Will the Crisis in Sri Lanka Cause the Tamil Tigers to Come Back?

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Sri Lanka, an island country located in the Indo-Pacific, is a country that draws attention due to its historical past, strategic location, demographic characteristics, and neighbors. In addition to these features, the country has been the scene of conflicts for a long time. The Tamil Tigers, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), terrorized the country for separatist purposes from 1976 to 2009. The terrorist organization LTTE, which gained strength, especially thanks to its support from the Tamil diaspora and foreign states, has established an important sphere of influence in the northern parts of the country.

Sri Lankan administration could not annihilate LTTE for a long time due to its limited economic and military capacity, difficult geographical structure, and structural problems. In fact, LTTE, which increased its attack capacity by abusing the peace processes carried out in various periods, reached a significant power with its air and sea elements. According to the Sri Lankan government, the number of militants of the LTTE increased to 30,000 in 2008.i In this process, the Colombo administration neutralized the leaders of the organization with a comprehensive military operation against the LTTE and announced the end of the LTTE in May 2009.

Because of its limited economic and military capacity, the Sri Lankan government sought support in international politics and achieved its goal in this regard. Because, along with various states, China has given military support to Sri Lanka, including fighter jets and ammunition. In this way, the Colombo administration, which increased its military capacity, ended the LTTE.ii This support later strengthened the relations between the sides and Sri Lanka was included in the Belt and Road Initiative. However, despite the infrastructure investments made within the scope of the Belt and Road Initiative, the country could not make the progress it expected; On the contrary, it owed even more. As a matter of fact, the economic crisis in Sri Lanka has deepened, and accordingly, the steps of the process leading to the recent events have been taken. In addition, considering the efforts of the Western countries to destabilize the Belt-Road Initiative route, namely the corridors and therefore the countries involved in the initiative, the possibility of the LTTE being active again in Sri Lanka and the possibility of the emergence of similar terrorist organizations come to mind.

Although the LTTE was over, the structural violence and some problems in the country continued. However, various steps have been taken to listen to the demands of Tamils and to solve their problems. However, it is not possible to say that an important result was obtained from this. For this reason, negative peace was achieved with the end of terrorism in the country; However, positive peace could not be established. As a matter of fact, due to the economic problems experienced over time, civil disturbances have started in the country.

As the deteriorating economy affected life in all areas, these disturbances grew, and all ministers resigned on April 3, 2022. However, stability could not be achieved, and then Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to dismiss his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. President Rajapaksa, who fled the country after this move did not ease the tension, announced that he left his post on July 13, 2022.

While increasing problems, economic crisis, and political instability in Sri Lanka cause uncertainty about the future of the country, one of the most critical issues in this process is whether the LTTE or LTTE-like organizations will re-emerge. Because of the Rajapaksa family’s rule of the country, authoritarianism, corruption and bribery in the country, poor management of the economy and unnecessary borrowing brought along a significant break in Sri Lankan society.

Currently, one of the most important criticisms of Mahinda Rajapaksa is related to the nationalist wind that he blew after he graduated from LTTE. The fact that he ended the organization using military means made the position and decisions of the Rajapaksa family indisputable. Today’s protests show that this perception has become useless. Looking at the latest developments in the country, it is seen that Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has served as prime minister at various times, is the President.

The crisis environment prevailing in Sri Lanka strengthens the possibility of disrupting the negative peace in the country. It is possible to say that especially terrorist organizations that want to achieve their political goals will benefit from such a crisis environment. The continuation of the structural problems in the country and the marginalization of some ethnic or religious groups will work up the atmosphere of violence. However, it can be said that Wickremesinghe’s taking over the country has weakened this possibility to some extent because Wickremesinghe is one of the names who played a leading role in the peace processes carried out with the LTTE during his term as Prime Minister. Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister during the 2002-2003 negotiations, which were the closest to an agreement. Although he was criticized on the grounds that he signed a ceasefire with a terrorist organization and violated the Constitution, it gave an official basis to the ongoing process by making a ceasefire with the LTTE on February 22, 2002. He even had a problem with the President, who was said to be unwilling to peace negotiate for this reason.

The country in question is facing an economic, social, and political crisis. It is difficult to say that it will get over it easily. Therefore, it can be argued that, despite the stabilization at the administrative level in Sri Lanka, the economic recovery will take at least five years despite foreign aid. In such an environment, it is possible for various violent events to break out. One of them is terrorism, triggered by economic problems combined with structural violence. However, it is assumed that the Wickremesinghe factor will be the most critical obstacle to this and will not allow organizations such as LTTE to emerge because past experiences indicate that Wickremesinghe can take steps to solve the structural problems in the country.

i “Humanitarian Operation Factual Analysis July 2006 – May 2009”, Ministry of Defence Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, 2011, (Date of Accession: 24.07.2022), s. 14.

ii Neil Devotta, “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Lost Quest for Separatism in Sri Lanka”, Asian Survey, 49(6), 2009, s. 1045.

Dr. Emrah KAYA
ANKASAM Dış Politika Uzmanı Dr. Emrah Kaya, Akdeniz Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezundur. Yüksek lisans derecesini 2014 yılında Süleyman Demirel Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nde hazırladığı “Latin Amerika'da Sol Liderlerin Yükselişi ve Uluslararası Politikaya Etkisi: Venezuela-Bolivya Örneği” başlıklı teziyle almıştır. Kaya, doktora derecesini de 2022 yılında aynı üniversitede hazırladığı "Terörle Mücadelede Müzakere Yöntemi: ETA-FARC-LTTE-PKK" başlıklı teziyle elde etmiştir. İyi derecede İngilizce bilen Kaya'nın başlıca çalışma alanları; Orta Asya, Latin Amerika, terörizm ve barış süreçleridir.