also continues to maintain a presence there.
The government's intention is to obtain foreign aid under the pretext of rehabilitation of the Tamil people and to win back the support of the Tamil people so that a conflict between the Tamil people and the LTTE can be created.
On one hand, the government is trying to woo the Tamil people trapped in government-controlled areas by offering housing, food, electricity, medicine, water supply etc after more than six years of embargo. On the other hand, the government is trying to starve those living in LTTE-controlled areas by denying food, medicine and shelter and terrorising them by indiscriminately bombing and shelling.
However, the Tamil people, wherever they are, are not going to forget easily the state-sponsored oppression and terrorism inflicted upon them over the past 48 years.
Atrocities are still very fresh in the hearts and minds of many Tamils. According to the Uniting Church World Mission 1993 report, between 1977 and 1993, around 74,000 innocent Tamil civilians were killed, more than 114,000 badly wounded, 44,000 missing, 140,000 rendered orphans and over a million rendered refugees in their own homeland due to the brutalities of the Sri Lankan military and the policies of the Sinhala majority government.
The army brutalities and the oppression are still continuing. In my view, memories of oppression and turmoil will not be easily erased. The liberation of the Tamil nation may not take place today or tomorrow, but the Tamil people are determined to regain control of the Tamil nation from the Sinhala oppressor. As long as this determination stays solid in their hearts, the liberation struggle will go on until the lost nation is liberated.
[E.A. Selvanathan is associate professor in the School of International Business, Faculty of Asian and International Studies, Griffith University.]