Sinhalese mob burn Tamil cars, homes, and business in Colombo, July 1983

A few weeks ago the twenty ninth anniversary of the events of Black July passed – a sombre anniversary for all Tamils. On the 23rd of July 1983 the Tamil Tigers, the LTTE, ambushed a military convoy killing 13 soldiers. In the following week, Sinhalese mobs ran rampage through the cities, killing up to 3,000 Tamils and burning so many homes and businesses that a staggering 150,000 Tamils were displaced. The face of parts of Sri Lanka was changed forever with Tamil areas of Colombo, such as Borella, being all but ethnically cleansed.

Yet as these tragic events were mourned once again, a debate started up as to how best to commemorate the dead, and how – more generally – the Tamil community outside of Sri Lanka can best highlight the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamils and get their point across. This debate was about a flag: teeth, claws and crossed bayonets; a tiger jumping through a sun of bullets. Originally created by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the ‘tiger flag’, minus the group’s insignia, continues to be used by those who aspire to a homeland for Sri Lankan Tamils, and more widely by those wishing to draw attention to the suffering, past and ongoing, of the Tamil people.

There is a well understood meaning of the LTTE flag for those within the Tamil community. It is a symbol of resistance to oppression and an important part of Tamil identity, not least because the tiger has strong symbolic links to Tamil mythology. What is not well understood though is the meaning and associations it has outside the Tamil community. Many Tamils argue that to link the flag to terrorism is to grossly misrepresent its status and meaning, and point out that the national flag of Sri Lanka (which depicts a lion, a symbol of Sinhalese ethnicity, holding a sword) has at least equally violent and ethnocentric overtones. But this point has proved difficult to get across to many.

There is an argument that the tiger should be re-appropriated, perhaps in a version that doesn’t include arms or bullets. The tiger features in Hindu mythology, as the companion of the goddess Kali, and in ancient Tamil art and temple sculptures. Wouldn’t featuring some kind of tiger, differently represented, be reclaiming this ancient Tamil symbol? Perhaps, but it has also been argued that the tiger itself at the present time is still too closely associated with the LTTE. Any tiger that appeared on any protest material would almost inevitably be confused with the LTTE version.

Here is the experience of one person, growing up in Colombo:

All my life, I have been taught to see the tiger as a symbol of fear. Every bomb, every assassination, every death, whether of Tamils or non-Tamils, was blamed on the ‘Tigers’. Power cuts, bread shortages, road-blocks – all down to the Tigers. And people were only too willing to add ordinary Tamils to the equation, regardless of whether they supported the LTTE, or Eelam, or not. Were they all Tigers? Yes, I was told, Tigers or Tiger supporters. In due course, anyone who questioned the government’s actions, Tamil, Sinhalese, foreign, was called a Tiger. Why is the government cracking down on the media and rights groups? Because of the Tigers. Even reprisal attacks were laid at their door. I remember being asked to throw away my Frosties t-shirt after a blast in Pettah market killed over a hundred people, lest Tony the Tiger proved too inflammatory. Tiger = terrorist. Such is the power of propaganda.
The flag of Tamil Eelam - designated as such in 1990 by the de facto Government of Tamil Eelam which operated in LTTE held areas

Virtually everyone who has ever voiced concern about Sri Lanka’s Tamils has attracted the label, often purely by displaying empathy. But why is the LTTE such a “toxic brand”? After all it the emergence of an armed Tamil resistance movement was hardly surprising. After decades of fruitless political campaigning, the marginalised Tamil people did not see many options for themselves. But even for the LTTE there was a line between freedom fighter and terrorist, and to determine whether this line was crossed, one question is how the movement treated the very people it claimed to represent.

Fear and coercion were a significant facet of LTTE rule. It killed rival groups, politicians, journalists and others who refused to condone its methods. It demanded that each family give one of its members, often a child, to its armed campaign. It used torture, extortion and terror tactics against Tamils under its control. It operated a strict pass system that prevented families from moving to safer places. As the United Nations panel of experts’ report attests, during the final stages of the war the LTTE refused to let civilians flee, firing on those who tried to and using others as human shields. The evidence strongly suggests that it was the Government of Sri Lanka who killed the vast majority of the 40,000 civilians who died in those horrific weeks in 2009, but the LTTE did play a part in putting them in harm’s way. Here is just one of the critical passages in the UN report regarding the LTTE:

Despite grave danger in the conflict zone, the LTTE refused civilians permission to leave, using them as hostages, at times even using their presence as a strategic human buffer between themselves and the advancing Sri Lanka Army. It implemented a policy of forced recruitment throughout the war, but in the final stages greatly intensified its recruitment of people of all ages, including children as young as fourteen. The LTTE forced civilians to dig trenches and other emplacements for its own defences, thereby contributing to blurring the distinction between combatants and civilians and exposing civilians to additional harm. All of this was done in a quest to pursue a war that was clearly lost; many civilians were sacrificed on the altar of the LTTE cause and its efforts to preserve its senior leadership.

From February 2009 onwards, the LTTE started point-blank shooting of civilians who attempted to escape the conflict zone, significantly adding to the death toll in the final stages of the war. It also fired artillery in proximity to large groups of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and fired from, or stored military equipment near, IDPs or civilian installations such as hospitals. Throughout the final stages of the war, the LTTE continued its policy of suicide attacks outside the conflict zone.

The flag of the LTTE - although many assert to the contrary, it bears a strong resemblance to the Eelam flag. The resemblance has only increased over the last decade as, in homage to the Eelam flag, red started to be increasingly used as a background colour on the LTTE flag.

In short, the LTTE oppressed the Tamil people that it was meant to be liberating. And it colluded with those it was supposed to be fighting, including the regime that eventually defeated it. In 2005, a secret deal between the LTTE and then-presidential candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa saw the group gain money and political appointments in return for enforcing a Tamil boycott of the election (most Tamils would likely have voted for Rajapaksa's opponent – a man who was no saint, but who wished to continue peace talks and avoid the all-out war that followed). Moreover there is evidence that the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE worked together throughout the late eighties against the Indian Peacekeeping Force. Finally, of course, we now witness senior LTTE commanders such as Karuna, Pillayan, the Masters, and KP working openly with the Government of Sri Lanka and peddling a “forgive and forget” attitude to atrocities. This may suit both the Government and the LTTE - but not the Tamil people.

It is still not surprising that many Tamils supported the LTTE. After all, no politician’s promises, no diplomatic efforts or NGO campaigns have managed to secure their rights or end their suffering. The Tigers put the plight of the Tamil people on the map, nationally and internationally, and offered them hope. Ultimately though, the LTTE failed the people too.

However, at the level of promoting change, this flag issue is ultimately not about the justness of the LTTE’s actions and methods, nor is it about the roles and hypocrisy of others who have so much to answer for. The issue is the fundamental problem with the tiger as a symbol – it may work for some, but it is deeply divisive at a time when unity in the face of a concerted Governmental campaign to cover up atrocities is so important. It alienates many who would otherwise add weight to the Tamil cause. This is what a Sinhalese Sri Lankan living in the UK said,

In 2009, I was horrified by the news seeping out through Sri Lanka's media ban: thousands dead and displaced, civilians deliberately targeted, attacks on hospitals, aid agencies expelled. A total disregard for human life by a government hell-bent on all-out war. And no action from the international community. I wanted to shout. I wanted to go out and join those protesting in London’s Parliament Square. But the tiger flags stopped me.

I know it wasn’t a rational decision. It reflects, in large part, the shame I feel on behalf of the Sinhalese people who have at worst supported and at best tolerated the slaughter and subjugation of their compatriots. And I realise that many Tamils would baulk at the idea of changing a long-standing symbol of their struggle simply because others find it hard to deal with.

But, like beauty, violence is in the eye of the beholder. The fault may well lie with us, but when a symbol begins to overshadow your message, generate negative publicity and put people off, you need to let it go. Every moment spent explaining what the tiger flag doesn’t represent is time that should be spent making people realise that the end of the war has not brought justice or restitution to Tamils in Sri Lanka, and that what has happened in the country is nothing short of a slow-motion genocide.

It is not just Sinhalese people that the flag alienates: Tamils who lost loved ones to the LTTE, Tamils who were part of other groups the LTTE destroyed, Muslims the LTTE ethnically cleansed from the north, and – most importantly – the international community, view the flag with distrust. The weeks at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war rank as one of the worst civilian atrocities of the new millennium, possibly the worst since Rwanda in 1994. Yet ithey attract a mere fraction of the attention given to conflicts such as the one in Syria, where - so far at least – fewer people have been killed. Furthermore, Sri Lanka ranks is the fourth most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, a place where 30 people can disappear in a month, and yet the world largely views it as a nice place for a beach holiday, a stable democracy, a venue for high profile arts and sports jamborees, and a good place to hold Commonwealth summits.

There are geopolitical reasons for this, and the fact that the international community colluded with the Government of Sri Lanka in getting rid of the LTTE also plays a role, but in large part it is because the facts are still not known, and the Government of Sri Lanka has been effective in defining the victims unsympathetically – and the LTTE and the Tiger flag have been a huge help to it. For some time, the LTTE has been listed in the West as a terrorist organization – by the European Union, the US, Canada, Australia and others. And so it was that many people blithely thought Sri Lanka was dealing with a terrorism problem caused by a restless minority – a narrative which other oppressive states have been happy to support.

Furthermore, the LTTE and tiger flag issue is not just about correcting perceptions and getting a fair hearing for Tamils. It is also about building effective relationships with partners working on Sri Lanka issues. The Tamil diaspora, national and international NGOs, civil society and foreign governments and politicians all effectively working together is exactly what the Sri Lankan Government does not want. And it won’t happen without a degree of trust, which regrettably is currently absent. The LTTE and the tiger flag drive a significant wedge between the Tamil diaspora and these other potential partners, who at present all make efforts to keep the diaspora at a safe distance. Rightly or wrongly, they are often afraid that the Sri Lankan Government will succeed in tarring them as LTTE and terrorist sympathizers. The Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts report emphasized the diaspora’s “unconditional support of the LTTE” and the “further obstacle” when “they fail to acknowledge rights violations committed by the LTTE and its role in the humanitarian disaster in the Vanni”.

The Orange Revolution, Ukraine

Sadly, no matter how hard people try to explain the history and genesis of the LTTE and the tiger flag, it’s not really possible to change their damaging association with ‘terrorism’ and violence. For too long, successive Sri Lankan governments have justified their murderous activities by equating Tamils with the Tigers and with terrorism. For too long, ignorant people in Sri Lanka and abroad have been happy to accept this demonisation. And for too long, Tamils have been denied the chance to define themselves. Instead of clinging to a symbol that plays into the hands of the government, instead of flying a flag that lets others dismiss them, Tamils should use tactics of protest that work for them, not against them.

Gene Sharp, the non violence resistance guru, is one of the most respected experts on the politics of dissent. Few people are as feared and hated by tyrants and dictators as he. In his book “from dictatorship to democracy” he outlines a blueprint for how nonviolent protest can overthrow an oppressive regime – and a key component is colour.

The precise colour is immaterial, and it is not the purpose of this article to suggest a replacement for the Eelam flag. But a colour, or other neutral symbol for a protest, is unifying, open to interpretation, and welcoming to outside sympathisers in a way the tiger can no longer be.

Colour brands acts of defiance. It allows people to show their dissent, and that they are not afraid of the Government, in a way Dissidents in Iran use green to defy the government which is clear and unmistakeable; it gives protestors an identity and a unity of purpose. Examples span a rainbow, from the Blue Revolution in Kuwait supporting women’s rights, to the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, and to numerous colour revolutions in post-soviet nations.

It may seem crass to talk about the ‘branding’ of opposition to oppressive regimes. But in today’s media-saturated world, how a protest is branded and ‘sold’ to the international community, the press and the public is vital in garnering attention and, eventually, action.

Simple and effective; protestors in Hyderabad use the black flag in a demonstration calling for a separate Telangana state

Unfortunately, perceptions matter a lot for achieving change, including obtaining the understanding, support and cooperation of those who can help bring about that change. There are many who hold the LTTE flag as a lodestar and uniting force for the Tamil people. The problem is that the flag is central to what divides the Tamil people and their cause from the hearts of others. This is a representational battle the Sri Lankan government is keen to win - and at the moment, the tiger is on their side.

This blog post is reposted with permission from the Sri Lanka CampaignAgree, disagree? What flags do you think should be flown on demonstrations about Sri Lanka? We welcome debate. Email us on info@srilankacampaign.orgwrite on our Facebook wall, or tweet us at @SLCampaign