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.