The fate of Sri Lanka's Tamils after the Tigers

The LTTE rebels may be gone, but what about their fight for a homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Show of support: A pro-Tamil demonstrator and her child rallied for Tamil Tiger rebels during a protest in London May 18 after the group declared a cease-fire.
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Who are the Tamils?

The Tamils are a minority with deep roots in the north of the island nation of Sri Lanka and kinship ties to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which lies across a narrow sea channel. A separate group of Tamils arrived later from India as laborers during British rule and are known as Indian Tamils. Together they make up around 18 percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people, with the Sinhalese majority making up 74 percent. Largely Hindu, the Tamils live mostly in the north and east, the area claimed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), though large numbers live in Colombo, the capital. Since the 1980s, Tamil emigration has created an influential diaspora in Britain, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere that exceeds 800,000 people.

What do they want?

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After Sri Lanka's independence in 1948, Tamil elites excelled in English-language education and government service. Sinhalese felt excluded, and their political leaders sought to redress the balance, only to sow the seeds of civil war. The 1956 "Sinhala Only" law that promoted the majority tongue was a turning point. Ethnic relations soured, and Tamils began agitating for a federal state. By the 1970s, this demand had shifted to calls for a separate homeland and armed groups emerged in Jaffna.

Tamil intellectuals say the dream of an independent state is still strong, but decades of war and upheaval have soured many ordinary Tamils on the idea. A properly managed devolution of power and a retreat by Sinhalese extremists, who insist that Sri Lanka should be a Sinhalese Buddhist island, would probably tamp down the homeland cause.

Both communities urgently need to build bridges, says Kumar Nadesan, managing director of Express Newspapers, publisher of Sri Lanka's oldest Tamil-language newspaper. "The polarization is not just on one side. It's both sides," he says.

What role did the Tigers play?

The Tamil Tigers, as the LTTE is known, was one of several armed Tamil groups set up in the 1970s. In 1983, militants ambushed a military convoy in Jaffna and killed 13 soldiers. Sinhalese in Colombo responded with a massive anti-Tamil pogrom that killed thousands and drove many more to flee in terror. Tamil militants recruited angry youths seeking vengeance and began fighting the military, with covert funding and training from India.

The LTTE emerged as the most ruthless and effective organization, led by Vullupillai Prabhakaran, who insisted on strict discipline and trained a suicide cadre. After repelling Indian peacekeepers deployed in 1987-90, the LTTE eliminated its rivals and declared itself to be the sole voice of Tamil nationalism.

It began to build a parallel state in the north and east and to forcibly expel non-Tamils. Urban terrorism is one of its hallmarks, including assassinations of national leaders in Sri Lanka and India. Thirty-two nations declared the Tamil Tigers "terrorists."

What are prospects for autonomy after the defeat of the Tigers?

Prospects are fairly good, but on terms dictated by a Sinhalese-dominated government that has amassed enormous wartime powers and isn't keen to share them. The government has already held elections in several provinces and says it's committed to devolution. In theory, provincial councils control land rights and police powers, but this hasn't happened in the east, where the LTTE was defeated in 2007. Another sticking point is the separating of the north and east, which were combined into one province in the 1990s. Tamil nationalists insist that the two areas should be ruled jointly.

Without adequate powersharing and a full reckoning of Tamil grievances, experts warn that a military victory won't bring lasting peace. Even without the LTTE, resistance could reemerge, says Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Mr. Prabhakaran was a charismatic figure for the insurgency. But, Mr. Gunaratna says, "There will be other leaders."

What role does the Tamil diaspora play in the autonomy movement?

The diaspora has had a major role in fundraising for the Tamil Tigers among overseas Tamils, including extortion and blackmail of donors. They have also engaged in political lobbying in Western democracies. The diaspora runs propaganda campaigns and has supplied news agencies barred from the war zone with images of the carnage.

As the LTTE is a proscribed terrorist organization in many countries, Tamils have used charitable fronts such as the Tamil Relief Organization, which is banned in the United States. Jane's Intelligence Review estimates that LTTE charities plus the smuggling of weapons, drugs, and people contributed $300 million a year.

The BBC reported Friday that the Sri Lankan Navy seized a ship sent by Tamil charitable groups in Europe, who say it was carrying food and medicine for refugees. The Sri Lankan government says the ship, which left Britain before the military defeated the rebels, was carrying logistical supplies for the LTTE.

The Tamil diaspora has mostly thrived in exile, and some Tamils may decide to return home if there is a lasting peace. Some returned during the 2002 cease-fire, and the family bonds remain strong. But there is also a risk that alienated Tamil exiles will fund Sri Lanka's next generation of rebels.

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