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Sri Lanka’s Southern Political Parties Need the LTTE at Election Time

Sri Lanka’s governing political parties use the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a foil to win elections and justify lapses in good governance. Long after the LTTE’s military defeat in May 2009, Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-dominated political parties have sounded the full-throated alarm of rebel regrouping just prior to an election to mobilise the Sinhala vote base, to justify continued coercion of the Tamils, and use it as bait to lure foreign military assistance for counterterrorism.

The parliamentary election scheduled for August 5 is no different. The government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made at least three separate moves in the past month to use the LTTE’s regrouping narrative to coerce Tamils in northern Sri Lanka and galvanise support among the Sinhalese in the South.

In June alone, over twenty Tamils, including a minor, were arrested in the country’s northern Kilinochchi District for “attempting to revive” the rebel group. They are detained under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that facilitates torture in custody and prolonged detention without trial. Although their families have been allowed to visit them, there is no word if they have access to lawyers, or if they have been formally charged.

More insidious was a mysterious explosion of an improvised explosive device (IED) that allegedly occurred on July 4, in the home of Thangarasa Thevarasa. According to the spiel of Sri Lanka’s ministry of defence, Thevarasa was an LTTE cadre who after capture in 2007 was rehabilitated under the government programme for ex-rebels and living in Iyakachchi in the Kilinochchi District. Before his death due to injuries sustained in the explosion, he had confessed being financed by “LTTE supporting groups abroad.” The terrorism investigation division (TID) of the police claimed that Thevarasa exploded the IEDs to mark Black Tiger Day. Black Tiger Day recalls sacrifices made by the LTTE’s suicide brigade.

Third, M. K. Sivajlingam, a former member of the Northern Provincial Council was planning to hold on July 9, the 25th-anniversary commemoration of the bombing of a church in which 147 civilians died. Sivajiligam was summoned by the local magistrate’s court for organising a protest violating restrictions on mass gatherings due to the coronavirus and for “attempting to reconstitute the LTTE terrorist organisation,” and ordered to desist.

The charge of “reconstituting the LTTE,” which is a terrorism-related offence, has to be seen in the context of successive Sri Lankan governments’ attempt at pacifying the civilian population in the Tamil-speaking North and East of Sri Lanka. The pacification process subjects civilians to constant surveillance and uses re-arrest and detention to intimidate the public and deploy the security forces for executing tasks that are routinely done by civilian institutions and agencies. And all this done in a highly militarised environment.

The revival of the LTTE is conjured up for other objectives too. One of them is galvanising Sinhala support behind Sinhala candidates at national elections. Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his candidature for the presidency based on protecting Sri Lanka after Easter Sunday bomb blasts in April 2019 blamed on Muslim extremists. But wanting to protect his Sinhala constituents from a recurrence of Tamil terrorism as well, his party linked the discovery of claymore mines in Jaffna and arrests of two lawmakers in Malaysia to a revival of the LTTE. The arrests in Malaysia proved to be an internal dispute and the “finding” of claymore mines in Sri Lanka’s North is as routine as the chatter of an LTTE revival, and stories of their discovery reach the media when needed to support the latest episode of the LTTE revival narrative.

Regrouping of the LTTE is also the national antidote for poor governance. In May 2018 it was the turn of President Maithripala Sirisena to invoke the name of the LTTE to try getting out of a spot of trouble. In February that year, his government fared disastrously in a local government election. It was attributed to corruption and government in-fighting. Using routine protests by the Tamil Diaspora against Sri Lankan presidents on overseas visits, he linked one to the revival of the LTTE: “They are very active abroad. They protested when I went to London last month.”

Following Sirisena’s denunciation of the Tamil diaspora, there were multiple arrests in June 2014 to bolster the story, until it mysteriously died out.

Finally, Sri Lankan governments use the LTTE regrouping narrative to distract public attention from national embarrassment. In March 2014, when Sri Lanka was confronting the challenge of a resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council on setting up a probe on human rights atrocities during the civil war, the LTTE revival story emerged. It resulted in mass arrests and searches. The intimidation enveloped Balendran Jeyakumari, a prominent human rights activist, whose son’s disappearance was causing local and international discomfort to the Rajapaksa regime. The police alleged that Jeyakumari and her teenage daughter were harbouring an LTTE suspect in their home, an allegation she denied and is yet to be proven.

Usually, the story of an LTTE revival dies as soon as its purpose is fulfilled. However, there are inevitable casualties. Balendran Jeyakumari, the human rights activist, was labeled an LTTE sympathiser, separated from her only surviving daughter, and today, six years after her arrest, remains on bail despite no evidence of wrongdoing, which restricts her freedom and hobbles her work on advocating against disappearances.

In 2020, the narrative of an LTTE revival is being used for multiple purposes. There are at least four ways Rajapaksa’s government and political party – the SLPP – he heads, will stand to benefit.

First, by propagating the story of an LTTE revival vital issues that should be debated in public and in the media are replaced by hysteria springing from fearmongering. For instance, how many Sri Lankans know that the country sought a billion-dollar repurchase agreement (repo) from the New York Federal Reserve? This usually happens when a country’s liquidity dries up drastically. This is in addition to the $400 million currency swap Sri Lanka has requested from the Reserve Bank of India and loans from Chinese banks as the economy teeters on the brink of disaster.

Second, Sinhalese leaders know that the best way to unite Sinhalese voters is by pointing to the “other” – in this case, a violent adversary that had in the past inflicted pain. The story of a revival of the LTTE manipulated by Tamils overseas is particularly potent because of popular belief among the Sinhalese through a misreading of historical texts, that Tamils were evil foreign invaders.

Third, by exploiting the LTTE regrouping story more draconian measures can be imposed on the Tamil population that is already terrorised by unrelenting surveillance and intimidation. This will yield fruit both during elections but later too as Colombo moves to stifle protests on political prisoners, disappearances, and land grabbing.

Finally, the resurgence of terrorism helps Sri Lanka to continue to receive overseas military assistance. For instance, there is friction between Colombo and Washington over the former’s refusal to sign the status of forces agreement in the face of looming Chinese assertiveness. Also, the U.S. responded by imposing travel restrictions on war crimes suspect Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva and his family after his appointment as Sri Lanka’s army commander. Meanwhile, the UK government has announced a human rights sanctions regime, although Sri Lankan individuals or organisations are not on it. Neither the U.S. nor the UK are known to have stopped security assistance to Colombo, but there is nothing like the story of a possible terrorist threat for military aid to keep coming.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa knows only too well that the bogey of an LTTE revival has compelling logic to activate various sources of power he has at his disposal to strengthen coercive control over the population. Unless Sri Lankans – especially the Sinhalese who have generally supported him to date – and the international community resist his moves fast, the country will descend to economic chaos and political dictatorship.