A Brief Encounter

Mr. Pirapaharan takes questions

Tamil Guardian Editorial [11 April 2002]


When the Liberation Tigers announced a week ago that the movement’s leader, Mr. Vellupillai Pirapaharan, was to address the international press, it triggered a media frenzy which took even the usually unflappable organisation by surprise. The estimated six hundred media personnel that swarmed into Kilinochchi this week presented the LTTE, initially expecting a few dozen foreign journalists, with a security and logistics crisis. The interest was understandable. Mr. Pirapaharan’s first press conference in over a decade raised possibilities of new, perhaps radical, announcements - particularly with the Norwegian peace initiative in Sri Lanka moving at breakneck pace.

With only two hours scheduled - the Tigers later relenting and extending the briefing by over half an hour - there inevitably were several questions that wouldn’t be asked. But the time was further constrained by some reporters who apparently mistook the press conference venue for a court room. A small core with their own axes to grind promptly frittered away valuable time. Notably, amid an international peace process - in which India has seen its profile inadvertently reduced - some Indian journalists seemed more absorbed in challenging Mr. Pirapaharan over the Rajiv Gandhi issue than extracting useful details on a key project with regional implications. On the other hand, a couple of foreign correspondents seemed unhappy at the not so stereotypical guerrilla leader they were presented with. One, we noted with amusement, having struggled to reach the remote northern Vanni town, putting up with the discomfort of the trip and stay, used his opportunity for a question to demand why the LTTE leader “should be taken seriously.”

Of course, press conferences are the correct venues to raise thorny or controversial issues. But wider perspective seemed lost on some reporters - including a couple whose professional reputations seemed at odds with the depth - or lack thereof - of their questioning. In particular, it was clear that some sections of the international media have failed to notice the tumultuous events that have rocked the Tamil political landscape this year - and the impact this is going to have on Sri Lanka and hence the region. Hence, the LTTE’s ongoing manoeuvres, intended primarily to capitalise on these developments, simply appear to them as cynical rebranding. We note with contempt that the same quarters that have in the past bitterly criticised the LTTE of being intransigent and militarist are now leading the chorus condemning the movement’s efforts to engage the political winds. 

To seasoned observers of Sri Lanka’s conflict, the LTTE’s standing policies on key issues were reiterated by Mr. Pirapaharan. The movement would not negotiate as outlaws; Sri Lanka’s proscription had to be lifted - completely. A solution to the Tamil question had to recognise the Tamil homeland, nationality and right to self determination. Friendly relations with India was a much desired objective. Eelam is still a viable goal. But more importantly, as the Norwegian facilitators and the Sri Lankan government no doubt appreciate, leeway to manoeuvre on difficult issues was clearly marked out. An independent state is not the sole objective; the Thimpu principles providing the cornerstones of other possible solutions. With the newly elected regime in Colombo insisting it will consider anything short of a fully independent Tamil state, Sinhala chauvinist forces remain the only obstacle within the island to an eventual settlement.

Those who follow Sri Lanka’s issues closely would have seen there were new policies too. The minimum age for new LTTE recruits has been set at the UN-demanded 18. Having been endorsed by Tamil political parties and the Tamil public in unequivocal terms as their sole representatives, a consensual form of politics is being practiced: the Northeast Tamil parties, plantation parties and Muslim leaderships are scheduled to meet and discuss their respective concerns and issues with the LTTE leadership. In particular, amid the controversy - and hence apprehension - being stirred up in the eastern province by Muslim elements aligned to President Chandrika Kumaratunga - with the assistance of Tamil paramilitaries working alongside the Sri Lanka Army - the unequivocal declaration by the LTTE leadership that the Muslim community is embraced as integral part of the Tamil nation will prove particularly welcome, as will optimism expressed this week by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress that matters can be amicably resolved.

Since it was announced, Mr. Pirapaharan’s press conference has been perceived differently by different sections of the media. To the Tamil press and people, it was an opportunity for key issues of national importance to be clarified. For those concerned with covering one of the world’s protracted and intractable conflicts, a rare chance to elicit a precise understanding of the Tamil position. But perceived by some as Mr. Pirapaharan ‘facing the press’ the conference was seen as an opportunity to entrap, embarrass and undermine the LTTE leader and the Tamil struggle. Hence, as was clear to all, the event was a crucial engagement for the LTTE. The triumphant smiles that Mr. Balasingham and Mr. Pirapaharan exchanged as they left leaves no doubt as to its result.

Courtesy: Tamil Guardian [11 April 2002]