Will Britain ban the LTTE?

D. B. S. Jeyaraj

“I think the British have the distinction above all other nations of being able to put new wine into old bottles without bursting them”
- Clement Attlee.


The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam organisation has been designated as a terrorist organisation and its activities on American soil forbidden legally by the world’s solitary superpower the United States of America from 1997 October onwards. South Asia’s regional power India first banned the LTTE in May 1992 and thereafter extended the ban every two years as required. Now the spotlight is on Britain, Sri Lanka’s former colonial master. Will Britain too follow suit in terms of its recently passed legislation on terrorism and include the LTTE as a proscribed ‘terrorist’ organisation in the list expected to be announced on February 19?

Antics of the foreign minister
If the antics of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar is any indicator the chances are ‘yes’. Kadirgamar has a knack to sense which way the wind blows and sets his sails accordingly.

After knowing in advance that the US state department was going to designate the LTTE as a terrorist organisation, Kadirgamar conducted his propaganda drive arguing publicly that the LTTE must be banned by the Americans. Lo and behold, when the Yankees actually did so, Kadirgamar had no qualms about reaping all the kudos for that act. He is after all a foreign minister who handles external affairs with an eye always on the domestic Sinhala constituency. In recent times Kadirgamar has been waxing eloquent in the Colombo press that Britain should proscribe the Tigers. If not, the minister has thundered, Anglo-Sri Lankan bilateral relations would never be the same again. The foreign minister’s paroxysms seem to indicate that once again he has prior knowledge of British intentions and intends exploiting it for political gains in Sri Lanka. Like the carrion bird that sights a rotting carcass from a distance, Kadirgamar seems to have sensed his opportunity.

Matters however may not be that simple. The Sri Lankan Tamil community too is closing ranks and mobilising opinion against such a ban. Not all of those Tamils arguing against such a ban are Tigers or pro-Tiger elements. At least eleven Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka are firmly against such a ban. These parties communicated their viewpoint directly to Caroline Wilson, the British Foreign office desk officer for Sri Lanka, when she was in Colombo two weeks ago on a fact-finding mission. The Tamil parties have also sent letters to British Prime Minister Tony Blair on this question. Ironically some of these parties have suffered at the hands of the LTTE in the past. A few were even ‘banned’ by the Tigers. Instead of ganging up against the LTTE, these parties are actually grouping together in favour of the Tigers in what is a very difficult time for the latter.

Labelling of the Tamil cause
The reasons for this behaviour goes beyond the glib explanation that these Tamil parties are doing so to avoid being mauled apart by the Tigers. Fear is not necessarily the key here. Something far more important is at stake here if Britain does ban the LTTE as ‘terrorist’. The just nature of the overall Tamil cause runs the risk of being labelled by extension as terrorist too. Thereby the Tamil cause may be undermined and rendered ineffective in the long run. The injustice that is inherent in the dominant racist ideology of the Sri Lankan state could end up as undeserving victor. The LTTE too could opt out of the peace process and engage in a long drawn out war that can only debilitate the Tamil entity further. Furthermore if Colombo succeeds in getting the international community to ostracise and marginalise the LTTE, the Tamil cause could be lost forever.

For all these reasons and more, the Tamil community is rallying around the LTTE now. This is not the time for raking up the past and let bygones be bygones seems to be the guiding credo.

Tamils in London organised themselves under the aegis of Confederation of Tamil Associations, UK, and held a conclave on January 22 on the theme ‘Peace in Sri Lanka’. It was in essence a campaign to enlist the support of British parliamentarians against the proposed ban on the Tigers. Former Catholic Vicar-General of Jaffna, Rev Fr. S. J. Emmanuel, Dr. R. Indrakumar, medical consultant and journalist, Robert Evans MEP/EU foreign affairs committee, Dr. Jean Tong MP/Liberal Democrat, spokesperson on overseas development, Andy Love MP, Secretary, Parliamentary Sri Lanka Committee, Andrew Dismore MP, Roger Macdonald MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Gareth Thomas MP and Ms Linda Perham MP were among those who addressed the gathering chaired by Barry Gardiner MP.

Apart from this confabulation, Tamils in Britain are also actively engaged in lobbying their MPs particularly those of the Labour Party to prevail upon the powers that be to refrain from taking the step of banning the LTTE. Once again it must be emphasised that not all those trying to prevent the LTTE being proscribed are of tigerish hue, but are only acting in what they perceive as the larger and long-term interests of the Tamil people as opposed to narrow sectarianism.

Ban may be put on hold
The impact of this campaign has been such that several newspapers in Sri Lanka have published articles suggesting that Britain may not after all ban the LTTE at this juncture. A simplistic argument trotted out is that several British government MPs need Tamil votes to win elections. ‘The well-distributed Tamil community is capable of influencing the electoral verdict in many constituencies if it votes en bloc and en masse. Therefore the parliamentarians would not want to upset the community. So the ban may be shelved or put on hold.’

It is apparent that this line of thought is heavily subjective to the Sri Lankan context, where politicians who thought only of the next election have not hesitated to sacrifice the next generation for short-term political gain. However much opinion makers in Lanka may think that British politicians are no better than their counterparts in Sri Lanka, past history has demonstrated that the offspring of the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’ have shed partisan beliefs and political upmanship and rallied together under the Union Jack when it came to matters affecting British national interests. So if these MPs do feel that banning the LTTE is in the interests of the British nation then there would not be any choice in the matter. The crucial question however is whether proscribing the LTTE is indeed in British national interests and whether it would serve any beneficial purpose.

The Indian ban on the LTTE was in the aftermath of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. India is perhaps the only major country that has an abiding interest and concern for Sri Lanka. The domestic compulsions that prompted India to ban the Tigers have resulted in that country losing its leverage in Sri Lanka. Today New Delhi is compelled to gauge the Tiger mind indirectly through the good offices of Norway or through some Tamil Nadu politicians. It has deprived itself of a leading role in the Sri Lankan peace process. It is however a moot point as to whether India does desire a role or not. Nevertheless it is forced to ‘accept’ international involvement in the South Asian region, which it considers to be an Indian backyard. Also in recent times there has been a pronounced tilt in favour of Colombo.

Posters praising LTTE in Chennai
Whatever the impact of the LTTE ban may be, the reality is that posters praising LTTE leader Prabakharan appear on the walls of Chennai at regular intervals. Indian politicians openly flaunt their connections with Tiger leaders.

The USA too designated the LTTE as terrorist and proscribed it. Legal action spearheaded by former US Attorney General Ramsey Clarke is currently on to challenge such a ban through various legal approaches. A former US ambassador to Sri Lanka and current head of a think tank has expressed the opinion that eventually the Tigers will succeed in getting the ban lifted. Senior American officials have privately told Sri Lankan journalists that the ban was a ‘mistake’. Nevertheless the proscription remains. But it must be noted that no effective or meaningful action has been pursued by Washington to crack down on LTTE supporters in the USA.

At the same time the US is keenly backing the Norwegian initiative for peace in Sri Lanka. American officials have met accredited LTTE leaders in unpublicised meetings. But keeping its strategic interests in mind the US is also extensively involved in the war effort of Colombo.

Now the USA wants Britain too to emulate it and include all 30 organisations designated by them as terrorist in the British list too.

Sri Lanka clamouring for a ban
India too is exerting pressure on Britain to ban the LTTE and Kashmiri groups. Apart from this Sri Lanka too is clamouring for a ban.

The new terrorism laws were introduced by Britain with the primary purpose of controlling and curbing Irish terrorism. The growing International consensus supportive of global unity against terrorism everywhere has compelled Britain to provide for an extension of its laws to be applicable against terrorism in other Countries too. The Cold War is over and the adage of one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter is not valid any more. Moreover the developments in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Congo etc., have created a universal revulsion towards excessive nationalism of the ethnic kind. There is also an emerging consensus against the break up of existing national boundaries. The emphasis is on ethnic differences to be resolved within the parameters of prevalent state structures.

Moreover there is evolving an unwritten bond among established sovereign states to unify against all those forces that challenge an entity from within. In that context all national liberation movements advocating secession and conducting armed struggles in pursuance of those objectives seem doomed. It does not seem to matter how just their cause is and how tyrannical and oppressive the regimes they are battling are. [Editorial Comment]

LTTE to challenge the ban
Under these circumstances the dice seems to heavily loaded against the LTTE and other movements of their ilk. The universal pressure led by the USA as well as the regional pressure exerted by India are factors that Britain may not be able to ignore in evaluating the LTTE. To make matters worse the Tiger track record is highly negative too. The LTTE is basically a national liberation movement. It adopts a combination of three approaches in the military sphere. It is a militia when it adopts positional warfare to capture or defend territory. It is a guerrilla force when it conducts ambushes and raids on acceptable military targets like a police or army patrol or position. It is terroristic in nature when it masterminds operations like explosive attacks against civilian targets.

Each act of the LTTE must be analysed individually before labelling it accordingly. Unfortunately for the LTTE it is the terroristic factor that has come to characterise it internationally. Its national liberation movement characteristics are overshadowed. To the credit of the LTTE it has become conscious of this flaw and is trying valiantly in recent times to remedy matters and enhance a positive image. This process however requires a lot of time and for the moment, the LTTE in the eyes of the world remains ‘terrorist’, in spite of a vast majority of Tamils not subscribing to that view.

So if Britain were to treat this issue on a simplistic legal basis then there is no doubt that the LTTE would be banned as terrorist. A strictly legalistic perspective does not seem to afford the LTTE any loophole to exploit and claim exemption. It has an international secretariat based in London. Its theoretician and political adviser is there. It conducts demonstrations and mass-meetings in Britain. It raises funds for the refugees and medical needs of the Tamil people in the North-East. It disseminates information and propaganda supportive of the Eelam cause. All these factors could be construed, if so desired, as indicative of a Tiger presence in Britain and considered offences deserving proscription in terms of the sweeping powers of the new laws.

It is possible for the LTTE to challenge the ban through judicial review. Also in practice the ban may not affect the LTTE very greatly. It could diversify and broadbase its activity and operate under a number of front organisations whose nomenclature would change from time to time. Given the level of support it enjoys among the Tamil people as evinced in the large turnout at the recent ‘Great Heroes Day’ gathering, it seems unlikely that the Tiger will simply roll over and play dead if banned. The international secretariat will have to be closed. But Eelam House could function in altered circumstances. The only person vulnerable is Anton Balasingham, an acknowledged and accredited senior LTTE leader. He too holds a British passport and is not in the best of health having undergone a kidney transplant recently. Will the British authorities incarcerate him and risk an unnecessary tragedy?

May resort to full-scale confrontations
Moreover Mr. Balasingham is currently the chief negotiator of the LTTE and is playing a very important role in the peace process. A ban at this stage would render his role useless. The entire peace process that is backed by Britain could be in jeopardy.

Driven against the wall the Tigers may be compelled to abandon the path of negotiations and resort to full-scale confrontation. If this happens then the British ban would be counterproductive. It would actually foment and encourage violence instead of diminishing it. This possibility should not however be interpreted as a defiant challenge by the LTTE. Instead it should be viewed as a realistic assessment of the situation. 

Unlike the USA, Britain has a historic role in the island’s problems. It was Britain that merged the Tamil homelands along with the Sinhala regions and unified the island under a single administration. Its policies of governance widened the chasm between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. A historical blunder was committed when the British granted independence to the Sinhala majority and left the Tamil nation in a vulnerable lurch without adequate safeguards. It was a betrayal of the Tamils. Later Lord Soulbury was to correspond privately to C. Sunderalingam, regretting this mistake. Now there is an opportunity for Britain to rectify this blunder, partially at least.

It should continue with its support of the peace process and ensure that the Sri Lankan Tamils get a fair and square deal in power sharing. As time progresses the British role could expand positively. There has been a consistency in British policy towards the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict in recent times. This has entailed equating the government and the LTTE in any process of peace. This stems from a recognition of the LTTE as the de facto representatives of the Tamil people. It was former Conservative Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Liam Fox who initiated the exchange of letters between President Kumaratunga and Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe with the explicit purpose of evolving a bi-partisan consensus in negotiating with the LTTE. The Fox initiative came to naught because of Kumaratunga’s refusal to pursue it. Even the role that Norway is playing may have been Britain’s had the Colombo government wanted it to be so. A list of 20 potential entities that could act as peace process facilitators were submitted to the LTTE first. Of these the Tigers chose Britain, Norway or South Africa.

Kumaratunga preferred Norway. All this shows that Britain continues to be a very important nation in the affairs of the island. It cannot and should not abdicate that role. Perpetuating such a position can only be through a symmetrical consideration of the parties to the conflict. Banning the LTTE would mean the scales weighing heavily to one side. London should display its past consistency by not changing the political equilibrium unnecessarily.

To prosecute an unjust war
Two realities have to be recognised. One is that the Kumaratunga regime is all out for war and a resolution of the conflict through military means. The reason for this is its unwillingness to grant meaningful rights to the Tamil people and a myopic vision of military superiority. Therefore it is resorting to everything possible to provoke the Tigers into aborting the peace process and engaging in war. Colombo feels that the British ban may trigger off a negative reaction from the LTTE who will then plunge into war.

The government’s consistent stonewalling in responding to the LTTE cease-fire is to prolong matters as far as possible until the expected British ban comes into force. If the ‘war for peace’ was to weaken the LTTE to the point where they would come to the negotiating table that moment then is at hand.

Britain must realise that under such circumstances the ban would hinder rather than facilitate peace. It would give Colombo carte blanche to prosecute an unjust war that would increase human suffering. The second reality is to recognise that the LTTE is at the political crossroads. A number of factors including international pressure have influenced the LTTE mindset in recent times to a stage where it is actively seeking a negotiated peace. Whatever the suspicion about its ulterior motives may be the overall effect on ground is indeed positive.

The Tigers should be rewarded and encouraged, as all ‘prodigals’, to continue in this new path. The LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham should receive international support to advance the LTTE along the path of peace. Also another factor that cannot be ignored is that the LTTE is, for all practical purposes, the primary Tamil politico military force. It has to be afforded a position on par with the Government and not be reduced to terrorists. Instead if Britain succumbs to the temptation of banning the LTTE it would convey an entirely opposite signal to the LTTE. Britain would then aid and abet the scuttling of the peace process that it is supporting.

A wrong signal sent
It would undermine Norway’s role too. The prudent option therefore would be to delay imposing the ban. Legalistically a ban may seem imperative. But ‘injunctions’ through self-restraint are possible too. Also it is not mandatory to apply a law in all its forms without cognizance of practical realities.

For instance section five of the Prevention of Terrorism Act regards anyone having information of terrorists and failing to inform authorities as guilty. A strict enforcement of this clause would result in all the people of the North - East being charged. This is not possible. A judicious application of laws are also important.

Rushing into banning the LTTE at this juncture will not produce the expected results or promote peace. It can only be counterproductive. A wrong signal of approving war would be conveyed to Colombo.

On the other hand a reprieve may encourage the LTTE further on the path of peace. There is no urgent necessity to ban the LTTE at this stage and risk irredeemable harm to the on going peace process. The practical thing would be to refrain from banning the LTTE and instead urge it to follow the non-violent path. The ban like the sword of Damocles could always hang over its head. That would be more effective and conducive to the pursuit of peace rather than an outright ban.


Editorial comment: We disagree with Jeyaraj’s comments about the worldview on ‘secession’.

There is no basis for his assertion that, there is an ‘an emerging consensus against the break up of existing national boundaries.’ 

The UN which started with a membership of 51 countries in 1945, had a tally of 190 at the end of 2000 [see UN website], and is still growing. In the 10-year period between 1990-1999 alone, thirty-two new countries were added. Eminent geographers, and others [see below] have predicted that world will soon see as many as 300 new countries.

There is a plethora of discussions on this subject, and Sri Lanka is featured in many of them. For instance, Brian Beedham, Associate Editor of The Economist, in an article appearing in a January 2001 Special Issue of The Economist: ‘The World in 2001’ said: 


The second great change brought about by the melting of the cold war’s ice will be the break-up of some of the countries which that ice unnaturally held together.

The cold war was beginning just when the empires assembled by the European powers in the 18th and 19th centuries were coming to their end. Many of the new countries that emerged from those ex-empires were an implausible mixture of different races, languages and religions. If they stayed intact for so long, it was partly because either the Soviet Union or the Atlantic alliance wanted the support of their governments, and was willing to let those governments use rough methods to keep their countries in one piece. Now that the helpful external hand has gone, some of them will not stay in one piece.

One post-imperial amalgam that may start to come apart in the next year or so is Indonesia. A country of 17,000 islands and 210m assorted people spread over an area nearly as big as the United States, Indonesia under half-blind President Abdurrahman Wahid is now in the second faltering year of its first more or less democratic government. Its eastern and western extremities are claimed by breakaway rebels; a religious civil war bloodies its northern Molucca islands; its new president has no sure grip over the country’s parliament, its army or the corruption he inherited from the Suharto dictatorship. Indonesia is heading to where the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have already gone.

There are other places where the cracking noise can be heard: Sri Lanka, the Philippines, bits of the Arab world, maybe Malaysia, conceivably Pakistan, certainly whole swathes of Africa. The global tally of separate countries – 74 in 1946, around 190 now – could be heading for the 300s before the new century is very old.

And the third great change? It has already begun. Because the two big alliances did not want fingers poked in the ribs of their local friends, the cold war also artificially prolonged the old definition of ‘sovereignty’, which said that what went on inside a country’s borders, no matter how dictatorially brutal, was nobody else’s business.

The studied inattention could no longer survive the cold war’s end. As television and the internet reveal to the world what a dictator is doing to his own people, outsiders are likely to say that he should be stopped from doing it; and technology has given outsiders the means, economic and military, of trying to stop him.

The Kosovo war of 1999 told Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic that he could not go on suppressing the Kosovars, a separate people from the Serbs. The Serb's overthrow of Mr. Milosevic last October was also helped by outsiders. This time they did not have to use force. But NATO’s bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo war had already undermined Mr. Milosevic. Now Europe and America, by telling him that he could not ignore his election defeat, strengthened the anti-Milosevic majority’s determination to defy him. The outsiders were saying that what had happened in Serbia was their business too.

There are of course dangers to this redefinition of sovereignty; the rules of legitimate intervention have still to be clearly spelled out in a way that ordinary people everywhere can understand and support. But the dangers are smaller than the possible outcome – the end of dictatorial immunity, the worldwide elimination of the old baronial principle. How much things will be changed, in so many ways, by what happened in 1989 is at last becoming plain.

Courtesy: The Economist Publication; The World in 2001 [January 2001]

The ‘evolving an unwritten bond among established sovereign states to unify against all those forces that challenge an entity from within’, that Jeyaraj alludes to, is not an increasing phenomenon – it is actually the existing doctrine, which is one that is on the wane.

Also see:
1. The Inevitability of Thamileelam

2. Six Geographers Brainstorm on the Borders of 21st Century

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