Sri Lanka: In the Tigers' Belly

Sri Lankans read an army recruitment poster
Sri Lankans study a recruitment poster produced by the army at the height of civil war (Photo: Sena Vidanagama/AFP).

The road was framed on both sides by barbed wire fences warning passers-by that there were landmines throughout the area, cautioning children not to play in the fields. As we lurched and swerved to avoid the craters caused by the rushing waters of the rainy season, I was grateful that I had been too nervous to eat anything for breakfast that morning. The A9 road in the rebel-controlled territory of northern Sri Lanka is a rough one, especially when you have been summoned to appear without warning by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) military command. An international aid agency had supplied us with a Ford Explorer, but it was almost not up to the task.

As the vehicle drove along, my guards and a few volunteer aid workers hitching a ride home chatted. I sat in silence, wondering why I had been ordered to headquarters, what would happen to me there, and whether I would get out of this alive.

The conflict in Sri Lanka had certainly claimed enough lives already. Over the course of Sri Lanka’s decades-old conflict—which has pitted the ethnic Sinhalese majority, represented by the government, against separatists from the ethnic Tamil minority—tens of thousands of Sri Lankans have died. A first attempt at peace talks between the government and the LTTE was launched in 1985, but collapsed in the same year. In 1987, an Indian peacekeeping force deployed to monitor the situation; it left in 1990 amid heavy fighting. The next year, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed in a suicide bombing blamed on the LTTE. Two years later, Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa met the same fate. His successor, Chandrika Kumaratunga—the daughter of two prime ministers, Sirimavo and Solomon Bandaranaike—promised to end the war quickly. But in 1994, peace talks failed again, and Kumaratunga asserted she would be forced to resort to military measures.

Throughout the rest of the 1990s, Tiger bombing campaigns and government offensives followed each other in rapid, vicious succession. Kumaratunga herself was almost killed in a bomb attack during a 1999 election rally. The war continued, and a series of successful LTTE attacks—including one at the strategically important Elephant Pass in 2000 and a suicide bombing on Sri Lanka’s international airport the next year—shook popular confidence in the government’s military approach. Kumaratunga’s government was forced from office.

I was in Sri Lanka from October to December 2002, researching suicide bombing and how rank and file Tamils actually felt about killing Sinhalese civilians. The LTTE’s media spokesperson, known only as Thayamaster, had given me permission, of sorts, to conduct my survey, but when word leaked back to the LTTE’s central command that a Canadian researcher had been allowed to do public opinion research on such sensitive topics, I was summoned immediately. Two days earlier, Thayamaster had looked at me and my two research assistants, all three of us women, and had sneered and chuckled before saying dismissively that he could not grant any interviews. “Oh, that’s fine,” I answered, “we’re here to talk to the people.” His flip response, “It is a free country, talk to whomever you want,” would come back to haunt him and us. We walked off that afternoon feeling quite clever and superior. He had not asked to read the survey and I had not volunteered to show it to him. We went on our way to Malavi.

The next day in Malavi, we surveyed a mere 12 people in the morning. My goal had been to survey at least 50. It looked like it was going to be more difficult than we had expected. People read the survey questions with trepidation. We were asking about their attitudes about civilian casualties, whether they thought the LTTE was corrupt, or whether they would like to see other parties compete with the LTTE in a democratic election. Most people refused to respond.

That afternoon, we found that we could not distribute the surveys fast enough. People were flocking to respond. We asked our driver and translator, Anton, why it was that in the morning no one would take the survey, but that in the afternoon, we could not hand them out fast enough. Anton replied matter of factly, “Malavi is a really small place and everyone knows everything that goes on here. People know that there were three strange women in town asking questions about the LTTE. They see that you are still alive and that the people who took the survey this morning are also still alive so they figure it must be OK.” As we digested this information we realized the seriousness of our task. By that evening 80 people had taken the survey.

It didn’t take long for the news to get back to the LTTE’s central command. That night, feeling satisfied and encouraged, I gave Anton the next morning off and sat down to have a beer with a senior aid worker. As we sat talking, a guard from Kilinochi appeared and told us that I had been summoned by Thayamaster for a 9 a.m. meeting the next day. Refusal was not an option. But I took comfort from the aid agency's offer to provide an escort.

We arrived late—not the way to make a good impression on terrorists. My guard was the aid agency's liaison with the Tigers and head of security. He insisted on talking to the Tigers first to make sure I was not walking into a trap. He returned half an hour later satisfied that I would be safe, so we continued to the LTTE’s headquarters.

Thayamaster greeted us, smiling but not sneering this time, flanked by Secretary-General of the LTTE Peace Secretariat S. Puleedevan and a high ranking cadre whose nom de guerre was Tamil Arasan, after the founder of the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army. They ushered me into the main conference room, several long tables flanked on either side by stuffed black leather chairs. It was where the LTTE held their meetings and where they entertained heads of state. Rather than being tossed into the bunker as I had expected, I was being treated like a distinguished visitor.

“So how is the survey going?” Puleedevan asked.

I had not told him about the survey but answered that it was going well.

He smiled and asked me: “So do the people love us?” It sounded more like a command than a query.

Apparently in the LTTE-controlled territory they did. And so we discussed Tamil history and politics for the next two hours. Puleedevan spoke, the others scrutinized and observed. He answered my questions, not always truthfully, but ever charming and with a smile.

As my escort and I left, I could not believe how gracious and amiable they had all been. I remarked how friendly everyone was and asked the guard, “Is he [Puleedevan] a killer?”

The guard smiled: “Oh yeah.”

I never expected terrorists to be so pleasant. Sri Lanka is a country full of such contradictions, peopled by two ethnic groups who are warm and lovely and yet whose history is marked by a vicious and bloody 19 year long civil war.

I traveled throughout the island asking people what they thought of the LTTE, what they thought of violence, and what their expectations were for the future. My travels took me to the north, the east, and to the Tea Estates of the Hill Country around Kandy, observing along the way some of most beautiful countryside I had ever seen. The results of my survey were surprising. The people overwhelmingly supported the LTTE or they supported no political party whatsoever. Support for rival Tamil political groups was statistically insignificant. People did not support the use of suicide bombing against civilian targets, although they did make an exception for attacks against military targets.

People generally thought that the LTTE was gaining more by negotiating with the government than by using violence, although most people also thought that violence had been necessary in the past. Finally, most people expected that peace was imminent and were optimistic about the future. As I traveled through the island, the second in command of the LTTE, Anton Stanislaus Balasingham, chief negotiator of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was in Thailand negotiating with the Sri Lankan government of Ranil Wickremesinghe and, though there were dissenting voices on the right of the Sri Lankan political spectrum, most people were so war-weary that the prospects of a lasting peace meant that they were willing to make the kind of sacrifices necessary to ensure that peace would stick. The kinds of events that would ordinarily ruin a peace negotiation anywhere else—for instance, Villupilai Prabhakaran’s 200 year sentence for the 1996 Central Bank suicide bombing and the capture by the Sri Lankan navy of Sea Tigers attempting to smuggle 200 landmines into the country—were not sufficient to deaden the enthusiasm for peace and spoil the ongoing talks.

As talks have progressed, the LTTE continues to recruit child soldiers, to kidnap teenagers and force them to join the cadres. The government soldiers continue to rape women at checkpoints and engage in all manner of abuses, and yet Sri Lanka’s prospects remain positive. Hotel chains, in anticipation of a peace dividend, are rebuilding their facilities on the east coast. Others have been closing for expensive renovations. “As much as I detest the term,” U.S. Ambassador Ashley Wills said, “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

The LTTE often used peace negotiations to buy time to rearm and regroup. This time, perhaps because the political climate has decidedly shifted against such groups, the LTTE has been more restrained, and money from the Tamil diaspora cannot easily reach the LTTE. Once the money began drying up, the LTTE became more amenable to negotiation.

Puleedevan assured me that since the Sri Lankan Government was serious about peace, so were they. They had not trusted the previous president, Chandrika Kumuratunga, whose father, S.W.R.D. Bandanaraike, had instituted the laws that made Tamils a persecuted minority in the first place. Chandrika was also the daughter of Srimavo Bandanaraike, who took over from her husband after he was assassinated in 1959. Srimavo had overseen the institution of martial law, and excuded Tamils from many professional schools or other opportunities for upward mobility. Understandably, most Tamils viewed the whole Bandanaraike clan with suspicion.

According to Puleedevan, Ranil Wickremisinghe was different. When he came to power in December 2000 he immediately eliminated most of the checkpoints in Colombo and signaled his willingness to negotiate with the LTTE. Puleedevan explained that ultimately the well-being of the Tamil people was his first priority. The people, he said, wanted the peace dividend, they wanted a better life, and it was up to the LTTE to make sure that they got it.

When asked what the key difference was between the LTTE and Palestinian groups, Puleedevan explained that the LTTE was not interested in killing teenagers. Their policy of “targeted assassination” had generally been chosen carefully, and he pointed to the 2001 attack against the Colombo airport, which claimed no civilian lives. He contrasted this with Hamas’ tactics, which target Israeli civilians as well as soldiers. Finally, Puleedevan acknowledged that after Sept. 11, 2001, the tactics that had worked so well for them in the past were no longer appropriate. Puleedevan had perhaps understood something most Hamas had not: The world would not look favorably on the continued use of suicide bombs, and that moderating the group's demands in order to make peace was the only option.

And though the LTTE announced on April 22 that it was withdrawing from peace talks in protest at having been excluded from discussions in Washington the previous week, the announcement was followed by an intense burst of diplomatic activity, suggesting that both sides remain committed to preventing a derailment of the peace process. As one Tamil man in Batticaloa, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, told me, "This time, peace is close. We are very hopeful and pray that war is a thing of the past."