Peace with Justice
Two Day International Tamil
Conference - Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations and Australian
Human Rights Foundation, Canberra, Australia 27- 28 June 1996
Conference - Summary
The two-day International Conference on the conflict in Sri Lanka jointly
hosted by the Australian Human Rights Foundation and the Australasian Federation
of Tamil Associations was held on Thursday, 27 June 1996 and Friday, 28 June
1996. The Conference conclusion called for "negotiations aimed at a just and
durable political solution reflecting the reality that Sri Lanka is an island
inhabited by the Sinhala and Tamil peoples, each with their own historic and
Participants had come from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Europe, Malaysia, India,
New Zealand, USA and the United Kingdom.
The conference began with the lighting of the lamp for peace by three
prominent Australians: Mr Ian Sinclair, Chairman of the Joint Parliamentary
Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Mr Bill Armstrong, President of
the Australian Council for Overseas Aid. and Mr Alex Kilgour, Chairman of the
Australian Human Rights Foundation.
A message from President Nelson Mandela was read out in which the South
African leader wished the conference every success by saying "It is my profound
belief that every effort to stop conflict, war and human misery must be
applauded and supported. It is our fervent wish and hope that the efforts such
as the Australian Human Rights Foundation and all other endeavours to bring
peace and a climate for a negotiated solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka will
achieve this goal."
The impressive array of speakers at the conference included Australians and
others who sought to explore various aspects of the conflict. Justice Marcus
Einfeld of the Australian Federal Court, and a former chairman of the
International Commission of Jurists, said that "international pressure on the
Sri Lankan government to move towards a negotiated peace settlement with the
Tamils is essential".
According to Justice Einfeld, "The Tamils' call for self determination, is at
the heart of the war in Sri Lanka. Undoubtedly the principle of self
determination is one of the most vigorously disputed group rights in modern
international law" The learned Judge then examined the concept of
self-determination in respect of the Tamil people by quoting a report by the
International Commission of Jurists which said, "The Tamils can be considered to
be a people. They have a distinct language, culture and a separate religious
identity from the majority population and to an extent, a defined territory.
The application of the principle of self determination in concrete cases is
difficult. It seems nevertheless that a credible agreement can be made that the
Tamil community in Sri Lanka is entitled to self determination. What is
essential is that the political status of the people should be freely determined
by the people themselves."
He then said that "Before there can be any meaningful attempt to resolve the
conflict in Sri Lanka, the underlying cause of the conflict, namely the Tamil
struggle for equity and eventually some form of self expression as a people,
must be recognized as valid. This also involves recognizing the armed struggle
of the Tamil people arose as a response to decades of oppression by the
Sinhalese within the confines of the unitary Sri Lankan state."
Mr. Pannerchelvam, the Chief of
Bureau (South) of the New-Delhi based South Asian weekly magazine "Outlook" was
certain that no solution was possible without the LTTE. According to the Indian
journalist "..when it comes to the contentious question of the legitimacy of the
LTTE I am very clear that no settlement to the ethnic issue is possible without
their participation, and trying to replace them with some weak quisling from
Colombo or Timbauctoo would only complicate the already complex issue. I arrive
at this conclusion not from the Tamils' point of view but from the point of view
of the two governments -- Indian and the Sri Lankan.
Right from 1986 successive Indian and Sri Lankan governments, whenever they
preferred to talk to the Tamils, have preferred the LTTE and have shunned other
groups. The 1986 SAARC meet at Bangalore actually recognised the LTTE as the
major representative of the Tamils as the then President J R Jayawardene
acknowledged Velupillai Pirabaharan as the leader with whom he would like to
talk and negotiate. All the other Tamil groups were ignored. Later, when the
Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987 was signed, the two governments gave importance
only to the LTTE in the formation of the still-born Interim Administrative
When the relationship between India and Sri Lanka got strained during the
Premadasa regime, he (Premadasa) used the LTTE as his main ally and declared
that they are the trusted representatives of the Tamils. And Chandrika in her
phase of offensive - which I would like to term as peace offensive - recognised
only the Tigers and the four rounds of negotiation prove this point. However,
the moment the relationship between the negotiating governments and the LTTE got
strained, the governments start talking about the other Tamil voices and how it
cannot accept the LTTE as the sole arbitrator of the Tamil destiny. This
double-speak of the governments is the fountainhead for my belief that without
the LTTE it is impossible to work out a lasting solution."
The largest contingent was from South Africa and included two speakers-Rajah
Pravin Gordhan in addition to
three members from PASLO(People Against Sri Lankan Oppression), a South African
organisation supportive of the Tamil struggle for self-determination.
Rajah Naidoo, a Regional
Director, with International Mediation Services in South Africa and a former
minister in the government of National Unity under Mr Nelson Mandela, chose to
view the conflict in the following terms: Sri-Lanka is a divided society,
culturally, economically and militarily. The Sinhalese majority is the "Goliath"
in terms of numbers and military strength. The Tamil minority is the "David".
Can "David" get "Goliath" to sit round the negotiating table, to acknowledge his
aspirations and to agree to his terms? How do you achieve this?
Mr Naidoo acknowledged that Human Rights concerns often yield to political
expedience but recommended that notwithstanding this all countries subscribing
to upholding human rights have to be pressured to intervene. Mr Naidoo drew from
the experience of his own country comparing the ANC to the Tamil Liberation
Movement and suggesting that there should be "talks about talks" before actual
The other speaker from South Africa,
Mr. Pravin J. Gordhan, a member of
the South African parliament also spoke of the negotiating process drawing once
again from the South African experience.
The second largest contingent was from Sri Lanka and consisted of Rev Dr S J
Emmanuel Dr Sunil Ratnapirya and Mr G G Ponnambalam.
Rev Dr S J Emmanuel, the
Vicar General of the Diocese of Jaffna and Rector of St Francis Xavier Major
Seminary in Jaffna. has been the adviser to the Asian Bishops' Conference for
the past 8 years. Having fled to the Wanni as a result of the Sri Lankan
Government's occupation of the Jaffna Peninsula, Dr Emmanuel provided an
eyewitness account of the plight of the people and a first hand account of their
The Catholic priest spoke movingly of the exodus of the people to the Wanni
in the face of two weeks of continuous aerial bombing and shelling by the Sri
Lankan Government during Rivirasa 1. He condemned the Government's Press
Censorship and the role of the Sri Lankan media in "muzzling" the truth. He also
exposed the Government's strategy of "Peace through War" as a
"self-contradictory" exercise that "can only be sustained by falsehoods. And the
subsequent escalation of the war by the Government under the pretext of reaching
out for Peace has progressively revealed the hidden intentions of the
Rev Emmanual pointed out that that "the military occupation of Jaffna, the
hoisting of the Lion Flag over a ghost town, the Riviresa II Operation to trap
the people into the Army command, the denial of food to those who crossed over
to the Wanni in the Riviresa II Operation - all these disprove the intentions of
the War for Peace and reveal the hidden agenda of the Government for a
subjugation of the Tamils under a military rule". The speech concluded with the
priest declaring "I am standing here as a man of God in service to a suffering
mankind. I have hope in the goodness of God and of men. From amidst the
deafening sounds of thousands of bombs and shells falling on our soil and
consuming sacred lives, I cry out with Moses of old, "Let my people go from this
slavery, to freedom"
Dr Sunil Ratnapiriya, a Sinhala
activist from the NSSP (Nava Sama Samaja Party) spoke of the Sri Lankan
Government's failure to build on the genuine desire on the part of a substantial
section of the Sinhala people for a negotiated political solution. Instead, the
Government's actions have been to strengthen the militaristic-chauvinistic camp
thereby completely betraying those Sinhalese people who had voted the Peoples
Alliance Government into office.
He then placed the position of the NSSP by declaring "The party which I
represent, the Nava Sama Samaja Party(NSSP), from its inception in 1977 has
campaigned for the right of self determination and autonomy for the Tamil
speaking people. In parliament and in every other forum the NSSP has
consistently campaigned for this stand. "HARAYA" a, weekly which publishes
similar views to the NSSP has campaigned for these views for the last 10-12
years". He then went onto say that several trade unions including The Joint
Council of Trade Unions (JCTU) which is the main trade union centre and other
unions such as the Government Clerical Services Union(GCSU), Central Bank
Employees Union(CBEU) and the Ceylon Teachers Union(CTU) have taken a similar
stand on the question of Self-Determination.
The address by G G Ponnambalam,
General Secretary of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress traced the intransigence of
the Sinhala political establishment over the last seventy-five years in respect
of the political aspirations of the Tamils. Ponnambalam spoke eloquently on the
subject by beginning with the breach by Sir James Peries and Samarawickrama in
1922 of their promise to Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam on establishing a special
seat for the Tamils in the Western Province, and ending with the attempt by the
current Sinhala regime to pursue a military solution to its conflict with the
Ponnambalam concluded :"Taking all these into account, I wish to state that
Singhalese intransigence is intractable. It is getting worse day by day. This,
coupled with the fact that the Singhalese do not want international third party
mediation, suggest that there does not seem to be much room for ''Peace with
Justice". After independence, responsive cooperation, parliament, dialogue,
pacts, satyagrahas and fasts yielded nothing. It is only the show of force that
has jolted the intransigent Singhalese. It is my position that even peace
packages are non starters because the whole approach is wrong. We will hobble
along for sometime more before the Singhalese and Tamils together herald the
separate state of Thamil Eelam. It seems only this will bring "peace with
Political Adviser to the LTTE's International Unit spoke on the question of
self-determination and the principle of equal political power sharing at the
Mr Lawrence Thilakar, a member
of the LTTE's Central Committee and its chief European spokesperson began by
expressing the hope that "this conference would pave the way for peace with
justice in the island of Sri Lanka." and then continued by declaring that "The
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is committed to a peaceful resolution of the
conflict and is deeply disappointed that the peace talks with the Kumaratunge
Government collapsed in April 1995."
Mr Thilakar then went on to make it clear that: "The peace talks collapsed
because Kumaratunge simply failed to conduct them on an equal basis... At no
stage did the Sri Lankan Government seek to negotiate on the basis that the
Tamil people are a distinct nation with a homeland of their own and an
inalienable right to self-determination. This inclination to negotiate on an
unequal basis was made abundantly clear by Kumaratunge's choice of delegates.
Whereas, the LTTE's delegation was led by the Head of its Political Section, the
Sri Lankan Government side did not include a single cabinet minister.
The "unequal" approach was further evidenced by the Government's unilateral
decision to open the Pooneryn causeway having refused the LTTE's request that
the Pooneryn Army camp be removed. There was also the callous disregard on the
part of the Government to the LTTE's request that the economic embargo on the
north be lifted. Instead, the Sri Lankan Government continued to use the embargo
as an instrument to pressure the LTTE during negotiations. The Sri Lankan
Government persisted with its "unequal" and "unilateral" approach to
negotiations and was dismissive of the LTTE's repeated assertions that
negotiations cannot be conducted in this manner. It refused to review its
hard-line position despite the LTTE having extended its deadline by three weeks.
Mr Thilakar then outlined the LTTE's response to the present situation by
asserting: "This military approach by the Government will only escalate the war
as the LTTE does everything in its power to defend the Tamil people and their
homeland against this onslaught. The LTTE cannot be pressurised or made to
accept under duress anything that does not meet the legitimate aspirations of
the Tamil people.
However, the LTTE is deeply committed to a peaceful resolution of the
conflict. There are still possibilities to pursue a negotiated political
settlement provided the Sri Lankan Government abandons its military approach and
creates conditions for the de-escalation of the war and the withdrawal of
troops." Mr Thilakar ended his speech by calling upon the international
community to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to give up its militaristic
approach and negotiate with the LTTE on an equal basis under international
facilitation and observation.
Mr Thilakar was also afforded an opportunity during the duration of the
conference to address the Australian Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Foreign
Affairs, Defence & Trade outlining the LTTE position.
Other speakers included Dr Dagmar
Hellman-Rajanayagam from the German-Malaysian Institute in Kuala Lumpur,
Malaysia., Dr John Powers of the
Australian National University, Mr
Peer Mohamad, a Tamil Muslim writer from Malaysia,
Mr Vasantha Rajah, a Producer
with the BBC and a former Chairman of Sri Lanka's state-owned Television
Network, Professor Margaret Trawick
from the Department of Social Anthropology at Massey University, Palmerston, New
Zealand, Professor Peter Shalk from the Department of History of Religion in the
Uppsala University in Sweden,
Ms Karen Parker, an attorney
specialising in International Law, Humanitarian (armed conflict) and Human
Rights Law, Dr Sriskantharajah
a Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Agriculture and Rural Development at the
University of Western Sydney and the President of Eelam Tamil Association, New
South Wales, Ms Janet Hunt, the Executive Director of the Australian Council for
Overseas Aid (ACFOA),
Mr Brian Wolf, the Executive
Secretary of the NGO Forum on Sri Lanka based in the UK. and
Secretary of the Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations.
The Conference concluded with a Conference Statement by a sub-committee
chaired by Justice Marcus Einfield making the following salient points:
- Negotiations aimed at a just and durable political settlement
reflecting the reality that the Island is inhabited by the Sinhala and Tamil
peoples, each with their own historic and traditional lands, be commenced.
- Negotiations to be conducted under mutually acceptable facilitation
and international observation.
- The Unitary State in its present form incorporating both Sinhala and
Tamil peoples, is inconsistent with the peace and security of the peoples of
- Negotiations aimed at reaching an agreement to result in the
Governance of the Tamil people being vested with the Tamil people, be
- The economic embargo imposed by the Sri Lankan Government on the
traditional Tamil areas, be lifted immediately.
(Courtesy, Tamil Monitor 6 July 1996 - published by the
Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations)