With the reported death of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in northeastern Sri Lanka, it appears that his secessionist movement is at an end. At least as a political entity in control of parts of the northern end of the island. Whether further military activities continue, such as guerrilla attacks, is uncertain. Things are really now in the hands of the Sri Lankan government to find some means to reconcile the Tamil minority with the Sinhalese majority there (to say nothing of the Muslim and Christian elements).
Over the last few months here in Toronto, there have been numerous demonstrations by members of the Tamil community living in these parts, trying to draw attention to the plight of their brethren in Sri Lanka. And they have quite valid concerns about the effects of the Sri Lankan military's onslaught against the Tigers that has been borne out by reports of deaths and injuries and displacements created by the fighting. There is a grave humanitarian crisis on the island nation that needs to be addressed.
But I have often found myself troubled by the demonstrations - not because of what the protesters are saying, but, rather, because of what they are not saying. Since I write about maritime issues, I've known about the Tamil Sea Tigers for several years. And their activities were deplorable. They targeted civilian vessels - as well as Sri Lankan naval 'targets' - and engaged in hijackings, thefts, intimidation and murder.
Over at Oldsailor's Marinebuzz site, he has a short list of some of the vessels the Sea Tigers attacked, primarily in the 1990s, plus a look back at their seizure of the freighter MV Farrah-3 in December 2006. (See the photos from his site of what the vessel looks like today, posted below.)
But he's forgotten what, in my mind, is one of the most horrific incidents that the Sea Tigers are believed to have committed. On March 20, 2003, a Chinese trawler was working the seas off the northeastern tip of Sri Lanka, about 17 nautical miles offshore of Mullaittivu (then a major Tiger base). This put the 26 crew of the Fu Yuan Ya 225 in international waters. About four in the morning, a group of speedboats suddenly surrounded the trawler and then, without warning, opened fire on her with automatic weapons.
Now take a moment to imagine the situation: You're a fisherman working far from home in the middle of the night, doing the backbreaking work that is your stock in trade. It's a brutal job at the best of times, but now has become deadlier. For a half hour the trawler is shot up by the attackers until it begins to sink. Those members of the Chinese crew not trapped inside the trawler managed to jump into the sea, hoping for an end to this bizarre event. At which point the shipwrecked survivors were gunned down in the water.
By daybreak there were only 9 left alive out of the crew of 26. And though the Tigers denied responsibility, there was no one else in the area who could have carried out such an attack.
Now I can hear the critics braying already, wondering how I can be critical of the aspirations espoused by the Tigers, and other Tamils, when they've been virtually persecuted for decades by the federal government in Colombo. Seventeen dead Chinese fishermen seems inconsequential compared to the thousands killed in Sri Lanka.
But once you start killing innocent foreigners who happen to be fishing nearby or hijacking foreign ships that happen to be in trouble nearby, you sully your means to achieve your goals. The Tigers had become like the PLO in the 1970s, ready to use whatever was necessary to achieve their dreams. But at least the PLO knew when it was time to stop their nefarious campaigns and come to the table, and their dream may actually become a reality within the foreseeable future. Prabhakaran's vision has been squandered, as has that of thousands of other Tamils.