Peace Council & the Tamil Expatriates

A group of four from an organization called 'National Peace Council in Sri Lanka' visited the Tamil expatriates in England to promote the government devolution proposals. Angry at the reception received, one of them (Dr. Jehan Perera) published an article in the Island titled, 'Problems of Dialogue with Expatriate Tamil Groups.'
An American Tamil responds....

Dear Jehan:
I came across the article authored by you and published in The Island on Wednesday, March 19, 1998, entitled, "Problem of Dialogue with Expatriate Tamil Groups."

I have read some of your articles published over the last few years. I am also aware of the work of the Peace Council. Your articles have shown a greater sensibility to the Tamil position as compared to others who write in the English media in Sri Lanka. This I presumed was the result of your greater ability to see others' viewpoints, as opposed to the other commentators on this conflict. You, I believe, have been blessed with this ability that is a valuable asset in peace making.

Since I felt that the article referred to does not meet this standard, and since the work for peace and reconciliation is vital, I thought I would take the time to write and express my perspective to you in the hope that this would help your mission. I do hope that you will take my comments in this spirit.

I am a physician now living in California. I am from Jaffna, and am a Tamil, and hence belong to this group called "Expatriate Tamils", that has been characterized in various ways (almost all incorrect) by the Government and the press in Sri Lanka. I am deeply distressed by the war and the violence in Sri Lanka and I look forward to the day that peace with justice would dawn on all people in that island.

I do not live in Sri Lanka and know little about the events in the Sinhala south, with the exception of that which is written in the English news media. I am more aware of events in northeast Sri Lanka. I continue to meet many people who have fled the northeast Sri Lanka, to refuge in South India, Canada or US. I work with Tamil refugees in South India and meet many of them on my visits to Tamil Nadu. I do realize that "everyone's all information" in this complex conflict is necessarily partial, but my perspectives and impressions are formed not only from my past in Sri Lanka, but also from my current experiences.

What I surmised from your article may be summarized as follows:

Friends of peace (a group of four individuals) from Sri Lanka visited England with a message that there has been a genuine change in the attitude of the general population (presumably Sinhala people) towards the conflict. Based on their own experiences, this group believed the "people" to be open-minded about political and constitutional changes needed for a fairer distribution of power within the country.

This group, the Friends of Peace, at a meeting with the Tamil Expatriates in England pointed out that the campaign of President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 and her outspoken admission of Tamil grievances have been a crucial turning point in public consciousness. Here I am assuming that the people you are referring to as changed are the Sinhala people in the south.

The Friends of Peace found that the Tamil expatriates rejected this message of peace. Your article stated that the Tamil expatriates were fearful of the message of reconciliation, and that they were frightened to tread unfamiliar territory of present day Sri Lanka (the summary implication being, 'the expatriate Tamils do not want peace and reconciliation.')

Your article went on to say that the Tamils at that meeting created an "enemy syndrome" climate regarding the "other", and you felt that you were the "other". The speakers spoke in loud, agitated voices, you said, and the moderator of the meeting fueled this climate. Your article further implied that there was a strategy behind it - meaning that there was deliberate conspiracy to behave in this way.

Your article also stated that the Tamil expatriates made a 'false' accusation that, the 'Friends of Peace' were there to promote the government's devolution package. Here, I must point out to that, even though your message said that the Sinhalese would accept political and constitutional changes, you presented no proposals other than the government devolution package.

You have then said that, the expatriate Tamils were making impossible demands, such as getting the Sri Lankan army out of Jaffna prior to any peace negotiations. This certainly implies that you believe that the army has to be in Jaffna for peace, or in other words armed coercion of the Jaffna population is required for negotiations.

You have then gone on to say that those who spoke in such fashion did not really mean what they said, but were only doing it for 'effect', and to be noticed by the LTTE -- thus, giving credence to the impression that the LTTE is an all pervasive organization that watches every Tamil all over the world, and coerces them to act. But, in the same breath you also stated that the LTTE itself was less strident than the expatriate Tamils in their political demands.

You also stated that there were other Tamils who did not necessarily behave in this way, but in general, the expatriate Tamils are difficult to dialogue with.

Finally, in an interesting exercise of 'pop psychoanalysis,' you felt that all this vehemence was because of a feeling of guilt -- the implication being that all this is due to some internal psychic dynamics -- and not due to any external factor, such as an oppressive government. This theory of guilt is based on one poem an LTTE woman wrote to her brother in Canada.

My note to you is not to defend what I don't know, which is what happened at the meeting, or the way it was conducted, but to point out a different perspective that is possible without invoking all the negative attributes that are needed to sustain your impression.

Basically you have blamed the listeners because your the message was not accepted. But an analysis of the message itself is lacking in your article, for the obvious reason that you genuinely believe in it. But could the rejection of your message be because it lacked credibility and could not be believed? It is a common failing among people who want to propagate messages to blame the listeners rather than examine the message itself.

Before you blame the listeners for rejecting your message for whatever reasons they may have, one needs to examine whether, from the listener's point of view, your message was credible. There is no doubt in my mind that you genuinely believed in the message. There is also no doubt in my mind that you believe that there has been a change among the Sinhala public, and perhaps there is such a change. However, at this point I must ask you, where are the manifestations of this change? How does one convince the "other' of this change?

The reality for the Tamils, as I see it, based on newspaper reports and my meetings with many Tamils I have come across, is as follows. What I have learned does not show any manifestation of this 'change' that you are peddling.

There is a brutal war that continues in which the Tamils are the main victims. The strategy of the government in this war includes arbitrary aerial bombing, random shelling, intentional deprivation of essential food and goods to the Tamils. Tamils in Vanni are starving. A servile press without free access to war areas, particularly the Vanni, closely controls information.

The so-called "cleared" areas are a euphemism for armed control of the Tamils. There is an armed military person with a gun for every 10 Tamil civilians in Jaffna. The military has embarked on lawless behavior, such as rape, torture, disappearances, etc., all with impunity. The state has not held them accountable for such actions in any meaningful way. The state continues to fail in its duty to protect the Tamil citizen and in fact has become the biggest danger to the citizen.

The political process, which should have reflected the change that you are talking about, has not brought about any result that has been substantive. The contest for state power in the past has been fought on who could control the Tamils best, and this has not changed in essence, though the rhetoric is different. Sinhalese continue to fear the concept of 'Tamils controlling their own affairs,' and this has not changed.

Further, there has been, in my mind, an intentional concerted effort to mislead the rest of the world with words, while the program of action is different. War for peace is a fraudulent program of war aimed at subjugating the Tamils.

Most Tamils feel that this would have succeeded if not for the resistance of the LTTE, whatever it's fault may be. Tamils in Colombo are hounded, arrested and are subject to all kinds of indignities that are a disgrace. The middle-class Tamils, the English-speaking Tamils, the 'monied' Tamils and those who support the government programs overtly or subtly may be exempt, but even this is not a given. If an enemy syndrome is being created, you must realize, it is the behavior of the security forces that is causing it.

Further the government arms Tamils to fight Tamils, but does not incorporate them into the 100% Sinhala armed forces. Tamils can't be trusted is the message here. Now the government even wants to have control over the NGOs.

The above is the perception of many expatriate Tamils and please tell me and prove to me that they are wrong! It is in this context that you have to ask yourself whether there is any substance to your message. If there is no substance to your message, one (meaning any Tamil) could be truly suspicious of the motives and intent of your activities.

Having read your articles and knowing you, I have no doubt that your perceptions of what I have said will be very different. But if you want the cooperation of the "other" side you will have to give them a message that speaks in actions and not in mere words. Words are cheap, and Tamils have had plenty of them.

Many people see your upholding of Mrs. Kumaratunga as having done some good for the Tamils as an insult to Tamil intelligence. One does not have to remind many Tamils that she has unleashed the most brutal war and has caused the most amount of suffering to the Tamils. She is also one who publicly proclaimed that the she was proud to say "that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country", invoking the primal historic achievements of the Sinhalese kings. Was she not portrayed as the victorious queen who accepted the conquest of Jaffna after unleashing unprecedented brutality on the people of Jaffna?

At least try to judge your verbal message against these events that are in the Tamil consciousness, and maybe change the message, so that you will have access to Tamil hearts and minds, which after all, was your intent. You should do this before you do what you have done, which is to blame those listeners for not accepting the message which, I am sure in your opinion, was reasonable and fair.

I must say that you do a disservice to the prospect of peace and to Tamils (and maybe even insult them) when you state that the non-acceptance of your message was because the Tamils were fearful of peace and reconciliation.

Tamils have suffered immensely. In a recent visit to South India I was recounting with some other Tamils the number of villages and towns that have been destroyed by the Sri Lankan army in the past two decades. A gentleman who was very knowledgeable of the north and east stated that there was not a single village in the north or east that has not been touched. I, personally, know of no Tamil family who has not been scarred by the events of the past two decades. Many of us, whom you describe as living privileged lives, live with a heavy heart even though we have not been physically injured. Thus, it is a wrong statement and a very dangerous statement to imply that Tamils do not want peace. You should look at the weak message you had, rather than blame the Tamils and analyze their emotions in a self-serving manner.

Your message implies that the Sinhalese are ready for peace but the Tamils reject it. This is no different from the propaganda of the government, even as they go about killing Tamils and prosecuting a war, which in the opinion of many borders on genocide. The LTTE has repeatedly requested negotiations, which have been rejected by the government, which is on a mission to destroy the LTTE and the Tamils if necessary in the process, and perhaps even the Sinhalese. Such is the nature of power.

We delude ourselves until we realize and accept that underlying all these events is a quest for power and start to use that language explicitly in our conversations. Of course, I realize that there may be many other theories about the "real" nature of the war including those attributes to God and Karma and I can't dispute them, but it is my opinion that analysis on the basis of power in all it's manifestations is the most useful method available to us to grasp this problem.

I am old enough to know the time when Sinhala hatred and oppression was justified by painting a picture of the "evil Tamils". The disenfranchisement of the Indian Tamils, the Language Act, the repeated violence against Tamils was never carried out against innocent, simple people, but was carried out against evil, vicious enemy -- the Tamils. Such was the Tamil image in the minds of the Sinhala people. With the Tamil rebellion and the failure of the state program to subjugate the Tamils without violence the message of the state has now changed to characterize the LTTE as the totally evil force and the needed justification for the war. The fact that this affects Tamils is secondary.

Unfortunately, you seem to subscribe to this school of thought (please correct me if I am wrong) that the peace that you yearn for can only come from the subjugation or destruction of the Tamils. You also trivialize the emotions of people who are hurt.

Let me summarize what I have to say a little differently. You saw the expatriate Tamils and the Tamil information center through your "lenses" and they saw you through their "lenses". I am here referring to the assumptions, the experience, the hopes and the personalities that each of us brings to bear on our opinions and our statements as a lens through which we see the world. It is common and usual to blame those who see a situation through some other lenses as being wrong, as being terrorist, as being a danger to civility and humanity. People with power and control seem to be able to get away with such statements and people who support those in power have an easier time doing it than people who are powerless. Tamils are by and large are powerless as a minority. While it is not uncommon to portray the Tamils as a crafty devious community with international power, the fact is they are a small minority fighting for survival and believe, with good reason, that their survival will fail if the Sinhala people are to rule them.

I believe that you have the uncommon ability to see yourself through other people's lenses, and before you embark on large scale generalizations and demonizations of the expatriate Tamils, which you have done in your article, I would hope that you would put on their lenses and try to understand their viewpoint, because only in doing that will the Peace Council be successful.

Believe me, I do very much want the mission of the Peace Council to be successful.

Sincerely yours,

Karunyan Arulanantham

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