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On July the 23rd 1983 a small group of Tamil rebels ambushed the Four Four Bravo convoy of the Sri Lankan Army. The rebels, a cell of the LTTE, killed 13 out of 15 soldiers of the patrol. A very severe and negative judgement should be expressed on the overall activity of the LTTE: the Tigers committed several crimes; precise and detailed account are available from international and independent sources. Any Tamil should be more aware of the dark side of the Tigers. The LTTE in many, too many occasions hit civilians and innocents. But in that infamous July of 29 years ago, the target was military, completely military. Within the legal framework of a state is clearly an act of aggression, but it is not even criminal. In fact the rebels stands precisely to contest that framework and they suspend themselves from the law of a state they consider oppressive and unjust. Other laws stand, though. It’s the beginning of war and wartime laws apply. For example, it’s not murder to kill a man of the opposite faction, under appropriate circumstances. But must of all, the laws of humanity apply. Civilians per definition are exempted by the hostilities (and soldiers who surrender).

On the other hand, the state has all its right to eliminate this challenge to its authority and sovereignty. The Sri Lankan army would have been on the right side, had responded to Tigers’ fire.

But it didn’t.

President Jayawardene, few days before the riots, said on the Daily Telegraph:

‘I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now… Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us… The more you put pressure in the North, the happier the Sinhala people will be here…really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy’

This is very clear statement that the government is not interested in suppressing violence against the Tamils. These words came out two weeks before the riots.

What happened is that ‘spontaneous mob’ targeted Tamil citizens and properties. People have been decapitated, burned alive, massacred. And the police and the army took very bland and superficial measures. Some members of political parties actually took active part in the violence, leading groups of thugs. Nobody has been seriously prosecuted for those events. The lack of intervention of the state was a clear message that the killing of the Tamils is a legitimated action. At least in the framework of an ethnic pogrom.

Now, in political theory the state has the monopoly of violence: the government had the right of responding to the LTTE attack precisely and only for this reason. From a theoretical point of view, the mob violence is a form of insurgency and a challenge to the state sovereignty of the same nature as the one of the LTTE. Mob violence should be treated as terrorism. Instead the government let it go. It didn’t take appropriate counter measures, it didn’t punish people responsible. In other words, it tacitly condoned the event. Well, as we have seen, not even so tacitly. The words of president Jayawardene are heavy as rocks and sharp as swords, in the agitated context of the July 1983. The pogrom of the Black July is a responsibility of the Sri Lankan state. The Tamil insurgency started appropriately with an army to army aggression, whereas the government reaction continued to target civilians and to be ethnic oriented. No surprise that this single-minded racial violence escalated to a civil war. It is out of the question that the start of war was caused by the oppressive and violent stance of the Sri Lankan government.

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The LTTE was a small, yet very determined army. It was a clandestine outfit, with no international recognition, therefore its capacity of supply, its movement and its organization were quite restricted. On the other side, the Sri Lankan army could count on almost unlimited access to military equipment (everything in their range cost), no problems in delivery and much larger and secure sources of funding. Moreover, the base for enrolment was significantly different: the Sinhalese are 20 millions, while the Tamil in the Northern provinces 800 000. The LTTE was disadvantaged, but its cadres were single-minded, extremely motivated and probably with no other choice.

The courage and bravery of the Tigers became legendary and in fact they were surrounded by an aura of invincibility. Amongst these warriors, on top within the LTTE itself, were the Black Tigers. They were voted to fight till death and it was considered a huge honour to be enlisted in their ranks. The Black Tigers were a terrific weapon also in the psychological war: image a Sri Lankan patrol, facing an ambush. They knew that their enemy didn’t want to survive the battle, the most fundamental principle of self-conservation was lost. Your opponent wants your elimination so strongly, that he’s ready to give up his own life. There is clearly no braver soldier. You would consider ‘brave’ a man who desire so much to live on his terms, that is ready to die for them. He’s definitely a man of principle and courage. Further on his ideals are not selfish or despicable: he simply desires to live peacefully in what he defines as his homeland. No surprise that amongst their people, the Black Tigers were highly estimated.

So an offensive of Black Tigers, a suicide operation against a military target, could lead us to define them as ‘heroes’ for their people.

But here lies an immense difference. Indeed the operations for the Black Tigers could be against a military patrol, but also against a coach, transporting troops right in the middle of a big city. And further on: an institutional figure speaking in public places or working in office open to the public. In other words a military target could include civilians, more or less directly at the centre of the attack. The training is the same, the determination, the purity of principles, the courage, almost exactly the same person. But one is destined to hit other soldiers, other people who commit to a risky job for equally valid principles or money. Adult who made a choice to confront violently their opponents, with the accept possibility of dying. The other storms lives of innocents, whose only blame is to be right on the worst spot at the worst time. One is a warrior, a hero, the other is a terrorist and a criminal. For the Tamils, for the supporter of Tamil Eelam, the two are fighting the same battle. This is a mistake. One is fighting a war, the other civilization. And the lack of distinction brings the two on the same, wrong side.

Aranthalawa Massacre
June 2, 1987 The LTTE terrorists massacred and brutally mutilated 33 young monks at Aranthalawa in Amapara.
Courtesy Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sri Lanka