In Praise of Traitors in Sri Lanka

Intimacy, Betrayal, and the Sri Lankan Tamil Community

Sharika Thiranagama, Chapter in Suspicion, Intimacyy and The Ethics of State-building, ed. by S. Thirangama and Tobias Kelly, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

( November 18, 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In a 2006 Canadian Sri Lankan Tamil pamphlet called Thurohi (Traitor), the author tells his diasporic audience, “many of us fled and came to this country. Why? Our life’s duty is to survive. But what is our historical duty? To be traitors” (Jeeva 2006, 3; emphasis added).1 The war between the Sri Lankan state and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) drew in Sri Lanka’s three largest ethnic groups: The majority Sinhalese, the minority Sri Lankan Tamils, and Sri Lankan Muslims; the latter, while war-affected, were not active in the conflict. The primary battlefields and areas of LTTE control were northern and eastern Sri Lanka. In May 2009 the war came to a bloody close in a stand-off with the Sri Lankan Army and the death of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and most senior leadership. This end came long after the writing of this chapter and is not its subject…….

….. But it is now even more urgent to examine the consequences of the war and LTTE culture of terror on Tamil society and political culture. I examine how in this war treachery came to be seen as the ultimate ethical act. I discuss how individuals in a community of potential traitors come to reformulate ideas of intimacy and ways to fashion meaningful social and political roles in the heart of terror. “The traitor is more dishonourable than the enemy,” Prabhakaran announced in his annual Heroes Day speech.2 The enemy so named is the “Sinhalese” Sri Lankan government. That the Tamil traitor is considered more abhorrent than the enemy reveals that the LTTE was fighting a war on two fronts, one against an external enemy, the other against an internal foe, in an effort to define a people and a place, a task that brooks no opposition and necessitates frequent cleansing. The traitor had become the central figure by which the LTTE poses questions of community, loyalty, and Tamilness.

Tamils had come to fear being marked as traitors. Treasonous acts were ever-expanding, from open political action to being seen talking or transacting with the Sri Lankan Army to refusing to pay LTTE taxes. The categorization of treason remained stable only to those to whom one was considered treasonous: The LTTE. Thousands had been arrested and fined, and many killed. The reason given for almost all extrajudicial killings in the LTTE-controlled north and east was the needful cleansing of traitors. This heightened following the split of the LTTE into two factions, both claiming that those who support the others are traitors, further exacerbating the surveillance and violence enacted against Tamils. This situation has received little attention in academic work (including my own), which has concentrated on the interethnic and countrywide tensions of the civil war. The actions of the LTTE toward its own population, for whom it promised liberation and a Tamil homeland (Tamil Eelam) have remained “our secret,” one shared among Tamils, a story about the relationship between not the self and the other but the self and “ourselves”.

This chapter draws from research undertaken with those who were labeled traitors, my own fieldwork among Tamils in Sri Lanka, and a new dissident consciousness epitomized in pamphlets, plays, and dissident poetry that assert that to be a traitor is the only way to occupy a position that can speak about “our secret,” the LTTE. I attempt to set some of the groundwork for a good consideration of treason within the specific political context of Sri Lanka, as well as a more general framework for understanding why it is possible to make some lives forfeit merely by labeling them traitor. I argue that the potency, possibility, and abhorrence of treason are produced by our senses of intimacy with others and our fears that intimacy may be brittle and fragile.

The first section gives a detailed introduction to the LTTE and its rise to power. I then move, in the second section, to discuss the structural positioning of “the traitor” and the connection between senses of intimacy and the moral abhorrence of treason. I pose this within a Sri Lankan context, where I disentangle the LTTE’s “fear of traitors” from civilian “fear of betrayal”-being betrayed by each other to the LTTE as traitors.

Both play with two different senses of the intimate. The first notion takes from Herzfeld’s (1997) suggestion that a sense of “cultural intimacy” exists among those who share codes, practices, language, and a sense of “rueful self-recognition.” The second is the sense of closeness we feel for intimates, those we live, socialize, and work with.

I suggest, first, that the LTTE was able to exert power over Tamils because it operated from within the community and within a sense of the intimate. However, I then examine how intimacy becomes constantly reformulated as people search for ways of being social with each other.

Finally, I conclude by pointing to the ways in which those who have been labeled traitors come to acknowledge and make treason the grounds by which they find a way of speaking about Tamil politics, refusing, reversing, and, finally, as with Jeeva above, harnessing the power of treason as needful diagnostic.

Copyright © Sharika Thiranagama

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