With waves of Tamil refugees now fleeing Sri Lanka, the question has been raised as to whether any among those seeking asylum are members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the Tamil Tigers, a group proscribed as a terrorist organisation in many countries. This question reflects a Western obsession with ‘terrorism’, but not much about what drives people to supporting such ‘terrorism’ or fleeing their own country.
The situation in Sri Lanka has been, since independence in 1948, that the Tamil minority have been increasingly marginalised and persecuted by the Sinhalese majority. Sinhalese was long the official language of state, structurally excluding Tamils from public life, with this situation remaining the situation in practice. There have been numerous anti-Tamil riots and the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ethnic Tamils at various times over decades.
In the end, many ethnic Tamils struck back, and facing a mounting government response, eventually coalesced under the banner of the Tamil Tigers. While some ethnic Tamils just want to keep their heads down and survive, a few have joined forces with the government and other again have chosen political organisations other than the Tamil Tigers, the simple fact is that the Tamil Tigers came to represent the aspirations, if not always the methods, of the overwhelming majority of Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil population.
So what does it mean to be a Tamil Tiger? The public image – and that put by the Sri Lankan government – is of crazed, cyanide capsule-wearing suicide bombers murdering innocent Buddhist monks and other civilians. It is true that Tiger cadres used to wear cyanide capsules in case of capture, in order to avoid the torture that would befall them.
It is also true that the Tamil Tigers have engaged in bombing campaigns, have murdered monks, who themselves are sometimes less than innocent, and were the progenitors of suicide bombing. On this latter point, one can recall the line from the movie ‘The Battle of Algiers’, in which, when asked by a reporter if putting bombs in baskets was not cowardly, an independence fighter answered: ‘Is it any less cowardly to bomb villages from planes with napalm? Give us your planes and we'll give you our baskets’. Government with conventional forces object to unconventional tactics because they know their opponents cannot win by conventional means.
The question is, then, what does it mean to be a Tamil Tiger? If the term implies an active, militarily trained cadre, then most of them are now dead. If the term implies a supporter of the LTTE, then there is a very high likelihood that a large number of the Tamils now fleeing Sri Lanka are indeed in the Tamil Tiger camp.
What is more, until a few years ago, being a Tamil supporter of the LTTE and fleeing Sri Lanka in reasonable fear of one’s life was regarded as legitimate grounds for granting refugee status in Australia. One then has to ask just what has changed? A quarter of a million Tamils now locked in concentration camps who have not been dragged away and murdered could probably make a reasonable case for refugee application, as could the tens of thousands who have been dispossessed of their homes and land.
The war is now over in Sri Lanka, and the Tamil Tigers have been militarily defeated. The remainder of the organisation, largely located among its diaspora, has said it will now pursue a political and diplomatic struggle. When other ‘terrorist’ organisations, such as the PLO and IRA have adopted such a policy, their ‘terrorist’ status has been lifted. One wonders, now, why not the LTTE?
More to the point, at what stage do we stop demonising people who object to intolerable circumstances, and start addressing the circumstances to which they object?
If Australia is genuinely concerned about supposed ‘terrorism supporters’ among the people now fleeing Sri Lanka, perhaps it would do well to join the growing international chorus of condemnation, led by the US and the EU, and seek a sustainable and equitable political solution to Sri Lanka’s decades-long internal problems.