Lessons from an earlier war

I have just finished reading an incredible book on Sri Lanka – This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian (St Martin’s Press 2014).  The author spent months talking to people on the island as well as in the Sri Lankan diaspora in Canada and the UK about the various conflicts that have taken place over the last few decades (including Buddhist violence visited on Muslims that gets short shrift in the media).  He was able to get first hand accounts of massacres and human rights atrocities and I have to admit that at times those narratives were hard to read (why is it that we humans are so good at inflicting misery on our neighbours at times?).

The most serious war that cursed the island was of course the civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils.  Born out of a post colonial dispute over which group got better jobs and education, the fight had linguistic, ethnic, religious and geographic elements to it (the Sinhalese are primarily Buddhist and dominant in the central and southern regions while the Tamils are largely Hindu and occupy the north).  The decades-long carnage reminded me of somewhat analogous violence in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s where your faith, tongue and skin colour marked you as the enemy.

Perhaps the most famous actor in the war was the LTTE – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.  This terrorist group fought for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamils for more than 30 years before the army defeated them in 2009.  The LTTE was known for its tactic of suicide bombing, the use of women commandos and two noteworthy assassinations: Sri Lankan President Premadasa in 1993 and Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi two years earlier.  Its iconic leader, Velupillai Prebhakaran, ruled with an iron fist and implemented a quota of family recruits from among the Tamil population.

What struck me was what one former Tiger offered as a rationale and a justification for joining the group and engaging in violence: “I see it as a process.  First, yes, you do negotiate.  But if that does not work, then you have to use violence to get what you need.  Even if you have to bomb a school”.

I wonder what has to happen to someone to get to the point where bombing a school full of children seems right.  There is no question that the Tamils in Sri Lanka saw their rights and opportunities whittled away by the majority Sinhalese over a period of years, but bombing a school?  Yes, I know that I am not Tamil and that I did not experience systemic prejudice and discrimination, but taking the lives of innocent kids?

I suppose that this is what can happen once both sides resort to violence.  One party does something heinous and the other replies with an act that is worse.  And so the spiral moves ever upwards.

In the end, the Tamils did not get their independent homeland and countless thousands died – mostly civilians.  Their actions were for nought.  All those lives lost.

And yet, it is entirely possible that the movement could resurrect one day.  As I have noted many times before, it is very difficult to kill an idea.  A group, yes.  But a desire for something – independence, autonomy, a homeland – is much harder.  As long as the spark remains, someone else can pick up the torch and run (and here’s another case: will we see a new uprising by Sikhs aiming for an independent Khalistan one day?).

All in all, a sad book and a sad story.  But an excellent book – I highly recommend it.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply