Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tamils in Sri Lanka

The Problem is ethnic, not just Tamil

The New Indian Express, Chennai, 18 June 2009

ONLY history can judge the true contribution of Vellupillai Prabhakaran to the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. Has he put the problems of the ethnic minority on the world map a la Yasser Arafat or squandered the opportunity by wanton disregard for human lives? Such an assessment would be made not only by his followers, supporters and sympathisers but also by the wider international community, Tamils and non-Tamils alike. One thing is for sure. The Tamil problem as it is defined for the past three decades will not be the same. To be effective it has to be viewed, understood and above all presented differently. Packaging, if you prefer.

First and foremost, the Tamils of Sri Lanka need to re-examine their reliance upon Tamils across the Palk Strait. When push comes to shove, they were let down. Not by the larger Indian state as some would like to believe but by the leaders of Tamil Nadu. Chief minister M Karunanidhi personifies this trend. A few days after LTTE accepted the death of its leaders, he urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to treat Sri Lanka ‘as a special case’ where non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country could not be applied. This was only after he concluded cabinet deals for his family.

Others are no better. During the election campaign how many buried their past and took refuge under Eelam agenda? All were prepared to ‘sacrifice’ their lives but not their hunger for power. Both DMK and AIADMK leaders used NSA against pro-LTTE leaders because it served their interests. Thus any emerging Lankan leadership from the present trauma would have to take a hardnosed approach to the track record of Tamil politicians in India, their politicking and their limitations. It is time they buried the notion that the Tamils across the Strait could provide deliverance.

Second, the inglorious defeat of Vaiko sends a strong message. The Lankan problem is an important emotional issue for the people of Tamil Nadu but it is not a critical issue. At the end of the day, it is battle in another state. It is time, the Lankan Tamils recognised this. A greater Tamil nation is a cultural identity that encompasses Tamils living in different parts of the world. Making them into a political nation is vastly different.

Let’s say that the Tamil Nadu government reintroduces the entertainment tax with the purpose of transferring that revenue towards the welfare of the Lankan Tamils. Will Kollywood organise a welcome rally? One per cent VAT for the same purpose would evoke public outcry. Will the youth who were in the forefront of many pro-Eelam agitations accept a ten rupee increase in the monthly bus passes? In short the leaders have conditioned the population into symbolism and rhetoric and forgotten the core issues. They are primarily concerned with the electoral gains to be made and play up the Sri Lankan problem.

Three, there has to be introspection. The LTTE failed not because of its military weakness or lack of support but primarily due to its short-sighted approach towards the struggle. If Prabhakaran failed to put the Tamil problem on the world map like Mr. Palestine, who should be blamed? Despite all the violence against Israel and its civilian population, under Arafat the Palestinian national movement strived for internal unity. The emergence of Hamas indicated his failure but Arafat bribed, cajoled, reasoned, blackmailed and at times intimidated his opponents and rivals. Physical elimination of rival factions was not his style.

Let’s admit. The LTTE chief was Arafat’s antithesis. How many Tamil political personalities, leaders and civilians populations were literally eliminated by the LTTE? Those who disagreed became traitors and were eliminated. New leadership would have to come to terms with black phase, own up and unequivocally distance itself. Likewise, before denouncing the Lankan government for targeting civilians, Tamil groups must admit that they were no better. In the name of fighting for the Tamil cause how many civilians, Tamils and Sinhalese alike, were killed by LTTE and various other groups. Every single civilian life is sacrosanct.

Finally, the problem needs to be redefined. It is not a just Tamil problem but a larger problem of majority intolerance. While the Tamil diaspora would continue to be a major source of support, the problem has to be taken to a higher level. Sri Lanka says it is a democracy, so let’s judge it by democratic standards. Are there laws and norms to reflect this democratic commitment? What is the number of Tamils in the bureaucracy, military, educational institutions, student communities and other sectors? Not poster boys but substantial representation. Does the judiciary uphold social justice or ratify state-sponsored discrimination? Sri Lanka relies heavily on international aid, assistance and cooperation and is vulnerable. China can step in and compensate Indian refusal for military supplies but Colombo needs the wider world which is more sensitive to minority issues.

Such an approach will also enable non-Tamil Indians to see the Sri Lankan problem differently. By playing up the Tamil card, the problem became parochial and narrow. Today it is Tamils of Lanka and tomorrow it can be another minority in another country.

It is an ethnic problem and not a Tamil problem. By expanding the scope, the Tamils of Sri Lanka will acquire more and genuine friends. Will the phoenix emerge from the ashes?

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