What Next for the Tamil Tigers?

By April 24, 2009 No Comments

Predictions of the impending end of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came thick and fast after the Sri Lankan Army’s offensive swept through their long-held sanctuaries in late 2008 and January of 2009. However, the Tiger’s mental flexibility should not have been underestimated – they staved off complete defeat for four months by taking over 200,000 Tamil hostages; and simultaneously used them as a human shield and a propaganda instrument. By way of comparison, think of a gunman who takes hostages, terrifies and cuffs them, and then issues statements about how concerned he is with their welfare whenever the police return his fire.

In any event, the battle to finish the Tiger guerrilla army ended as all great battles do; with a great amount of physical destruction and an enormous casualty toll. In small wars, as in great ones, misery and death can be more common in the final act than at other times. Nobody has yet compiled an accurate tally of the dead in the 33 year history of the LTTE’s saga of terrorism (including the 26 year span of the Tiger’s guerrilla army); but most estimates had settled on 70,000 or so before the Sri Lankan Army’s final drive began in late 2008. A final death toll of 100,000 would be a reasonable estimate.

The question for now is what comes next?

The Tigers, right from the late 1970s, had always been much more than just another self-styled national liberation movement. The LTTE had invited study since the early 1980s because of their unusual set of international organizations and the overall sophistication of their total activities.

The first signs of the LTTE’s presence in Western Europe came even before their guerrilla army was fully formed in Sri Lanka. This was the appearance of networks of Sri Lankan heroin traffickers in Switzerland, Italy and elsewhere. Their military style discipline inhibited police investigations, although it certainly attracted their notice. Even in Canada, narcotics traffickers were among the very first members of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora to appear.

The LTTE helped facilitate the establishment of a global organized criminal network of Sri Lankan Tamils in Western Europe, North America and much of Asia. Other products for this network also included people smuggling (which is to say, illegal immigration rather than the more sinister crime of human trafficking), and consumer and commercial fraud. For some 20 years these activities have been supported by counterfeiting, a skill that has often brought special recognition from police agencies around the world.

The Tamil criminal network has largely been harnessed to the needs of the LTTE; and has heretofore displayed few signs of being in business for itself.

But now that the Tigers no longer have a guerrilla army to support and their founder, Villupillai Prabhakaran, has been killed, what will this network do? Given that the participants in most organizations are loath to dismantle the structure that created and shaped long careers, even when the circumstances that created the group have vanished, the international Tamil criminal network will probably continue its usual pastimes. The difference now is that they could reasonably be expected to keep their profits, and justify their activities by telling each other a comforting fiction that they are doing so in case the Tigers re-emerge.

In any event, the Tamil Mafia will not be operating under the LTTE’s shadow anymore, and there may be some struggles for the leadership of its various enterprises and for influence within the group. The rest of us will have to get used to the presence of yet another globalized criminal society. The Tigers exercised restraint on the violence used by this Tamil Mafia in the past, but this check has now been lifted and we can expect to see just how dangerous a Mafia staffed by veteran guerrillas can be.

Of course, the vast majority of Sri Lankan Tamils are not members of this Mafia nor are they disposed to criminality any more than most people are. Like most of us, they hope to better their lives and those of their children and many sensed this could be accomplished if they left Sri Lanka. The fighting did generate a Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora.

While there had been some emigration from Sri Lanka in those halcyon days before the Tigers emerged; most immigrants – Sinhalese and Tamils alike – thought of themselves as having a common Sri Lankan culture. Once the LTTE started to facilitate wholesale immigration into the West, Sri Lankan cultural associations were among the first to notice a new effect. LTTE leaders among the Diaspora maintained that Tamils were the victims of Sinhalese persecution, and this justified everything that the Tigers did. Having Émigré Tamils belong to Sri Lankan cultural groups abroad was unsupportable to the Tigers as it was vital to create an entirely separate Tamil identity.

The creation of a Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora was also a novelty. Support for homeland terrorism among immigrant/exile groups is an old story going clear back to the Russian socialists and Irish Fenians of the 19th Century. What makes the LTTE different is that they didn’t have a Diaspora to draw on for support, so they created one. Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils were supported by the Tigers as they arrived in new homes in Western Europe, Australia and North America (particularly in Ontario). What they found in their new homes is that every aspect of Tamil community life was controlled by Tiger political fronts such as the World Tamil Movement or the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils.

No immigrant can really hope to be that successful in his or her new life without falling back on the community of people from their old homeland. For Diaspora Tamils, immigrant settlement services, Tamil language newspapers and radio shows, cultural events, job training, and sometimes even baby-sitting services were controlled by Tiger fronts. One result was that the many Tamils with no love for Prabhakaran or the LTTE learned very quickly to stay quiet and make no public complaints. To criticize the Tigers was to risk total ostracism, if not intimidation.

The Tigers also systemically milked the Diaspora community for ‘War Taxes’ and special contributions. A newly arrived family on welfare might have been expected to cough up $30 a month. More successful Tamils (and this is a community full of hard-working innovative and educated immigrants) would see their assessments increase as their prosperity improved.

With the collapse of the LTTE, the Tiger apparatus for the control of the Diaspora community is now rudderless. However, for the hundreds of activists that exercised such tight control for so long, they are unlikely to cede their influence easily – especially with the war tax revenue collection system still in place. It is in their personal interests to continue to generate hatred of Sri Lanka, and to keep the cause alive no matter what. For these activists, the cause has been their career.

If, as seems to be the case, many Tamil immigrants take advantage of the weakness of the situation to escape their ‘obligations’ to the cause, they might well have to be brought back into the fold. Given that the War-Tax system already used intimidation on the recalcitrant, violence is more possible in the future. Many close links between the criminal networks and the activist Fronts have been uncovered in the past, and these still must exist today.

Western governments face a particular challenge: All of the institutions of an entire immigrant community might have to be suppressed, so that new ones – without the taint of Tiger ties – might emerge. If this is not done, an entire community of skilled immigrants may never integrate into their new societies. Speed and resolve may be necessary to supplant leadership in the Tamil community.

The third legacy of the Post-LTTE Tamil community is closely tied to the second. With almost complete control of Tamil language media and institutions for the past 20 years, the children of the immigrants have had their Tamil identities entirely manufactured by Tiger sympathizers. Unlike their parents and grandparents who experienced the communal reality of Sri Lanka where its different peoples were not invariably at each others’ throats, the younger generation sees their identity as an endangered one.

It is a fundamental component of human nature to over-compensate for a weak identity. Converts to a religion are often more zealous than those raised in it. Grandchildren who missed a trauma that defined their parents and grandparents are often far more militant in seeking retribution. Children of immigrants often romanticize the homeland culture they never knew.

The children of Tamil immigrants – utterly convinced that Sri Lanka is a genocidal society bent on the subjugation of the Tamil people – are likely to be very militant in the expression of their identity for decades to come.

The only thing that might – and this is a remote possibility – defray this militancy could be detailed accounts of the true nature of the Tigers and their leader. Unfortunately, if such information comes from the Sri Lankan government, it is not likely to be believed. Still, conflicting information is the anodyne to propaganda, with which the Tigers’ apparatus bombarded the Diaspora community for twenty years. However, as a propaganda system usually requires the subjects’ consent to be propagandized, success in counter-propaganda is really only possible on an individual case-by-case basis.

While the LTTE’s guerrilla force has been defeated and the founder of the movement killed, there are loose ends to the Tigers. All these loose ends –the global criminal mafia, the activist network, and the youths of the Diaspora itself – were once suborned to the Tigers but are now free to take on lives of their own. Sri Lanka’s civil war might be ended, and though its troubles are lessened, they are far from over. The countries that have played host to the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora have derived the usual benefits for receiving these new immigrants, but the full price for our negligence about the Tigers lurking among them has yet to be realized.

The Tamil community in Canada certainly does contain many brave people, and they have amply displayed talents for innovation and hard work. Unless a new anti-Tiger leadership miraculously emerges very soon, the Diaspora Tamils will not be truly free of the legacy of the Tigers and the Civil War for many years to come.