The huge area of northern Sri Lanka between Vavuniya and the Jaffna Peninsula – the Vanni – has been devastated by the civil war, and large areas now lie ruined, abandoned and heavily mined – the task of bringing life back to the region following the most recent round of fighting is likely to be a long and difficult one. This entire region was controlled by the LTTE until 2008–09 from their “capital” at Kilinochchi, on the northern edge of the Vanni.
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Northwest of Vavuniya lies the remote village of MADHU, the most important place of Christian pilgrimage in Sri Lanka. The large, nineteenth-century Portuguese-style church here is home to the allegedly miraculous statue of Our Lady of Madhu. The image was brought to Madhu in 1670 by Catholics fleeing Dutch persecution in the Mannar area, and subsequently became revered for its magical qualities, particularly its supposed ability to protect devotees against snakebite. The shrine is revered by both Sinhalese and Tamil Catholics and, in characteristic Sri Lankan fashion, has also become popular among non-Christians, offering a rare beacon of religious and racial harmony in the troubled north. A festival in honour of the statue held here annually in August draws huge crowds – an estimated 500,000 pilgrims visited in 2011.
North of Vavuniya the A9 runs through huge areas of eerily deserted land, a few ruins and the odd palm-thatch hut. Most of the villages marked on maps of the country along the A9 en route to Kilinochchi have largely disappeared, although life is now returning – very slowly – to the region.
About 80km north of Vavuniya, the small town of KILINOCHCHI served as the headquarters of the LTTE administration – effectively the Tamil Tiger capital –for many years. The town was finally recaptured by the SLA after an intense three-month battle between government troops and rebel cadres – the fall of Kilinochchi in January 2009 effectively marked the beginning of the end for the Tigers, and was greeted with wild celebrations around much of the island.
The town – which was more or less obliterated in the course of the 2008–09 siege – is now rising energetically from the ashes. A rash of shiny new shops, offices and government buildings have sprung up along the main road and much of the wartime devastation has now been patched up, although a huge water tower, blown up by the LTTE during the final stages of fighting, has been left where it fell next to the road, serving as a powerful reminder of the appalling physical devastation wrought by the war. Slightly further down the road stands a striking war memorial – an enormous grey stone cube, pierced by an artillery shell and with a lotus blooming out of the top.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
Terrorists in the eyes of some, freedom fighters to others, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, were until their final defeat in 2009 one of the world’s most committed, effective and ruthless militant organizations. The LTTE was founded in the early 1970s, one of a string of paramilitary groups established by young Tamils in response to the decades of official discrimination meted out by the Sinhalese governments of Colombo to the Tamils of the north and east. The failure of the older Tamil leaders to secure political justice for Tamils and the heavy-handed behaviour of the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan Army and police in Tamil areas drove many young Tamils to espouse violence. All these groups of young militants called for the establishment of an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the island, to be called Eelam (“Precious Land”), and a number received training from special Indian government forces who were initially sympathetic to their cause.
Prabhakaran: elusive leader
The LTTE gradually rose to pre-eminence thanks to its ruthless suppression of all competing political groups and the assassination of rival politicians, and by the beginning of the civil war in 1983, the LTTE had become the leading player in Tamil affairs. At the heart of the LTTE’s mystique lay their founder and leader, the enigmatic Velupillai Prabhakaran (born 1954). Legends about this reclusive figure abound. According to some, he was a shy and bookish student with a fascination for Napoleon and Alexander the Great, who turned militant when he saw an uncle burnt alive by Sinhalese mobs, and who later trained himself to endure pain by lying in sacks of chillies. Known as Thambi, or “Little Brother”, Prabhakaran was held in quasi-religious veneration by many of his recruits, and proved a consummate political survivor who evaded capture for two decades until finally being ambushed and killed by the SLA in May 2009. He also proved a gifted military strategist, although reports suggest that much of the LTTE’s earlier engagements were based on the study of Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger videos – a classic example of life imitating (bad) art.
The LTTE began life as a classic guerrilla operation, harrying the (to begin with) far better-equipped and numerically superior forces of the Sri Lankan Army and later the Indian Peacekeeping Force with hit-and-run attacks, before retreating back into the countryside and mixing with local populations. These guerrilla tactics were combined with gruesome, attention-grabbing attacks such as that at Anuradhapura in 1985, when dozens of civilians and pilgrims were gunned down by LTTE soldiers in the symbolic centre of Sinhalese culture. The LTTE also pioneered the practice of suicide bombing (whose technology they are believed to have exported to militant Palestinian organizations such as Hamas), with notable attacks against Colombo, the international airport and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, amongst many others. Suicide bombers have also been used in a string of high-profile political assassinations – victims included former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, making the LTTE the only militant organization to have assassinated two world leaders. As the war progressed and the LTTE acquired better armaments and military know-how, they gradually began to function more as a conventional army – exemplified by their seizure of Elephant Pass, at the southern end of the Jaffna Peninsula, from the heavily entrenched forces of the SLA in 2000.
The tigers: past, present and future
The LTTE’s ability to take on and defeat the huge forces of the Indian and Sri Lankan armies reflected its legendary discipline and commitment to the cause, fostered by relentless political indoctrination and quasi-monastic discipline. In addition, hardly any LTTE fighters were ever captured alive, thanks to the phials of cyanide which all cadres wore around their necks. They also – by Asian standards at least – had impeccable feminist credentials. The shortage of men of fighting age led to many women – the so-called “Freedom Birds”, memorably described by British writer William Dalrymple as “paramilitary feminist death squads” – being absorbed into the LTTE military apparatus and often pitched into its toughest fighting engagements.
Attitudes towards the LTTE have always been sharply divided. In the early years of the civil war they were often seen as heroes who were prepared to lay down their lives in the fight against Sinhalese oppression. As the conflict dragged on, however, opinions changed thanks to the LTTE’s systematic assassination of rival Tamil politicians, their massacres of innocent Sinhalese civilians, Muslims and suspected “collaborators”, their use of child soldiers and abduction of young Tamils to fight for the LTTE, the widespread extortion of money from Tamils at home and abroad, the ethnic cleansing of areas under their control and their indiscriminate use of suicide bombers – all of which led to their being proscribed as a terrorist organization by over thirty governments worldwide. In addition, their apparent use of thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields during the concluding stages of the war would most likely have seen their generals charged with war crimes, had any of them survived.
Virtually the entire leadership of the LTTE was killed by the end of the war (as well as a large proportion of its fighters). Rumours of surviving LTTE activists attempting to resurrect the organization regularly circulate, although it seems unlikely that the Tigers will rise again in any meaningful way, not least because of their widespread atrocities against their own people, which has effectively destroyed whatever popular support they once enjoyed. The fact that the LTTE are held responsible for the deaths of over eight thousand of their fellow Tamils proves that it was ultimately the Tigers, far worse than any Sinhalese government, which ended up oppressing and brutalizing the very people they had once claimed to protect.