Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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The Tamil Perspective on Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka

speech by R.Nimalan.Karthikeyan, delivered on the occasion of the Foundation for Co-Existence book launch at the BMICH, Colombo, Februray 21, 2006

This process could be likened to the  metaphor of a girl child who was denied her need for a frock at the age of 5, yet subsequently offered the same when she was a damsel of  21, a dress that would no longer fit. This embodies the case of the ethnic conflict, where the solutions prescribed are insufficient and granted too late.

To reflect a Tamil perspective on negotiating peace in Sri Lanka, it  is imperative to recall the evolution of the ethnic issue. Unless the problem is identified solutions are futile. Therefore it is imperative to briefly examine the historic perspective.

Historic Perspective

It is the considered view of the Tamils that the state sponsored colonization schemes in the late 1940’s and 1950’s coupled with the Sinhala Only Official Language Act of 1956 and the violent suppression of the non violent protests of the Tamils of the NorthEast  acted as the catalysts in setting the stage for the ethnic conflict.

The process of negotiations began with the then Tamil moderate leadership signing the Bandaranayake-Chelvanayagam Pact in 1957 and the Dudley -Chelvanayagam pact in 1966. But both failed due to the unilateral abrogation of the pacts by the respective governments . Consequently there were certain historic events and developments that took place in the Sri Lankan political landscape between 1970-1985,  that led to the collective mobilization of Tamils in the North East to agitate in an organized and structured manner for the  restoration of their  lost rights.

They are

  • The introduction of a nationwide standardization scheme for University Entrance which discriminated against Tamil students for higher education, disregarding the criteria of meritocracy.
  • In May 1972 the introduction of the Republican Constitution which removed the minimum safeguard enshrined in the 1947 constitution namely article 29.2 relating to minority rights and the barring of the doctrine of ultra virus vis a vis the constitution . On this occasion the moderate Tamil parties headed by Federal Party from the North East put forward a 6 point formula to be considered in the constitutional process. Unfortunately this was out rightly rejected by the Sri Lankan Government .
  • It was in this context, the rapid evolution of Moderate Tamil leadership’s agitation for equal rights coupled with the intensification of the Tamil militancy gave rise to the Vadukoddai Declaration in May 1976 symbolizing a significant shift in the Tamil struggle from autonomy and self rule to the establishment of an independent Tamil state in the North East, to be achieved by non violent means.
  • The electoral victory in July 1977 by the TULF gave them a clear mandate to work towards a separate state by non violent means. The leader of the oppsition was from TULF
  • The unilateral endeavour by the then government in introducing  the 1978 constitution consolidating the unitary nature of the state, entrenching the unique status of Buddhism as state religion and introducing  the all powerful executive presidency without the consent of the Tamil body polity, showed their helplesness.
  • At this juncture it is pertinent to state that the Tamils of the North East were excluded from the constitutional process in 1972 and in 1978 which the Tamil psyche regarded as the institutionalization of structural discrimination and its attendant denial and suppression of collective rights of the North East based Tamil community. The present constitution is regarded by the Tamils as a constitution by the majority for the majority to serve the majority interests.
  • The response of the Sri Lankan state in 1979 to curb  Tamil militancy with the  draconian legislation in the form of Prevention of terrorism Act (PTA)along with emergency regulations empowering the defense forces of the state to act with impunity without understanding the root causes of the origin, evolution and intensification of Tamil militancy contributed in a drastic measure to the exacerbation of the ethnic conflict.
  • Burning of the unique and famous Jaffna Public library in June 1981, with the  complicity of the then ministers in government inciting the Sri Lankan security forces , to the Tamil mind was a demonstration of the destruction of the cultural foundation and heritage of the Tamils.
  • The Tamil psyche viewed the 1983 pogrom as a  means of exterminating Tamil identity and interests in Sri Lanka. The subsequent promulgamation of the 6th Amendment in August 1983, denied the moderate Tamil parliamentarians the democratic right to agitate for secession through non violent means. The Tamils viewed this as an indication of the lack of sensitivity and understanding by the majority ruling class of the complexity, needs and aspirations of the Tamil community. Needless to state the impact of 1983, whilst internationalizing the ethnic conflict also galvanized the Tamil resolve both in Sri Lanka and overseas for a collective concerted effort in their agitation to recover lost rights.
  • Consequent to the above mentioned chronological sequence of events the Tamil agitation for parity of status and management of their internal affairs in the North East reached a decisive point in July/August 1985 in Thimpu. On this occasion both the moderate Tamil leadership and militant groups agreed upon 4 cardinal principles which underpinned the Tamil struggle. It was a collective voice of the Tamil people with the active participation of Tamil moderates and the militants that brought forth a set of principles which should be considered as a framework within which any form of dialogue aimed at resolution of the ethnic conflict could be attempted.
  • In essence the Thimpu principles which was arrived at over a period of 35 years was an articulation of the Tamil perspective that Tamils were  looking for the restoration of their rights, instead of devolution or power sharing.  

If I may use an accounting parlance to sum up the above, the long accumulated deficit on the Tamil side in the balance sheet of ethnic conflict as at July 1987, provided an indication of the lack of political will and commitment on the part of southern leadership to resolve the ethnic issue.

Indo - Lanka Accord (July 1987)

The positive elements in the accord were that it acknowledged Sri Lanka as  a multi ethnic plural society and recognized Northern and Eastern Provinces as areas of historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking people. However it failed to serve the other  interests of the Tamils as enunciated in the Thimpu Principles, which were  the right to self determination, recognition of Tamils of Sri Lanka as a distinct nationality and the access to fundamental democratic rights of the Tamils. Further, it reinforced the unitary character of  Sri Lanka, which  was one of the root causes for the evolution of the ethnic conflict.

It should also be borne in mind that although the LTTE at that juncture had become a force to be reckoned with in representing Tamil rights and interests, it was not a party to the designing of the said Accord.  Instead it was a case of “fait accompli” as far as the LTTE was concerned. In this instance the Government of  India arrogated to itself the role of the guardian of Tamil rights and interests.

This was borne out in a vivid succinct manner by the LTTE leader in his historic address at Sudumalai in August 1987, stated that he trusted the sincerity of the then Indian Prime Minister based on the pledges given by him prior to the signing of the INDO – Lanka Accord that the responsibility for guaranteeing the safety, security and the political rights of the Tamil people was transferred to the government of India. Whether India stood by it’s pledges is debatable.

Premadasa-LTTE Negotiations

President  Premadasa and the LTTE focused on the  expeditious  departure of the IPKF from Sri Lanka . Consequent to the departure of the IPKF,   the LTTE took control of most of the districts in the North-East and was keen to legitimize the administrative control over the north east. It is in this context LTTE requested  President Premadasa to dissolve the provincial council and hold fresh elections whilst simultaneously insisting upon the repealing of the 6th amendment. Unfortunately the delay in the progress with regard to the above and the last minute attempt to discuss the decommissioning of LTTE too contributed to the failure of talks.

The Kumaratunge – LTTE Negotiations

Some of the factors that contributed to the collapse of the above negotiations were the  lack of a mutually structured agenda for talks ,difference of opinion with regard to the process of normalization and de- escalation of the conflict, hesitancy  in lifting the embargo on goods ,ban on fishing etc on account of alleged  military imperatives and the importance attached to written communications between parties as the main form of dialogue and thus devaluing the need for direct talks to handle sensitive and controversial issues. Apart from this the  nature and the tone of written communication too did not help forge a spirit of partnership based on trust for the progress of talks.

UNF- LTTE Negotiations

Bringing an end to the hostilities was seen by the parties as a means of establishing a positive atmosphere in which further steps towards negotiations for a lasting solution could be reached. The CFA also recognized that groups that were not directly party to the conflict such as the Muslim population,  too suffered the consequences of the conflict.

The signing of the CFA agreement legitimized the LTTE as a representative of the Tamils of North East and recognized the existence of an LTTE controlled area in the North East. The context in which the CFA was entered into was against the backdrop of a balance of military power between the Sri Lankan state and LTTE, despite the asymmetry that exists between both parties. In addition it also established a basis of a partnership between GOSL and LTTE.

Unfortunately the lack of political will on the part of the government to address the humanitarian and rehabilitation  needs of the Tamil speaking people  of the NorthEast  with the existing governmental apparatus and lack of commitment of funds etc, led to the failure and subsequent erosion of confidence.

The subcommittee on de-escalation/normalization  set up as a mechanism for structured dialogue between the parties to address matters relating to the Sri Lankan Army’s high security zones to ensure resettlement, the return of private property and the resumption of economic activities in these areas came to a halt  confirming the lack of commitment on the part of the Government .

Oslo Joint Statement

The Oslo Joint Statement provided a unique opportunity for a basis at that time for the resolution of ethnic conflict. On that occasion in principle both parties agreed to explore a solution founded upon the principle of internal self determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people based upon a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. Unfortunately the response of the Sri Lankan state at that time made no attempt to capture the essence of this initiative and develop the concept in a manner appropriate to conflict transformation process.

Washington Preparatory Aid meeting

The staging of the Washington Aid Preparatory conference on the 14th April 2003 with the exclusion of the LTTE, was viewed by  Tamils as a breach of trust. The very foundation of the  CFA was based on a spirit of partnership, where both parties as equals together agreed  to address  issues on normalization, humanitarian and rehabilitation needs by building mutual confidence and trust and thus  pave the way for a long-term resolution of the ethnic conflict.

The Tamil people perceived the absence of conflict sensitivity on the part of the Sri Lankan and US governments and lack of concrete steps taken by the Sri Lankan government to implement decisions arrived at the previous rounds of negotiations as factors that led to the collapse of the talks.

Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA)

Another development of historical significance in the evolution of the ethnic conflict was the formulation and release of  the ISGA proposal by the  LTTE in October 2003. This was an initiative undertaken by LTTE consequent to their rejection of the set of proposals submitted by the Sri Lankan Government . Unfortunately, due to the power struggle in Colombo between the ruling United National Front government and the Executive President who was from the People’s Alliance and the dubious nature of the all powerful executive presidency established by the 1978 constitution, the ISGA was subjected to outright condemnation by the President and the SLFP.

It’s regrettable that  the southern body polity failed to realize the unprecedented manner in which the LTTE put forward a set of proposals as a basis of reviving the stalled talks. These proposals also sought to address the need for an interim administrative structure to carry out long overdue humanitarian, rehabilitation and reconstruction initiatives to the internally displaced people in the North East.

The April 2004 General Elections 

There was  indirect participation by the LTTE in the electoral process at the April 2004 general election in collaboration with TNA.  Despite the accusations originating from certain quarters, this endeavour by the LTTE came to be regarded by some sections of the Tamils,  as an attempt made by LTTE in their gradual transition  into the   democratic process. Unfortunately this was not sufficiently understood by the Sinhala Leaders.

Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure

The Tsunami that struck the  shores of SL on the 26th of December 2004 did provide a window of opportunity for both parties to shed their respective  political agenda and focus on humanitarian imperatives to alleviate the suffering of the people affected  by the catastrophe and  in addition the hardships endured by  man made conflict. Unfortunately, after an arduous process of 5 month’s long negotiations to establish a structure to deal with the situation , due to  vehement opposition from a coalition partner of the Ruling party, the process was scuttled.

This was an opportunity to work together through a local governance structure intended to provide  the relief and rehabilitation assistance to the people affected by Tsunami, with the active participation of all three communities in the NorthEast, with limited political power. Had the above process been implemented, it would have provided the much needed confidence building impetus for both parties to the conflict as well as the Muslim community, to embark on the important process of Peace Negotiations.

Muslim Perspective

The Tamils regard the Muslims in the East as part and parcel of the Tamil speaking body polity in the North East. Despite the divergent views that prevails between the Tamils and the Muslims with regard to the resolution of the ethnic conflict, the common thread of language, interdependent way of life, commerce and bonds of fraternity that continue to exist for centuries, are positives which should be accentuated and built upon.

However, particular  actions of certain sections of the Muslim community in the East  since the late 1950’s mainly the crossover of Muslim Parliamentarians elected on Federal party mandate to the Government side, the introduction of  standardization through parliament by the then Muslim Minister for Education without concern and sensitivity for  Tamils, the alliance and the nexus of Special Task Force and the Muslim home guards/groups in the 1980’s, which heaped undue hardship, suffering, loss of property and life on the Eastern Tamils, and certain initiatives undertaken by some members of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress when they were coalition partners in the Government during the period of 1990’s, etc, led to strained relationships between the communities.

Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that the agreement entered into between Rauf Hakeem and Prabhakaran in April 2002 was a landmark pact, which still has the genesis for the rapprochement between the communities.  Unfortunately due to lack of understanding and appreciation of the dynamics of the forces that prevailed at that time as well as the fragmented nature of Muslim politics, the opportunity for reconciliation had gone asunder. However a renewed collective endeavour by both communities with commitment and sincerity of purpose, could pave the way for peaceful co-existence.


The Tamil perspective with regard to the resolution of the ethnic conflict has undergone metamorphosis since the 1950s’ from a basic federal model of self rule at the periphery and shared rule at the centre to an advanced phase based upon the Thimpu principles of right to self determination to maximum power sharing and beyond.

This process could be likened to the  metaphor of a girl child who was denied her need for a frock at the age of 5, yet subsequently offered the same when she was a damsel of  21, a dress that would no longer fit. This embodies the case of the ethnic conflict, where the solutions prescribed are insufficient and granted too late.

As to what form and nature it should take has to be decided at the negotiation table taking into consideration the need for a home spun solution specific to the North East socio, cultural, economic, political and geographical environment in alignment with International bills of human rights, UN treaties and International humanitarian law etc. The approach to be adopted by the Sri Lankan government, if I may use an expression from management parlance. is that there is a need for an innovative and pragmatic will set, coupled with a mindset, a skill set and a tool set. In effect the need of the hour calls for a paradigm shift.

In conclusion ladies and gentlemen if I may relate our presence here today to the initiative about to begin in Geneva , it is appropriate to reflect on a verse from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which is very pertinent to the context, and casts  moral responsibilities on all those who have a stake in the resolution of the ethnic issue.

I quote

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

I thank you for your patient listening.

Personal collection of articles and books from different authoritative sources, including authors on the Sri Lankan Ethnic Conflict.

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