The Will to Freedom - The Inside Story of the Tamil Freedom Movement

Adele Balasingham introduces her new book, The Will to Freedom. Written in a historical, semi-autobiographical style, it provides an internal study of two decades of armed resistance by the Tamil Tiger movement and its leadership.

Though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is internationally well known as the freedom movement spearheading the Tamil struggle for self-determination in Sri Lanka, less is known of the real nature and structure of the organisation and the calibre of its leadership. As is the case with the enormous suffering of the Tamil people. This lack of transparency can be attributed to the rigorous press censorship, ban on visitors to the war zone and the antipathy of the international media and the world governments. This opacity has provided unconstrained space for various analysts, experts and `scholars’ of insurrectionary warfare to distort, falsify and misrepresent the organisation as well as the Tamil struggle. The monstrous images and impressions that are deliberately constructed have also shrouded the truths behind the conflict. The aim of this book is to draw back the curtain of mystery and misrepresentation that hangs over the Tamil struggle and to tell the inside story, the true story, of the vicious oppression of a people and their violent resistance.

“For more than two decades I have spent my life with the Tamil Tigers. My historical journey of involvement in the Tamil freedom struggle and my unique experiences over those years is set out in this book. This semi-autobiographical, historical sketch attempts to depict the life experiences, events and episodes as they unfolded, chronologically, in the evolutionary history and development of the Tamil armed resistance.”

The opening pages of this work tells the story of how a young woman from a small, unknown village in Australia effects a radical rupture in her life when she leaves the shores of her country for an adventure in Europe. “When I boarded the plane in Australia and headed for Europe thirty years ago, the probability that my life would undergo radical transformation was the farthest expectation from my mind. But it did, beyond anything anybody could possibly imagine. It went far beyond the simple matter of improving myself through travel and higher education in England. My worldview drastically changed. The greatest determinant in my life has been my husband, Anton Balasingham. Our marriage in 1978 was a union of ideological perspectives, values, aspirations and convictions. And since that time we have walked a revolutionary path together, united in the face of challenges and circumstances that few people could even imagine. And so the story of our extraordinary life together as active participants in the Tamil freedom struggle unfolds.

Following our initial induction into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in London in 1978, we made a decisive step to travel to India to meet the organisation’s leaders and cadres. In Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, we met a young man, Vellupillai Pirabakaran, the founder of the Tiger movement, who, over more than two decades, has not only emerged as a legendary figure, but has assumed the mantle of national leadership of his oppressed Tamil people. Our initial introduction to Mr. Pirabakaran and his cadres is dealt with in Chapter Two, where I also discuss the internal dynamics of the LTTE. The early history of the Tiger movement illustrates the difficulties and problems confronted by the leadership in building a small underground guerrilla organisation into a national liberation army capable of challenging the military might of the Sinhala state. Apart from the internal dynamics that brought about changes in the structure of the organisation, the external factors i.e. the objective conditions of state oppression had its impact on the growth and expansion of the LTTE. The anti -Tamil racial conflagration of 1983 was a turning point in relations between the Tamil and Sinhala nations. It led to the collapse of Tamil parliamentary politics and the assumption of the armed struggle as the mode of political struggle. The intervention in the island’s ethnic conflict by Sri Lanka’s powerful neighbour, India, following the riots, had far reaching consequences. In Chapter Three I elaborate in detail, the manner in which the central government of India and the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Mr. M G Ramachandran intervened in the conflict. India’s military training programme for Tamil militants and the Chief Minister’s financial support to the Tigers in the mid 1980s provided an unprecedented impetus to the growth and development of the LTTE and the armed struggle. I have pointed out that the contradictions that arose between Delhi’s interests and the aspirations of the Tamil militant organisations, ultimately led to mutual disillusionment. It became increasingly clear that India’s involvement in the ethnic conflict pivoted on her own wider geo-political and strategic interests. Delhi’s covert support for the Tamil militants was aimed at bringing Sri Lanka within the sphere of India’s hegemony and to open up negotiations with the militant organisations. The famous `Thimpu Talks’ held in Bhutan’s capital between the Tamil representatives and the Sri Lankan delegation was the outcome of India’s aggressive diplomacy in 1985. India’s displeasure over the collapse of the talks led to Bala’s deportation from India. He was invited to return to India to participate in further dialogues between the militant organisations and the Indian government. Three months after his return to Chennai a bomb exploded in our house in a failed assassination bid on Bala. The arrest of the culprit revealed that a Minister in the Sri Lankan government of Julius Jayawardene was behind this attack. In this chapter, I have also recorded events of harassment - by the central and state governments of India - of the Tamil Tigers that led to a progressive estrangement between Delhi and the LTTE.

There were escalating military confrontations between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces in the early part of 1987. Ultimately the Sri Lankan armed forces embarked on a massive invasion of the Jaffna peninsula resulting in heavy civilian casualties. India intervened to put a halt to the escalating hostilities. The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was worked out between the two states. The LTTE was excluded from its formulation. Under the terms of the Accord, Indian troops were deployed in the Northeast of Sri Lanka under the guise of a `peacekeeping’ force to monitor cease-fire between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military forces and to oversee the de-commissioning of LTTE arms. The background to the developments is elaborated in Chapter Four. In this part of the work, I provide a detailed account of the tragic events that eventually culminated in an armed confrontation between the LTTE forces and the Indian army, known as the Indo-LTTE war of 1987-1990.

One of my central concerns in writing this book has been to convey to the world and to record for future reference, the scale and magnitude of the oppression that the Tamil people have been subjected to over the years. I have been uniquely placed in those tragic circumstances to record from my personal experiences and from the lived experiences of the witnesses of the terror and violence that was unleashed by the Indian occupation army on the civilians of Jaffna. Accounts of the atrocities committed by the Indian `peace keeping’ force - the mass arrests, detention, torture, extra-judicial killings and the rape of Tamil women - have been, to some extent documented in the book. But apart from witnessing these horrendous events Bala and I became the very targets of a search and destroy operation by Indian troops. The story of the Indian army’s hunt for us in Vadamarachchi, a sector in the Jaffna peninsula, is described in detail. For me, more important than the tribulations we endured, was the response of the people to our plight. During those months of fugitive existence, being hunted by the Indian troops, the Tamil people risked their lives to protect ours. I will always remember with gratitude the love, kindness and the magnanimous spirit shown by the people of Jaffna during those dangerous times. Without the support and spontaneous assistance of the Tamil people we would never have survived. The success of our escape across the Palk Strait to the Tamil Nadu shores was also another remarkable story of endurance of the human spirit. The horror of the ordeal of that ocean crossing in a small boat against enormous odds has also been depicted in that chapter.

Chapter Six of the book provides a comprehensive analysis of the Premadasa-LTTE peace negotiations. The Premadasa administration and the LTTE leadership had their own compulsions for entering into a negotiating process to ensure the withdrawal of the Indian army from Sri Lanka. The occupation of the Tamil homeland by the Indian forces escalated the war between the Tamil Tigers and the IPKF in the Northeast. The presence of the Indian army in the island had also precipitated insurrectionary violence in the South by the Janatha Vimukthi Perumuna (JVP). The entire island was plunged into violence and turbulence of an unprecedented scale. Both the leaders of the Tamil and Sinhala nations - Mr. Pirabakaran and Mr. Premadasa - wanted the Indian army withdrawn for specific interests of their people. These mutual interests brought the Tamil Tigers and the Premadasa Government to the negotiating table in Colombo. Bala played a crucial role as the accredited chief negotiator for the LTTE during the dialogue with the Sri Lankan delegation. I was fortunate enough to act as secretary to the LTTE’s negotiating team. In that capacity I came to be acquainted with some of the extraordinary political personalities who were in the pinnacle of power at that historical conjuncture, i.e. Sri Lankan President Mr. Ranasinghe Premadasa and his chief negotiator Mr. A C S Hameed, the Foreign Minister Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne and others. The peace talks were cordial and constructive. They were successful in achieving the common objective of securing the withdrawal of the Indian troops. Following the de-induction of the IPKF, the efforts to resolve the ethnic conflict ran into serious difficulties when Mr. Premadasa showed no inclination to meet the pre-requisites of the LTTE to enter the political mainstream and to face elections. In this part of the book, I have elaborated in detail the various sessions of the talks with the Sri Lankan Ministers as well as the private deliberations we had with the President and with Mr. Hameed. This period of history with its unique events is documented in depth and detail. I have also explained the causes for the collapse of the peace talks and the resumption of hostilities in the form of Eelam War II.

Following the de-induction of the Indian troops from the Northeast, Bala and I returned to live in Jaffna. Chapter Seven of the book concentrates on our experience of living with the Tamil people in the midst of a brutal war in the Peninsula during the first half of the nineties. This era was marked by major and decisive battles between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces for control of territories in the Jaffna peninsula. But the Sri Lankan armed forces did not confine the conflict to the battlefield. The war was deliberately extended to civilian areas with the intention of causing casualties and terror amongst the population. Blind aerial bombardment and indiscriminate artillery shelling in the heavily populated civilian areas caused havoc. I have elaborated, in this part of the book, the depth of the oppression faced by the people of Jaffna and the horror and nightmare they experienced during these dangerous times. While the war raged, the LTTE ran an effective administration in the peninsula and other areas under their control, a topic which I have commented on in this chapter.

For me, a sociologist, the Jaffna society was a new and open laboratory waiting to be researched and recorded. Almost every facet of social life called out to be researched and commented on. The women fighters of the Liberation Tigers had inducted a new dimension into the Tamil society. Their historical intervention in the lives of Tamil women had to be recorded and the impact on the society studied carefully. I wrote a book entitled Women Fighters of Liberation Tigers in which I documented the early history of the women fighters. Cultural practices such the dowrying of women assumed a social problem of enormous magnitude, particularly on the lives of Tamil women. The contradiction between the radical induction of women into the armed struggle and the ancient dowry system screamed out to be resolved. Having committed to the abolition of the dowry system, women cadres demanded action be taken by the LTTE leadership to implement their policies. The public debate on solutions to the dowry problem elicited interesting comments, which revealed that dowry practice was more complicated than it was presumed to be. The views of the public on the dowry system added to my interest in the subject. In my research on the topic at the Jaffna University library I learned of an ancient matrilineal system of property relations in the Jaffna social formation. I subsequently wrote a book entitled on the dowry practice amongst the Jaffna Tamils entitled Unbroken Chains. After writing the book I carried out some research into domestic violence.

When Chandrika Kumaratunga assumed office as the President of the country in 1994, the Tamil people anticipated respite from the war when the peace talks were held between the LTTE and her government. The few rounds of talks took place in the early part of 1994 and subsequently collapsed, paving the way for the outbreak of hostilities and invasion of the peninsula by the Sri Lankan state forces. We were living in Jaffna when Eelam War III erupted, and we survived their onslaught. In Chapter Seven I tell the story of how the Sri Lankan military forces launched their strategic plan to capture the peninsula and in that process subjected the Tamil people to death and destruction. The lethal potential of the firepower deployed by the Sri Lankan army indicated how callous and merciless was the Sinhala army was in the pursuit of its military objectives. As the invading troops approached the Jaffna city, a decision was made by the LTTE leadership to evacuate the population from Valigamam. A sea of five hundred thousand panic-stricken people choked the roads out of Jaffna to escape the advancing columns of Sri Lankan troops. The magnitude of this monumental human tragedy in the form of a huge exodus of the entire populace of Valigamam and their displaced existence in Chavakachcheri is also vividly documented in this chapter. I was one of those half a million people who vacated Valigamam; the only difference being I left before the rush, one day earlier.

The Sri Lankan army pushed on with its advance and we finally vacated the peninsula for refuge in the Vanni. The final chapter of the book deals with our life and that of the displaced people in Vanni. This period of history was dominated by military confrontations between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army. The military forces attempted an ambitious military offensive code named `Jayasukuru’ aimed at capturing the A9 highway that ran through the centre of Vanni. The LTTE’s effective resistance transformed this military campaign by the government forces into one of the longest and bloody battles in South Asian military history.

As a liberation organisation challenging the authority of the state, various critics have taken the LTTE to task on various issues. But one of the areas of the LTTE’s expansion, which has raised many eyebrows, has been the induction of women into the armed struggle. One such critic is Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women. In an article on LTTE women fighters in a Colombo newspaper, Ms. Coomaraswamy presented a thoroughly negative and distorted portrayal of the LTTE women. Asserting her position against violence she blamed the LTTE leadership for `militarisation of Tamil society’ by the induction of women into the armed resistance movement. Ms. Coomaraswamy criticises the women fighters as `perpetrators of violence’. Characterising the female Tigers as `armed virgins’ she argues that their involvement in the armed liberation struggle is a radical departure from Tamil tradition and culture. In Chapter Seven I present a lengthy and systematic critique of her criticism. My central thesis is that women, as an integral component of the Tamil national formation, have the right to self-defence when confronted by genocide that threatens the annihilation of the social totality. By arguing that the mode of state oppression faced by the Tamil people is a subtle and sophisticated form of genocide, I criticise Ms. Coomaraswamy for deliberately neglecting the stark reality of the history of the state oppression against the Tamil people and their heroic resistance. I have also attempted to answer some of her other criticisms pertaining to feminist themes.

In the last chapter I have presented my impressions and perceptions about the LTTE leadership, particularly Mr. Pirabakaran and other senior cadres and field commanders who regularly visited us in our residence in Puthukuddiruppu, Mullaitivu. On the basis of our close relationship with Mr. Pirabakaran for more than twenty years I have attempted to portray his remarkable personality. I have also briefly sketched my observations of some of the senior military commanders who have now become war heroes of the Tamil resistance. This part of the book also deals with the episode of Bala falling seriously ill with acute renal failure and our efforts to evacuate him out of Vanni with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Government of Norway. Commenting on this issue, I have also revealed how President Chandrika Kumaratunga put forward unacceptable demands on the LTTE leadership as a price for Bala’s life.

Though this work is grounded on personalised experiences, glimpses and observations of varieties of events and happenings it essentially dwells on the historical dynamics of liberation struggle. In this context, it can be assessed as a historical work, documenting events of a turbulent period in Tamil resistance. I am confident that the reader will find the book interesting because of its multi-faceted features, commentaries and revelations that are relevant for a deeper understanding of the Tamil struggle. One of the central aims of this book is to inject a realistic portrayal of the scope and depth of the state oppression to which the Tamil people are subjected to in Sri Lanka. The gravity of the oppression, which I have attempted to project as genodical in intent, has not been fully understood or taken seriously by international humanitarian organisations and the world Governments. Ignoring the tyranny perpetrated by the racist state and the violations of human rights and atrocities committed by the Sinhalese army in the Tamil homeland, India and the western powers continue to refuse to recognise the genuine aspirations of the Tamil people for political independence.

Irrespective of the opposition to their struggle to realise their legitimate right to self-determination the people of Tamil Eelam are fiercely determined to continue with their political project against formidable odds. I have seen this indomitable spirit, the will to freedom amongst the fighters as well as the civilians in Tamil Eelam. I am convinced, beyond doubt that this Will To Freedom will ultimately triumph.

The book is available at the world: [cost of US$ 25.00 (including S&H)] Tamil coordinating committee (USA), 170-10 Cedarcroft Road, Suite 1L, Jamaica, NY 11432, USA, Tel: (718) 657-9463