Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Trincomalee

The cataract of errors

It is a much analysed fact that the Tamils of Sri Lanka under the guidance of its leadership have missed many historically defined opportunities, in laying the foundation towards creating a decent future for their political aspirations and self determination. The 50 – 50 representation in Parliament instead of a federal constitution, a claim that seemed rightfully unreasonable to the Sinhalese; the vote in favour of the Citizenship Act of 1948 that deprived the citizenship of the plantation Tamils which was instrumental in conceiving the impression of the Tamils as lacking moral conviction and as being egocentric; the Sinhalese Only law of 1956; the Referendum of December 1982 leading to the subsequent 1983 racial riots and the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 are the most significant in terms of these irretrievable opportunities.

Apart from failing to use these historical instances of importance the Tamil leadership, beginning with the Tamil Congress, the Federal Party and most importantly the TULF, were successful in their inability in winning over Sinhalese confidence which further deepened the chasm of misfortune of the Tamil populous they were representatives of. The TULF’s role in exacerbating the situation when it ‘hinted at war and practised peace, leaving others to practice war’[1] thereby inducing a shift in the pawns of a deadly game that contended with nationalistic ideology, was causative in sealing the fate of the Tamil youth militancy.

As growing displeasure for the affectless elitist leadership grew amongst the masses, the militant groups began to reflect the class and caste divisions rampant in the North. The anger and hatred they felt towards this class/ caste inclination was gradually transferred onto the civilian population. A government steeped in the inability to respect the rights of the minority Tamils by interfering with the rule of law, the ambivalence of the Tamil leadership, a divided Left and increase in police brutality to counter the sporadic outbursts of the militant groups which had transformed into militant organisations under India’s auspices, all contributed towards the increase in support, the Tamil masses displayed for these militant groups and, their actions. Then July 1983 came, unleashing an unbelievable spate of terror in the lives of the Tamils and the horrifying events that subsequently unfolded stood as testament to the most horrific desertion of a State from a part of its citizenry, unforgiveable and unforgettable. The Tamils lost whatever confidence they had in their leaders and were forced to believe in the militants. A sad historic consequence and the most fateful of choices which laid the foundation for the decades-long strife that still continues to burn, under the ashes of a military finale.

The enemy within: Tamils, Muslims and Oppression
The implications of caste and the characteristic of Tamil nationalism in transcending its divisions have played a pivotal role in shaping the conflict in Sri Lanka. A look into these elements helps us understand the subtle nuances that underpin the conflict, often forgotten due to its overwhelming proportions of human tragedy. As Raghavan, Co-founder of the LTTE notes in a recent interview, ‘Tamil identity is only the outer layer and not the substance of the Tamil community’. The substance of the Tamil community is rife with divisions of caste and regionalism. ‘Class subsumed under caste’, opened up a festering wound that the Tamil militancy strived to heal during the initial stages of its confinement, by attempting to transcend its inherent divisions. Nevertheless, lessons from the past have unravelled that the militancy led by the LTTE, began to see ‘an enemy within’ in the likes of Tamil leadership and academics belonging to the higher strata of class and caste, which it began to systematically annihilate in the pretext of culling the traitors of the revered Tamil cause, a fatal mindset that deprived the Tamil community of moderates such as Neelan Tiruchelvam, and more recently Lakshman Kadirgamar and Kethesh Loganathan. This brings into focus the argument that the ultimate purpose of the Tamil cause was really the achievement of a classless and casteless Tamil Eelam, perhaps in the form of a Nazi Reich given Prabhakaran’s personal hero worship of Hitler.

Another unavoidable fact in relation to this argument is the immense suffering of the Muslims in the hands of the LTTE that began with their expulsion in 1990 from the North and other incidents of ethnic cleansing. To understand its link with this historical tragedy as well as many other repressive actions by the LTTE against the Muslim community, one must take a look at the socio-economic underpinnings that both connected and divided these communities from each other. The Tamils and Muslims share a linguistic commonality while each had its own distinct caste system; the Muslims are noted for their entrepreneurial skills while the Tamils particularly the Jaffna Tamils, ‘due to intensive missionary education dominated intellectual professions and public offices’[2]. So it becomes clear that the militancy felt equally threatened by the Muslim community and began to consider the Muslims as traitors. Farzana Haniffa in her essay, ‘Muslims in Sri Lanka’s Conflict’[3] notes that the LTTE’s and Tamil nationalists’ justification of the 1990 Expulsion was based on supposed security issues and the belief that the Muslims were traitors of the Tamil speaking nation.

The other issue that created an unfortunate consequence for the militancy as well as for a potentially collective agitation towards a political solution against State chauvinism, was the emergence of regionalism, that despite the growth and dominance of the LTTE, was later to strike a decisive blow, causative in bringing about the downfall of this much feared militant group, due to the defection of Karuna Amman, LTTE Commander of the Eastern province. Nevertheless, the stirring up of regionalism tensions came about much early in the history of the Tamil militancy with the first strains of it felt during the LTTE – TELO clash in Jaffna and similar manifestations in Batticaloa, the subsequent take-over of the EPRLF in 1986, and felt much stronger during negotiations of the ‘December 19 Proposals’, which envisaged separate provincial councils for the North and East. The Eastern Tamils were more open to the proposals while the Jaffna Tamils clamoured to negotiate for the best settlement thereby evoking a sense of betrayal amidst the Eastern Tamils by their Jaffna based leadership.

What next?: the role of India and the Tamil Diaspora
During the final phase of the military offensive, while lives were lost and maimed, the regional power politics of India and the international politics of the neo Tiger fascists in the Diaspora pulled the war away from the Vanni orbit. Sadly the machinations of these pressure groups both regionally and internationally mostly failed to push for an unbiased solution that would have saved the lives of many civilians who were trapped in the parched and bombed out bit of land. On May 16, 2009 Mahinda Rajapakse declares victory and on May 18 Velupillai Prabhakaran is confirmed as dead. The victory unleashes a crass celebration in the streets where the Sinhala masses rejoice of the end of decades-long strife while the majority of the Tamils are pensive and fearful of an even uncertain future, but many are indeed relieved to hear the end of the most ruthless Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The victors have also accumulated the limbless and the broken-spirited as spoils of war who sit in the confines of internment camps forever trapped by a contorted and unfair poltical destiny. On the other hand the diaspora support system of what remains of the LTTE, flounder in authoring conspiracy theories in relation to the end of the LTTE as a military force and the death of its larger than life leader.

India’s role in the business of Sri Lanka’s conflict is a very old one; the first step taken through the nurturing of the Tamil militancy, especially the LTTE, into militant organisations post Black July and in creating a preoccupation in the minds of the Tamil masses of an easily achievable Eelam under its auspices. Subsequently, India’s political solution to Sri Lanka’s burning question first came in the form of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 which proposed the merger of North & East. While this solution remained attractive for the Tamils it was not inclusive of the Muslims. Nevertheless, the opportunity that this accord did present was not used by the LTTE as with the many other opportunities that subsequently came about, which reiterate the fact that they were only interested in realising their ‘goal’ through military means.

Political Masala: Tamil Nadu & the race connection
The Sri Lankan conflict has been a key factor in Tamil Nadu politics since the early 1980’s with a renewed and noticeable increase seen in mid 2008. In what may clearly be a precursor to the Indian General Elections which concluded recently, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) and his supporters which includes a sizeable number from the Tamil Nadu film industry, notably Director Seeman, have been engaged in political theatrics leaning heavily on the race connection, a mass magnet of immense proportions. To add fuel to the flames, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), led by V. Gopalswamy (Vaiko), Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), led by Dr S. Ramadoss, new entrants Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi of Thirumavalavan, the Tamil Nationalist Party of Nedumaran and Periyar Dravida Kazhagam have continued to vociferously voice pro-LTTE Tamil nationalist sentiments.

J. Jayalalitha of the Opposition party, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIDMK) came into the foray initially by quashing Karunanidhi’s inflammatory rhetoric with statements that seemed common sensible and practical. Nevertheless, election tides changed and Jayalalitha resorted to the populist track that Karunanidhi had used so far to stir up the Central government which maintained its diplomatically nuanced stance on the subject. Such is the state of what S.D. Muni in his essay[4] refers to as Tamil Nadu’s ‘emotive’ politics, constantly regurgitated as election propaganda, and fuelled by Rajapakse’s Government’s failure in the aspects of minority & civilian security and its indifference towards steering the growth of a parallel political process. Nevertheless, the Sri Lankan issue did not have a noticeable impact on the outcome of the 2009 Indian Elections. New Delhi continued to play its political moves safely by supporting Rajapakse’s military approach which Rajapakse successfully controlled by strategically shifting the Pakistan and China pawns.

Tamil Diaspora: the emergence of neo-Tiger fascists
Typically Diaspora communities consisting of immigrants, asylum seekers/ refugees and other minority groups who become ‘the other’, marginalised by the ‘new racist nationalism of contemporary Europe’[5] and the rest of the West, find solace in fuelling intra-state wars through long distance nationalism and pursuing the dream of a distinct homeland. As the rapid deterioration of LTTE’s leadership and its popularity amongst the civilians began to wane, the sharp escalation of long distance nationalism came into play and has been one of the driving forces behind the internationalisation of the conflict in Sri Lanka. But as for the thousands of civilians remained trapped in Vanni, the dream of an Utopian Eelam rapidly disappeared while they clung on desperately to maimed limbs and battered souls in a pathetic indifference to their compatriots worldwide who prostrated themselves for the revered ‘cause’; an all out show of self-immolation, satyagraha, Eelamist-patriotism and even a lesser virulent form of child abuse as they exhibited children in their school uniforms holding up placards and slogans that they could hardly comprehend, deliberately staining their immature minds with racism and vengeance.

Nirmala Rajasingam, former member of the LTTE, current activist in exile and one of the most consistent voices of dissent has comprehensively highlighted the key factors that sustain and shape the pro-LTTE support of the Tamil Diaspora in her recent essay, ‘The Tamil Diaspora: solidarities and realities’[6]. She talks of the Tamil Diaspora communities trapped by their attempts at preserving their ‘Tamil cultural and social heritage’, and who live a ghettoised life that the LTTE with its shrewdness has successfully infiltrated and strengthened its grip through a variety of intimidation tactics.

The future role of the neo-Tiger fascists of the Tamil Diaspora will be much more complex and ruthless as they strive to contain the shady dealings, evidence of intimidation and the ethics of their fundraising tactics. The current situation sans the LTTE as we had known for so long has begun to unravel the internal rifts, a portent of the power struggles which would be the characteristic of the future. Selvarasa Pathmanathan will guide these neo-Tiger fascists by dangling the proverbial carrot of transnational governance which they claim is a ‘novel experiment that has no precedance’. In the absence of a committed and alternative Tamil leadership the neo-Tiger fascists would strive to further suffocate the Tamils in a political wasteland in the coming years.

Looking Beyond: Devolution & post-conflict Democratisation
As the dividends of Sri Lanka’s conflict unfold, questions involving the process of a political solution and those related to post-conflict democratisation must be high on the agenda and in fact move parallel to the rehabilitation, reconstruction and resettlement process. So far the GoSL’s deliberate foolhardiness in failing to push through a political solution through the APRC process, its reluctance to treat the IDP issue with more humaneness and, its reluctance in opening up to both the local/international media and humanitarian agencies have fed into the minds of the Tamils and the rest of the world, a deep sense of doubt in terms of commitment and accountability. The post-war scenario remains the real test for the GoSL with it having to infuse into the Tamil community the quintessential hope of a speedy political solution while it works around the psychosocial rubric that surrounds the vast numbers of IDP civilians and ex-LTTE cadres. It is also timely that a suitable transitional justice process is formulated, with decisions clarified on amnesty, criminal prosecutions and the establishment of a Truth & Reconciliation Commission finalised, to render this transition meaningful. The recent call for investigations into war crimes in Sri Lanka by Ban Ki-Moon echoing Navi Pillay, UN Human Rights Commissioner’s raises some pertinent questions as to how the crimes of the LTTE will be prosecuted vis-a-vis the prosecutions from the GoSL side especially given the fact that the top heads of the LTTE have been annihilated.

As far as the democratic process is concerned the question of Tamil leadership and mainstream representation would have to be grappled with. With the recent experience of the supposed democratisation of the East and the lessons learned from this process, the GoSL’s failing to its citizenry is noteworthy in terms of the Pillayan-Karuna Amman symbiosis resulting in extra-judicial killings and disappearances, unease on the rise given the recent abductions of young school going children and their subsequent deaths; The GoSL’s implicit involvement in freeing Karuna from being tried for war crimes in the United Kingdom as an attempt at erasing any evidence that might expose its complicity with the same. Likewise when considering the other actors in the political mainstream such as members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Douglas Devananda’s, EPDP, the vacua of an alternative political identity is stark. The question remains whether a post-war scenario would prove conducive for a political leadership that is not pseudo democratic but is realistically inclusive in its search for a consensus that includes other ethnic minorities, most importantly the Muslims, who apart from being an important minority group, has had an equal share of the brunt of the civil war and is thereby entitled to legitimate claims within the democratic process.

In order to set the wheels in motions towards a meaningful democratisation process it is important that conflict transformation takes place in its fullest sense. The political will to seriously commit to a solution to the minority question, an engagement with the main stakeholders and the ability to learn from past mistakes are paramount. Another important aspect worth reiteration is the role of the Diaspora in contributing to the process of identifying a political solution, the important role they could play in post-conflict judicial processes especially in terms of universal jurisdiction, as support for alternative thought processes; in strengthening civil society and, in awareness creation, must come into focus. There is much that can be learned from the experiences of Chile, Argentina, Haiti, Liberia and at present Cambodia in terms of the role their respective Diasporas’ have played in post-conflict issues notably, the judicial and truth-seeking processes[7].


[1] Broken Palmyra, Chapter 1, ‘Missed opportunities and the loss of democracy’

[2] Ameer Ali, Muslims and Tamil Eelam: The Muslim Factor in Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis (Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, October 1997)

[3] Farzana Haniffa, Muslims in Sri Lanka’s Conflict, Society and the State, ISIM Review 19, Spring 2007.

[4] S.D Muni, India’s Tamil Politics and the Sri Lankan Ethnic Conflict, ISAS Brief No: 86, November 6, 2008, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

[5] Koser & Lutz, 1998 (From Diaspora and Conflict: Locality, long distance nationalism and delocalisation of conflict dynamics, Joelle Demmers)

[6] Nirmala Rajasingam, ‘The Tamil Diaspora: solidarities and realities’, Open Democracy, April 7, 2009.

[7] Cambodian Diaspora Communities in Transitional Justice, Briefing Paper, March 2008, ICTJ, New York