Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Before and After Kilinochchi

And now Elephant Pass

by Rajan Philips, Sunday Island, January 11, 2009

Eelam at best is the evolution as a moniker for what has been the political alienation of the Tamils in Sri Lanka at least from 1931, if not earlier. I am not suggesting that Tamil leaders, who developed these monikers, or demands, were infallible. Far from it, they complicated the problem, and are continuing to complicate it. But as long as the alienation remains real, the struggle against it is inevitable and is not false.

Calling the Eelam struggle false also sets the stage to “do nothing” politically after a military victory. It also assumes that after the conventional military victory over the LTTE, the apparent falsity of the Tamil struggle will morph into the practical reality of Tamil submission.

It is possible and it is necessary, morally and politically, to defend the rights of the Tamils and Muslims to political equality in Sri Lanka, and criticize at the same time the LTTE’s destructive intransigence and the government’s deliberate inaction towards a political solution. Those who are thus disposed would view the fall of Kilinochchi, on the one hand, as LTTE’s deserved comeuppance and, on the other, as a temporary detraction for the government from the deep troubles that it has got into and the even deeper crisis that it is dragging the country into. But the detraction has proved to be less than temporary.

Kilinochchi is no longer the detraction after the vandalizing of the Maharajah TV Station and the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge. Even the government’s worst critics were over-sensitive not to rain on its victory parade, but the parade has now been bloodied beyond belief. Kilinochchi may turnout to be a pyrrhic victory over a not so false struggle! The capture of Elephant, the news of which came as I finish writing this, will not have the same gloss as Kilinochchi.

The two events within a week after Kilinochchi have shaken Colombo. More so than any LTTE suicide bombing could have shaken the City. The government has tried to point fingers at its enemies, more imagined than real, and more alien than local. But a million more fingers, both local and foreign, are pointed in the direction of the government. When the Supreme Court ruled to reduce the price of petrol, one of the Ministers talked darkly, and stupidly of course, about external forces mobilizing against the government. Not to be outdone, the Sri Lankan President himself has, on national television, raised the spectre of foreign forces. Which external force would have wanted to besmirch this government, by destroying the country’s largest private TV Station and by killing in cold blood, on a busy road and in broad daylight the irrepressible Editor of the Sunday Leader?

Whether the government was involved in these acts is not the question, for there is no question that the government has created and contributed to a climate of intolerance, impunity and terror in which anyone who dares to criticize the government should be prepared to pay the highest price. There is also no question that the LTTE has devoured much of Tamil society in the name of liberating the Tamils. The grave new question is if the government is going devour the Sinhalese society quite the same way in the course of destroying the LTTE.

The meanings of Kilinochchi

What does the fall of Kilinochchi signify? Neither the euphoria of the government supporters in the South nor the sulking agony of LTTE sympathizers everywhere has grasped the political meanings of Kilinochchi. The supporters and sympathizers are cheer leaders, one side wishing that their side will keep winning, and the other hoping that their bad days will come to an end soon enough. As Tissa Jayatilaka said it with great feeling last Wednesday, neither the government nor the LTTE cares a fig about “the destruction of our, mainly, non-middle class youth who continue to serve as cannon fodder”. The seeming motto for both is “we must all hate each other and kill”, rather than be literate and live up to, as Tissa wished, Auden’s poetry: “we must all love each other or die.”
One unintended outcome of Kilinochchi could be for the LTTE and its advisers to finally embrace a political solution that is less than separation and agree to negotiate on that basis. The growing sentiment across the political spectrum in Tamil Nadu – from the Communist Party of India to Tamil Nationalist local Parties - favouring a non-separatist solution is a good enough circumstance for LTTE advisers and fellow travelers to seriously recommend this option to the leadership. Or else, the Sri Lankan Tamils will qualify, if we already haven’t, for what the late Abba Eban, longtime Israeli Foreign Minister, said of Arab leaders in that they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

As I have argued earlier in these columns, not only the LTTE but also the government of Sri Lanka could use Tamil Nadu as a viable intercessor to find a principled compromise on the Sri Lankan Tamil question. That the government’s thinking is no where close to finding a healthy compromise was made clear by no less a person than the President himself, when he promised to continue the war until “the final act of this false Eelam struggle is played to its finish in the small territory of jungle in Mullaitivu it is confined to today”. One could debatably call “Eelam”, as separate state, a false demand, but when does a struggle become false? Only if one deems false the existence of all Sri Lankan Tamils on this planet. The description is ignorant at best and insensitive at worst. And the struggle is not confined to a jungle territory, never mind that the government has been making victory laps after “reclaiming” every piece of the same jungle territory including Kilinochchi.

“Eelam is a state of mind” one Tamil journalist (S. Sivanayagam) polemically and publicly wrote to another (S.P. Amarasingham) during the 1977 riots. I have always liked that description of Eelam, even though it has never been the state of my mind. I have also agonized over its political ‘operationalization’ – especially since it was translated into meaningless, counterproductive and self-serving violence not just by the LTTE but also by many others who are now happily receiving their survival stipends from the Sri Lankan government, and not all of them Tamils! Eelam at best is the evolution as a moniker for what has been the political alienation of the Tamils in Sri Lanka at least from 1931, if not earlier. I am not suggesting that Tamil leaders, who developed these monikers, or demands, were infallible. Far from it, they complicated the problem, and are continuing to complicate it. But as long as the alienation remains real, the struggle against it is inevitable and is not false.

Calling the Eelam struggle false also sets the stage to “do nothing” politically after a military victory. It also assumes that after the conventional military victory over the LTTE, the apparent falsity of the Tamil struggle will morph into the practical reality of Tamil submission. The government would be well advised to be not so presumptive, and the advice has much more to do with than a simple military calculation of what the LTTE can or cannot do as guerilla insurgents after a so called conventional defeat. Anyone who has followed the ebb and flow of Tamil politics after 1977 will know that no one anticipated then what has been unfolding since. It would be a mistake to assume that the defeat of the LTTE will be the end of the Tamil struggle.

Tamil Diaspora and Tamil Nadu

The Tamil Diaspora has been credited or discredited with sustaining the LTTE against all odds. The Diaspora, by definition, is all outside Mullaitivu, and whatever happens in Mullaitivu the Diaspora will go on, perhaps more determinedly than before, to be a mighty thorn in any Sri Lankan government’s backside. Enough has been said about the need to have the LTTE’s participation in any viable political solution. From a practical standpoint, the Sri Lankan government has to positively deal with the Tamil Diaspora. The Tamil Diaspora, like any other Diaspora, has its fair share of nuts, but their experiences are real and they cannot be made false by the Sri Lankan President or his speechwriters.

If the government starts on the premise that the Tamil Diaspora is incorrigible, that is what it will get and feelings will be unproductively mutual, as they currently are. I have always thought that the late lamented Lakshman Kadirgamar did only the easy part of getting foreign governments to ban the LTTE and left out the more difficult part of persuading his expatriate compatriots of the political sincerity of his government. Perhaps, the good lawyer he was, he thought he did not have much of a brief to successfully advocate. His successors have made it worse, by engaging the Diaspora not in any constructive dialogue but in petty debates and internet street fighting. In any event, no dialogue can even start without a clear indication of the government’s real political intent. There was nothing before Kilinochchi, and there has been nothing after it; only Elephant Pass.

The other main difference from 1977 is Tamil Nadu. When the Eelam idea was first mooted in Jaffna, there was no excitement in Tamil Nadu. Everyone knows what transpired after 1983, but the recent developments in Tamil Nadu would seem to indicate the emergence of a more widespread and sustained concern over developments in Sri Lanka. The interview given by the Tamil Nadu leader of the Communist Party of India to the Editor of the Sunday Leader was exceptionally prescient when it was first published. The killing of the Editor makes it poignant as well. It is again up to the Sri Lankan government to use these developments positively for the benefit of all Sri Lankans rather than bunker itself in an isolationist hole as the LTTE has been doing.