Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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New Directions in Tamil Nationalism

The Tamil diaspora digs in for the long haul

by Kumar David, The Island, Colombo, June 28, 2009

Nor are the local Tamils one undifferentiated whole when one passes beyond empathy and emotional identity. It is conceivable that Tamil business interests and the chattering middle class in Colombo will not find it difficult to forget IDPs rotting in camps and confined to fortified military supervised villages, after the regulation mourning period for these unfortunate souls passes. The differentiation into Jaffna, Vanni and Batticaloa Tamils is also resurfacing. Rajapaksa has decreed that there are no more minorities, a typical attempt at subsuming a plural society under majoritarian communalism. If the Tamil and Muslim peoples are concerned about protecting their identities - no skin off my Marxist back if they don’t want to – they had better teach him otherwise.

It is very likely that I was the first person to clearly spell out, several months ago, before the LTTE and its leadership were obliterated as a military and a political force within the island, that the leadership of the Tamil nationalist movement would pass to the diaspora for the next period. It was clear to me that even before its eventual destruction the LTTE had been fatally weakened, that the quislings the government was codling to install as the Northern Provincial Council Government would be despised as having slept with the enemy, and thirdly, that non-government Tamil parties like the TNA would be marginalized and squeezed out of formal political spaces.

The writing has been on the wall for a long time that if the LTTE was crushed, Tamil nationalism as an independent political ideology and as a separate praxis would be stamped out for a period within the precincts of Lanka. My views were unpopular even with opportunist pseudo-leftists and intellectually flabby liberal-democrats, while racists and crypto-fascists preferred to fling the "LTTE sympathiser" canard; but events have amply borne me out. More obvious is that every passing day confirms the truism, understood by everyone except fruitcakes, that, "There can be no military solution to the national question (NQ), there can only be a political one".

Military victory and military occupation, IDP camps, a stunned and silent Tamil people; none of this will take us one jot closer to solving the NQ! Indeed there are some, mainly Sinhalese but plenty of Tamils too, who believe that side stepping devolution and autonomy, and focussing on economic development will be an adequate panacea and an alternative way to resolve the NQ. I doubt it, but let us be patient; military urgency is past, the historical long-term is unfolding unhurriedly.

Provisional Transnational Government

On June 16 an LTTE statement announced that a committee had been established to steer the formation of a ‘Provincial Transnational Government (PTG) of Tamil Eelam’. Visvanathan Rudrakumaran issued the statement in the capacity of "Coordinator of the Committee" and it bears the imprimatur of the better-known Selvarasa Pathmanathan (KP). There seems to have been substantial consultation among diaspora elements and some agreement reached before the announcement. However, some important points, not obvious to the casual reader, need to be underlined. First, it is not a forgone conclusion that a decision has been made to secede from Sri Lanka and attempt to form a new nation state; rather, the Committee’s tasks, as reported, is to create mechanisms to consult and probe on matters related to the PTG. Note also the use of the term "Transnational" not transitional; a reference to consultation with Tamils at home (but how? – apparently via the TNA) and in the diaspora.

Second, the said Committee is required to recommend procedures for setting up a constituent assembly to frame a constitution for the PTG, establish procedures for electing and conducting a congress, and recommend how to pursue the Thimpu Principles (recognition of Tamils as a nation, homeland concept, and I noticed a special emphasis on the right to self determination). In previous articles I have emphasised the importance of the Thimpu Principles as the common denominator of all Tamil political parties.

It is important that hard positions have not been engraved in stone; the purported emphasis at this stage seems to be on a consultative process within the Tamil community - local and diaspora. About a dozen expatriate Tamil and foreign scholars and lawyers from the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and Sweden have been appointed as advisors. The attitude to secession seems to be flexible and algebraic, irreversible decisions being left to the future; a welcome departure from the monolithic decrees and habits of the LTTE of old.

One lacuna is that there is no explicit reference (perhaps it is implied) to how the PTG will orient itself to the most urgent Tamil problem of the moment – the misery in the IDP camps and resettlement-rehabilitation. The LTTE shares with the Sinhala State the blame that such a hideous situation has come to pass, so what does it propose to do about it apart from demanding investigation of human rights abuses by the government? Furthermore, what the people in the camps now feel about the LTTE is an unknown of the highest significance.

Openness and consultation

Commenting on the announcement the Editorial Board of Tamil-Net expressed special sensitivity to avoiding the mistakes of the past – (http://tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=99&artid=29596).

Some extracts are reproduced to underline the emphasis on democracy, plurality and consultation. At least in words this is nothing like what used to prevail in the LTTE of yore though it remains to be seen how much of this promise and expectation is translated into practice. Perhaps defeat has taught salutary lessons, otherwise it would be the old ways in new wrappers; we will have to wait and see.

"The need of the time now is the metamorphosis of the infrastructure into a democratic and inclusive transnational government of Eezham Tamils to strengthen the diaspora socially, economically and culturally; to achieve the goal of independence and sovereignty of Eezham Tamils in the home country and to meet the international challenges internationally".

"However, the process of this noble venture is not a hasty affair. For a smooth beginning, primarily it needs consensus of the existing infrastructure, and to become inclusive it needs the consensus of the circles outside of it also. It needs a strong foundation, careful planning and step-by-step implementation. The existing infrastructure has a greater responsibility in the metamorphosis from command structure to representative structure".

"It is also advisable to create as many as possible grass-root democratic organizations among Eezham Tamils, vested with specific tasks to face the different facets of the current misery. Such grass-root institutions are helpful in sustaining and safe guarding the democratic nature of the superstructure of transnational governance. If successful, and if the time demands, the transnational government can also become the government in exile".

Another striking shift is a new orientation towards the international community. The use of a large number of foreign scholars and lawyers recruited as advisors has been mentioned and an e-mail address offered for public comment (though the site is more likely to be swamped and ‘spammed’ by hostile invective and racist pornography). Most important is a clear shift away from the narrow-minded arrogance of the Prabaharan era that led to isolation of the Tamil national cause from the world community, global proscription of the LTTE, and a proclivity to violence and terrorism. Nevertheless Tamil nationalism will not recover the ground it has lost for a long time more. India will forget about the 13th Amendment soon enough, and the West will come to terms with the Rajapaksa Regime rather than pursue war crimes charges; amnesia is a useful aliment in politics. The Colombo Regime has outfoxed Delhi, Clinton-Miliband and Prabaharan’s brain-dead LTTE on every count. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children and the new-LTTE faces a long uphill haul if it is to restore confidence in itself among Tamils, win international diplomatic credibility, and make a contribution to winning Tamil rights.

The home-turf, the terra firma

It is beyond question that the passing of the leadership baton from the militarist Vanni captains to the politicalized diaspora can only be a temporary phenomenon, lasting perhaps five years. It is the Tamils living in Lanka who will, and must, eventually call the shots. This Tamil diaspora is vastly different from the Jewish version which created the state of Israel. The essence of the difference is twofold; Zionism was an international movement of Jews who were committed to coming back and settling in the Promised Land, and secondly they were prepared to take up arms and fight. Today’s Tamil diaspora meets neither of these criteria - which is not to say it is impotent - but the balance of power between the diaspora and home-grown Tamils will, eventually, shift decisively to the latter once the dust settles, depression passes and resolve returns to the domestic populace. In this respect, I must add, we need to measure time at its glacial, historical, pace.

Nor are the local Tamils one undifferentiated whole when one passes beyond empathy and emotional identity. It is conceivable that Tamil business interests and the chattering middle class in Colombo will not find it difficult to forget IDPs rotting in camps and confined to fortified military supervised villages, after the regulation mourning period for these unfortunate souls passes. The differentiation into Jaffna, Vanni and Batticaloa Tamils is also resurfacing. Rajapaksa has decreed that there are no more minorities, a typical attempt at subsuming a plural society under majoritarian communalism. If the Tamil and Muslim peoples are concerned about protecting their identities - no skin off my Marxist back if they don’t want to – they had better teach him otherwise. If they are so motivated, then, unity of a minority community on the basis of its national-ethnic identity is a sine qua non. The Tamil diaspora, for what I think are accidental reasons but that is an aside, is in a much better position to forge the unity of the Tamil community, and this in turn can have exemplary benefits for Tamils at home.

My final comment pertains to the envisaged relationship, in the minds of the new-LTTE, between the Tamils and other peoples. In respect of the Muslims the LTTE statement calls for the "Building a political program with the participation of Muslim representatives, taking into account that the diversity of Tamil and Muslim regions has been used as a threat in the past against the realization of the Tamils’ right to self-determination." Clearly an improvement on the previous position that the Muslims are just another slice of the Tamil speaking people and they had better do as the LTTE prescribed.

When it comes to the Sinhalese the statement is terse: "Articulating positions for negotiations with the Sinhala nation". This is clearly an inadequate position since it envisages interaction only with the Sinhala State. Hence it reproduces one of the greatest weaknesses of Tamil nationalism during both its 30-year Ponnambalam-Chelvanayagam and its subsequent 30-year Prabaharan phases. There is no interest in forging alliances with progressive, left, antifascist or militant working class tendencies and struggles in the Sinhalese south. If Tamil nationalism fails to correct this blind spot, this stupidity, then it is destined to a third 30-year stint in the wilderness. The greatest curse of Tamil politics has been its isolation within its own bigoted exclusiveness. Will it ever grow up? The PTG announcement and the Tamil-Net Editorial Board statement show no signs of having even reached puberty on this matter.