President Mahinda Rajapaksa can use his enormous popularity and power to work out a reasonable political package that will satisfy all communities.
It is one year since Velupillai Prabakaran, founder leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, died with his aides in the final stage of the Eelam War.
It took Prabakaran two decades to rebuild the LTTE after the mauling he received at the hands of the Indian troops from 1987 to 1990. He took it to a peak position of power and territorial domination in 2002 when he agreed to participate in the Norwegian peace process. There were two unique features to the peace process. For the first time, Sri Lanka recognised the LTTE as the sole representative of Tamils, just as Prabakaran agreed to find a solution to the Tamil issue within a federal Sri Lanka. It provided a golden opportunity to both sides to usher in permanent peace. Prabakaran could have consolidated his gains as the LTTE controlled most of the Tamil Eelam — Tamil areas of the northeast province.
But he did not. His faith in a military solution, rather than a political one, prevented him from taking the easy way out. He continued to procure modern weapons and arms even as he spoke of peace. He did everything to scuttle the peace process and took advantage of the weaknesses of Sri Lanka's polity to bring it to an end.
Perhaps Prabakaran underestimated Sri Lanka's ability to throw up a leader who could surpass him militarily, politically and diplomatically. President Mahinda Rajapaksa fulfilled this need of Sri Lanka. His goal was to first eliminate Prabakaran and the LTTE as an extra-constitutional power centre. An overconfident Prabakaran failed to see the systematic changes the President and his action team brought about in the Sri Lankan armed forces.
The peace conditions that prevailed from 2002 to 2005 also probably softened the LTTE cadres. They were war weary; many of them had been fighting for over a decade. This became evident when they could not stop the onslaught of the rejuvenated armed forces which fought with a high morale, aided by superior firepower and numbers.
The Tamils paid dearly for 26 years of the LTTE's armed struggle that came to nought on May 18 last year in the last battle fought in Vanni. On that day, Prabakaran lost his life, just as his lieutenants did. Mystery shrouds his last days. But that is not germane to the fate of those directly affected by the Eelam war, who are still alive. Many of them are still in temporary shelters. Most of them have lost their kin, lands and livelihoods. The nation as a whole is moving back to regain its strength after nearly three decades of intermittent war.
The LTTE lost nearly 25,000 cadres and supporters in the war. Over 10,000 youth suspected of LTTE affiliation are still in police custody. Its losses in military equipment and infrastructural assets run into millions of rupees.
However, the LTTE's overseas network, though in tatters, still exists. But it has no central leadership, particularly after the arrest of its overseas representative Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP) a few months after the war.
The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora is in a state of shock. The LTTE created vast assets overseas. Gaining access to them will be vital for its revival. As the Tamil Diaspora is dispirited and broken up into factions, it is unlikely that any single group will gain full access to the LTTE's assets.
A few LTTE acolytes supported by a sprinkling of intellectuals, still wedded to the dream of an independent Tamil Eelam, have floated the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) abroad. They have gone round holding ‘elections' in different countries. The ‘election' is a contradiction of sorts as they never dared to ask Prabakaran to hold an election among the Tamil Diaspora when he was alive.
There is widespread scepticism about the whole TGTE exercise. It has no foothold in Sri Lanka. To become meaningful and relevant to the Tamils, the TGTE should have a public presence in Sri Lanka. It is extremely doubtful whether it will happen. The world is no more kind to insurgent and terrorist movements after the al-Qaeda's 9/11 terror strike in the United States. That should help the Sri Lankan government's determination to root out the resurgence of separatist militancy even overseas.
Prabakaran's history is one of achievements through killings, assassinations and violence. He alienated the international community which was sympathetic to Tamil aspirations. When he went to war the last time, the LTTE stood banned in 32 countries. Even after his exit, his nemesis is looming over the LTTE to prevent it from staging a comeback abroad. In many countries, the local LTTE leaders and fundraisers are being rounded up and prosecuted. In this inhospitable environment, the TGTE would perhaps continue to exist just as a virtual concept to keep the memories of Tamil Eelam alive.
Moreover, there is no leader with the appeal of Prabakaran. Even if one comes to the fore, the task of uniting and motivating a demoralised and disillusioned people to launch an armed struggle will not be easy.
Many Tamils who supported the LTTE despite their reservations believe that the dream of Tamil Eelam ended with Prabakaran's death. Even if the chimera of the Eelam cause is kept alive in the hearts of some, the environment of 1983 that encouraged the growth of Tamil militancy does not exist any more. The July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom led many Tamils to spontaneously support all Tamil militant groups that came up in its wake.
But Prabakaran, with an overwhelming desire to emerge as the Thanipperum Thalaivar (the sole leader) of Tamils, systematically eliminated not only the rival militant groups and their leaders, but also charismatic Tamil political leaders such as Amirthalingam who could eloquently put across the Tamil case to the international community. Thus Prabakaran's bloody journey to the top left the Tamils without a strong political leadership or party.
Political and material support from India, particularly Tamil Nadu, was key to the growth of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka. At least on two occasions, Prabakaran was saved from annihilation, thanks to Indian intervention. But after a vengeful Prabakaran carried out the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, popular support in Tamil Nadu for the LTTE dried up. And the Eelam Tamil cause was pushed to the backseat even in political rhetoric.
But the Tamil cup of discontent is still not empty. A large number of Sri Lankan Tamils are yet to resume normal lives. The war-ravaged Tamil areas require colossal financial outlay to bring the people on a par with the rest of Sri Lanka. Development projects taken up in these areas will take a few years to be completed.
But in the long term, development alone is not going to satisfy the Tamils. Their basic quest for equity needs to be met. Their trust and feeling of security in the government needs to be fully restored. The State of Emergency and the Prevention of Terrorism Act that came into force during the war are still in place. This does not help to increase the confidence level of Tamils.
After his sweeping success in the presidential and parliamentary elections, President Rajapaksa has emerged the most powerful leader in Sri Lanka. Politically, he is in an unassailable position. He can use his enormous popularity and power to work out a reasonable political package that will satisfy all communities. He has repeatedly promised to carry out structural changes to do justice to the minorities. The quicker it is done, the greater will be the gains.
As a seasoned politician, the President is aware of the risks of not addressing the genuine grievances of the Tamil minority. It was only when the Sri Lankan leadership failed to respond politically to the Tamil grievances, was the ground cleared for the LTTE to flourish. That lesson of history should not be forgotten.
(Colonel R. Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990. E-mail: email@example.com)