Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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In Conversation...Part 3

by Chandi Sinnathurai, Aug 1 3rd 2006

"What prevents you from modifying your struggle to make it more acceptable to the democratic world and get international support and legitimacy - two things you sorely lack now?”

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

Chandi: In response to a previous question you said, I quote: “But somehow at the top most levels, Indians feel that their installations in Trinco are in no danger.”  But when the LTTE over-runs Trinco, these are your words: “India may be forced to interact with it.” You are therefore implying that the possibility of the Tamil Tigers recapturing Trinco is not a sheer impossiblity.  But the Tigers aren't daft to destroy the installations, are they?

Let me put it to you, if I may: Are you saying in spite of the opposition of [millions of Indian Tamils] Tamil Nadu across the Palk Strait on one side. On the other, the vehement disquiet of Eelamites; perhaps even the “hyper-sovereignty conscious” Sinhalas.  Yet you think Mother India will still risk her integrity to invade a neighbouring country or even “countries” at this stage of the crisis!  Surely, you are not suggesting, as a senior journalist, that sort of fatal “interaction” would ever take place between Eelam and India, are you?

Bala: Please refer to one of my earlier answers in which I had said that the IPKF route was closed. This remains  government of India's policy as far as I know. It means no military intervention in Sri Lanka. India's involvement will be political and that, too, in a calibrated and careful manner.

There is a belief in India that the LTTE, or the Sri Lankans for that matter, will not harm Indian installations wantonly. Neither party wants a war with India as a result of such wanton actions. And  neither does India want a military confrontation with them. Nobody wants the 1980s scenario to be re-run.  

The LTTE's supporters (not the LTTE itself) brag about the humilations heaped on the IPKF and how the LTTE defeated the fourth largest army in the world.But what is hidden is that the LTTE had to secure the support of the Sri Lankan government, its enemy number one, to break free from the Indian yoke. The LTTE went through horrible times before Premadasa gave an ultimatum to the Indians to quit. It was the ultimatum which the Indians found the most embarrassing. They lost their locus standi in Sri Lanka after that and had no option but to quit. 

I am sure the LTTE will not want to undergo the 1987-1990  experience again. It may be better off fighting the 40th.largest army in the world, as it is doing for the last 16 years. 

I am sorry if I am hurting anybody by saying this, but the truth must be realised fully for a realistic understanding of situations. Otherwise one will be deluding oneself and barking up the wrong tree. I presume, we are analysts and not propagandists for one side or the other.

As  regards the Indian state's interacting with the LTTE, no state can say that it will never interact with a group or a set of people.

Realpolitik has a major role to play in international relations, though there is [also] a place for sentiments, history, ideology etc.

Everybody has to interact with everybody else, especially when they are neighbours. I won't be surprised if, one day, the Indian state and the LTTE interact just as the Sri Lankan state has interacted and dialogued with the LTTE, even though the two have been at daggers drawn.

I should also disabuse my readers of the feeling that India is afraid that fighting with the LTTE or talking to the LTTE will lead to the secession of Tamil Nadu from India.

The secessionst sentiment, or the urge to secede and fight for it, comes as a result of very strong factors. The gestation period is very long, unless outside forces intervene military to prop up the secessionst group. 

Since you know the development of the Tamil movement in Sri Lanka, I need not  tell you how much of suffering and disappointment the Tamils had to go through before they adopted the Vaddukkodai Resolution.

Even at the late stage, if the Sri Lankan state had responded reasonably to their basic and long standing demands (not the secessionst demand), the struggle would not have take the current form.

Furthermore, wishing to secede is one thing and trying for it  is another. And succeeding in it, is an entirely different thing.

Even an extraordinary leader like Prabhakaran and his LTTE, facing one of the weakest states in the world, have had to struggle, struggle and struggle, for decades. And you would agree that the end is not yet in sight.

So, a secessionist movement is not a tea party or a thing that you wish for today and you get it tomorrow. There has to be collective discrimination and collective punishment over a long period of time on critical aspects of the collective life, before a group decides to secede and begins to fight for it over an indefinite period of time.

In democratic countries like India (with all their imperfections) there is always a possibilty of things being settled politically as a result of political lobbying and political bargaining.

Politicians in democratic societies where votes count, compromise and adjust to get power and keep power. And such compromises result in social and political compacts, which may help the country resolve contradictions and change to remain united.

Chandi: 'Defeating the 4th largest army; and fighting off the 40th largest army in the world...' Interesting comment that. We ought to be reminded that accepting defeat is a very courageous and noble act. Such an act reveals more about us than about our opponent. As you know, the IPKF Lt Gen Sardeshpande was the Divisional Commander of 54th infantry Division in Sri Lanka.  Out of his experience of the ground reality of war, this is what he said.  I quote:

"It would be difficult to come by a more motivated, educated, dedicated and politicised insurgent or militant group than the LTTE.  Theirs is a far more formiddable insurrection than the Naga or Mizo ones." Assignment Jaffna,1992. p 61.

Talking of psychological warfare the General said:

"Our unit and formation commanders too came under the mental hypnosis of the LTTE...virtually admitting that it was an impossible task and all our endeavours were pointless.  One formation commander was relating vividly how the LTTE cadres - including their women - fought so bravely..." p.152

Does it really matter whether it's the 4th or the 40th? Vietnam, Iraq and other hot spots paint a painful picture, do they not?

Bala: Nobody would differ from Gen. Sardeshpande's comments and assessment. But what I meant was that there are other aspects of the picture or scenario one should look at in an objective analysis for a realistic outlook for the future. I think this is a sound principle.

Emotional attachments should not cloud a clear perception of the picture. This I state as a general principle.

I am trying to look at all sides, and I hope  you will permit me to that in this academic exercise. I am an outsider, and as such, am pivileged to look at the matter from a distance. I suppose you agree that this "distanced" view is useful.

To complete my answer, a Tiger takeover is as good as an attack. I suppose India will ask them to hand the facilities back or face action. If they don't, it will be war!

Chandi: I mentioned earlier the word Palk Strait. Currently, Sri Lanka and India share a maritime boundary.  What would happen when the de facto Eelam state becomes a de jure third State? The crucial question is what is to be done to the “power to access” the Palk Strait? What’s your hunch?

Palk Strait

Bala:  It is a speculative question. But the answer is India will cross the bridge when it comes to it.

At present, there are international agreements in place. India is developing its own side of the Palk Strait and it will continue to do so, no matter who is in charge on the other side of the international boundary.


Chandi: This is not the first time Trinco is seeing such an attack.  As you know, during WW2 the Japanese air force bombed Trinco on 9th April 1942. The Naval Dockyard, Frederick Air Force Base and the oil fuel Depot were aTrincomalee area August 2006ttacked by air strikes.  Three Kamikaze pilots dived onto the oil tank farm. In your assessment, do you think there are foreign powers, other than India, competing to get control of the “jewel” for geo-strategic reasons?

Bala: Not any longer, I think, given the fact that the US and its allies are India's strategic partners in the new international strategic set-up. No change is envisaged in the foreseeable future.

But the Sri Lankan state might still want to give it to a consortium of foreign powers, as Kadirgamar wanted to, and the Sinhala hardliners still want to. It is a question of sovereignty, and not putting all the eggs into one basket, as Kadirgamar said.

Japanese kamikaze plane that attacked Trincomalee oil tank farm in WWII

A close up picture of the remnants of the Japanese war plane which dived onto the oil tank (tank No. 91) and destroyed it.

Chandi:  Let’s make this my penultimate question in our stimulating conversation. How about a hypothetical question…(might come to pass who knows, eh?) supposing you get a rare chance of meeting face to face with Talaivar Prabaharan [LTTE leader] and his intelligence chief Pottu Amman. You choose to ask them each only one question…what would those questions be?

Bala: My question to both will be the same because the two are not separate individuals politically:

"What prevents you from modifying your struggle to make it more acceptable to the democratic world and get international support and legitimacy - two things you sorely lack now?”

[Let me expand on it] While the LTTE undoubtedly enjoys credibility among the Sri Lankan Tamils, both in the island and among the expatriates and refugees overseas, the world does not see it as a liberation group, but as a terrorist group.

This is obviously due to the LTTE's neglect of some essential aspects of a liberation struggle.

Here I attempt an enumeration of these neglected aspects:

(1) Engaging the international community and political communities in other countries.

In the LTTE, there is a gross  over-emphasis on one aspect of the struggle - the military and the terrorist.

As you know, terrorism is seen by the world today as  violence unleashed by illegitimate non-state actors. Acts of state terror do not excite the world as much as the acts of the non-state actors. This is the reality any group will have to take into account.

(2) The LTTE's inability or unwillingness to make contacts among world political leaders and political communities abroad, and get their support for the cause, without embarrassing them and driving them away through terrorist actions and the killing of innocent people and political opponents.

The LTTE has disdain for the rest of the world or anybody with a slightly different view. There is a deeply ingrained feeling that the struggle does not need any outside support. There is, in fact, a deep fear that outside influences will dilute the struggle and shift the goal.

But the harsh reality is that no struggle in the world has succeeded without some kind of support (I would say stong and consistent support) from outside. The supporter should be either a  powerful country or a set of powerful countries, or the international community as a whole. Going it alone is not practical. The LTTE may well have elongated the struggle needlessly.

(3) Alienation of friends.

I need not repeat how India was alienated and how Tamil Nadu became silent. But I would like to mention how friendly EU and Canada have been alienated. No amount of explantion to the LTTE that the EU monitors are not representatives of their countries, has worked. They come in their personal capacities just like UN officers. International organisations cannot function if an international civil servant is seen as a representative of his country of origin. But the LTTE would not listen.

The EU ban is itself is very mild. It does not ban pro-LTTE activity. It only freezes LTTE accounts!

The Swedish special envoy asked how the LTTE was accepting EU money for development while rejecting EU monitors? If it was so angry with the EU, it should not touch EU money also, he said.

The EU is now completely put off. And it is in EU countries where thousands of Tamil refugees and expats live.

The Norwegians, who had done so much to uphold the LTTE's case, facing vicious criticism from the Sinhala side, are today frustrated.

Does the LTTE have a single worthwhile friend overseas now? The answer is No! 

(4) The inability or unwillingness to constructively engage the Sri Lankan state and polity through peaceful means (side by side with military action) and convert them to the idea of accommodating the Tamils.

The LTTE has completely rejected any constructive engagement with the Sri Lankan state.

That the Sri Lankan state has not been accommdative and sincere cannot be disputed. But there has been no attempt by the LTTE, also, to go some length to seek accommodation.

Therefore, negotiations have always broken down, and have only added to the distrust.

Some amount of accommodation with the Sri Lankan state and polity would have made the world look at the LTTE with more sympathy and understanding.

But the LTTE has not given the world a chance!

Sri Lanka is a small island and the Tamils and Sinhalas will have to live together in this small space, sharing water and other resources, even if "Eelam" is established. The borders of "Eelam" will presumably be long, but evey  inch of it will be a contentious issue and will always lead to clashes and tension if there is no understanding at all between the Tamil and Sinhala leaders.

And there can be no understanding in the future if no attempt is made to come to a modicum of understanding now. It now seems that these two communities or entities are doomed to be perpetual enemies! 

(5) An absence of accommodation of dissent and differences in the Tamil movement, and the  existence of anxiety bordering on paranoia.

The Tamil people may not  consider this atttibute important or necessary, but the world begs to differ. The world thinks that tolerance of dissent is essential for any movement calling itself a liberation movement.

Paranoia has led to the alienation of the Muslims, and ethnic cleansing in Jaffna. But the Muslims are a Tamil-speaking people who were with the Tamils so long as that great visionary and liberal, SJV Chelvanayakam, was in charge of the Tamil movement. Today, the alienation of the Muslims has made the Eastern province a weak link, or a weaker link, than it was ever before, in the Tamil movement.

(6) Every liberation movement has socio-economic programmes to make it a legitimate movement and acceptable in the eyes of the world. The LTTE does not have one. Occassionally one hears of some revolutionary ideas being put forward, but these are extremely peripheral to the movement.  

The Israelis had their Kibbutzs. The Indian independence movement had a strong socio-economic content and social uplift and economic liberation programmes. In the classic sense, a "liberation movement" should lead to overall liberation, liberation from all shackles and give society a new meaning.

The LTTE seems to be singularly lacking any of these attributes. It has put all its eggs in one basket - militarism and sole representation, with nill tolerance of any dissent. It has not organised itself politically. 

While the Tamils have a good case, the LTTE has failed to make the cause heard! All that the world hears is the  sound of gunfire and bomb blasts!! 

Chandi: I’ll complete the conversation with music – “the food of love.”  You must have enjoyed listening to the vintage “Viswanathan and Ramamoorti” recordings.  Amazing instrumental pieces, weren’t they?  Incidentally, have you listened to recent magnificent recordings on orchestral music – particularly the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the latest recording by Kavichandran - a fellow Eelamite producer in the US? His audiophile Recordings also include Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and virtuoso violinist L. Subramaniam, to name but a few?

Bala:I will certainly look for Kavichandran's works.

Yes, I treasure Vishwanathan-Ramamurthy's golden age of Tamil film music. It has never been the same again, which is very sad.


Chandi: Bala, I wish to thank you for your insights.  You graciously gave your time freely, in spite of a tense situation developing around the country. Perhaps, we should meet the next time for a game of chess over pints of freshly-brewed ‘chaya’ and Kottu Rotti in the east coast when the negotiated peace settlement arrives. Splendid.

Once again, Mikka Nandri; Vannakam!

Bala: We should meet the next time. Thanks a lot indeed!

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