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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2523

The Tamil Cause and the LTTE: Is it two sides of the same coin?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

The concern shown by the international community for the civilians held as human shields by the LTTE, is understandable, and to be expected. What is not understood is their prevarication to openly ask the LTTE to surrender. By not asking them to do so, the international community is equating the very organisation they banned in their own countries, with the legitimate government of Sri Lanka.

The proscription of the LTTE appears to be a 'paper Tiger' (pardon the pun) in some countries as they have allowed the LTTE to continue fund raising, have public meetings promoting Prabakaran as the leader of Sri Lankan Tamils, and canvass support from many international quarters. The LTTE might be different things to different people, but it has always been and still remains a terrorist organization, and Sri Lanka has treated them as such, although several efforts were made by successive Sri Lankan governments over the years to discuss a reasonable political solution to the conflict with them. LTTE intransigence and their unreasonable demands made sure these talks were not successful.

One cannot play Jekyll and Hyde as regards the means employed by terrorist organizations like the LTTE to pursue their objectives, unless the international community changes their mind about other terrorist organizations they are trying to hunt down in other parts of the world. If that is the new world order they wish to introduce, then Sri Lanka will have the right to deal with their problems as they think fit in the national interest of Sri Lanka.

The government of Sri Lanka has announced a two days ceasefire coinciding with the Sinhala and Tamil New Year on the 13th and 14th of April. This is to allow the LTTE to free those civilians trapped by them as human shields in the no fire zone to safe areas. The actions of the LTTE during these two days will demonstrate whether they will respect the ceasefire and whether they value human lives. There would not have been any ambiguity about the sum and substance of the stand taken by the international community if they had made a clear statement asking the LTTE to surrender. Had that been done, there would have been an automatic ceasefire long before this and many civilian deaths would have been avoided.

Asking both parties who are at war, one a legitimate, democratically elected government and the other, proscribed as a terrorist organization in the very countries that are asking the Sri Lankan government to declare a ceasefire with terrorists, is like the US being asked to have ceasefire with Al Quida or Taliban if and when they get cornered somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan, or Israel being asked to declare a ceasefire with Hamas during the recent skirmish with them. In the case of the latter, Israel snubbed the world and continued to kill more than 1000 innocent Palestinians, while the USA looked on. Both said that the massacre will stop if the Palestinians stopped firing rockets to Israel territory.

It is strange isn’t it that Israel can do this and be supported by the USA and not Sri Lanka?

Perhaps, like many misguided Tamils, the international community sees the Tamil "cause" and the LTTE, as two sides of the same coin. By doing so, unfortunately they give credence to the thinking that the end justifies the means. Who are we then to denounce Osama bin Laden? Or the al Quida, or the Taliban? They are also fighting for a cause they think is right, although many others do not agree with them.

Terrorist organizations throughout the world will take notice of this duplicity of the international community, and they will assume that it is quite in order to murder anyone they chose if in their opinion that person is obstructing the end that is sought by those terrorists. In their eyes, 9/11 will be a justifiable act in pursuance of the end sought by al Quida.

Is this the standard for the world that the international community is seeking?

Or should we be absolutely unambiguous in denouncing terrorism and the likes of the LTTE or any other terrorist orgnisation and state categorically that terrorism cannot be tolerated whatever their end objective is, as the means employed by them is not acceptable in the world we live in, if we wish to call that a civilized world?.

Denouncing the LTTE is not to denounce the grievances that the Sri Lankan Tamil community has had for years. One may debate the nature and extent of grievances, and debate the origin of grievances and who said what and did what, or did not. The Tamils can accuse the Sinhalese for not addressing these grievances and the Sinhalese too can blame the Tamils for some of their unreasonable demands that contributed to the escalation of the conflict, and also rightly say they too were disadvantaged and discriminated at some point of time in the recent history of the country. This debate can go on while many innocent people continue to suffer.

However, as the current conflict is about Tamil grievances and not Sinhala grievances, it might be useful to do an honest assessment whether the Sinhala majority governments since independence have addressed at least some of the fundamental issues that created the conflict. It is also useful for us to ask the question whether we, as a Sinhala collective, have been fair by the Tamils in addressing at least some of these basic grievances.

As a start, if we take the language issue, since making Sinhala the official language of the country way back in 1956, and providing reasonable use of Tamil in majority Tamil speaking areas a few years later, in the face of strong pressure from Tamils leaders, it took Sri Lanka more than 30 years to make Tamil also an official language. Giving parity of status to both languages was one of the key demands of the Tamil community since the early fifties.

While some may argue otherwise, it appears that Tamil was made an official language in 1987 under duress at the same time when the Indian sponsored 13th Amendment was passed by Parliament in 1987. Although 20 years have passed since then, not much has been done to implement that policy and the Sinhala/Tamil language divide in schools, government offices and within society, seems to continue despite the official policy. Readers will have to make a judgment whether the majority Sinhala community had been fair by the Tamil community or whether they agreed to a policy not because it was right, but because they were virtually forced to, due to circumstances and external pressure.

In hindsight, could we not say that, had Tamil been made an official language along with Sinhala in 1956 or at least from the time reasonable provision for its use in majority Tamil speaking areas was introduced during Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike’s time, we would not have had to face the conflict we are facing today? One cannot heap blame on Bandaranaike for such a failure, if we accept that politicians are merely the representatives of the people, and they carry out the wishes of the people they represent.

How would Sinhala people have reacted if Sri Lanka was a majority Tamil country and a Tamil majority government introduced a reasonable use of Sinhala language policy, and not given parity of status to the Sinhala language in a predominantly Tamil Sri Lanka? It will be good for readers of the Asian Tribune, and others, to have an open minded discussion on this issue and challenge these statements and question each others opinions.

If one looks at political issues and consider the several political agreements negotiated by Sri Lankan majority community political leaders and Tamil political leaders since 1956 in pursuance of political objectives, none of them were ratified and enacted as the law of the land. They were all abrogated due to opposition from Opposition political parties, sections of the powerful Buddhist clergy and others. It is ironical that a powerful Buddhist monk at the time, Buddharakkitha, who was then the head of the Kelaniya temple, and who threatened SWRD Bandaranaike with mass anti government action if he didn’t abrogate the Bandranayake/Chelvanayakam pact, was eventually convicted as a co accused for the assassination of SWRD Bandaranaike along with the assassin, another Buddhist Monk, Somarama, long after Bandaranaike caved into pressure and abrogated that Pact in public.

We still have not entered into any agreements with the Tamil political leadership to address their grievances, and moderates have turned extremists, making matters even worse than before. The question has to be asked whether Tamils could be blamed for not being able to trust Sinhala politicians if we consider the numerous times Sinhala politicians have abrogated agreements made.

Mr J R Jayewardene then introduced the Executive Presidency, assigning all real powers to this position. Legally, the 1978 constitution empowers the President to run the government without any ministers as he/she could take over all ministries under this constitution. The Executive Presidential system has made sure that all real political power is centralized in one person, and that person will always be a Sinhalese, due to the simple fact that no non Sinhala person could ever be elected by popular vote as the President of Sri Lanka. Arguably, the enactment of the 1978 constitution saw further political alienation of Tamils.

The introduction of the proportionate representation system for electing members of Parliament did restore a degree of power and influence for minority communities, although the Tamil community, perhaps with the exception of the Tamils of recent Indian origin living mainly in the plantation areas, failed to make more effective use of this power as a lever to win their demands in a peaceful and democratic way. The introduction of the provincial councils and devolution of some powers to those regional units however watered down they were, also provided opportunities to build on such powers through negotiation. Again, the Tamil political leadership, by this time under the influence of the LTTE, failed to capitalize on this political development.

Although the 13th Amendment of 1987 provided more powers to provincial councils, its provisions have not been implemented. Successive Sri Lankan governments since that time have to take responsibility for this lapse, as they could have at least demonstrated what might have been possible for the North and the East, if the LTTE was not there and the situation there stabilized, by devolving some genuine powers at least to provinces that were not affected by the conflict. Another missed opportunity.

Then of course the question of security, or lack of it for Tamils in Sri Lanka. This is one of the main concerns for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. There have been several instances since independence in 1948 that Tamils have been attacked because they were Tamils, with 1983 being the worst of all such instances. None can and should deny that Tamils have always felt a sense of insecurity just because of their ethnicity. We could find any number of reasons why Tamils have been attacked, but none can or should justify such attacks. To do so would be for the Sinhala people to belong to the same category as the LTTE, terrorists.

It is true that since the debacle of 1983, no Tamil has been made less secure by Sinhala people, and in fact they have lived as harmoniously as could have been expected in predominantly Sinhala areas. However, although one cannot read a Tamil mind as a Sinhalese, it is probably very unlikely that Tamils have a real feeling of security in predominantly Sinhala areas having experienced the atrocities of 1983. It is difficult to say this conclusively without any genuine research studies being done on it. No doubt many have felt safer amongst the Sinhalese than with the LTTE judging by the fact that more Tamils live outside the North and the East than within that area since the conflict escalated in 1983.

Considering these three fundamental issues, is it possible to deny that the ambivalence on the part of Sri Lankan governments to implement some basic rights of Tamils, and even alienate them by constitutional changes, have not eroded the confidence of Tamils in Sinhala majority governments, and by extension, eroded their confidence in Sinhala people?

Sinhala people and their political representative perhaps should have looked at Tamil grievances to consider whether they were just grievances, as matters that needed addressing because they were right, and not doing so would have created an injustice. To have not considered them because they were politically inexpedient for the Sinhalese, would have been denying justice and fair play to Tamils, a section of Sri Lankans.

None of these statements will exonerate the Tamil political leadership, and by extension, the general Tamil population from any blame, and attribute all blame for the conflict to the Sinhalese. As much as one could say that the Sinhala mind never understood the Tamil mind, it would be equally true to say that the Tamil mind has not understood the Sinhala mind as well, and by not doing so, aggravated the conflict.

At the outset, it has to be said that Tamil people have not understood the language issue from a Sinhala perspective. A key consideration for the Sinhalese is the Sinhala language. No doubt Tamils will say the same about the Tamil language. The difference however is the fact that Sinhala is spoken, business is conducted in, and the language taught in school, only in Sri Lanka and nowhere else in the world. If the Sinhala language dies in Sri Lanka, it dies in the entire world. The seat of the Sinhala language is Sri Lanka.

This is not the case with the Tamil language. Sri Lanka is not the seat of the Tamil language. Tamil Nadu is. It is taught in several other countries. People conduct business in Tamil in many countries outside Sri Lanka.

The Sinhala language therefore has a very special place in Sri Lanka. In fact if Tamils were less parochial, and viewed the uniqueness of Sri Lanka as the seat of one of world’s oldest languages, they too would have been proud to be Sri Lankans, and take ownership of not only their language but the Sinhala language as well.

At this point many Tamils might say they have no difficulty if the Sinhala people guarded their language in their Nation and the Tamils guarded theirs in their Nation, meaning the much debated and discredited historical Tamil homeland in the North and East of the country. Until the British carved up provinces, Sri Lanka in fact did not have provinces in the North and East, and there is absolutely no evidence of a historical Tamil homeland in the present Eastern province, although a Tamil kingdom did exist in the Jaffna peninsula for about 300 years in a country with a history of more than 2500 years. This Kingdom too shifted their allegiances to other more powerful Kingdoms within the country depending on which Kingdom was more powerful at a given time.

Although there have been Sinhala Kings whose suzerainty extended throughout the island, there have not been any Sri Lankan Tamil kings who had similar jurisdiction over the entire island. Having given due regard to the contextual situation relating to historical political structures and systems of administration, where a substantial degree of regional autonomy was given to local leaders even during the time when a single Sinhala King ruled over the entire country, it could be said that Sri Lanka has been a single Nation State for varying periods during its long history.

There is no historical evidence that the existence of multiple Kingdoms at different times in the history of the island, accorded any of them the status of nationhood, as what we understand nationhood to be today. For these reasons, one cannot go back in history to try and understand what was meant by nationhood then, but perhaps accept that historical nationhood, as it we understand it today, should be limited to a time when one ruler had total suzerainty over the entire island, and that situation being accepted as the existence of a nation State.

There is no debate about a more contemporary presence of Tamils in the North and some parts of today’s Eastern province. But, there is also a significant presence of Tamils in the Central, Uva and Western provinces as well. That is a contemporary reality, although in recent times, primarily on account of LTTE terror, many Tamils decided they were safer with their imaginary enemy, the Sinhalese, rather than their savior, the LTTE, and moved to Sinhala majority areas.

The language issue therefore is not regional as some Tamils, as well as Sinhalese might wish to think. It is a national issue. For this reason, access to the two main languages of Sri Lanka has to be treated on a national basis, giving equal recognition not just in theory as a policy but in implementation. However, the Sinhala language, from a broader national perspective explained earlier requires special protection as its antiquity and its uniqueness has to be protected by all Sri Lankans.

The other key issue very dear and sacred to Sinhala Buddhists, is the place for Buddhism in the country. Although Lord Buddha himself would have held the view that being a Buddhist would have been to practice Buddhism rather than trying to institutionalize Buddhism, it is written in history that Buddhism has always received State patronage and protection from Kings, Colonial powers, to Presidents. Besides any emotive issue associated with "protecting" Buddhist institutions, there are other historical and philosophical reasons as to why Sinhala Buddhists have always felt that Buddhism should be protected.

Buddhist institutions and the symbolism some of them represent are closely associated with what Buddhism is to many people. In this context, the oldest known historical tree of religious significance, the Sri Maha Bodhiya, a tooth relic of Lord Buddha, preserved and venerated in the Temple of the Tooth, and some hair relics of Lord Buddha, similarly preserved and venerated, are all in Sri Lanka. Besides these, from a philosophical perspective, the seat of the oldest form of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism is Sri Lanka. There is also a general belief amongst many Buddhists in Sri Lanka that Lord Buddha had forecast that his Dhamma will be preserved and safeguarded by Sri Lankans. Sinhalese interpret this to mean that the Sri Lankans Lord Buddha referred to were Sinhalese. The ancient name for Sri Lanka was Sihala, and perhaps there has been some confusion as to who "Sihalese" and the "Sinhalese" were. If we accepted that they were not one and the same, but Sihala people were Sinhalese, Tamils and whoever else who lived in Sri Lanka in ancient times, it may have removed one irritant from this conflict.

Consciously or sub consciously, Sinhala Buddhists do accept that Sihala Buddhists, not just Sinhala Buddhists, and all others, irrespective of their own religions, should help to protect Buddhism as a national treasure. This view is not one of superiority of Buddhism over other religions, or done at the expense of other religions, but simply a manifestation of the uniqueness of Buddhism as felt by a majority of Sri Lankans.

Tamils in general have not accepted this view as they have very simplistically associated the concept of protecting Buddhism as a Sinhala Buddhist chauvinistic issue. It is strange that despite the closeness of Buddhist and Hindu history, and contemporary cultural practices, Tamil Hindu’s who form the majority amongst Tamils, have not understood the objectivity of the Sinhala Buddhist mind in respect of the ingrained desire to give State protection and patronage to Buddhism, and have made rather a mountain out of a molehill using subjectivity over objectivity. The fact that protecting Buddhism has never been done at the expense of other religions and their right to practice, does not seem to have entered the minds of Tamil Hindu’s. They have also chosen to ignore the place accorded to Hindu Gods in Buddhist temples throughout Sri Lanka, and the equal veneration of these Gods by many Buddhists.

It maybe of interest to note that Prabakaran is not a Hindu, and most of his close associates similarly do not belong to the Hindu faith. Herein might lie the fact that Prabakaran’s war has been a war against Buddhism as much as against those who he claims to have stood in the way of the rights of Tamils. This might be why he attacked both the Temple of the Tooth as well as the Sri Maha Bodhiya, two of the most hallowed places of worship to Buddhists in Sri Lanka and throughout the world.

Whatever differences that stand in the way of Sinhala/Tamil amity and a better understanding of political and cultural issues, these have to be discussed and negotiated. If such discussions are to be successful and lead to positive and tangible conclusions, both sides must understand each others perspectives on the issues that stand in the way of such amity.

Only open but objective discussion will help that process. The recent discussions with sections of the Tamil Diaspora are excellent initiatives on the part of President Rajapaksa. These must continue and allow dialogue and democracy to take over from the tyranny of terrorism if we are to see an end to this conflict.

- Asian Tribune -

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