by Dr. Rajasingham Narendran
The agreement to meet in Switzerland to discuss the ceasefire agreement brokered between the GOSL (government of Sri Lanka) and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam) by Norway has been welcomed with the sigh of relief by all the peoples of Sri Lanka- especially the war weary Tamils and the international community taking an interest in our affairs. The war clouds have given way to some sun shine and a ray of hope that miracles are yet possible. We have to be thankful to our creator that as humans we have been blessed with the ability to forget the past quickly and be always hopeful of the future, regardless how bad our situation is at present. However, it is necessary to view the current situation realistically, while awaiting the hoped for miracles.
On the fifty eighth anniversary of our independence from British colonial rule, which falls on the 4th of February, it is opportune to review the role of the GOSL in the affairs of the Tamils. The GOSL has miserably failed, regardless of the party holding the reins of power, to manage Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural entity, bearing in mind that every citizen has equal rights and equal claims to protection from the law irrespective of his or her affiliations. Sinhala and subsequently Sinhala-Buddhist interests have been given primacy in all aspects of governance in Sri Lanka beginning with the government of D.S.Senanayake to the on-going one of Mahinda Rajapakse. The so-called historical grievances of the Sinhala people, the majority, were addressed at the expense of the minorities in a discriminatory, unjust, brutal and uncivilized manner, unbecoming of a nation claiming to be predominantly Buddhist. The result has been the disappearance of the small, but significant and colourful ‘Burgher’ (people of European origin) community, through what amounted to forced migration; and the severe depletion of the ranks of the indigenous Tamil community of the northern and eastern provinces, through a mix of brutality, economic strangulation and, political and social discrimination, which could be collectively described as calculated ethnic cleansing. The sense of frustration with ground realities and an inability imagine a secure and decent future in Sri Lanka forced large numbers of Tamils to flee the country.
What has been rather astutely described as the ‘Dutu Gemunu’ strategy was very cleverly deployed by the Sinhala political leadership to achieve their objective of a ‘Sinhala Dwipa (Sinhala Island)’, where the minorities are unseen, unheard and overwhelmed. However much the Sinhala leadership may have differed in the economic and developmental strategies over the past six decades, the common thread that has run through every single Sinhala dominated government has been this ‘Dutu Gemunu’ strategy. Some governments such as those of S.W.R.D and Sirimavo Bandaranaike were overtly and crudely espousing this strategy, while the others have pursued it in a more covert and sophisticated manner. This has been an unstoppable juggernaut, although slowed to a crawl at times by the presence of the Indian army and the actions of the LTTE. In these circumstances can we expect the problems of the Tamils in Sri Lanka to be addressed in a sensible and forthright manner by the government of Mahinda Rajapakse, given its avowed positions and composition? On the fifty eighth anniversary of independence what hope does Sri Lanka hold for the Tamils, Muslims and other minorities in Sri Lanka? This should be food for thought for the Sinhala people at large.
On the Tamil side the grievances have been genuine and in the past six decades they have been driven almost a century back in socio-economic terms. The problems of the indigenous Tamils of the Jaffna peninsula, Vanni and the east have been different in terms of ground realities, aspirations and, GOSL strategies and effects. The Tamils of the Jaffna peninsula were deprived of the opportunities in government employment, university education, professional endeavours and industry, on which pillars their economy was constructed through various measures adopted by the Sinhala dominated state. The Tamils in the Vanni largely dependent on rain fed agriculture and animal husbandry were not provided any avenues of progress and support in their traditional pursuits. Their lands also became targets for government sponsored Sinhala colonization, in the name of agricultural development, but with the covert objective of severing the contiguity of the Tamil dominated north and eastern provinces demographically. In the east, there was a deliberate attempt by the governments to change the ethnic composition and balance in favour of the Sinhalese and grab fertile and irrigable land in the guise of state-sponsored colonization schemes. The Muslims in the east were also the victims of this land grab. While the strategy in the Jaffna peninsula was to break the dominance of the Tamils in higher education, government employment, the professions and trade, in the Vanni and the east the strategy was to grab land, reduce the Tamils to a minority status and subvert the demand for recognition politically of traditional areas of habitation. In the Sinhala majority areas where the economic pie was centered, life for the Tamils was made impossible and unsafe, as part of the overall strategy.
In recent years, the Tamils have been permitted to re-settle in some Sinhala majority provinces, without the recurrence of government-sponsored ethnic riots, because of the threat posed by the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups, and a strategy to show the world that the bad old days are a thing of the past. Every time a war is threatened by the LTTE, the Tamils in the Sinhala dominated provinces have to panic and rue their fate, as there is yet no guarantee that the change of heart is genuine. This phenomenon is also becoming the unfortunate routine in the lives of the Tamils in the north and east. On all fronts the objectives sought as part of the Dutu Gemunu strategy since prior to independence by the Sinhala political leadership have been nearly achieved by the Sri Lankan governments. The demand for self governance and independence from colonial rule was as much that of the Tamil leaders as that of the Sinhala leaders of yester year. The reward of independence for the Tamils has been only ever increasing misery. Is there any hope of reversing the trend and regaining lost time in the coming years and decades, for the Tamils? I do not think so, if affairs are permitted to continue as at present.
What have the Tamils done in the past six decades and what have we achieved as a result? Are we better off or are we worse off now as a result of what we have done? Is there any hope that our present strategies and approaches would make things better for us as a people or make them worse?
Have the strategies we have hitherto adopted been appropriate for all the Tamils, considering their geographical distribution and differing aspirations. Have we got to accept that there is no one solution to the problems of the Tamils, considering their dispersion in the Jaffna peninsula, Vanni, eastern province and the rest of Sri Lanka? These are matters that require deep introspection from the Tamil community.
We have pursued in the past the parliamentary and democratic option to solve our problems through discussion, debate and persuasion. It did not work. We thereafter adopted the Gandhian strategy of peaceful public protest and civil disobedience. This too did not work. We thereafter whole-heartedly supported an armed uprising of Tamil youth, which evolved in to a vicious civil war. This too has not worked. However, when viewed as a composite, life has only got progressively worse for us in Sri Lanka since independence. In addition to coping with the evil machinations of the Sri Lankan government, we are now forced to bear the lethal burden of the militancy we emotionally, but irresponsibly succored, without establishing the necessary political controls. We are currently embarked on creating chaos in the Sri Lankan parliament through rowdy behaviour engineered by the LTTE and spearheaded by the TNA (Tamil National Alliance). I hope this is not to convey to the other peoples in Sri Lanka and the world at large that the Tamils are a bunch of unruly hooligans! We are truly like the monkey that had its tail caught between the halves of the sawed log after thoughtlessly pulling the wedge out (‘Aappillutha Kurangu’- Tamil). The Sri Lankan government is in a situation where it can watch with mirth not only the Tamils destroying each other, but also destroying everything that is meant by the identity of being a Tamil. They will appease the LTTE to their hearts content, as long as it does not disturb their peace with a new war, because the LTTE is doing what they would otherwise have to do, very efficiently. What the Sri Lankan governments achieved partially has been taken to near completion in the past twenty odd years by the lack of perspicacity and wisdom in our militancy. We are a forlorn people on the verge of being wiped out of the political map in Sri Lanka. We have been reduced to a state where we have lost control of our affairs as a people and have to hope and pray for miracles to deliver us from our tormentors and sad plight.
In the name of liberation (Viduthalai-Tamil), we have lost our freedom (Suthanthiram- Tamil). Freedom is a concept more profound than political liberation and cannot be part of a Faustian bargain. There cannot be liberation of a people without concomitant freedom for the individual. What is sad is that we have not achieved liberation either. It is nowhere in sight despite thirty years of misery, bloodshed, gore and mayhem. We have not been liberated from Sinhala misrule, but have been bonded to additional serfdom by the wise men in the LTTE and other militant groups. It is sad that many Tamils are unable to perceive our current plight. I am reminded of the story of the live turtles that were being cooked alive in a cauldron over a fire. As the ice cold water gradually warmed the turtles were very happy and enjoyed the coziness of the warm water little understanding that they would soon be boiled meat! Our love affair with the militancy has been similar.
We cannot any longer be what we are or become what we want to be in areas under LTTE control or influence. They decide this for us. We cannot speak or write of what we think or do what we want, if it is frowned on by the LTTE, irrespective of where we live. We are told what to listen and what not to. The fight to retain our right to pursue an education of our choice matched to our abilities was the womb from which the Tamil militancy was born. However, that very right is being thoughtlessly trashed by the LTTE, though its subversive activities in the schools and Universities in the north and east. The freedom to question the LTTE and other militants is no longer an option for most Tamils. This freedom to dissent was there during even the worst years of Sinhala misrule. Dissent, however benign it may be, is now punishable by death under the rules ordained by our so-called liberators. Any one who dissents is a traitor who deserves death, irrespective of his or her credentials otherwise and loyalty to the Tamil cause. Tamil lives have no meaning for the Sri Lankan government and to the Tamil liberators. Our right to life and livelihood do not matter in the games they play.
The ‘Movement (Iyakkam –Tamil)’ has assumed primacy over the people. The ‘Movement’ does not live and die to protect the people any more. The people have to live and die for the ‘Movement’ to thrive and pursue its self-proclaimed selfish objectives. The liberator has become the predator. The current trends within the Tamil polity unmistakably point that liberation from Sinhala misrule, if achieved at all in the near or distant future through the efforts of the LTTE and other militant groups, will deliver the Tamil people lock, stock and barrel in to a serfdom modern man has seen in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Taliban’s Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
What can we as a people do in these circumstances and how should we chart our course in the future. The achievements of the Tamil militancy and the civil war have been:
1. The world has been made aware of the plight of the Tamil people and the injustice meted out to them in Sri Lanka since independence.
2. The unwillingness of the Sinhala polity or more appropriately the Sinhala dominated governments to find permanent political solutions to the Tamil problem have been universally recognized.
3. The hollowness, shallowness, brutality and political incompetence of the Tamil militancy (especially that of the LTTE) have been also universally recognized, although many Tamils are yet to be convinced of this.
4. The need for extensive devolution of power within the Sri Lankan polity has been widely accepted as the most acceptable solution by most Sri Lankans and the world at large, although extreme elements among the Sinhalese and Tamils have yet not accepted this.
5. The reality that Tamil Ealam as an independent nation-state is no longer a viable option in political or economic terms has been understood by most Tamils.
6. A Tamil Diaspora with the financial muscle, competence, vision and the will to invest in and develop the northern and eastern provinces with minimal support from the Sri Lankan government and international community has become a reality.
7. The belated realization that the Tamils in Sri Lanka , although a distinct group, are not homogenous and that this heterogeneity in terms of political, economic and social aspirations have to be recognized in any solution to Sri Lanka’s political woes, has dawned.
In view of these realities, it is essential that Tamils forsake the armed militancy and violence as options in the struggle to obtain our rights within Sri Lanka. The federal constitutional option with extensive devolution of power to at least the northern and eastern provinces must be sought with the support of the international community. International and national- principally the Sinhala peoples, support must be actively canvassed in support of the federal option. An intense and conscious effort must be made to cultivate the international community and the right thinking (the majority) Sinhala people in support of our cause. The international community should be made to force the Sri Lankan government however intransigent it may be, to make the necessary constitutional changes promptly. The international community has the necessary leverage to do this at present. The Tamil leadership must be visionary and not shortsighted in their approach. Unrealizable goals, shortsighted responses, cunning and military tactics have to give way for enlightened strategy, farsighted goals and principled politics.
The welfare of the people must hold primacy over the battle for land and the movement must become subordinate to the people. Democratic politics based on the people’s primacy and space for diverse opinion should be permitted without hindrance within the Tamil polity and allowed to assume dominance. The covert pursuit of an independent Tamil Ealam and the trappings there of must be abandoned by the LTTE immediately. The killings of political opponents and dissenters must stop immediately and civility has to return to our political and social life. Bridges have to be built to the Muslim minority and mutual accommodations sought, while past mistakes are apologized for and corrective measures taken. The Sinhala people should not be viewed as enemies but as fellow citizens also demanding their share of sunlight. Their concerns need to be borne in mind while pursuing our demands.
The Tamil Diaspora should be encouraged to invest in all aspects of development in the north and east without let or hindrance. The Tamil Diaspora should be encouraged to strengthen and maintain their links with their land of birth, without having to be supportive of the LTTE or its credo. International funds should be sought to develop the infrastructure in the north and east and guide the deployment of appropriate and eco-friendly modern technology in agriculture and industry. LTTE should transform itself gradually in to a political movement, in response to political changes instituted by the Sri Lankan government and give up its ambitions to become a politico-military- industrial-business conglomerate, ruling the roost undemocratically in a future Tamil Ealam. The LTTE should divest itself of all the legal, semi-legal and illegal fund raising ventures it has built up over several decades immediately. It should refrain from coercive acts to achieve compliance of the Tamil people and to fund it’s unnecessary and unaccounted for activities. The international community should set up mechanisms to safeguard the lives and interests of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, while encouraging the LTTE and other militant groups to disarm. The Sri Lankan armed forces presence in the northern and eastern provinces should be scaled down in tandem with the disarming of the militant groups.
This is the road map to our future, if we are to retrieve lost ground, preserve our heritage and pursue a future of hope and prosperity. Will there be any takers?