For 30 years, when war between Tamil militants and government forces was raging in the Tamil areas of North and East Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were accepted by the Tamil polity as its “sole representative.”
Tamil political parties willingly and proudly accepted the Tigers’ diktats because they were thought to be invincible and that sooner or later the Tamils would get an independent “Tamil Eelam”.
But when the war ended in May 2009 with the complete annihilation of the LTTE, and overnight, 300,000 Tamil civilians were herded into barbed wire fenced camps to be kept there for a year or more, Tamil political parties began to distance themselves from the Tiger heritage.
The Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), the principal political party in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), promptly disowned the LTTE legacy. ITAK leader R.Sampanthan even said that the demand for a separate Tamil Eelam had only brought war and destruction.
Forgetting that they had won successive elections in the Tamil areas of North and East Sri Lanka thanks to unabashed rigging by the Tigers, and were strident proxies of the LTTE in parliament and other forums both at home and abroad, the ITAK leaders claimed to be the only non-violent, democratic party.
The ITAK portrayed itself as a “Gandhian” party founded by S.J.V.Chelvanayakam, the “Gandhi of Eelam” while other members of the TNA were former militant groups which had indulged in a lot of bloodletting till they entered the democratic stream in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The ITAK’s plea was that if it supported militancy it was only from the outside.
Within the TNA, the ITAK not only claimed a high moral ground but adopted the policy of not praising the LTTE or its iconic leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. It shunned and discriminated against political aspirants who were believed to be close to the LTTE such as Ananthy Sasitharan, Padmini Chidambaranathan and S.Kajendran. The ITAK’s leadership was dismayed when a party man and Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V.Wigneswaran, praised Prabhakaran in a speech in his hometown of Valvettithurai.
And when a set of former Tiger cadre approached the ITAK for nomination for elections, the ITAK rejected the applications.
The ITAK’ policy of distancing itself from the LTTE heritage and pinning hopes on meeting the Tamils‘ longstanding demands for regional autonomy, equity and post-conflict justice from the Sri Lankan government were based on the belief that the democratic world and the international human rights institutions would putting pressure on the Sri Lankan government to yield.
Indeed a lot of pressure was put by the US, UK, France ,Germany, the EU and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which passed resolutions censuring Colombo for not rendering justice to the defeated Tamils.
But the pressure was only partly due to a concern for the Tamils. The more important factor was the Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s truculent, scornful and pro-China stand.
Therefore the moment Rajapaksa was defeated in the January 8, 2015 Presidential election by a set of pro-Western parties, the West and the UN became very accommodative towards Colombo brushing its deficiencies under the carpet. The West’ honeymoon with Colombo’s post-Rajapaksa leaders continues. The UNHRC gave Colombo two more years to implement its resolution. .
Government’s Delaying Tactics
None of the post-conflict mechanisms to address the Tamils’ grievances has been set up, though 12,000 LTTE combatants were released and some lands seized during the war from civilians were returned. The promised judicial mechanism to investigate and try alleged war crimes cases has not been set up. There are an estimated 38,000 families with missing members, whose call to trace the missing has fallen on deaf ears. The President is dragging his feet on setting up the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) apparently because the data collected by it might go against the Sri Lankan military.
While the government says it has released 70,000 acres of captured land to the Tamil civilians, the Chief Minister of the Northern Province says that only a little over 5% has been released.
The government promised to release suspected Tamil militants against whom there were no formal charges, but that has not been done either. It promised to replace the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and bring about a Witness Protection Act. But these are still in the drafting stage.
Economic and Political Shortfalls
Economic development has taken place in the former war zone in the North, especially in Jaffna district. But the real war-zone, the Wanni, is undeveloped with neither the Central nor the provincial government taking any initiative which will improve the livelihood of the common man. The government in Colombo tends to by-pass the provincial government in taking decisions. This problem is compounded by the provincial politicians’ concentration on securing political goals rather than economic goals.
But there has been no success in securing political goals either. The Tamils have been demanding provincial autonomy since 1948 but have not achieved it despite the drafting of two constitutions. There is little hope that the third constitution, now under preparation, will bring relief. This is because in the majority Sinhalese community, “non-changers” seem to be in a majority.
It is in this context that the Tamils seem to be losing faith in the established political parties. For the past few months, agitations in the war affected areas are being conducted not by political parties, but by the people themselves, led by civil society and activists. Politicos are asked not to appear at the scene of agitations.
It is said that the general dissatisfaction will cost the ITAK more as compared to other parties as the ITAK is the largest political party. It is in power in the Northern Province and is the official Opposition in the Sri Lankan parliament.
Ground for Radicalization
It is in this context that it is feared that radicalization might take place and there could be an ideological throw back to the days, when the LTTE and its ideology ruled the roost.
Even a moderate “anti-LTTE” leader like V.Anandasangaree, who heads the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), said in an open letter to TNA MP M.A.Sumanthiran dated April 1 2017, that he was a supporter of the LTTE.
“I do not know whether you are aware that I never wanted the LTTE to be destroyed. I only wanted them to mend their ways in dealing with human lives,” Anandasangaree said.
“I hope you are aware that for all purposes, relating to the Tamils and their problems and for the purpose of negotiating with the government, I accepted the LTTE as the sole representatives of the Tamil people. I am sorry for the innocent people who had been made to believe that I am totally opposed to the LTTE. If you will go through some of my speeches made in Parliament you will be surprised when you read them.”
“One day in Parliament in my reference to Thamby Prabhakaran I said that like Yasir Arafat Prabhakaran also will go round the world soon,” the octogenarian leader said.
ITAK To Admit LTTE Cadre
It is therefore not surprising that the ITAK on Saturday decided to admit former cadre of the LTTE. This decision was taken at a meeting of the Central Committee of the party in Batticaloa in the Eastern Province.
Briefing newspersons, ITAK spokesman M.A.Sumanthiran said that the committee felt that the ex-militants should be encouraged to enter the democratic political mainstream even as other issues relating to their rehabilitation and livelihood are attended to.
Sumanthiran said that he suggested to the committee that the former LTTE cadre be admitted because in his interactions with them, he had found that they had issues which the ITAK and the Tamil polity could no longer ignore. Although the ex-cadre did not seek political participation, he felt that they should participate like other citizens.
“These people have political commitment. After all, they had been ready to lay down their lives for a political cause,” Sumanthiran said.
(The featured image at the top shows an ex-LTTE cadre undergoing rehabilitation in a Sri Lankan army-run camp)