Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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In Conversation...Part 2

by Chandi Sinnathurai, July 31 – August 1

Both sides are jockeying for better positions in Trincomalee and the East. The East is crucial for both. The LTTE needs to gain full control after the damage inflicted by Karuna's departure, and the government has to capitalise on Karuna's defection and drive a wedge between the North and the East, both politically and militarily... The Sri Lankan state and polity are more interested in the East than in the North. 

Introduction: PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of the 'Hindustan Times' in Sri Lanka. Chandi caught up with him for a ‘conversation exclusive’: 

Checkpoint Colombo 2006 Chandi: For how long have you lived and worked as senior correspondent in Sri Lanka? It must be quite stressful and an occupational hazard to write from a conflict hot spot. What are your strategies to unwind? A Cuban cigar and a shot of brandy? Or is it music…are you a Hindustan Classical music fan or do you have more eclectic taste?

Bala: I am in Sri Lanka only since 1997. But I have paid short visits to Sri Lanka as a correspondent of some other Indian dailies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As for the stress, newsmen in Sri Lanka other than those living in the North East, are not in the midst of war as such. So they don't face the stress and the danger that journalists are now facing in Lebanon, say. Colombo has seen assassinations and terrorist bombings of civilian areas. Being caught in them or escaping from them or  even being an eyewitness to them, is a matter of chance. Most of the time, the conflict is only as stressful as any other uneasy situation. And for foreigners like me, there are no personal stakes to add to the stress.

But the conflict does not engage my attention all the time. It is not the only area of interest in Sri Lanka for me. I am very interested in its history, culture and social structure, its people, the amazing variety.

My way of relaxing is listening to Western classical orchestral music, old Hindi film songs (1950s to the 1970s) and Tamil film songs (1960s to the Ilayarajah era).

Chandi: What keeps you intellectually stimulated? Do you read Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy?

Bala: I have read both and liked them. Being a student of history, sociology and political science, I take to books on these subjects avidly. They are excellent company and help me fill my time in an enjoyable way.

Chandi: Returning to music. Do you think the idea of the late Palestinan intellectual Edward Said and the Jewish Conductor Daniel Barenboim would provide a model of peaceful co-existence in Sri Lanka, not necessarily under one flag I might add..? When Barenboim gave the Reith Lectures 2006 this was the introduction - I quote Sue Lawley (BBC):

"Daniel Barenboim doesn't shy from controversy. He's shown himself willing to take courageous public stands. Six years ago he founded, against the odds, an orchestra made up of equal numbers of Arab and Israeli young members, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, not least to demonstrate that it's possible through music for people from warring factions to find peaceful co-existence." Any comment?

Bala: While what you are suggesting is useful and can be a confidence-building measure, it will not help solve the problem, which is political.

The issue is sharing of power, of devolution, of regional identity and regional autonomy or separation (in the case of some). It has nothing to do with personal relationships, cultural unity or differences, etc.

I have seen Sinhalas and Tamils who get along like a house on fire (an expression Kumar Ponnambalam was fond of using) on a personal level, but have serious differences on the issue of federalism, homeland, regional autonomy, etc. [Kumar a human rights lawyer and Tamil Congress leader, was killed in Colombo, 5 January 2000].

They do come back to each other (which is inevitable in the close 'machaang' culture of upper class Colombo). But the problem remains unsolved, the divide remains. And that is used by politicians, military leaders and militants to widen the divide in ever so many ways, and wage war.

Chandi: By the way… you might have called upon Karuna in his former life as Eastern Tiger commander seeking information for your column.  Many believe he is currently given sheltered housing in Chennai.  Have you ventured to have any contact with him lately?  Is it worth the risk of getting a scoop with a defect-ed and defunct Karuna? 

Bala:  I have never met Karuna whether in the current Avatar or the earlier Avatar as the LTTE's eastern commander. I do not know where he is, since it is a secret. But his allies among Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates living in the West do secure e-mail interviews for interested journalists on request. I have not had any interview with him even by e-mail, though I do read interviews done by other journos here. How far these are genuine is anybody's guess! The trouble with e-mail interviews with shadowy characters is that you dont know if the guy at the other end is real or  fake!

Generally, I deal in what is manifest and public, and what is of social and political importance in the larger sense. I try to  make sense out of the societal and political developments around me and try to interpret them to the best of my ability. 

Scoops and whodunits are not up my street. I do not have the capacity to do that kind of journalism.

However, the impact of Karuna on the political and military scene in Sri Lanka is of interest to me and I take note of them when they manifest themselves.

Chandi: Now talking of realpolitik… You have contact/sources in high places both in Sri Lanka and in India.  Now most people think of Ranil Wickremsinghe as a “lame duck” opposition leader.  In order for the peace process to continue, do you feel there needs to be a regime change in Sri Lanka? Where should the Sinhala masses pin their hopes? The Bhikku party [Buddhist monks JHU party] perhaps!

Bala: Ranil Wickremesinghe only looks like a lame duck opposition leader. He is inactive with a scheme in mind. Right now, there is little he or anybody else can do to reverse the situation in the country. The Sinhala majority is solidly behind [The President] Rajapaksa, the JVP and JHU [Both Sinhala extremist parties] on the Tamil/LTTE/peace/federalism issue. Wickremesinghe's own partly will not back him if [it] becomes too accommodating to the Tamils on these issues.

What Wickremesinghe is hoping is that Rajapaksa's inability to solve the ethnic issue will eventually result in war and economic difficulties, which, in turn, will [be] alienating him from the people, as it happened with CBK [Former President Chandrika] in 2001.

Wickremesinghe's silence is thus a calculated one.

As for the Sinhalas replacing Rajapaksa, there is no chance or even a need, because he represents the ideas of the SLFP [Bandaranayke's party], JVP, and JHU on the ethnic issue. My submission is that the majority of the UNP also supports him on the ethnic issue.

On economic issues he [Rajapaksa] is toeing the line of the JVP and the JHU. The SLFP and the JVP have almost  closed the gap on economic issues. 

Chandi: : If the current tense situation between LTTE and Colombo concerning the Mavil Aaru Dam in Trinco is NOT about water, and if it's not done to aggravate matters into a full-scale war what’s the REAL conflict of interest? Could it be that the territory of Trinco – the “strategic jewel” IS the gripe here?

Bala: Both sides are jockeying for better positions in Trincomalee and the East. The East is crucial for both. The LTTE needs to gain full control after the damage inflicted by Karuna's departure, and the government has to capitalise on Karuna's defection and drive a wedge between the North and the East, both politically and militarily.

It is a long drawn-out struggle. And, in one form or the other, it has  been going on since a long, long time.

The Sri Lankan state and polity are more interested in the East than in the North. Premadasa allowed the LTTE to take over the North after the Indian Army left, and Chandrika even proposed that the LTTE could keep Jaffna [The cultural capital of Tamil Eelam] for 10 years if it would come to a settlement within a united Sri Lanka.

Premadasa made it a point to fight it out in the East. The present government, too, is concentrating on the East. The recent attacks in the East and the JVP/JHU bid to get the merger of the North and the East annulled, are part of a single strategy to gain control of the East.

To be concluded in Part 3…                                               

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