Batticaloa, Human Rights, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Trincomalee

From the ‘sole representative’ to the ‘sole alternative’: Justice for, and within the Tamil Community

With the position of spokesperson for, and sole representative of the Tamil community set to become vacant upon the projected defeat of the LTTE, one would hope that space would be created for the emergence of democratic, plural and dissenting Tamil voices within the community and the polity at large. However, the vacuum is most likely to be filled by Tamil politico-armed groups battling each other to be the ‘sole alternative’ to the LTTE and gain the favoured position of the ‘authentic’ Tamil voice that is accepted and supported by the government. The escalation of internecine violence in the Eastern Province is illustrative of the failure of non-LTTE Tamil leadership and political groups to provide a viable alternative to the Tamil people. Instead, Tamil politico-armed groups are awaiting the demise of the sole representative to claim the mantle of sole alternative (to the LTTE), the result of which would be the continued suppression of plural and dissenting Tamil opinion. The process of crafting the sole alternative is legitimized by the government which has created the notion that there is a good militant (TMVP) as opposed to the bad militant (LTTE). Hence, if an armed group is willing to cut a deal with the state it is allowed free reign, like in Vavuniya where various Tamil politico-armed groups commit human rights violations with impunity.

While these politico-armed groups would function in much the same manner as the LTTE in order to maintain their hegemony over the Tamil community, to secure political patronage they would also ensure that Tamil voices and particularly demands are articulated in a way that is acceptable to the government. In a recent interview (Daily Mirror 15 January 2009) Karuna stated that ‘the government’s position maybe that after the war to implement the 13th amendment (sic). After that I think we can talk to the government about a power sharing method…Once we solve it as such the people will accept the political reality of such a solution’. Although Pillayan appeared to be veering away from the parameters set by the government he too seems to have been silenced into compliance.

An article by the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) titled ‘Political solutions give cause for hope’ (9 October) touts the appointment of Karuna as a national list member of parliament as a step towards peace and cites the Eastern Province as an example of reconciliation. While former militants should be encouraged to enter the democratic mainstream, justice issues cannot be ignored in the euphoria of creating the democratic Tamil alternative to the LTTE. The SCOPP communiqué for instance states that the ‘TMVP is committed to and actively engaged in democratic government, and that can only be good for representative politics in the East’ ignoring the fact that even after winning the local and provincial elections human rights violations in the form of abductions, extra-judicial killings and child recruitment by the TMVP have continued.

If we focus on the Eastern Province, disregard for the rule of law and the flagrant flouting of human rights standards point to a society where impunity is the norm. Pardons and reconciliation are not the only way to deal with justice issues that arise in the aftermath of conflict; prosecution and punishment also play a role in helping societies deal with a violent past. Is collective amnesia the only option available to Sri Lankans and particularly to the Tamil community to deal with intra community rights violations? If so, who has the right to make the decision to forget? Does the government have the right to impose ‘amnesia’ upon the people, particularly those who have suffered directly at the hands of the members of the TMVP and other armed groups? Forcing people to forget and move on can only reinforce the notion that those who commit human rights violations will not be held accountable- hardly the foundation for peace and reconciliation. Reluctance on the part of societies to bring to trial those responsible for human rights abuses in the preceding conflict period is understandable. Weary after decades of conflict sometimes societies only wish to move on with their lives, particularly in cases of intra community violence. However, this is a choice that societies themselves have to make; it should be a social conversation, not a decision made by the government and imposed upon the people. Particularly since the Tamil community is deeply divided and at war with itself one wonders if the act of forgetting is adequate to bridge deep seated intra community animosities and suspicion.

The government defends its refusal to pursue justice options against the various politico-armed groups by claiming they constitute legitimate Tamil voices which enable the Tamil people to articulate their concerns and maintain a public political identity after years of oppression under the LTTE. For instance, the ensconcing of the TMVP in the East is justified on the basis that it supposedly speaks in an authoritative voice for the Eastern Tamils. Since the TMVP has actively engaged in routing out other Tamil groups in the Province- its threats to members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and attacks on the EPDP are well documented- isn’t authoritative merely an euphemism for the sole Tamil voice?

The politico-armed groups don’t appear to be concerned about achieving credibility amongst the Tamil people and instead, not surprisingly, concentrate primarily on their own political survival in a polity which is increasingly intolerant of minority voices (not just ethnic) that challenge the state or even posit a value system that is different to that espoused by the government. Though these groups have joined the democratic mainstream, due to their reliance on the government and resort to violence and intimidatory tactics against the Tamil people they are not a political force, either within the Tamil community or within the larger polity.

Hence, the fundamental crisis of Tamil politics today is that there is no Tamil political group that advocates for the rights of the Tamil people. This is highlighted by the failure of discourse within Tamil nationalism on fundamental issues that concern the rights of the Tamil people and are the causes of the conflict, such as state reform and land reform. Instead, Tamil nationalism, blinded by its ideology, has chosen to engage in arguments that mirror the myopic, delusional rhetoric of the government which seek to suppress dissent and criticism. A case in point is the editorial in the Tamil Guardian of 24 December 2008 which lashes out at international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch for the ‘shoring up of the Sri Lankan state’ and accuses the international community of being ‘trapped in a racism of their own, which blinds them to any politics that doesn’t accord with their view of how peoples of the South ought to conduct themselves…’; an accurate description of both the government and the LTTE, and Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms.

What kind of future do Tamil politico-armed groups have? Since the usefulness of these groups to the government is dependent upon the existence of the LTTE, what would their position be in a world without the LTTE? We can venture to guess that it is unlikely they will be able to eschew government patronage and become legitimate advocates for the rights of the Tamil people and at the same time survive politically within a majoritarian state that is unwilling to acknowledge the concerns and fulfill the legitimate demands of its minorities.

  • citizen

    <quote>The escalation of internecine violence in the Eastern Province is illustrative of the failure of non-LTTE Tamil leadership and political groups to provide a viable alternative to the Tamil people.</quote>

    Could this be the new benchmark for oversimplifications? The point made is intuitive, however this is not a street discussion, so the author has a responsibility to demonstrate this "escalation" of violence.

    <quote>If we focus on the Eastern Province, disregard for the rule of law and the flagrant flouting of human rights standards point to a society where impunity is the norm.</quote>

    But why focus on one province? Isn't this the state of the whole country? There is no justification for the way things are and operate, but there are reasonable explanations such as the desensitization of the populace over three decades by it's exposure to war and violent politics, failure of the education system (why even university students club each other to death!), and poverty – the acid that corrodes the very fabric of society.

    For too long we have been suffering due to nursing the symptoms and ignoring the cause (if not a complete misdiagnosis). What problems does our country face, that cannot be solved by empowering the citizens; to take a stand against oppression – be it in the hands of an elected executive or fascist (terrorist) rebels, to demand better return on investment from their taxes, to demand better service from their service providers – be it government or private institutions, to clearly an openly disallow the manipulation of their faith and religious beliefs by the very (self-appointed) trustees – the priesthood, and most of all, even after 61 long years – make a choice to think and live free and independently?

    • citizen

      Besides, isn't the mere existance of "non-LTTE Tamil leadership and political groups", by definition, provide "a [more] reasonable (meaning non fascist, [more] democratic) – if not viable alternative" to the Tamil people as indeed all peoples of Sri Lanka?

  • Valkyrie

    The (non-intuitive) statement about internecine violence is based on personal visits to the province and conversations with human rights and community activists in the region. The statement issued by the Coalition of Muslims and Tamils for Peace and Coexistence titled 'The New Democracy in the East' might also provide an useful background to the current situation in the East.

    The focus on the Eastern Province is mainly because it is being portrayed not only as an example of the restoration of democracy and rapid economic development but also a success in terms of the integration of former combatants into the democratic mainstream. Let's not forget this is a discussion about justice issues related to former combatants and the replacement of the 'sole representative' with the 'sole alternative' which doesn't alter the state of Tamil politics in a positive manner or enable the emergence of plural and dissenting Tamil voices.

    • citizen

      The arguments you make are appreciated – because there is a dire need to hold all those who wield power – by democratic means, non-democratic means and dangerous combinations of the two – need to be held to account for the exercise of their power. But we have to concede that the Eastern province today has a better chance than ever of falling back to the democratic stream. Changes for the better – unlike changes for worse – are inherently slow and very frustratingly so. Perhaps at least there is a silver lining – which wasn’t there before.
      Forgive me for making this point repeatedly, but Obama articulated the point I am trying to make better that I could ever have by saying “Change does not come from Washington. Change comes to Washington”.
      Those with real political power in Sri Lanka – wherever it may be and whoever it may be, does not have the will, the competency, the integrity or combinations of the above to effect the changes that post-war Sri Lanka so desperately needs. It can be achieved only by empowering the people with knowledge and the spirit of freedom which even after 61 years of “independence” seem to elude us.

  • The world is abhorring state terror. George Bush is being disgraced for his "war on terror". Britain's Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, is rebuking it, but two "cousins" of George Bush; Sri Lanka and India are still living with a mistaken notion that "war on terror" is a passport for political and military terror and a weapon for repression and destruction.

    Sri Lanka(SL) is abusing "war on terror" to carry out Tamil genocide. India, the former ahimsa advocate, is giving muscle to the genocide by supplying weapons, military personnel and political support to SL. Politics of state terror instead of politics of consent, and politics of repression instead of human rights, civil liberties and justice are illegal practices in these states. Rule of law is grossly subordinated.

    Judgement is inevitable. Righteousness needs to be restored speedily.

  • David Miliband was at Mumbai last Thursday. He said that the US led "war on terror", a term which Britain did not use since 2006, was "misleading and mistaken". With an unbiased and clear mind he correctly linked the unresolved Kashmir issue to Mumbai attacks. In SL, the unresolved Tamil Eelam(TE) issue is the reason for Colombo attacks. In all theses attacks there is more desire for political independence than simple terror. Miliband rightly understood it but Bush was blind to this truth.

    Last Saturday, when the IDP camps and civilians at Vanni were being bombed and when a fellow Indian political leader Thirumavalavan was fasting unto death calling for a ceasefire in SL, Indian envoy told Mahinda that they -the two "cousins"- were "closer than ever before". Yes, they are coser to international rejection and disgrace than ever before !!

  • Mahatma Gandhi, the founding father of India, was for universal human values. He campaigned in South Africa against the apartheid regime. If Mahathma was living today, he would have definitely commenced a fast unto death campaign against Tamil genocide in SL. Sadly, those in power in India carry the name "Gandhi" but do not have his DNA. They are aliens.

    The present Indian leadership is far away like George Bush from the golden moral values pronounced and practiced firmly by their founding fathers.

    Last week, in his press conference, Bush was unrepentant for tarnishing America's global reputation in moral standing, though critics savaged his presidency for his failure to implement justice, freedom and fairness in countries.

    Fortunately, for America, Barrack Obama's government would use "smart power"; a mix of human values, diplomacy, economy, legality and military strength to resolve conflicts all over the world.

    • citizen

      Sam, you talk a lot of sense and point out facts that need to be pointed out. However your arguments have no semblance of credibility or integrity – because they do not seem to be inspired by principal but buy racist bias because you do not expose the LTTE in particular to the same criticisms. I am not so sure about Mahatma Ghandi would be fasting unto death as you suppose he would, but a man of principle as he is would fight for the liberty and dignity of all victims of violence. He would be the first to criticise the LTTE, JVP, PLOTE… all armed groups for resorting to – if not embracing – violence as the driver of their struggles.
      May you live long enough to see another Tamil leader emerge in Sri Lanka – who would have the integrity to command the respect and confidence of all people of Sri Lanka and the strength and endurance of character to unite all people even as he/she champions the rights off all the oppressed in the country. Alas, if only Sri Lankans had the wisdom to recognise such a man in Kadirgamar… here’s hoping time will be kind enough to produce others like him.

  • wijayapala


    Congratulations on a well-reasoned and well-written article. You have explored the challenges that the SL Tamil community will face post-LTTE in a way that I have not seen others (aside from the UTHR) present. You criticize the govt. but do not rely on the sort of screeching language that is typical from "dissent" (esp. the Sinhala opposition) quarters.

    You paint a bleak picture for the Tamils, but I would encourage you to think about Sri Lankan political dynamics as a whole after the end of the LTTE. Paradoxically, the current regime will no longer be able to wave the flag without an LTTE nemesis to act as a foil. The South will increasingly take notice of the govt's misgovernance and the economic situation without a war to draw attention. In fact, the only certain factor that will keep Mahinda in power is Ranil Wickremasinghe in charge of the opposition, along with sundry Colombo NGO types (i.e. "dissent") who parrot Western-centric norms while totally lacking the ability to reach out to the common man. The white vans will work only as long as the people perceive that they improve, and not diminish security.

  • Dileepan

    Sam I find your comments to be substantiated and well written. But your bias is embarrassingly evident. Your constant squawking of the word “genocide” belittles the survivors of actual genocide. You seem to be passionate about the LTTE cause with no concern for the cause of our Tamil brethren in the island. It seems to me that you are either young, naïve or both. You talk about Mahatma Gandhi and ahimsa while defending the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world. You talk of a leader who advocated non-violent resistance against a brutal and powerful colonial power while defending an organization controlled by a man who for 30 years has killed scores of unarmed civilians, Buddhist monks and any dissenting voices.

  • sivan

    sole presentation left by leg-acy of Bushism is more appropriate to those who vie for sole representation they should be shoed away.