Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Sri Lanka: A View from Afar

by V Gunaratnam, May 27, 2010

If the world accepts what happened to the Tamils as a way of dealing with troublesome minorities, by annihilating them, it would indeed be a sad day for humankind, and soon there won’t be many minorities left to speak of in this world.

Was it so vital for Sri Lanka, and so fearful of a small minority called Tamils, that it had to barter away so much of its freedom to manage its own economy, defense, and foreign affairs, by becoming an appendage of superpowers?

AFTERMATH OF WAR

The war has ended, but it has left the Tamils with a bitter legacy, and more cynical about their future, while President Rajapaksa dilly dallies, and spends his time designing how to become a permanent fixture in the political landscape of Sri Lanka.

The view from afar is of a government consumed with establishing a new order in the country, with a fresh constitution, appropriating to itself executive powers of a fundamentally flawed nature, restrictive of the freedoms of citizens, in order to perpetuate its hold on power.

It is hard to think how a responsible government can stay distracted, downplay and ignore the humanitarian plight of its Tamil citizens in the north, who continue to be a neglected, with scarce resources to manage their lives, and nothing in sight to mitigate their suffering, while surrounded and menaced by an army of some 40,000 soldiers.

TAMILS: VICTIMS OF SINHALA INTRANSIGENCE            

Since independence Tamils have been used as a mobilizing force to bolster Sinhala political ambitions, principally of the UNP and SLFP, who vied with each other to destroy the other’s efforts to come to terms with the Tamils.

It is implausible, and indeed insane to think the Tamils ever had the will or capacity to overpower a relatively huge and solidly entrenched majority, by far the dominant political, economic, and cultural force in the country. It was their intransigence that intensified the Tamil’s campaign for equality, only to suffer state-sponsored violence and pogroms in which thousands of innocent Tamils perished. But nothing was done to reach an equitable accord with them.

What was proffered with one hand was just as quickly yanked away by the other, as it were. Forget that Sri Lanka in the 2002 Oslo meeting agreed and then reneged on its promise to explore a solution based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka, when even the most innocuous pacts and agreements never survived to find legislative expression to benefit the Tamils.

Today even other minorities, whether of an ethnic or religious nature, are disillusioned, discontented, and filled with a sense of grievance after seeing the sorry fate suffered by the Tamils, and the rising tide of intolerance against minorities, in a society where Buddhism alone is enshrined in the constitution and enjoys the protection and patronage of the state.

More recently, in the years leading up to the 2009 war on Tamils, much valuable time was wasted in peace negotiating abroad, but with the government’s position cast in stone, they were meaningless rituals performed by them for the benefit of the IC, to show they were actively searching for a solution, but all the while arming for all out war.

In the end, the most horrendous, inhuman, and lethal force, including the use of illegal weapons, was used to destroy the Tamils, without any consideration for human rights, and international humanitarian law. It is not something that can ever be described in Buddhist terms, or identified with Buddhism in any way.

TAMIL CONCERNS

The immediate concern of the Tamils is the terrible legacy of the war: the devastation left behind, starvation, shortage of medicines and medical aid, schooling, jobs, and denial of the basic freedom of movement, and the interference of the state in their daily lives, with a standing army of Sri Lankan soldiers watching over them.

Forced colonization of Tamil lands is another very serious assault on their way of life, and political rights, a clear attempt to change the makeup of the population of their homelands, and must be stopped.

There is anger in their hearts, but they are not about to vent it on anyone. There is too much left to repair of their own lives before they can think of anything else. But there is silent condemnation of a government that turned against its own citizens, and destroyed democratic dissent with vicious force.

Tamils have always lived as good citizen, and respected others of every stripe, religion and culture, but never doubted their right to live as equals in Sri Lanka. What they want today is to be left alone in peace and provided with the resources to repair their lives. But the searing experiences suffered in the war could only have increased their resolve to keep the dream of Eelam alive, even if it has receded into the far reaches of the mind for now.

Tamil Eelam was a dream that was forced on them by Sinhala inflexibility. It is a concept that does not belong to anyone, any group, or political party, because it was born out of the Tamil people’s vision, their dream. Now it is back to square one again, a time for reflection, and anticipation of getting relief.

TNA AND DIASPORA

The cause of the Tamils may have been muted by the war, but the Tamil diaspora, spread over eleven countries, has banded together as the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), and would be a formidable force when they get their message out to the world.

Their strategy would unfold after they have met with international organizations and leaders, on how best to go forward and engage in talks with the TNA and Sri Lanka.

TNA leader, R. Sambanthan, has spoken of the bases for talks with the government, suggesting the need for “… basic rights to live as equal citizens in the country, enjoying an adequate measure of self rule within the territory in which we are the majority and to be able to govern ourselves in the way it is happening in various parts of the world.” He has also emphasized the need to have local police and land powers under the elected representatives. 

In their wisdom, the TNA, as the elected representatives of the Tamil people, has decided to play down the separatist sentiments at the beginning of talks with the government, and many might consider this as inevitable if they are to have any chance of meeting with Sri Lanka at all. Obviously their views would have to be respected as the elected represented of the Tamils.

There is a crying need for public discussions so that people everywhere can get to know where the Tamil question is headed, and get to know its intricacies and, if necessary, be involved in resolving any dialectical tensions that are bound to arise from the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ views of their position.

CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES

The world is waiting to see the affirmation of Tamil rights by Rajapaksa, and what form it is going to take. He has no excuse to hold out any longer. But the known solution has been discredited by Tamils and constitutional scholars, as falling far short of what is required in a modern liberal democracy, and a way has to be negotiated out of this impasse.

Rajapaksa seems married to the 13th Amendment, and ready to implement it, forgetting the APRC was appointed by him to sweeten the deal. It did not come up with anything that could be fitted into the straight jacket of the 13th Amendment, and is now likely gathering dust somewhere. In any case the war has changed everything.

He could, of course, implement the 13th Amendment without anyone’s consent and force it down on the Tamils. But this sort of unilateralism would only leave the Tamil problem simmering for years, and upset India, and earn the wrath of the IC. It would also distract him from his other main concerns.

But with Sri Lanka becoming the target of investigations about very serious human rights and international humanitarian law violations in the war, they could bear indirectly on the negotiations in complex ways.

Rajapaksa is vulnerable as a result, and not impervious to change, though he appears to hold all the aces after the war. He has to come up with something acceptable in his initial offering, to get everything started, and quell the rising tide of impatience with his tactics. But the human rights concerns would remain, because they cannot be bartered away.

India has a role to play, but the Indian model is not exactly what the Tamils have in mind. But they could resurrect the merger of the north-east. It was they who he created it, recognizing its historical and political importance to the Tamils. If the de-linking remains then: What is Rajapaksa going to say to India? What is India going to say to the Tamils?

The konjam-konjamaha approach might be the way forward, if it means taking the Sinhala people, the opposition, and the Mahasanga along with them. Rajapaksa still holds the whip hand, and concessions are not going to come cascading down on the Tamils. There is much work ahead for all.

The Sinhala majority has no appetite for making any concessions to the Tamils after their ‘great’ victory in the war, and the opposition parties would exploit this to stir up the masses and wreck any such move. The Mahasanga might not be a factor, but count on the support of the Muslims and Christian from behind the scenes. It is likely that India and the IC would influence the outcome in their own way.

It must be realized that everything points to deal making in the present context and its historical evolution as a formidable task. It would be protracted. Remember that Rajapaksa cannot appear to be giving away anything of consequence after the war.

RAJAPAKSA’S HEADACHES

Rajapaksa has big headaches of his own making to deal with. Despite obvious human rights and international humanitarian law implications, he seems to have thrown it all to the winds in the haste to vanquish the LTTE, become the modern day Dutugemunu, and extend his presidency. But he had grossly underestimated the reaction of the world, their condemnation, horror, and revulsion at what had been perpetrated on the Tamils.

Without a directive from the very highest levels, the massacres of innocent Tamils and surrendering combatants could not have happened. Many other high ranking officials and commanders too would be implicated. It will follow them even after leaving office.

He must certainly be having another nagging concern. While he dreams of governing the country like royalty after the victory in the war, the consequences of imposing a government of an increasingly authoritarian character must be worrying him no end. From an outsider’s perspective, it could one day stir up the sort of spiraling violence that was destroying Thailand only a few days ago, or knowing what has corrupted his regime, Sri Lanka could end up like the Philippines of the Ferdinand Marcos era, or worse, become another Myanmar.   

SUPERPOWER DOMINANCE AND QUESTIONS

It’s a form of self-deception, if Rajapaksa thinks what he has given up to the regional superpowers, China and India in return for their support in the war, has made Sri Lanka a freer country!

India’s relation with Sri Lanka needs little explanation. Its proximity as a friendly neighbor, mostly as a big-brother with a benign interest in its affairs, with cultural and trade ties that extend over centuries is the bond that binds them together. India tried and failed to steer the Tamils in a certain direction, and that has changed its relations with both to this day.

As the Indian press reported, India has supplied equipment and armaments for use in Sri Lanka’s war, but has kept a low profile, and from time to time it had even called for restraint by Sri Lanka in the war. On the economic side, its investment and exports have grown exponentially in recent years. And the Tamils are beholden to India for the sanctuary of their shores, for the hundred of thousands of them who had to flee the war and persecution in Sri Lanka since the 1980s.  

But China’s role in Sri Lanka is a different kettle of fish altogether. Their entry into Sri Lanka cannot be seen as anything but an attempt to become a force in the region and butt heads with India.

China is reported to have been the main supplier of powerful equipment, fighter planes, tanks, naval gun-boats, and lethal firepower to annihilate the Tamils, and provide diplomatic cover, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, with veto powers, and use its power in other international bodies, to block unfavorable action against Sri Lanka, when required.  

Their presence is everywhere now. They have taken a stranglehold of Sri Lanka’s economy with financial aid, investment in huge capital projects like ports, airports, highways and power generation, and large numbers of their people keep arriving to swell their ranks in the country. Think what this means, when it is said that there are now more Chinese in Tibet than Tibetans!

An alliance of this sort is nothing but a deliberate attempt to create economic dependency, recognized today as a form of colonization, with all its other implications. China has mastered this art in its foray into Africa and Southeast Asia. Africa, the first to enjoy China’s largess, is already deep in the throes of its grip, and resentment against its dominating ways keeps growing. But ending the alliance is not easy, because it far from simple to shake off the dependency.

Sri Lanka is in a similar position, and it is hard to imagine it having much latitude to steer its own course. The dependency and indebtedness continue to rise with every diplomatic and economic initiative taken in its support.

If the world accepts what happened to the Tamils as a way of dealing with troublesome minorities, by annihilating them, it would indeed be a sad day for humankind, and soon there won’t be many minorities left to speak of in this world.

Was it so vital for Sri Lanka, and so fearful of a small minority called Tamils, that it had to barter away so much of its freedom to manage its own economy, defense, and foreign affairs, by becoming an appendage of superpowers?

A question that is going to haunt the people of Sri Lanka down the years can be phrased like this:

“Was it so hard to grant the Tamils the right to manage their own affairs, like in any civilized country around the world?”