Sri Lankan Civil War: What If the Tamil Tigers Weren't Labelled as 'Terrorists'?
LTTE women's wing marching in a parade.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sri Lankan Civil War: What If the Tamil Tigers Weren't Labelled as 'Terrorists'?

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The elections in Sri Lanka next month come just ahead of a much-anticipated report on the alleged war crimes by prime ministerial candidate and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government during the country’s civil war. May 2009 saw the end of the three decade-long conflict between Sri Lankan government forces and the LTTE — a pro-Tamil extremist group that allegedly inspired Al Qaeda.

The final phase of the war was particularly ghastly, with reports of atrocities carried out by both sides. However, the international community remained silent. While the failure to intervene is usually attributed to a confluence of factors, the “terrorism narrative” which dominated the conflict possibly had a hand to play in how the final stages of the war played out and the willingness of the rest of the world to look the other way.

The Final Phase of the Sri Lankan Civil War

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By the end phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the LTTE, notably diminished in power, was cornered by government forces into a tiny stretch of land in the northeastern area of the Vanni, along with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians. The UN and international press had been systematically removed from the region, rendering it virtually sealed off from the outside world.

What ensued was a gruesome battle that repeatedly violated international humanitarian law and exposed the entrapped civilians to a horrific fate: As the LTTE held the civilians hostage, employing them as human shields and a pool for recruiting child soldiers, government forces allegedly carried out their own systematic human rights abuses under the banner of a counterterrorism mission.

Hospitals were shelled repeatedly, access to food, water and medicine was obstructed, and there are reports of widespread sexual assault on Tamil civilians in the besieged area by government forces. According to a report released by the UN Secretary General’s Internal Review Panel on Sri Lanka three years after the end of the war, an estimated 70,000 civilians remained unaccounted for.  The report concludes that Sri Lanka marked a “grave failure” of the UN and its member nations.

The ‘Terrorism’ Narrative

Since the outset of the conflict in Sri Lanka, there had been a stark difference in the rhetoric surrounding its nature. The Sri Lankan government branded its operations as a counter terrorism mission right from the start, insisting that it needed to be dealt with internally and at any cost. Externally, however, the conflict was perceived as a product of decades of structural inequalities and systemic repression of the Tamil minority.

Antagonized by the ‘state-like legitimacy’ the western powers conferred on the LTTE, Colombo began to disparage the western powers and international organizations as being supporters of a terrorist group.

Through the influence he wielded over the media, President Rajapaksa created a narrative of a hypocritical West that aligned itself with the Tamil insurgents, while simultaneously waging its own war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

As a result, efforts by Norway—the driver of the peace process in Sri Lanka, and whose ‘peace ownership’ model centered on legitimizing both parties to the conflict—and international NGOs suffered notably. Allegations of Norwegian terrorist appeasement were further aggravated when a consignment of radio equipment was sent to the Tamil Tigers, and on occasion, Buddhist monks allegedly set fire to the Norwegian flag in protest.

The effectiveness of Norway’s mediation took an even harder hit in 2006, when the EU banned the LTTE as a terrorist organization. The LTTE responded by demanding that the EU states be removed from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which had been devised under the 2002 ceasefire agreement, leaving Norway by itself, and greatly reducing the capacity of the SLMM. This came a few years after the peace process had faced obstacles due to the exclusion of the LTTE from a critical aid conference in Washington.

Norway was ever further isolated in its reconciliation efforts as India, Sri Lanka’s influential neighbor, remained silent during the deadlock in the peace process. The narrative of LTTE terrorism had already been prevalent in India for several years. India was in fact the first country to proscribe the LTTE as a terrorist outfit following the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1991, after which it switched its allegiance from the LTTE to Colombo.

There was not a single formal UN meeting called throughout the horrific final stages of the war—not at the Security Council, the Human Rights Council, or the General Assembly. And despite the glaring existence of first-hand witness accounts, the UN Regional Coordinator, in his correspondence with the Sri Lankan government, made no reference to the reports of indiscriminate government shelling. A lone report (released by the OHCHR) that made mention of the possible war-crimes by the Sri Lankan government was opposed by the USG of Humanitarian Affairs, the Resident Coordinator and the Chef de Cabinet, who raised concerns about “placing the LTTE and SL Government on the same footing.”

It goes without saying that the decades of atrocities and human rights abuses committed by the LTTE needed to come to an end, and one cannot possibly predict whether an alternative course of action would have led to a preferable outcome. However, whether or not the terrorist status of a group influences the standards of civilian protection that we deem acceptable is a pertinent question. And with states now turning to Colombo as a model for counter-terrorism, Sri Lanka provides a rather disconcerting answer.

Ambika Kaushik recently graduated with a Masters in International Relations from New York University. She is currently interning at the EastWest Institute in New York.

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