by Sachi Sri Kantha, May 17, 2019
Front Note by Sachi
Since the last April 21st Easter Sunday’s multiple suicide attacks by the Muslim participants on Christian Churches and hotels in Colombo, there have been lopsided comparisons by ignoramus journalists and knee jerk commentators covering the major media outlets to the LTTE’s separatist war with the Sinhalese dominated Sri Lankan armed forces, from 1983 to 2009. Why I write lop sided comparison? Merely because suicide bombers were used!
LTTE was a guerrilla army established in 1976, which morphed into a regular army and took on two national armies (Sri Lanka and India) in year-long conflicts. Knee jerk commentators conveniently ignore the reasons why suicide bombing was incorporated by Prabhakaran. The aggressor was the Sri Lankan state, which had used aerial terrorism against unarmed civilians in the Tamil regions of North. Despite receiving negative press and negative coverage by ‘terrorism’ scholars, unlike the two national armies it fought against, LTTE had the reputation of never being accused of sexual violence or rape against unarmed civilians.
Mervyn de Silva (1929-1999) was Sri Lanka’s internationally reputed journalist, who established and edited the fortnightly ‘Lanka Guardian’ magazine for almost two decades. To clarify the major difference in the motives for “separatist war” (as tagged by Mervyn de Silva) against the Sri Lankan state between Velupillai Prabhakaran’s Eelam Tamil army and that of Mohammad Zaharan Hashim’s National Thowheed Jamath, I provide below three commentaries written by Mervyn de Silva in 1992, about Prabhakaran and LTTE, in chronological order. What is interesting here is that, the ‘Jihad’ word was introduced into Sri Lankan political lexicon in 1992 by Mohammed H.M. Ashraf (1948-2000), the then chameleonic leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. Ashraf met an accidental death while traveling in a Sri Lankan Air Force helicopter. Also to be noted is Mervyn de Silva’s emphasis in the first commentary (August 1, 1992) that the Sri Lankan Army is “a nearly 100% Sinhala or Sinhala-Buddhist army”, since 1962, after the Army Coup led by Colonel F.C. de Saram. This composition does NOT reflect the ethnic distribution of the island’s total population.
I hold that Mervyn de Silva’s suggestion that LTTE’s strategy in treating the Muslims as ‘collaborators’ or ‘enemies’ during the IPKF war, drove the Muslim community into “an anti-LTTE stance” is naïve and simplistic. Here are two facts.
Fact 1: Even long before LTTE’s birth, the Muslims of Sri Lanka had hardly cooperated with the Eelam Tamils in the parliament. Their antipathy to Tamils had been dated to Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (1851-1930) siding with the Sinhalese during the 1915 ethnic riots between the Sinhalese and the Moors of Indian origin.
Fact 2: Antipathy of Eelam Tamils to Muslims was aggravated beyond repair by Badiuddin Mahmud’s (1904 – 1997; a founder member of the SLFP party and the token Muslim) role as the Minister of Education during 1970 to 1977, in implementing the racist, media-wise standardization policy for university entrance exams.
[Note by Sachi: Phrases or sentences (i) in bold font, (ii) within parenthesis, and (iii) in large case letters, are as in the original text of Mervyn de Silva’s commentaries.]
Muslims Mobilise – Endless Ethnic Wars – by Mervyn de Silva
[Lanka Guardian, Aug. 1 1992, pp. 3-4.]
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader, Mr. Mohammaed Ashraff, MP, has asked the government to create a ‘Muslim battalion’ called the JIHAD regiment like SINHA (Lion) regiment of the Sri Lankan army. It will fight the LTTE along with other units of the Army against the Tamil Tigers who have been massacring Muslims, particularly in the Eastern province. The ‘Jihad’ regiment will not only serve the ‘national cause’ but ‘the Islamic cause’.
The ‘Sinha’ regiment is not the sole Sinhala regiment in the Sri Lanka army. There are the Gemunu, the Gajaba regiments and other units named after Sinhala heroes, usually warrior kings. This is no aberration. The Sinhalas are the majority, overwhelmingly so. Whereas in other institutions and agencies, this ethnic ratio is reflected more often than not by the ordinary law of arithmetic, there was a time when the minority Tamils were ‘over-represented’ so to say…e.g. medical services, civil service, diplomatic service, medical and engineering professions. These historical or post-colonial imbalances have been rectified, by and large.
Not so, the armed forces. That did not matter in times of peace, when the army in fact was largely ceremonial. The first army commander was General Anton Mutucuaru, a Tamil. There was however a transitional period during which Brigadier Caithness was in charge, under a Ceylon – UK agreement signed by Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake. Brigadier Caithness’s views fell short of Mutucumaru’s concept of what the army of independent Ceylon should be. The first task in fact was to draft an Army Act.
In his history of the Sri Lankan army, General Mutucumaru regards, quite correctly, that the 1971 JVP insurgency was the first real national security threat which independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka had to face, while the most serious problem which the government confronted up to the 1970s was the abortive Officer’s Coup of 1965 (sic: 1962). The first real ‘war’ (‘low-intensity conflict’ in the internationally accepted jargon) was what this journal has called EELAM WAR 1, that is the war before the IPKF intervention.
The plotters of the Colonel F.C. de Saram-led army coup came from the racial-religious minorities (mainly Westernised Upper-class Christian) while the so-called kakussi (toilet) coup was allegedly masterminded by Sinhala-Buddhist officers. Major-General Udugama, was the first accused.
It is the challenge of EEELAM WAR 1 which matured the Sri Lankan army, turning it into quite a well-equipped professional army. From the 80’s, it has increased 5-fold, with a qualitative improvement in the Navy and Air Force. Defence spending has soared to 21 billion, a top item in the budget, a trend strongly opposed by the IMF-World Bank, and the donor group, which amount for an increasingly large percentage of the foreign exchange budget.
As important as its economic consequences however is the impact of the war on the nation’s unity, political stability, and communal harmony. This is not a conventional war but a separatist insurgency that has grown out of ethnic problems starting with language. Once the Tamil rebels had access to modern arms and communication equipment, the military character of the conflict began to change, the challenge to the State and its territorial integrity more and more serious. What did NOT change however was the basic character of the confrontation – ethnic and territorial. The first was accentuated by a nearly 100% Sinhala or Sinhala-Buddhist army. The ‘enemy’ or the other, the combatant, was 100% Tamil.
IN that sense, the lines of division, were clear, however nasty, costly and hopeless the war itself. Not any more. Who killed the highly regarded and intensely popular Chief incumbent of the Tantrimale Raja Maha Viharaya, the Ven. Kudakongaskande Gnanawimale Thera. The theory that it was the Tigers’ has been rejected. A top level inquiry is now going on. The modus operandi has been established. The unknown assailant had flung a hand grenade into the monk’s bedroom. The grenade, identified as one used by the army, had killed the monk instantly. Reuter reported that a local journalist had suggested a motive for the killing. The monk had evidently told the authorities that at the time of an LTTE attack on the army camp (52 soldiers died in the Tiger raid) many soldiers who should have been on guard duty were asleep.
No longer then is the ‘battle line’ clear – heroic Sinhala-Buddhist soldiers fighting the savage Tamil Tigers. The Sinhala opinion makers who fostered that morale-boosting view of the bloody conflict, have been utterly disoriented by the Tantirimale tragedy, particularly after reading the comments of Mr. Ravi Jayewardene, President JR’s (Jayewardene) son, who was also his security adviser. The Nayake thera was one of the most humane and bravest of men, said Ravi Jayawardene. He helped families in distress, no matter what their race or religion.
A nearly 100% Sinhala army fighting Tamil rebels make the war a racial confrontation that undermines professional judgement. Elemental passions make nonsense of discipline and skills acquired through years of training. And now the Third Community deeply involved in the bloody and confused conflict in the ‘mixed’ (Tamil over 40% Muslim, a third and Sinhala the rest) Eastern province, wants its own Muslim battalion. The war is no longer a battle between soldiers and guerrillas but a tribal war, nasty, brutish but by no means short. And that, in a tiny compact little island – a theatre without the advantage of space, therefore all the bloodier and messier.
To make matters worse there is conflict within the army itself, at the command level, over tactics and strategy; a conflict intensified by professional ambitions, personal conflicts, and career prospects.
And finally, we have the strategic issue. Is military power being used to impress on the Tigers that they have no ‘military option’ (i.e., no ‘Eelam’, won by force of arms)? To make them face up to the fact that they must lay down arms and negotiate a political settlement. Or are we fighting a war to the bitter end to impose Colombo’s will on the separatists? If so, can we? Do we have the resource to do so? Will not the IMF-WB and the donor groups tell us that they will not sustain a military budget beyond a given point? Has that point been reached? If so, aid and credit will be reduced. The result will be obvious. Economic hardship in the South. Then a new ‘war’, will commence in the South – the war born out of material hardship, the anger which divides the poor and lower middle class from the rich, a class war, economic unrest, strikes, violence, and who knows a recrudescene of JVP-type ‘warfare’.
The impeachment saw the UNP split up and the emergence of DUNF. The Nittambuwa meeting to celebrate the 32nd anniversary of Mrs. Bandaranaike becoming the world’s first women prime minister, saw fisticuffs and rowdy scenes – open ‘warfare’ between Anura (Bandaranaike) loyalists and the supporters of sister Chandrika, who is backed by her mother. Families, political parties, leaderships are all breaking up – the stark symbl of a society wrecked by divisive conflicts, the constant exposure of the fundamental fact of fissure. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, wrote W.B. Yeats at the height of the Irish rebellion, the longest war of the kind that now ravages the world, what usd to be called the first, second and third world.
Medirigiriya Massacre: Enter the Muslims – by Mervyn de Silva
[Lanka Guardian, Nov.1, 1992, pp. 3-4 & 7.]
The Tamil ‘Tigers’ don’t need to be reminded of their near-universal reputation as one of the most blood-thirsty guerrilla groups in the word today, did it their way. In pre-dawn darkness they moved into three predominantly Muslim villages close to Medirigiriya in the Polonnaruwa district, gunned down and hacked to death at least 192 men, women and children. A correspondent quoting a Jaffna source said it was a ‘training exercise’, meaning bloodying the braves. The sheer brutality stunned most Sri Lankans though most newspaper readers are hardly shaken by such gruesome tales of mass slaughter after ten years of strife, whether ‘tigers’ massacring innocent Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils in the North and East, or Sinhala mobs (often manipulated by top-level politicians) run amok in the streets of Colombo or on the rampage in some suburban town in Sinhala south.
The insensitivity to killing, even the most unjust and senseless, is the human price that the people of the dhammadeepa (the island of the doctrine, the most humane and compassionate of religions) has paid for a war that their political leaders started and neither the Army nor the ‘Tigers’ can finish. The unwinnable war goes on, with each massacre not underlying that self-evident fact but strengthening the conviction of ‘wannabe’ winners of the Glory Boys Club – that only more men, weapons and a Sinhalese ‘Patton or ‘Sharon’ is needed to storm Jaffna, fly the flag, and bury Prabhakaran.
The irony is that the ‘enemy’ Prabhakaran, is one of these gifted and daring guerrilla commanders whose mindset is totally, unalterably militarist. Unless he is captured, he cannot be converted. And capture you can’t, since he has anticipated the possibility and carries his cyanide capsule with him. It is the self-same cyanide which also denies ‘intelligence’ to the security forces. Without ‘intelligence’, the war cannot be carried deep into enemy territory. Since all frontline fighters are armed with the capsule, the chances of gathering productive intelligence are slim.
No great reader, Prabhakaran knows the truisms instinctively. The army cannot be everywhere while the guerrilla can be anywhere. If the guerrilla is not losing, he’s winning; if the army is not winning, it is losing. Your armchair pundit will say ‘recruit more, double the strength of the army, buy the most modern weapons and equipment’. All that means money, and the willingness of Sinhala youth to join the army. But the recruitment has become exceedingly difficult, while desertions multiply. Where does that leave the gung-ho militarist?
Second, our budget is controlled by the IMF and the World Bank, the Aid Consortium. They have placed limits on arms spending, and the limits have narrowed, with the threat of an ‘aid squeeze’ for non-compliance with such percentages on defence, more and more serious. So one doesn’t have the money to recruit the soldiers from the queues that aren’t there; or far too short to recruit enough to meet your target.
But this is no ordinary war. This politics conducted by military means. It is an armed conflict over territory and power over that territory. That raises the question of devolution. There are three principal players in the game – (a) the Sinhala establishment: government first, opposition second. (b) the Tamil political establishment; the parliamentary parties and the so called militant groups who have in fact given up armed struggle and are represented, directly or indirectly in parliament, and (c) the Tigers, a 100% military organization which uses politics and politicians (Tamil, Muslim or Sinhala) to promote their central aim – EELAM or as close as a possible to EELAM. Earlier India was the Fourth player and a powerful one. But the withdrawal of the IPKF at the request of President Premadasa, and the formal announcement recently by the Indian President that the Indo- Sri Lanka was a thing of the past, Prof. Muni, India’s foremost Sri Lankan watcher has admitted that India lacks the power and the instrumentalities to impose its will.
The Mangala Moonesinghe Committee concentrated really on the second issue – devolution of power. On the other main question, land, the Sinhala consensus is NO MERGER. The Committee tried to find some ground in-between but the search was long and painful. The only compromise the Committee could conceive was a ‘link’ between East and North to allow two Provincial Council to cooperate or coordinate work on matters that affected both provinces. That would seem a reasonable arrangement almost common sense that nobody would reject. But no. A Committee of this type would have produced nothing but a collective yawn if it had been suggested that Western province should have ‘links’ with the Southern; or the Central province with the North Central, but the moment North and the East are mentioned, there is an uproar. Why? Territory. And the Sinhala nightmare of too much land given to the Tamils; came too close to a ‘separate state’ and therefore painfully close for comfort. Believe it or not, it is Sinhlaese nightmare, though there are many intelligent Sinhala analysts who believe it is made into a nightmare by politicians for self-serving propagandist purposes – especially opposition politicians who need a stick to beat the government. Or a slogan at least. And the most favoured is the cry of ‘traitor’, ‘selling Sinhala territory to the Tamils’, who will soon come down South, and drive the Sinhalese to the sea. This has been the knee-jerk of not just Sinhala propagandists or agitators. Both the UNP and the SLFP have conformed to that behavior pattern when in opposition. Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel but it is the first refuge of Sinhala party beaten at the polls.
The massacres and its aftermath conforms to this pattern, with one important difference. The victims were all Muslims – men, women, children. The SLMC of Mr. Ashraff was trapped. His party has been supporting the Premadasa regime, and logically so, since no administration has been so responsible to the Muslim community as the present UNP regime.
Today’s Muslim community is not the traditional Muslim community we have known in post-independence times; an affluent business stratum at the top, the vast majority of the poor Muslims living not just in the Sinhala south, but in the East. The Muslim family of the East should NOT be confused with the Western or Southern Muslim. For two good reasons (a) it is the second largest – Tamil 42%, Muslims 33% and Sinhala 25%. The Muslims hold the balance. And that ‘balance’ is vital since it determines the majority of the province; if the Muslims take the Sinhala side, the two constitute the majority. Secondly, the Muslim community are far more Tamil speakers than Sinhala-speaking, which is not true of the Muslims living amongst the Sinhalese in the other provinces.
With whom then would – or should – the Muslims cooperate. The Tamils feel strongly that they should work together with them because the Muslims are Tamil-speaking. However in the past few decades, ISLAM has emerged as one of the most formidable and demanding collective identities and social-political forces in the world. The Muslims in Sri Lanka – at least the new generation – have not been insensitive to this profound fact of Muslim mobilization. Most of all in this region.
Mr. Ashraff has been trapped. His party has been cooperating with the government collaborating in the eyes of his critics and rivals. He has to walk a tightrope. Hence the rhetorical call for Jihad and the demand for a Muslim unit in the army. But rhetoric has a habit of becoming a reality when the fast moving drama of armed ethnic conflict sometimes gives uncomfortable lines to the players, and changes roles and costumes. The Lankan ‘crisis’, though faceless, is the ultimate playwright, often defying even the most knowledgeable spectators and professional critics.
The ‘Tigers’ have given another typically cold-blooded performance in a field of which they are brilliant exponents. But they must remember they are not totally self-relian. [sic] There is such a thing as Tamil opinion and the other parties have reacted with revulsion, notably the TULF. Apart from that there is world opinion and the ‘Tigers’ have exploited international opinion (manipulating it sometimes) to serve their cause. But massacres are not going to win friends; and no guerrilla group in the world is strong fenough to defy world opinion. There are limits to cold-blooded terror. And already, international agencies, Asia Watch etc. have expressed concern and horror.
Federalism; The Return of History – by Mervyn de Silva
[Lanka Guardian, Dec.1, 1992, pp. 3-4.]
The government’s dilemma was made painfully obvious by two events in mid-November – the daring assassination of Vice Admiral Clancy Fernando on Nov. 16 by the LTTE suicide bomber, and the island’s first international trade fair, together with an Investment Forum sponsored by the Sri Lanka Board of Investment (Nov.18-22). Both proved tremendous successes. So is this year’s tourist season, with the total number for 1992 creeping up on 400,000. The cold-blooded, perfectly executed murder of the Navy’s No.1 did not take place in any war zone of the North and East. It took place in the heart of the city, in the sea front hotel district; in fact, right opposite the Taj Samudra Hotel, where some of the visiting businessmen were staying. The other equally newsworthy guests at the same hotel were the New Zealand test team, many of its members promptly deciding to cancel the tour and return home. Thanks to the persuasive diplomacy of the British and Australian High Commissioners, and the Australian Board president, the tour was not cancelled though some players did take the first plane out.
Celebrating his 38th birthday the same week, Velupillai Prabhakaran had not only made up his mind to kill the Navy Commander, who had hit the LTTE hard in the lagoons and sea lanes of the north, so vital for LTTE supplies and commerce. (The LTTE runs its own Customs service, for travelers to the peninsula.) Nor was the killing the curtain-raiser for the LTTE’s HEROES WEEK. It had a many sided impact – murderous revenge, the shock effect to destablilise the capital, to undermine the morale of the armed services. A message to the world that the ‘enclave’ economy was not all that secure; i.e. economic sabotage, and subversion. Another reason was to sharpen the contradiction between the ‘military option’ school and the ‘political settlement’ lobby, that is to deepen the divisions in the Sinhala political establishment and intensify the friction between the UNP government and the SLFP-led Opposition, and any policy difference between the civilian regime and the military. It is the reason which Prabhakaran himself offered in an article he had contributed – itself a rare event – to a Tamil monthly OLAHATH THAMILAR (World Tamils) that merits special attention. (The ISLAND columnist TARAKI quoted some lines in his weekly column).
‘Surprise attacks on many fronts in the Eelam territory have struck fear in Sinhala soldiers and continue to undermine their will to fight’. Undermining the army’s morale, the will to fight, is of course a base aim. The territorial imperative is equally important since this is a separatist war, requiring a carving out of territory. Whether the LTTE can actually seize and hold the land from which they have pulled out remains to be seen. Attacking the will of the Sinhala army is all important because the LTTE cadre is highly motivated (the suicide bomber is motivation at its highest) whereas the poor rural Sinhala youth who has found a job, may not be able to match such motivation. This explains Prabhakaran’s next claim:
‘We destroyed the army camp at Vanankulam that was giving protection to the colonists in the Vavuniya districts. Following this, as a result of minor attacks along the Vavuniya border many Sinhala settlers left the district…’ One massive, murderous assault which breaks the spirit of the soldier, the protector of the colonists, creates a climate of fear where minor assaults are sufficient to scare away settlers.’ In the same way he writes, ‘Sinhala settlers in Mannal Aru (Welioya) and Trinco have also begun to leave’. Note that the LTTE leader uses the Tamil name first, with the Sinhala name in bracket, in an to whom assertion the land originally belonged? The truth of course lies in the flow of history, colonial and pre-colonial, and at which point you choose to dive into the river. Since history is itself in fierce dispute, (and there are few ‘objective’ historians today!) much of all this is purely polemical.
But ‘colonisation’ was certainly a declared policy of successive Sri Lankan governments even before independence – settling Sinhala families from the ‘overpopulated’ South in the newly irrigated areas of the so-called Dry Zone. Opening new lands supported by irrigation schemes and responding to the land hunger of the Sinhala peasant made economic and political sense. What is ‘colonisation’ for the government, a rational policy, became in the eyes of post-independence Tamil politicians and ideologues, ‘internal colonialism’. And thus the fight for the East, the vital theatre of this separatist war.
The ethnic composition of the East makes this political-military contest more complex because a third community is involved – the Muslims. And the Moslems hold the balance. They constitute one-third with the Sinhalese twenty five percent. Since the Muslims are Tamil-speaking rather than Sinhala-speaking, which is true of the Muslims in the island’s south, the Tamil militants took Muslim cooperation for granted. Accusing some Muslim groups of being used by the Indian army when the IPKF was in charge of the East (the Indian commander was a Muslim) in the post-1987 Accord, the Tigers have treated the Muslims as ‘collaborators’ or ‘enemies’. This was a blunder. In today’s world there is no rallying cry as potent as Islam. The LTTE strategy has gradually driven the Muslim community, the Muslim MPs and the most articulate Muslim party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) into an anti-LTTE stance. The SLMC of Mr. Ashraff has 4 MPs in parliament is the largest Muslim group in the House. He has not only made a tactical alliance with the ruling UNP but threatened a jihad. And his party has earned the sympathy of the Islamic world. In this region, with Pakistan and Bangladesh as our neighbors, and with more Muslims in India than in Pakistan, which has Iran and the Arab states as its western neighbors, the LTTE has needlessly opened another front.
In the same week as Admiral Fernando’s assassination, there was an attempt in the Narahenpita residential area. Who was the target? Some said it was the President’s secretary, Mr. K.H. Wijedasa; others argued it was Mr. Munsoor. But better informed sources tend to agree that Mr. Ashroff was the preferred target. Mr. Ashraff has requested arms to launch his jihad supported by militant Islamic youth.
Territory is of course not the sole issue in this protracted struggle. Territory is displaced ‘power’ as the main issue in the Tamil struggle for minority rights. When Mr. Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Maha Sabha quit the parent UNP, he formed the SLFP. When Mr. Chelvanayakam quit the Tamil Congress after its leader Mr. G.G. Ponnambalam had become a minister in the UNP cabinet, he launched the Federal Party. Though SWRD (Bandaranaike) an intellectual appreciated the federal concept, he offered much less to Mr. Chelvanayakam when he signed the B-C Pact – the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact. Race riots and extremist Sinhala-Buddhist pressure forced SWRD (Bandaranaike) to tear up that pact. When his turn came, the UNP’s prime minister Dudley Senanayake also signed an ‘accord’ with the FP leader. It was called the Dudley-Chelva pact. That was not implemented either. It is frustration of the Tamil political leadership and the growing dissatisfaction of the Tamil constituency, and finally the rising anger of a new Tamil generation in the face of perceived ‘discrimination’ in justice, that the English-educated Tamil professional manning the political parties chose non-violent satyagraha as their principal form of protest and agitation. The reply, alas, was assaults, fire bombs, and anti-Tamil riots. Prabhakaran, a teenager, living in the Pettah, was the creature of that era. Today he is one of the world’s toughest terrorists and gurerrilla commanders. He fought the IPKF for three years, and many an Indian general has written books about his military skills, tenacity and amazing ability to mobilise and command a new generation of Tamils.
Meanwhile history has repeated itself. The Mangala Moonesingha Committee was a brain-wave of an independent-minded SLFP middle-rung MP. The parliamentary committee chaired by him was an all party committee. It represented the concensus of the democratically elected. Perhaps more crucially, it offered the best hope of producing what had eluded the political establishment for 35 years – a UNP-SLFP consensus. Last week, Mr. Moonesingha announced that an agreement has been reached. The main parties were read to consider positively a proposal for federal constitution and two separate councils.
Within 24 hours the SLFP and Opposition leader, Mrs. Bandaranaike was denying any such agreement on her side. History it has been said, repeats first as tragedy then as farce. We would add a third possibility – tragic farce.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gamini Fonseka, MP and super star of the Sinhala screen has lashed out to prove Prabhakaran had read the Sinhala middle class mind well. ‘It is time we made up our minds, that this is a state of war and therefore the country must be put on a war footing. If we stall to collect the pennies, we will be in deep trouble.’ Mr. Fonseka is MP of the UNP, and Deputy Speaker.