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The Tamil Tiger Narrative

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Losing causes often generate catchy tunes – very often conducting their own separate reality.  Consider the thrilling Scottish battle piece "The Haughs of Cromdale" which celebrates a battle which barely took place. In 1690, a scruffy handful of Scottish Jacobite rebels took off into the foggy hills on encountering a cavalry force, then re-emerged after the foe had cantered off for lack of opposition, declared they had won a major victory and wrote a song to prove it.

The bravely defiant "O Donnel Abu" was composed in the 19th Century about an Irish uprising in the early 17th Century which was such a dismal failure that it made the colonization of Ulster possible for the English.  To listen to the song would convey a very erroneous impression of severe fighting that never actually occurred. For that matter, sore feelings and what-might-have-beens were a strong part of cultural and political narratives in the American south for at least a century after the end of the American Civil War.  Germans had their own set of similar thoughts in the aftermath of the First World War, which helped lead them directly into the maw of an even worse war 20 years later.

All this should tell us to be especially wary of how the losers (and sometimes the winners) define events in a recently concluded conflict.  We are reminded that we should be deeply sceptical, particularly of nationalist partisans, in the aftermath of a lost war.

These are good points to remember about the rump of the Tamil Tigers structure.  Between the first assassination, of a Tamil politician in 1975, by the founder of the Tamil Tigers, Villupillai Prabhakaran, and the destruction of their guerrilla army in May 2009, the Tigers waged a long and bloody civil war in Sri Lanka.  From the start until the finish of the war; the Tigers insisted that they were a liberation army out to protect Sri Lankan Tamils from discrimination (later from genocide) by the Sri Lankan Sinhalese, and that they represented the best hope for the Tamil people.

Tigers killed thousands

In point of fact the Tigers killed thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils, including many from groups that rivalled the Tigers as well as some from peaceful political parties whose very existence gave the lie to the Tiger message of irreconcilable differences.  Leaders from any source that did not acknowledge the supremacy of the Tigers and their leader, Prabhakaran, were always in peril of their lives; so were ordinary Tamils who defied the orders of the Tigers.

The death rate soared in the last six months of the conflict, but the reason for this has already been generally forgotten.  When the Sri Lankan Army launched its blitzkrieg in the autumn of 2008, and caved in long-held Tiger defences, Prabhakaran gathered his remaining troops and holed up in a last enclave to make a final stand.  Trenches and landmines weren’t his only defences; he also dragged tens of thousands of unwilling Tamils with him to act as human shields and a conscripted labour force.  Hundreds of these were inevitably killed by the Sri Lankan Army artillery fire.  Hundreds more Tamils were killed by the Tigers while trying to escape into the siege lines of the Sri Lankan Army; thousands successfully fled for safety into the arms of the "genocidal" Sri Lankan forces before the surrender occurred.

The Tigers and their supporters have always pointed to the 1983 riots in Colombo as the proof of their allegations about Sri Lankan genocidal policies towards the nation’s Tamil population.  Outsiders are not expected to recall that the rioting resulted from a series of provocative attacks by the Tigers themselves; nor that the riots were never repeated during the 26 remaining years of the war.  The Tigers made several attempts to provoke another severe reaction.  This included the mass murder of hundreds of captured Sri Lankan soldiers in April 2000, and a bomb attack at the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy – sacred to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhists.  At no time since 1983 did the Sinhalese let themselves be so goaded again.

With the collapse of the Tiger guerrilla army and the long overdue death of Prabhakaran in May 2009, the Tigers’ political fronts abroad have tried to recreate the movement.  One might think of a severed head of a hydra that is trying to first regenerate its body so that it can then grow some old heads back.  These pathetic remnants desperately tried to prove that the Sri Lankan government was genocidal in intention, and are still pursuing this goal.  One "proof" that they battened on was the use of internment camps in northern Sri Lanka as the military tried to deal with a massive influx of prisoners in May 2009.

Wealthier and more lavishly supported militaries than that of Sri Lanka have found coping with a massive influx of prisoners to be a daunting logistical task.  Trying to build shelter, pipe in clean water, and find food, clothing, toiletries and medicine for hundreds of thousands of people in a few short days is never easy even for wealthy societies.  Added to this was the urgent task of combing these masses for the surviving guerrillas and terrorists hidden among them.  Moreover, many people couldn’t be returned immediately to their homes since the Tigers had left landmines and booby traps in abundance when they retreated and de-mining operations are never simple.