Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Killing Fields to Creative Solution

by V Gunaratnam, Feb. 14, 2009

The APRC report, spelling out a devolution package, should have come out about two years ago, but it still has not seen the light of day, officially. But with the TNA, representing the Tamils, and the main opposition UNP playing politics and not participating, it has already been robbed of much of its legitimacy as an all-party effort. It went ahead with its deliberations anyway and produced a report for consideration by the political parties...

What Rajapakse has tucked away in his APRC recommendations is, in substance, nothing more than a dressed up version of the 13th amendment, combining the unitary state, and Sinhala rule from the centre...

Under this amendment, power will continue to reside with a Sinhala dominated-central government, within a unitary state. The provincial governor, appointed by the president, will serve at his pleasure, and exercise executive power in respect of provincial matters. No one else will matter, including the provincial ministers, who will not have executive power. In other words the governor will run the whole show, and exercise control over the provincial public service, and finance fund. Control of planning, the budget, police and public order, the disposition of state land, education, and all other remaining legislative powers are “subject to the overriding will of the Central Parliament” in remote Kotte.

Conspiracy to suppress Tamil aspirations by genocide

The Tamil homelands have been turned into killing fields as the armed forces of Sri Lanka rampage through them in a monstrous conspiracy to suppress the Tamils' aspirations, in a campaign of violence and death reminiscent of the Vietnam War, and more recent ethnic upheavals in Europe.

While the international community and their cries to stop the human carnage are met with stern denials, often bordering on the incredulous, or simply ignored by Rajapakse, the armed forces continue their barbaric mission to clear the deck for Sinhala rule over the Tamils, before the world wakes up to the full enormity of the genocide.

Tamils world-wide watch in agony as nothing and no-one is being spared: the sick, the old and the infirm, the injured, women and children, hospitals, homes, and temples destroyed in the cruel onslaught on the Tamils.

In the present campaign alone a pathetic 300,000 have been driven out of their homes and into the harsh tropical wilds of the Vanni by the never-ending artillery fire and bombardment, with only the barest of food, medicine, and shelter available to keep body and soul together, or simply die, unable to bear the suffering.

Numbers alone miserably fail to capture the terrible nature of the humanitarian crimes, but just try to come to terms with the more than 100,000 Tamil civilians who have perished in the conflict since the late 1980s, which in relative terms would be 1,520,000* Americans or 410,000* Germans killed if their governments were to wage war on a minority of their citizens, comparable to the Tamils. Think also of the reported shocking boast of a top advisor to Rajapakse that a mind boggling 14,400,000 kgs of bombs have been dropped like rain on Tamil areas within the past year.

The cruelty knows no bounds. What will any sane person make of the International Red Cross being asked to get out of the war zone, and a similar order for 8 doctors to get out with their medical staff of about 1,000 who are attending to war victims. To add to their woes, Tamils are now being forcibly shipped out from their homeland like cattle by the Sri Lanka army and interned in far away ‘concentration camps’ illegally and inhumanely.

Tamils have to wonder if these are not all moves foreshadowing what Rajapakse has in mind for them under the Sinhala rule he is plotting to impose on them, should it come to pass.

Abrogation of the CFA and the merciless war

Like the proverbial three monkeys, President Rajapakse and his close advisers behave as if they “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” when asked to account for the atrocities committed by their forces on the Tamils. It was Rajapakse who unilaterally abrogated the CFA in January 2008 and plunged the country again into a full-scale war, causing the heaviest loss of lives in the history of the conflict in a relatively a short space of time.

Having banned the LTTE as terrorists, why was President Rajapakse appealing to the same ‘terrorists’ to give Tamils caught up in the war safe passage into territory held by the army? But with foreign journalists, and observers banned from the war front, there is no way to back his version of events that they were being forcibly restrained from leaving. It is nothing but a subterfuge by Rajapakse to duck his primary duty to his Tamil citizens, to safeguard and protect them from harm. Under no circumstances can it be an excuse to bomb the life out of the Tamils, even if he thought they were trapped in LTTE territory.

Imagine Rajapakse being faced with a situation where, instead of Tamils, it was Sinhala civilians who were trapped in LTTE territory. Would he have ever dared to say he could not guarantee their safety and bombed them to bits?

A trivial, but illuminating recent example is when Somali pirates held oil tankers and their crew captive for ransom. Did the foreign governments concerned simply attack and obliterate the pirates and cause the certain death of the crew to get their tankers back? Nothing like that happened. Or take another example: how Israel has regularly exchanged a whole lot of Palestinian prisoners to save the life of just a single Israel soldier citizen held captive by the Palestinians.    

What is causing the Tamils and indeed the people around the world excruciating pain and concern is to see how the Sri Lankan forces are bombing and destroying hospitals, in a ruthless strategy to intimidate the Tamil population into abandoning their homeland. The Ponnampalam Memorial Hospital in the Mullaitivu area was one such facility that was heartlessly destroyed, killing all its 61 patients. Around the same time, the first week of February alone, some 1,000 Tamils too perished from the relentless ground and air bombardment by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

These are just some of the heartbreaking humanitarian tragedies that continue to traumatize the Tamils, day in day out, as Rajapakse’s campaign to subdue and break their will rolls on mercilessly.

Rajapakse’s duplicity

It is this kind of duplicity that has drained the confidence out of Tamils that Rajapakse has any respect for Tamil lives, or is capable of rising above the narrow confines of Sinhala supremacist politics to forge an accord with the Tamils. His contempt for their welfare is now deeply embedded in the Tamil psyche, heighten by the knowledge that even food and medicine were being withheld or only allowed to trickle down to them on orders from Colombo.

Tamils cannot also forget the cruel fate suffered by Tamil journalists, MPs, and others, murdered with impunity by hired thugs just for holding contrary views or vigorously espousing the cause of the Tamils. Memories of how Tamils were shut out of much of the tsunami aid that arrived in plane-loads from abroad, still rankle in their minds. All this has only hardened Tamil attitude to Rajapakse, notwithstanding the suffering being heaped on them.

But  Tamils must also know that the Sinhalese too are paying a heavy price. Tens of thousands of their soldiers have also perished in the needlessly long war begun by their leaders. A staggering 75,000 soldiers have also deserted the army in this time, because what inspires the poverty-stricken Sinhala youth is the promise of a job, and inveigled to enlist, many are not willing to be thrown into the war front to face the rigors of war and die. In economic terms, the staggering cost of the war has driven the country to the brink, sustained only by a borrowing spree and financial shenanigans that would put to shame even the robber barons shaking the financial world today.

However, the government propaganda machine, backed by goon squads, is ruthlessly working to hide the facts relating to the war losses from the Sinhala public, and its enormous economic cost, by enforcing a news blackout, and holding everything else in line by the euphoria generated by news of successes in the war and imminent victory. But nothing is said about the Tamil civilian carnage that is taking place daily.

Where Sri Lanka is headed and the Mahanayakes

But all this begs the question: Where is Sri Lanka headed? It is hard to believe this is all happening in a civilized Buddhist country like Sri Lanka where the Enlightened One is venerated as a symbol of peace.

When the Mahanayakes, the supreme leaders of Buddhists, have nothing to say about the direction the war is taking, the violence, destruction of homes, schools, hospitals, temples, and the killings, it is a deeply troubling thought for anyone. It is not strange, therefore, to see their Bhikkhus, monks, leading the charge against the Tamils, as if it were a way of paying their karmic debts by bashing Tamil heads and installing Sinhala rule over the whole island.

To anyone who understands the Sri Lankan situation, it would not be difficult to accept that the war is not an end in itself. But Sinhala leaders have, however, never shared the almost unanimous conviction of political pundits and others around the world that war is not the answer. It is as if their leaders lack the political perspective and unwilling to be persuaded that a military solution was incapable of producing a resolution of the Tamil problem.

These leaders could have settled all this years ago with negligible cost to the nation, if they had acted with fairness and justice towards the Tamils. Instead, Sri Lanka has foregone immense opportunities for advancement in human, cultural and economic terms by persecuting the Tamils and squandering resources that has kept the nation and its people in relative poverty for so many decades.

Any hope President Rajapakse might be having that his military triumph will pave the way toward imposing a solution on the Tamils is sheer wishful thinking, because it takes two to make an agreement. Paradoxically it will be his very success in the war that will have destroyed it, with the blood of Tamils on his hands. Every bit of trust in him has been destroyed. It is a terrible indictment of his presidency, and whatever he does from now on will not resurrect any feelings of trust in his leadership, except a sense of utter betrayal.

Asymmetry of power and the reality of the war

For Rajapakse, Tamil lives have always been an expendable commodity. Surrounded by a Rasputin-like coterie of advisors, his vision of democracy for the Tamils has been to unleash a brutal war to suppress them, with lethal armaments from ‘liberal democracies’ like Pakistan and China. It is his ‘win-at-any-cost’ war, something previous governments could not and did not want to do, because of unacceptable humanitarian and economic costs, and the inevitable international repercussions that would have followed.

But 9/11 and Bush changed all that, and gave him the license to do anything to combat what they termed terrorism. And because Sri Lanka is almost invisible on the world stage, they deceitfully termed the Tamil democratic agitation to regain their basic rights ‘terrorism’ and that was the cover for Rajapakse’s war on the Tamils.

Everything changed after that, along with Bush’s all-out war on Iraq. The branding of the LTTE as ‘terrorist’ was made use of by Rajapakse to the fullest, throwing caution to the winds, and mounting a Mugabe-like assault on the Tamils that has breeched all humanitarian norms in the civilized world.

Thus Sri Lanka’s success in the war is nothing but the result of the unrestrained assault on the LTTE and the Tamils without regard to human life, Tamil lives, employing the huge resources that can be marshaled by a state, even with its people made to bear unacceptable burdens of war. It is not as if suddenly someone had discovered a new strategy to overcome terrorism. It is the result of a barbaric all-out assault by a state on its own citizens, without restraint, and carried on under the false pretence of fighting terrorism, in contravention of humanitarian conventions and laws.

All of this is simply the result of the immense asymmetry of power between the state, with its virtual unlimited resources, and a small group of combatants fighting for the lost rights of their minority community, operating under a whole lot of obvious limitations and restrictions.

It is not as if the Tamils started the violence, or anything approaching it. Their peaceful democratic protests and campaigns for their rights and to establish their political standing in the island were repeatedly met with violence at every stage and became worse with time. There was never any question that they were trying to overrun the country and colonize the Sinhalese! That would have been an absurd notion. Think of it as the equivalent of a minnow like Chechnia trying to overpower mighty Russia!

From the 1980s as the Tamil agitation continued without resolution of their problem, Sinhala armed forces were stationed in Tamil homelands like foreign occupying forces, interfering with their lives, and intimidating them in every way possible, because Sinhala-dominated governments were not prepared to concede anything and give the Tamils the democratic space to develop as a people, just like the Sinhalese.

And why, the Sinhalese must have wondered, were the Tamils standing up to them, their might, and superior force. Was it not better for them to sink into the background, become invisible non-entities, quietly accept whatever was mercifully being given, and live without making trouble for the Sinhalese, under rules set by them?

India’s role in Sri Lanka

India’s role in this conflict is an enigma. It does not want to be shut out by Pakistan and China for strategic geopolitical reasons, and that is understandable. But its uncritical backing of Sri Lanka’s genocidal onslaught on the Tamils against the rising wave of opposition from the people of Tamil Nadu to their fate, ignoring the close emotional, linguistic, religious, cultural and ethnic ties to them, is most troubling.

There are many important factors at play in the relationship between India and Sri Lanka, considering the latter’s proximity, size, cultural, and economic ties to India, spanning centuries. But the political realities are most compelling, because India wants to ensure what the Tamils of Sri Lanka get is essentially the same as what was decreed for the Indian states. But this ‘one size fits all’ solution favored by them barely takes into account the historical and political realities, or the complexities of the Tamil problem.

All this has  exposed India’s fossilised approach to the Tamil problem, which now needs to be rapidly revised, if it is to regain some measure of credibility with the Tamils, both of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, and India’s image around the world is not to be tarnished by what it is presently doing in Sri Lanka.

At this point, it can only be hoped that India will play a more resolute and constructive role in guiding the Tamils and the Sri Lanka regime to stop the genocide, establish a peaceful transition to Churchill’s exhortation that ‘To jaw- jaw is always better than war-war,” to end a conflict that has consumed so many innocent lives and dragged on for almost six decades. 

APRC report and the 13th Amendment

The APRC report, spelling out a devolution package, should have come out about two years ago, but it still has not seen the light of day, officially. But with the TNA, representing the Tamils, and the main opposition UNP playing politics and not participating, it has already been robbed of much of its legitimacy as an all-party effort. It went ahead with its deliberations anyway and produced a report for consideration by the political parties.

President Rajapakse got to work on it, sucking what life and authenticity it had been invested with, reducing it in the process to nonsensical proportions, with hardly any chance of it finding favor with the Tamils. The whole thing is built around the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution.

What Rajapakse has tucked away in his APRC recommendations is, in substance, nothing more than a dressed up version of the 13th amendment, combining the unitary state, and Sinhala rule from the centre. It is good for readers to know, in a general way, what this amendment means.

Under this amendment, power will continue to reside with a Sinhala dominated-central government, within a unitary state. The provincial governor, appointed by the president, will serve at his pleasure, and exercise executive power in respect of provincial matters. No one else will matter, including the provincial ministers, who will not have executive power. In other words the governor will run the whole show, and exercise control over the provincial public service, and finance fund. Control of planning, the budget, police and public order, the disposition of state land, education, and all other remaining legislative powers are “subject to the overriding will of the Central Parliament” in remote Kotte.

The APRC will be what President Rajapakse wants for the Tamils, a far cry from what the Tamils have in mind for themselves! With a resurgent Sinhala nationalism, fuelled by the ‘successes’ in the war, it would be foolish to think that anything else but the imposition of Sinhala oppression will be on the cards for the Tamils. It would also mean a permanent Sinhala military presence in the Tamil homelands, a prospect anathema to them, because it not new, as Tamils have been subjected to this military suffocation since the 1980s.

It is, therefore, a delusion to think that everyone is going ‘live happily hereafter’ when Rajapakse is finished with his war and destroyed the very thing he set out to accomplish. The clock has been turned back by decades.

Resolving the Tamil problem

Facing two contradictory obligations, there is no expectation that the two peoples will find common ground to forge a lasting solution to the conflict in the foreseeable future. It does not help that healing the wounds of war would take an interminably long time.

Let it not be forgotten that the Sinhalese got to where they are today by betraying the Tamils. It was all accomplished by illegal acts, shredding the constitution handed down by the British and allowing the Sinhala majority to prepare new constitutions to suit themselves, relegating the minority Tamils to an inferior status. It was designed to install Sinhala hegemonic rule over every part of Sri Lanka, allowing them to lord it over the Tamils, reducing them in the process to second class citizens. But because the Tamils had refused to be part of their own degradation and did not participate in this process, what the Sinhalese did had no legitimacy.

History has a full complement of stories of ‘blaming the victim,’ in this case the Sinhalese blaming the Tamils for all their troubles, and even historical wrongs. But in the 60 years since independence, with brand new constitutions the Sinhalese fashioned for their own benefit, with complete domination and control of parliament, what have they achieved? Nothing! Nothing of substance anyway. Blaming the Tamils might be easy, but it is time the Sinhalese started looking inward, at themselves.

For now President Rajapakse can do no better than show some common humanity and stop the carnage that has already consumed so many lives on both sides, and start the healing process before anything else can be done.

Only time will tell if the nightmare, disillusionment and bitterness would be dissipated any time soon and give way to peace and the chance to begin a dialogue of any sort soon.

India, as the regional superpower, will no doubt have to play a vital role in the dialogue between the Tamils and Sri Lanka, and equally vital is international participation from the US, UK, and EU in formulating a solution and driving the talks between Sri Lanka and the Tamils to constructive purpose and achieving an equitable accord.

In the Obama language of today, what is needed is a creative solution to the tragic saga of the Tamils of Sri Lanka!

Note: * 100,000 on a Tamils pop. 3.62 million ( 18.1% of total) is the same as 1,520,000 on 18.1%  of American pop. 304 million - ((100,000)/(3.62)x(18.1% of 304)), and in same way for Germany, pop. 82 million, it is 410,000.