Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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EU Credibility on the Line

by Brian Senewiratne, Consultant Physician, Brisbane, Australia.


I am a Sinhalese from the majority community in Sri Lanka.  I am a doctor of Medicine with no political affiliations or ambitions. I left Sri Lanka 30 years ago and the only reasons for my involvement are concerns that are humanitarian and the future of the country.

I have had a longstanding interest in the on-going ethnic conflict, in particular, in achieving a solution which enables the Tamil ‘minority’ to live with equality, safety, dignity and without discrimination, in the country of their birth.  I have supported the Tamil people in their struggle against a succession of Sri Lankan (read Sinhalese) governments which have stated in the clearest terms that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist nation which effectively excludes the Tamils. This is even enshrined in the Constitution.

The ‘cause’ of the Tamil people is a just cause that must evoke the support of all fair-minded people who believe in the right of people to live with equality, safety and dignity and not be oppressed or brutalized by the majority. What matters is not whether the Tamil people win their struggle for freedom from a repressive, racist, brutal and irresponsible regime, but on which side one stands.

A fundamental problem is the failure to recognize the historical fact that Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was not a single nation, but three effectively separate kingdoms (nations): the Tamil Kingdom in the North, Kandyan (Sinhalese) in the Centre, and  Low-Country (Sinhalese) Kingdom in the South. This separation existed for hundreds of years until the colonial British, for administrative convenience, unified the country. When the British quit (1948), they handed over the country to Governments that were, and will always be, dominated by the majority (74%) Sinhalese. Discrimination against the minorities, especially the industrious Tamils, was always a possibility, and was, in fact, articulated strongly by Tamil politicians to the British before they quit. This possibility became reality as competing Sinhalese political parties adopted more and more discriminatory policies against the Tamils in language, education, employment and the developmental neglect of the Tamil areas, to get the electoral support of the majority Sinhalese. This is opportunistic politics at is worst.

Over the next 50 years Tamil politicians negotiated with a succession of Sri Lankan governments to address these problems.  A series of pacts between the two groups have not been implemented, even torn up, unilaterally by the Sri Lankan government to gain the political support of the majority. The initial request of the Tamils was for a Federal Tamil State. The response of the Government was to unleash violence on peaceful Tamil protests and to increase the discriminatory measures. When it became clear that a Federal set-up would not work with an untrustworthy and racist Central Government, the Tamils pressed for a Separate Tamil State (Eelam). It is important to appreciate that the Tamils are not trying to divide and destroy a country, but to reverse a British colonial construct which has not worked.

It must be appreciated that it was not the LTTE who asked for a Separate Tamil State. It was the Tamil people who, in the 1977 General Election (the last with a credible result), voted overwhelmingly for a Separate Tamil State and gave their elected parliamentarians a mandate to pursue such a result.  It was the abysmal failure of these elected representatives to make any headway using democratic means that resulted in the Tamil militants picking up arms to establish such a goal by force, as Nelson Mandela and the ANU did to get the racist South African government to abandon its policy of apartheid. 

Had the Tamil militants not gone the way they did, the elected representatives of the Tamil people would still be grovelling at the feet of Sinhala politicians as they have done over the past 50 years.  There would have been no Peace Talks or a search for any solution to address the very real problems faced by the Tamil people. Had Mandela and his group not acted in the way they did to take on the South African government, apartheid would still be flourishing in South Africa. To White South African eyes, Mandela was a terrorist who should be jailed (and was). To international eyes Mandela was a statesman who deserved a Nobel Prize (and got it). So also Yasser Arafat, another Nobel Prize winner, the leader of an armed group, the PLO, whose acts of violence dwarf anything that the LTTE has done.

A succession of Sri Lanka’s political leaders have directed the mass killings of Tamil civilians and the Heads of the Armed Forces have carried these out. This has  included mass ‘disappearances’ of those in their custody, some of whom were tortured and buried alive. If they are taken before the International Court in the Hague on a charge of genocide, I doubt if they will go unscathed. Has the EU condemned this? If not, why not?

The EU declaration

In the context outlined above, the recently released EU statement condemning one party to the on-going negotiations puts the credibility of the EU on the line.

  1. The declaration condemns the “continuing violence and terrorism of the Liberation Tigers  of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)”.  There is no condemnation by the EU of the much more serious violence and terrorism of the Sri Lankan armed forces and the paramilitary groups armed and supported by them. Why?

Where were the EU nations when the armed forces launched an assault on Jaffna with half a million civilians (“Operation Thunder” followed by “Operation Riviressa” (Sun Ray)?  Half a million people had to flee the city to escape the onslaught.  The then UN Secretary General called on international governments to “assist the uprooted people of Jaffna”. Was this not government terrorism unleashed on the Tamil people in the North?  Was this not an attempt by the Sri Lankan government to pursue a political goal, by what the EU itself describes as “totally unacceptable methods.”  If so, why did the EU nations not condemn this in the same language that they have now used?

2. The EU declaration claims that “the present political goals of such totally unacceptable methods only serve to damage the LTTE’s standing and credibility as a negotiating partner.”  But that is precisely what the Sri Lankan government has done over many years.  The EU’s double standard is blatant hypocrisy.

3. The EU “repeats the condemnation of the shocking murder of Lakshman Kadirgamar….” For a start, there is no evidence that the LTTE were responsible, unless the EU has some undisclosed information. It is more likely that the EU is acting as a mouthpiece for the Sri Lankan Government, whose credibility has been questioned by internationally known human rights groups over many years.

Could we ask the EU to turn its attention to the well-documented mass murder of thousands of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan armed forces, who have indiscriminately bombed and shelled Tamil civilians who had a right to be where they were, i.e. peacefully living in their homes?  It would appear that Tamil civilian lives are of lesser value (lesser mortals) to the EU.

4. The EU is “actively considering the formal listing of the LTTE as a terrorist organization.”  Precisely what would this achieve other than the exclusion of one of the main negotiators from the Conference Table? And what would that achieve? A ‘Conference Table’ with one party? That is commonly referred to as a dictatorship.

The EU, in particular the UK presently leading the EU, should know that with IRA bombs exploding all over London, the British government banned the IRA. What did that achieve? Nothing.  When the reality of being unable to negotiate with a banned organization dawned, the IRA was “de-banned”!  The EU in general and the UK in particular, seem to have learned nothing from past blunders and stupidity.

5. The EU “has agreed that with immediate effect, delegates from the LTTE will no longer be received in any of the EU Member States…”  What exactly is the EU trying to achieve?  To opt out of facilitating a negotiated settlement? Is that acceptable behaviour for a supposedly responsible body?

6. The EU has agreed that member States will “take necessary measures to check and curb illegal and undesirable activities (including issues of funding and propaganda) by the LTTE.”  What about issues of funding, propaganda and, of even greater concern, the supply of weapons to the Sri Lankan government?  Is the ‘end use’ of such military assistance for a country to fight and destroy its own people of no concern to the EU?  It would appear so from the recent partisan declaration of the EU.

7. The EU “calls on the LTTE not least to take immediate public steps to demonstrate their commitment to the peace process and the willingness to change.” For the record, it was the LTTE that initiated the Ceasefire, even before the then Sri Lankan Government did so. The EU needs to check its facts.  Would the EU call on the Sri Lankan government ”to demonstrate … willingness to change” by abandoning its declared policy that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese Buddhist nation, despite the fact that Sri Lanka is a multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious country, and repeal sections of the Constitution in which this is guaranteed?  If not, why not?

The reality

It is time that the EU recognized the reality on the ground. Whether one considers the LTTE to be Liberation/Freedom Fighters or Terrorists, two things are crystal clear.

The first is that they are here to stay. They will not go away, be bombed out or “smashed.”  That will not happen, indeed the opposite. They have grown from an insignificant group whose very existence was doubted in the early 1970s to one of the most powerful and best organized military organizations in the world.   They have also established a de facto State in the area under their control (Wanni) which is far more efficiently run than anything in the Sinhalese area and infinitely more honest and free from corruption. The handling of the recent Tsunami disaster in the LTTE -controlled area was evidence of this and was commended by several NGOs.

The second is that the LTTE is a key player in any negotiated settlement of the ethnic problem.  It is not a “marginal player” that can be, isolated, antagonized or banned. Those who cannot appreciate this are living in the land of make-believe.

To claim that the LTTE is the cause of the problem is arrant nonsense.  The LTTE is not the cause of the problem, but the result.  The cause of the problem is Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-religious chauvinism – this destructive concept that multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist nation,  which effectively excludes the Tamils.  If that is so, then there is no other option to the establishment of a Tamil nation.

The timing of the declaration

The EU declaration is not only seriously flawed but its timing is disastrous.  Sri Lanka is facing a critical period.  Prime Minister Rajapakse, who is the Government-favoured Presidential candidate, has just signed a pact with the so-called Marxist JVP (read ‘political opportunists’) who have done so much damage to Sri Lanka (in two insurrections in 1971 and in 1988,) which included the assassination of President Kumaratunga’s visionary husband, and  the politically active Buddhist clergy, who, by their ethno-religious chauvinism, have prevented any solution to the problems faced by the Tamils. It is this latter group of politically-active Buddhist monks that produced the assassin who gunned down President Kumaratunga’s father, Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike because he was trying to make amends for the damage he had done to the Tamils by excluding their language as one of the Official Languages of the country. These extremists and political opportunists have declared their  support to Mr. Rajapakse on condition that he tear up the Peace Pact and abandon the Tsunami relief to Tamil areas.  The recent EU declaration will give enormous support to these extremists and strengthen their hand.  If these extremist forces triumph, it will be the restart of war and the total destruction of the country or what is left of it.  Should this happen, the EU countries cannot absolve themselves from blame. 

The EU can make a number of substantial contributions to facilitate the peace process in Sri Lanka. Issuing irresponsible and partisan ‘declarations’ will not be one.