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Home > Citizens Action and Concerns for Peace in South Asia > Sri Lanka: "Tamils caught between the devil and deep blue sea"

Sri Lanka: "Tamils caught between the devil and deep blue sea"

An interview with Ahilan Kadirgamar

by Namini Wijedasa, 25 January 2009

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Lakbima News, 25 January 2009

The defeat of the LTTE will enable the Tamil community to rebuild democratic politics but the government must make the minorities feel that they have a stake in Sri Lanka’s future, says Ahilan Kadirgamar, spokesman for the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, an international network of mainly Tamil human rights and democracy activists. He also warns that the Rajapaksa regime is attempting to entrench itself as an oligarchy.

Do you think it is good for the LTTE to be militarily defeated?

The LTTE was never serious about a political settlement. And for those of us who belong to Tamil dissent, it was all along very clear that the interest of the LTTE and the interests of the Tamil people were two different things. The LTTE’s defeat is a good thing. It will create an opening within the Tamil community to rebuild democratic politics and to rebuild our society.
To the extent that it is causing civilian suffering, we cannot support this war. Furthermore, the government’s Sinhala nationalist propaganda is very worrying. If Sri Lanka, as a whole, is to gain from the defeat of the LTTE, there needs to be a clear shift in the attitude of the government to think about the interests of the minorities.

What is your perception of the government’s prevailing attitude towards the minorities?

As reflected by statements from senior government officials and military top brass, they don’t seem to have any respect for the minorities. The minorities are made to feel as outsiders who do not belong in Sri Lanka.

What would be the outcome of such an attitude?

It will lead to further polarization and alienation of, not only the Tamil community, but also the other minorities.

Will it turn into another conflict?

It may not immediately manifest itself as another conflict but this problem will fester and make resolution of the problem that much harder. We have always wanted a political process in parallel with the war. It is only a just political process that could give confidence to the minorities that they have a stake in Sri Lanka’s future.

Who will lead the Tamils in such a political process?

The Tamil community has been decimated by 25 years of war and the LTTE’s fascist politics. The post-LTTE era, as some of us are beginning to call it, poses a huge challenge to revitalize democratic politics in the Tamil community. It will take time for another political generation to emerge out of the ravages of war. In the meantime, in addition to salvaging what we can from the last 15 years of the devolution debate, the Tamil community needs to look inwards into the injustices that have led to its deterioration. For example, the ethnic cleansing of the northern Muslims, the anti-Muslim massacres in the East, the oppression of caste-minorities within the Tamil community are all issues that have to be addressed in the post-LTTE era. Given the state of the Tamil community, it can only confront the state in alliance with other minorities such as the Muslim community and the upcountry Tamil community. The next few years is a time when, not only the democratic minded among Tamil politicians, but also Tamil intellectuals and Tamil grassroots activists should take the lead in raising the issues within the Tamil community as well as in confronting the state towards reform.

Are you saying there is nobody to lead the Tamil in the short to medium term?

Those who do not have a militarized past should come to the fore in working with all the political actors towards a process of reconciliation within the Tamil community. There is much blood that has been spilled. Such a process of reconciliation is important to give leadership to the Tamil community.

Do you think the Tamil National Alliance has a future?

I think such a process of reconciliation will include some of the actors within the TNA as well as people like Veerasingham Anandasangaree and even many of the ex-militant groups.

What can we expect from the pro-LTTE diaspora in the near future?

I think they are still in the process of taking stock of the LTTE’s defeat. And until they come to terms with it, they will continue to play a negative role for the future of the Tamil people inside Sri Lanka. I have always been sceptical of any positive role by the diaspora in general. At best, the progressive sections within the diaspora can attempt to create the space for a democratic, political culture inside Sri Lanka. They cannot and should not attempt to become representatives of Tamils inside Sri Lanka.

You are speaking of a post-LTTE era. Would that be a reality if Prabhakaran continues to live?

There is no doubt that the LTTE is considerably marginalized but the LTTE’s end is very much dependent on whether or not Prabhakaran remains in the leadership. Prabakarhan has been the singlemost obstacle to any political settlement in the past twenty five years.

Nevertheless, hasn’t he kept the spotlight on the Tamil question?

Indeed, Prabhakaran — and the LTTE — has not only been the centre of attention as far as Tamil politics is concerned, but also politics within Sri Lanka. Every government in Sri Lanka has claimed that the problem is one of either negotiating with the LTTE or wiping out the LTTE. In the post-LTTE era, I believe other issues will come to the fore, not only about minorities but also issues in the south... questions about economic justice, etc. The Tamil community should realize that any political settlement including devolution will only work if Sri Lanka remains a democracy. The recent attacks on the media, the violation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, are all signs that the democratic fabric is under threat. It is important for the minorities to join with democratic forces within the Sinhala community to ensure not only their rights but democratization in the entire country. Similarly, it is important for the Sinhala community to realize that the rights of the minorities are very much linked to their own democratic rights.

The 13th Amendment seems to be as far as this government is willing to go with devolution. Is that sufficient?

While the 13th amendment was an important step forward 20 years ago, it’s inadequate to meet the aspirations of the minority communities. Therefore, any solution taking off from the devolution debate which began in 1994, should go beyond the unitary structure of the state. In addition, there should be power sharing at the centre through a second chamber. And if there is to be serious democratization in this country, we must get rid of the executive presidency.

How do you assess the Rajapaksa regime?

What we see with the Rajapaksa regime is an emerging authoritarianism attempting to entrench an oligarchy. While they are riding on the successes of the war at the current moment, I am confident that the people of Sri Lanka have a democratic ethos which — much like they overthrew the UNP regimes after 17 years — will not allow an authoritarian oligarchy to take hold.

What has been the effect of the war on Tamil civilians?

With the escalation of the war during the last three years, it has been Tamil civilians who have been at the receiving end. In addition to the conventional war, which the LTTE has clearly lost, there has been a dirty war resulting in a large number of abductions, killings, and disappearances by the security forces, armed groups linked to the state as well as the LTTE. So, the war is not limited to the Wanni. We continue to see this dirty war in places like Batticaloa, Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna. It has created a climate of fear and the confidence of Tamil people in the state has collapsed. Much like the civilians in the East suffered due to mass displacement after the military advances in 2006, now we see the civilians in the Wanni caught between the security forces and the LTTE.

But is this displacement not a temporary phase?

Even over the last year, the civilians who fled LTTE controlled areas in Mannar and Kilinochchi have been subject to what might be called internment camps. Those civilians remain in a precarious and insecure situation where their rights continue to be violated.

What do you mean by internment camps?

The civilians who manage to flee LTTE controlled areas are not free to leave these camps. They continue to live in fear that they will be targeted, and possibly even killed, if they are seen to have been supporters of the LTTE.

Are they being held against their will?

Yes.

What of the fate of civilians who are still in the LTTE-controlled areas of Mullaitivu?

The 200,000 to 300,000 civilians trapped in Mullaitivu are being used as human shields by the LTTE. On the other hand, messages coming out of Mullaitivu from such civilians also point to their fear about crossing into government-controlled territory. They have suffered under the jackboot of the LTTE. When they cross over into government-controlled territory, they will, after a long time, be under the writ of the Sri Lankan state. Their perception of the Sri Lankan state and their sense of citizenship will be determined by how they are treated.

Do think civilians will leave LTTE areas as the fighting gets heavier?

They are trapped in a very small area and we continue to hear of reports of shelling. We hope they will cross over into government-controlled territory. Again, that will be determined by the message of the government. I would think rehabilitation camps under the auspices of UN agencies would be one way in which to increase the confidence of those people to cross over.

(Kadirgamar is also contributing editor of Himal Southasian and a member of the Kafila Collective)