Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

The Choice Before the Tamil Diaspora

Realizing political goals through economic investment

by Somapala Gunadheera, The Island, Colombo, January 17, 2010

In this state of uncertainty, the Tamils have to think of a second string to their bow and that string is economic advancement. Now that the end of the fighting is granting mobility to the North and the East, progressively, these regions are getting closer to the means of production. Their long neglected resources can now be exploited to their maximum advantage...

Politics will take a back seat in such an affluent atmosphere. Even if it surfaces, a Tamil would have gathered adequate confidence and power by then to talk to his counterpart on an equal footing, granted that by then the Government would have succeeded in bringing at least the ‘counterpart’ to his own.

But there is neither East nor West,
Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
though they come
from the ends of the earth!

Rudyard Kipling

I preface this essay with some extracts from Special Report No: 34 of University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), (released on December 13, 2009), because of their logical relevance as background to what I want to say. Many a reader might have missed the report on account of its substantial length.

"To be sure, the situation we find ourselves in has a good deal to do with how the LTTE managed society, pushed for war whenever there was a prospect of peace and brainwashed the community through its propaganda monopoly. It also has a good deal to do with how the State has conducted itself. And expatriate LTTE supporters who basked in this vicarious glory are deserving of the highest contempt.

"The LTTE as an organization evinced two minds, showing the different expectations of the Leader and normal cadres and officers. The Leader had driven himself to a point where it would become difficult for him to justify his prolific record of killings if he settled down to a federal settlement, where he would ultimately be held politically accountable. A more immediate problem was the section of the Diaspora that had financed and feted him to deliver Tamil Eelam. Disappointing them would have meant some loss of face that could (not) have been ignored. What the people wanted was a federal settlement offering them dignity and an opportunity to rebuild their lives.

"Today politicians continue to use this war, this monumental tragedy,  for political capital in their narrow power game in the South, while the removed and insensitive Tamil Diaspora tries to further polarize people in their home country with their meaningless rhetoric and slogans of Transnational government.

"There is only one way forward. An initiative to forge a broad multi-ethnic and multi-religious movement that challenges these narrow ethnic and religious agendas and Sri Lanka’s climate of impunity"

Diaspora’s Labours Lost

The Tamil Diaspora’s investment on the ethnic war has been evidently wasted as discussed in my article "A comedy of errors", published in the Island of June 30, 2009,

"The ‘stage-fright’ of the Diaspora has already cost them much. Even at the peak of the war they failed to come into open negotiations with the Government. They preferred to act by proxy through Moon, Brown, Miliband and Clinton and it was too late in the day when they discovered how ineffective those cat’s paws were.

Imaginably the bulk of the LTTE investment on the war came from the Diaspora but they did nothing to manage that investment, preferring to remain back-stage. The result has sent billions down the drain. The Diaspora had all the rights and stakes to come forward and negotiate with the Government on behalf of their people when the battle was on. Such direct intervention would have provided a plausible mediator who had a legitimate role to play in the escalating conflict, unlike third parties who were ineffectively praying for peace in chorus.

Perhaps the conflict might have had a happier ending with direct mediation and saved thousands of lives on both sides. This reminds me of the following observation I made in an article published in the ‘Groundviews’ of February 18. 2009; "A prompt hands-on, pragmatic approach by the Diaspora should be more meaningful and fruitful to the Tamils than all the efforts to get Clinton, Brown, Obama and Moon to help by remote control".

It is hoped that at least at this late stage, the Diaspora would manifest itself to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for their less fortunate brethren at home, by filling their leadership vacuum. They have all the brains and resources to play that role better than any other imaginable substitute.

‘Government in transition’ may look fashionable but even for that the foundation has to be laid at home. The immediate problem is to grant relief to the refugees who are suffering ‘untold hardship’ according to them and obtain the best possible berth for their kind at the ongoing negotiations by putting together the infighting leaders on one side. Unfortunately the Diaspora itself appears to be divided.

A Stalemate

Eight months after the end of the war, nothing has happened to remove the root-causes of the conflict and to heal its wounds. The Government that had vociferously promised to put all inequalities behind us after the ‘war’, citing it as the obstacle to action, now promises to do so after the presidential election. No explanation is given for the waiting.

The president is fighting shy of implementing the 13th Amendment in full, despite the fact that it has been on the Statute Book for over two decades. Evidently the hesitation arises from the assumed loss of votes that such action could cause in the South, if taken before the election. Such diffident, hyper-sensitivity to the reaction of the electorate does not auger well for a political settlement even after the election. It is a vagary that is inevitable in a ‘Democracy’ that prioritizes the vote over basic human rights.

The principal challenger to the president is promising to do more. He would implement 13A in full, immediately after the election and even go beyond it. One promise begets a better one from the other side and the ‘bidding game’ goes on outdoing even our share market which is proclaimed to be the best in the world after the ‘war’, although its effect is still not felt by the man in the street. Going by the track record of the contestants, what guarantee can the minorities have that their promises would be kept after the election? And the emergence of a third force to hold the scales evenly does not appear to be a possibility in the foreseeable future.

In this state of uncertainty, the Tamils have to think of a second string to their bow and that string is economic advancement. Now that the end of the fighting is granting mobility to the North and the East, progressively, these regions are getting closer to the means of production. Their long neglected resources can now be exploited to their maximum advantage.

The Tamils caught up in the fighting did have funds to maintain themselves thanks mostly to support from the Diaspora. What is needed now is not charity but equity capital to develop the investment base of the North and the East. Such economic development would certainly consolidate the dignity and self-respect of the war-torn and strengthen their bargaining chips.

In that sense, the vicissitudes of communal strife may become a blessing in disguise. I have seen this happen once. During my travels in Jaffna as a Cadet in the mid-fifties, I saw it as a sleepy, stagnant District with no visible signs of development. My next visit there was in the seventies as Chairman of the IDB. Flying over the District and traveling on its streets, I was taken aback to see profuse building and industrial activity that I had not seen before. Inquiries revealed that the resurgence was the product of enterprising natives who were compelled to get back to base from the South due to communal riots.

When I flew in again in the mid-nineties as Chairman of RRAN, Jaffna was worse than what I saw on my first visit. It was not just sleepy; it was dead. The ‘contribution’ of the 1983 Riots had worked in the reverse direction and devoured the ‘achievements’ of the earlier riots. Management under a dictatorship had starved the economy and sapped its vitality. Time is now ripe to emulate the positive experience of the past and invest freely in commercial activity, untrammeled by a ‘Gestapo’ breathing down one’s neck.

An obligatory investment

The Diaspora has a bounden duty to perform here. Their investment on the LTTE was no doubt motivated by their attachment to their native roots. They would never have expected any material returns from the investment. Now that the input has gone stray, the Diaspora should rethink their role in the new scenario and lend a helping hand to their less fortunate brethren to rise from the ashes as they themselves have done in the rich foreign climes to which most of them came as refugees. They should share their luck with those in whose boats they would have been, if not for their initial ability to migrate.

This contribution does not call for ‘collective action’ on which there appears to be a curse on the Tamils. Each of them must individually think of the plight of the place where he was born. The chances are that it is a modest village in the backwoods. Let him develop that place by investing on a commercial project individually or in association with his country cousins. The superior experience that the investor has gathered abroad should help to make the venture a success.

There is no shortage of investment ideas. Jaffna’s sweet mangoes and bananas can support several export industries. The Palmyra is another unexploited resource. To these and many more may be added hi-tech industries that investors have learnt abroad. If the Diaspora invests on this economic revival, half of what it has put on the LTTE arsenal, voluntarily or under threat, their native place would be turned into a Singapore before long.

Politics will take a back seat in such an affluent atmosphere. Even if it surfaces, a Tamil would have gathered adequate confidence and power by then to talk to his counterpart on an equal footing, granted that by then the Government would have succeeded in bringing at least the ‘counterpart’ to his own.

And when two strong men stand face to face, there will be neither border, nor breed, nor birth, though they come from the South or the North!