Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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'Let My People Go'

Like Moses to Pharoah, Tamils Ask Rajapakse

by Sam Rajappa, The Statesman, Kolkata, India, June 19, 2007

Then why should his IGP single out Tamils for deportation? It only proves that the Sri Lankan government does not consider Tamils as citizens of the country with equal rights. Why not let them go then? ...

The futility of relying on any Sri Lankan government to meet Tamil aspirations has once again been proved by the SLFP.

By attempting to banish from Colombo the Tamils who constitute 40 per cent of the Sri Lankan capital’s population and deporting them to the north and east of the island nation where fighting between the government forces and the LTTE has intensified, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has indirectly acknowledged that the North-Eastern Province is the traditional homeland of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

All that the Tamil leaders of Sri Lanka, from Gandhian SJV Chelvanayagam to the not-so-Gandhian Velupillai Pirapaharan of the LTTE, asked for is to allow them to settle down peacefully in their traditional homeland either as a part of united Sri Lanka in a federal setup or as separate Tamil Eelam.

The Old Testament of the Bible says how the Pharaoh, ruler of ancient Egypt, resisted the pleas of Moses who had emerged as the leader of the enslaved Israelites, to “let my people go,” until he brought about pestilence and panic among the Egyptians and made its waterbodies, including the Nile, turn into blood, before letting them go to their promised land. Similarly, the freedom struggle of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the obduracy of its Sinhala leadership have brought about enough havoc in Serendip to call a halt to the unending chain of violence and blood-letting unleashed by both sides.

Exclusive status

By taking a position of upholding exclusive status to Buddhism and Sinhalese, successive Sri Lankan governments headed by the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to Rajapaksa, had succeeded in isolating non-Sinhala sections of society from having a sense of national identity. In a recent address on “Poverty, War and Peace,” delivered at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, and attended by among others the Crown Prince of Norway, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen said that Sri Lanka did not realise “the richness in plurality” and regretted there was no likelihood of the country correcting its failed policies.

The Tamils have totally lost whatever faith they had in the Sinhala leadership. The Constitution of Sri Lanka guarantees all citizens the right to choose their residence, temporary or permanent, and freedom of movement. However, the Inspector-General of Police, Victor Perera, in a statement on 1 June said that Tamil people could not remain in Colombo without a valid reason. Thousands of Tamils from the Northern and the Eastern Provinces have taken shelter in Colombo to escape the raging war there. Many others flock to Colombo to obtain passports, visas and other travel documents to flee the country. The manner in which they were rounded up and forcibly driven to the war zone was reminiscent of the holocaust.

Justifying the forcible deportation of Tamils, Perera said that he had credible evidence that the LTTE was sending its cadres to Colombo to carry out terrorist activities. Rajapaksa had said in a recent interview to Al Jazeera that “the LTTE is not a Tamil terrorist organisation; there are Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils in this group.” Then why should his IGP single out Tamils for deportation? It only proves that the Sri Lankan government does not consider Tamils as citizens of the country with equal rights.

Why not let them go then? The deported Tamils could draw comfort that they were not given the same treatment as meted out to two workers of the Red Cross. Even as the deportation was in full swing, Sinnarasa Shanmugalingam and Karthekesu Chandramohan arrived at the Fort railway station in Colombo to attend a workshop on tsunami reconstruction. They were simply shot dead in the presence of their colleagues by the security forces.

While all civilised nations condemned the attempted ethnic cleansing of the Rajapaksa regime, New Delhi chose to remain mum. That the Rajapaksa government is not serious about a negotiated settlement of the ethnic strife is borne out by the devolution package presented last month by his Sri Lanka Freedom Party, heading the ruling coalition. Even the minor quisling and renegade Tamil parties content to pick up the crumbs from under the table of their Sinhala masters, fail to find any merit in the proposals. Drawn up for an all-party representative committee including the two main Sinhala extremist outfits, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the Jathika Hela Urumaya, but excluding the main Tamil National Alliance, the proposals were nothing but a government propaganda exercise.

“The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha sasana,” says the draft proposal, ignoring the elementary democratic principle of separation of state and religion. On the substantive issue of devolution of power, the unit chosen is smaller than the district against the existing provincial councils. At present there are nine provinces and 25 districts. The draft proposes to increase the number of districts to 30.

The UNP government of JR Jayawardene offered to establish district councils way back in 1981 as a means of devolving power to the Tamils to solve the ethnic crisis. All Tamil parties rejected the offer. The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 brokered by Rajiv Gandhi provided for provincial councils and the merger of the Northern and the Eastern provinces, considered the traditional homeland of Tamils, into a single administrative unit.

The merger has been annulled by the Rajapaksa government. Not only has the unit of devolution been reduced to truncated districts, chairmen of the district councils will be nominated by the President who will also have the power to sack inconvenient chairmen and assume direct control of the districts.

Even for this totally unacceptable set of proposals, the SLFP document says there must be a parallel exercise of decommissioning of arms in the hands of any group in the district other than the state forces.

A misconception

There is a popular misconception in the international community that the demand for a separate Tamil Eelam is the brainchild of the LTTE. It was ‘Tamil Thanthai’ Chelvanayagam, undisputed leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front, who made the demand first. On being re-elected to parliament in 1975, he said:

“We have for the last 25 years made every effort to secure our political rights on the basis of equality with the Sinhalese in a united Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called). It is a regrettable fact that successive Sinhalese governments have used the power that flows from independence to deny us our fundamental rights and reduce us to the position of subject people. I wish to announce to my people and to the country that I consider the verdict of this election as a mandate that the Tamil Eelam nation should exercise the sovereignty already vested in the Tamil people and become free.”

The 1977 election manifesto of the TULF vowed to “establish an independent, sovereign, secular, socialist state of Tamil Eelam.” The LTTE is only trying to implement the three decades old unfullfilled TULF manifesto.

Rajapaksa boasts that he was inspired by India’s panchayati raj minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, for the district-level devolution as it really envisaged democracy at the grassroots. Thanks to his contribution in ‘solving’ Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem, his own Lok Sabha constituency of Myladuthurai in Tamil Nadu has vanished under the delimitation exercise now in progress, leaving the loquacious minister rootless. The futility of relying on any Sri Lankan government to meet Tamil aspirations has once again been proved by the SLFP. Its proposal of bringing parts of the central government, local government institutions and village panchayats into the apparatus of district administration and the consequent centralisation of further powers in the executive President not only fails to meet the aspirations of the Tamil people but would also prove to be detrimental to the interests of the Sinhala people.

The author, a veteran journalist who retired from The Statesman, is based in Chennai.