The mirage of Eelam

Malini Parthasarathy

The LTTE’s shortsighted and adventurist positions have cost the Tamil ethnic cause dearly even as valuable time has been lost in the failure to consolidate the gains achieved through political negotiations.

With more than a 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils breaking free and escaping the intense fighting in northern Sri Lanka between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan army, the myth that the island’s Tamils regard the LTTE as their sole protector and Eelam as their only hope is shattered. It is becoming increasingly evident, as the catastrophic dimensions of the human tragedy unfold, that the thousands of suffering civilians trapped in the thin wedge of LTTE-held territory were being used as human shields by the desperate terrorists now on the run.

The pictures published daily, which show distraught and anxious Tamil families walking through slushy fields and backwaters and jumping into small boats to ferry them out of the nightmare, make clear that the Tamil community is no longer willing to be held hostage by the blood-soaked designs of the LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabakaran.

The world is understandably perturbed by the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of civilians being forced to flee their homes and herded into overflowing refugee camps in Vavuniya and Mannar with limited supplies of water and food. Yet the U.N. and other international agencies appear to have acknowledged that it is the LTTE which is primarily responsible for this disastrous situation.

While urging the Sri Lankan government to give access to the conflict zones to be able to provide help to the stranded Tamil civilians, the U.N. has firmly placed the onus of defusing the current situation on the LTTE. The Security Council has demanded that the LTTE immediately lay down arms, renounce terrorism, and join the political process through dialogue.

Of course it would be unrealistic to expect that the LTTE, which has spent more than two decades in a ruthless militaristic quest for hegemony in the Tamil political arena at the expense of all else, will suddenly see the light and surrender. If anything, the LTTE’s ceaseless self-aggrandisement has been the biggest impediment in the long struggle for equal rights for Tamils in Sri Lanka.

This is indeed a moment of reckoning for the LTTE, which has had a fascist stranglehold over the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka and has been designated a terrorist organisation and proscribed in more than 30 countries. For Tamil Nadu’s politicians to continue to portray the LTTE as a brave liberation force and to lionise Prabakaran, the man behind the assassination of a former Prime Minister of India, represents a betrayal not only of Indian national sentiment but also of the Sri Lankan Tamil cause.

A lot of the LTTE’s viciousness and destructiveness was directed not at the so-called Sinhala enemies but within the Tamil political movement itself, targeting and eliminating courageous and visionary leaders such as Appapillai Amirthalingam and Neelan Tiruchelvam of the TULF, whose lives were entirely devoted to the Tamil ethnic cause.

As those familiar with the twists and turns of the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle know, the situation today is radically different from that which existed in 1983 when the Sri Lankan Tamil tragedy burst into international consciousness as a result of the ‘Black July’ pogrom against the island’s Tamils by Sinhala chauvinists. In 1983, the Tamils were a truly dispossessed people denied even basic democratic rights and equal citizenship rights by an oppressive Sri Lankan state dominated by the Sinhala majority.

For decades the Tamils did not have an effective political leadership to articulate their just demands, with the mild-mannered leaders of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) being seen as ineffective in countering Sinhala majority chauvinism. Thus the romantic aura that surrounded the young militants, or the “boys” as they were affectionately called, who burst on the scene in the early 1980s with their various groups, Prabakaran himself, Sri Sabaratnam of TELO, Uma Maheswaran of PLOTE, and K. Padmanabha of EPRLF, reflected the hunger of Sri Lankan Tamils for strong heroes who would lead them in the struggle against Sinhala majoritarian oppression.

One reason for the romanticisation of these militant groups by the Sri Lankan Tamil community was its perception that from 1948, the Sri Lankan state had been impervious to the pleas of the Tamil community to amend the discriminatory state policies favouring the Sinhala majority, including making Sinhala the only official language, thereby rendering Tamils outsiders in their own country. It seemed to the Sri Lankan Tamil community that it was not until the rise of Tamil militancy that Colombo felt the need to sit up and listen to the angry voices of the alienated Tamils.

Dramatic moments that caught the international imagination such as the Thimpu Declaration in 1985 by the five Tamil militant groups, which asserted that Tamils were a nation with the right to self determination and a homeland, perceptibly increased the pressure on the Sri Lankan state to respond to the demand for power sharing with the Tamil minority.

But very soon that goodwill for these groups evaporated as signs of their proclivity for extreme violence emerged in their savage internecine fighting. One by one, TELO, PLOTE and EPRLF were devoured by the LTTE, which was determined to establish its hegemony as the ‘sole representative’ of the Tamil people. Even as other groups, led by the TULF were using India’s good offices to press Colombo for a framework that would devolve powers to the Tamils and allow for a merger of the northern and eastern provinces that could constitute a Tamil homeland, the LTTE was disdainful of these parleys.

Thus a path-breaking achievement like the Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement of July 1987, which marked a paradigm shift in Sri Lanka and promised a genuine transition to a federal type of power sharing structure, was undermined not by Sinhala chauvinists but by the LTTE. It made India its principal enemy, assassinated the well-intentioned Rajiv Gandhi, and ensured that the gains of a decade unravelled in no time.

Yet fortunately, despite the LTTE’s periodic attempts to sabotage the peace process and its ruthless elimination of several high profile Tamil and Sinhala leaders who were sincerely committed to the peace process, there was still a determination to bridge the ethnic gap on the part of leaders such as Chandrika Kumaratunga who was elected on a peace platform in 1994.

The Kumaratunga administration offered a devolution framework that went beyond the 13th Amendment resulting from the Indo Sri Lankan Agreement. It enshrined the concept of a “union of regions” that had strong federal connotations. Yet the LTTE appeared disinclined to respond to the widespread optimism and hope that had greeted Ms Kumaratunga’s overtures. Not too soon after, the LTTE signalled its rejection of these promising circumstances by abruptly terminating a ceasefire offered by the Kumaratunga government as a prelude to peace negotiations. The island was plunged into fresh war with the Tigers sinking two naval gunboats in the Trincomalee harbour in April 1995 and forcing the Kumaratunga administration to declare that peace would have to be achieved “through war.”

The LTTE’s shortsighted and adventurist positions have cost the Tamil ethnic cause dearly even as valuable time has been lost in the failure to consolidate the gains achieved through political negotiations. With the Sri Lanka Supreme Court striking down as illegal the merger of the northern and eastern provinces in 2006 and more dramatically, the rebellion and break away of the LTTE’s eastern commander Karuna dealing a deathblow to the concept of a united Tamil homeland comprising the northern and the eastern provinces, the longstanding demand for the merger of the two provinces was greatly weakened.

The LTTE has concentrated all its political energies on ensuring its own fascist control of northern Sri Lanka. As a consequence, it has been unable to provide sensitive and alert leadership, which would necessarily include the capability to engage with the wider situation and respond in a timely manner to the opportunities to advance the Tamil cause as and when they arose. As it now seems, the end of the road might have been reached for the LTTE and Prabakaran.

Yet the time has come to acknowledge that while there are serious delays and a tardiness in the implementation of promises to the Sri Lankan Tamil community to find an enduring solution to the ethnic impasse, there have been tremendous conceptual breakthroughs which have narrowed dramatically the gap in the ethnic divide.

With the 13th Amendment enabling a scheme of provincial councils, a concept that was anathema to the Sri Lankan state three decades ago, Sri Lanka has the real prospect of converting its political structure into a federal one, offering genuine space for cultural and political autonomy in which ethnic identities can be preserved much more effectively. There has been undeniable forward movement in addressing Tamil alienation, so much so that the crisis facing that community need no longer be described as a “national question.” It remains at best an “ethnic crisis” that can and ought to be managed within the Sri Lankan national framework.

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