Extremist Tamil statements from Sampanthan and GTF raise concerns: a measured review by Laksiri

Laksiri Fernando, 15 June 2012, courtesy of the Sri Lanka Guardian, where it appeared under a different title

It is difficult to believe that President Rajapaksa or his advisors did not anticipate protests in London or possible cancellation of his address to the Commonwealth Economic Forum in connection with his participation in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. It was a repetition of what happened in December 2010 when he was supposed to address the Oxford Union Debating Society. The only difference was that the cancelation of his speech, of course under pressure, this time was decided by an inter-national organization, the Commonwealth Business Council, created by none other than the Commonwealth Heads of Government in 1997, unlike the first one being a mere university student organization, however prestigious that one might be.

On both occasions, the right to speak was a casualty. There is no question that some diaspora groups in the United Kingdom, whether with direct links to the proscribed LTTE or not, and the human rights organizations concerned with war crimes and human rights violations have every right to peacefully protest against the President. However, it is at least not acceptable if the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) or its British counterpart, the British Tamil Forum or other organizers brought threats or pressure on the Commonwealth Business Council to cancel the event. It is more abominable if any ‘human rights’ organization was involved in this effort. A balanced and an objective approach to ‘war crimes’ requires highlighting both the government and the LTTE atrocities rather equally.

It is possible that the President went to the event to show his point; that some of the active diaspora groups are intransigent or even ‘terrorists.’ Now the government is utilizing the debacle for its advantage as reported in The Island (14 June) claiming that it posed a threat to President’s life. It is true that he or his armed forces are accused of war crimes and more and more evidence is unleashed by different sources completely credible or not. But there should be a due process and that due process cannot be taken over by the extremist activists in London.

Unlike the Oxford event, the Commonwealth Heads and Governments are involved in this instance. At least some of them might not take the rebuff that one of their counterparts had to undergo without sympathy. After all he was invited by the Commonwealth Business Council and business of the Commonwealth cannot be conducted under the siege of the extremist agitation. The next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHGOM) is scheduled to be held in Sri Lanka in 2013 and the President is going to be the host of this event.

Over-reading: There are indications that some of the diaspora groups are over-reading the results of the March UNHRC resolution. They are possibly going to the other extreme of the Rajapaksa government on the issues of reconciliation. The first indication of this overreaction came when the Global Tamil Forum and the Transnational Government of the Tamil Eelam (TGTE) issued a joint statement on 19 May 2012 as the “Mullivaaaikkaal Remembrance Message.” As it states, “The absolute power and the arrogant ways of the present Sri Lankan regime are earning the disgust of the international community. This in turn creating conditions favourable to our cause.”

What it says as “our cause” is explicitly the separate Tamil Eelam or even the methods that the LTTE used in achieving that objective which were roundly rejected by the international community by proscribing the LTTE in 32 countries as a terrorist organization and tacitly supporting or being largely indifferent to the crushing of the LTTE by the government forces in 2009. The concerns of the international community at present, in my opinion, are mainly the issues of ‘war crimes’ or ‘accountability’ and ‘reconciliation’ with justice to the Tamil community among others and that means a viable political solution. ‘Absolute power or the arrogance’ of the government may be of some concern, but there are other ways of dealing with them without supporting a separate state in Sri Lanka. The other ways may include a regime change, but even that will be different to what they have been encouraging in Arab countries.

Some of the relevant sections of the GTF and TGTE joint statement are the following:

“In addition, there are noticeable and encouraging changes in the mind set and approach of the international community following the disaster at Mullivaaikkaal. It is up to our ingenuity and political intelligence how we take advantage of these turn of events in the way we act. We should strengthen our ability to collaborate across differences with a shared understanding and collective action.”

“With this in mind, representatives of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam and the Global Tamil Forum got together in San Francisco on the 13th and 14th of this month. We are pleased to announce that following discussions on several areas of joint action, agreements were reached on some of these areas. This is indeed an important milestone as we move through the third phase of our struggle for freedom coinciding with the remembrance of Mullivaaikkaal.”

“The Global Tamil Forum intends to liaise with other Diaspora Tamil organisations and representatives of Tamil speaking people in Sri Lanka in its efforts to build similar forms of shared understanding. The Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, for its part, is engaged in building a power base among the world Tamil community, particularly in Tamil Nadu, and with sections of the international civil society.”

“On this occasion, while we remember the mass atrocities in Mullivaaikkaal, it is incumbent upon us to jointly and solemnly declare that the pursuit of freedom by our people shall remain incessant.”

Nowhere in the statement is the possibility of ‘reconciliation’ ever mentioned as if it is not in their vocabulary. It is beyond comprehension that (or if) the GTF and the TGTE wanted to restart the ‘conflict or the war’ again which brought misery for all and particularly to the Tamil community living in Sri Lanka.

It is an insult to the ‘intelligence,’ ‘rationality’ and ‘humanness’ of both and all communities if reconciliation cannot be achieved whatever the political obstacles for that achievement particularly from the present government as it is revealed by the past events and actions including the way the war was apparently conducted at the last stages. Sri Lanka and its resources have been shared by the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims for centuries both separately and jointly and their future destiny or destinies will be more purposeful if the differences are resolved sooner than later.

Sampanthan’s Speech: In recent weeks, Sampanthan’s speech at the ITAK or the Federal Party national convention in Batticaloa has received  more attention than the GTF and TGTE statement perhaps for the reasons of proximity. Sampanthan apparently wanted to assert his party position opposed to, as he later said, “certain groups of Tamils living abroad,” “as the single most recognized political organization both here and abroad which embodies the political aspirations of the Tamil people.” That is how he began. Sampanthan otherwise, in my opinion and experience, is not an extremist.

However, he exaggerated the past and claimed “hundred thousand of our people” were killed “merely for demanding the fundamental rights that belonged to them, and for the legitimate rights of self-determination and governance.” It was a misinterpretation of the conflict or the war. There was an implicit defence of the LTTE struggle saying that “We remember the Tamil youth who sacrificed their lives in armed struggle, which they resorted to on the failure of their peaceful struggle for the political rights and freedoms of their people.” There was no previous peaceful struggle launched by the LTTE.

There is no question that Sampanthan was expressing the traditional ideology of his party which claimed a ‘unique nature’ to the Tamil nation and ‘exclusivity’ for its self-determination almost from the beginning of its formation in 1949. An independent academic who recognized this aspect of ITAK politics was the reputed British historian Eric Hobsbawm (a Marxist) who quoted the party declaration in 1952 at length to stress this point when he wrote his seminal work “Nations and Nationalism Since 1870: Programme, Myth, Reality” in 1992. In this context there is nothing wrong in saying, without exaggeration, that his speech is a manifestation of some ‘autonomist-secessionist continuum’ in ITAK politics, if not Tamil politics, and even Sampanthan himself might agree.

There is no need to quote extensively what he said in this respect as others have quoted and misquoted him for various interpretations and political purposes. There are other rather sober and encouraging pronouncements which many of the others have overlooked. After saying, “We are now the legitimate representative of the Tamil people” along and within the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), he reiterated very clearly that the ITAK “does not have any history of armed struggle, which has always rejected such struggle, which has a long time democratic tradition, which has always put forward realistic proposals, that the international community has given the most recognition.”

However, he contradicted himself first saying that “Our expectation for a solution to the ethnic problem of the sovereignty of the Tamil people is based on a political structure outside that of a unitary government, in a united Sri Lanka in which Tamil people have all the powers of government needed to live with self-respect and self-sufficiency” and then saying in a subsequent paragraph that “Our priority now is to expose the Sri Lankan government that for so many years in the past attempted to describe the ethnic problem as a ‘terrorist problem.’ He further added, “We must clearly prove to the international community that the Sri Lankan government, which has delayed for so long in giving the Tamil people their rights, has never made any genuine effort to do so. In other words – we must prove to the international community that we will never be able to realize our rights within a united Sri Lanka.”

It is also not possible to disregard the statements like the following as mere rhetoric which says, after referring to the ostensible change of the international situation that “Although the issue at hand is the same, the prevailing conditions are different. The struggle is the same, but the approaches we employ are different. Our aim is the same, but our strategies are different. The players are the same, but the alliances are different. That is the nature of the Tamil people. Although we still have the same aim, the methods we use are now different.”

The impression undoubtedly given is the intransigent politics without taking into consideration the miseries that all communities and particularly the Tamils have undergone as a result of the same kind of politics and rhetoric from all sides during nearly the last three decades. More alarming is the following which might consider as a ‘security threat’ by the Rajapaksa administration and also easy justification for withholding of the provincial council elections in the North and the withdrawal of the armed forces from that region. It is extremely difficult to understand why he said so particularly at this juncture.

“Our patience however, will not be everlasting. Our patience too, has its limits. Once we have reached that limit, we will move onto the stage of our effort. We will not hesitate to gather our people together and with the support of progressive forces in our country, and the international community, even engage in a non-violent struggle. We will decide on specific deadlines and when the time comes for such action, we will act.”

Conclusion: There are two main conclusions to make, rather briefly, by observing the two statements, first that presented jointly by the GTF and the TGTE, and secondly, that presented by R Sampanthan at the ITAK National Convention in Batticaloa in May. The sabotage of President’s speech in London is only an added evidence for these observations.

First is that there is a complete misreading and exaggeration, in my opinion, of the UNHRC resolution in March believing that perhaps a new situation has arisen that the international community and particularly the US and India might support a ‘new struggle for independence’ beginning with internal self-determination and then moving on to the external self-determination, if that struggle is launched ‘peacefully’ and under a different leadership.

This exaggeration was conspicuous when Sampanthan initially said in his speech that “We gather here following our victory in the passage of the recent Resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, a condemnation against the Sri Lankan government by the international community, which has recognized that the Sri Lankan government has committed the crime of extermination against our people, and that it continues to deny them their political rights.”

Second is that given the past experiences and the conditions prevailing at the ground level in Sri Lanka that the struggle for rights of the Tamils (national question) and all other minorities are interwoven with the democratic struggle of the general masses in the country against authoritarianism, corruption and political violence unleashed by the state. There may be a pressing need in addition to re-conceptualize the Tamil national question in terms of broader human rights and democracy rather than confining purely on ethno-nationalist discourses

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