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Selected Writings by Dr.S.Sathananthan
Tamil national movement in Sri Lanka: The next decade
Text of Speech at London International Tamil Foundation
26 June 1998
From armed resistance to national liberation
The year 1998 marks the 40th anniversary of the anti-Tamil pogrom in 1958. The past four decades has witnessed a tectonic shift in the political milieu of Sri Lanka. During this period the Sri Lankan regime under the control of the Sinhalese nation heaped national oppression upon the Ceylon Tamil nation in myriad forms, which scarred the lives of Tamils within the country and induced the Tamil diaspora.
The national movement of Ceylon Tamils is on the eve of two other anniversaries, which bring back memories of major events that were to determine the movement’s method and direction of struggle. The next year, 1999, will be the 20th anniversaries of the enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) as well as of the first sustained campaign of State terror – Sri Lanka’s dirty war – unleashed by the Sinhalese-controlled regime against the Tamil nation. Under the PTA, the United National Party (UNP) regime defined the armed resistance of Tamils as ‘terrorism’ and legalised the repression of the Ceylon Tamil national movement as ‘maintaining law and order’. In June 1979, President JR Jayawardene ordered the Army Commander Brigadier ‘Bull’ Weeratunga to eradicate ‘terrorism’ in the north ‘within six months’. Brigadier Weeratunga’s military operations between July and December of that year subjected the Tamil people as a whole to collective punishment, irrespective of class, caste, gender and age.
The primary aim was to terrorise Tamils in general in order to discourage their support for, or participation in, the five major Tamil resistance organisations, namely the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), Eelam Liberation Organisation of Students (EROS) and the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). The organisations championed the Tamil Question, that is, the quest for the collective or national rights of Tamils. Under the pretext of attacking the organisations, Tamil youth in particular were indiscriminately arrested, tortured and often killed with impunity.
The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), a Tamil political party, abandoned its 1976 Vaddukoddai Resolution and collaborated with the UNP regime. The collaboration was dressed up as a search for a political solution to the Tamil Question; and it was dignified by so-called ‘negotiations’ for a supposed ‘devolution of power’. However, the TULF’s Tamil politicians knew in 1979 that, in the previous year, the UNP regime’s 1978 Constitution had provided as follows: ‘Parliament shall not abdicate or in any manner alienate its legislative power and shall not set up any authority with legislative power’ (Art 76(1)). The provision made the devolution of power as well as decentralisation of authority unconstitutional; and the Article allowed the establishment only of local government institutions, such as Municipal Councils. But the TULF neither campaigned against Article 76(1) nor insisted on its repeal. Instead the Tamil politicians engaged in an elaborate deception. They attempted to mislead Tamils that a ‘devolution of power’ was possible under the Constitution through the proposed District Development Councils (DDCs).
The main reason, by no means the only one, for the TULF’s collaborationist tactic was the desperate bid to prevent the political leadership of the Tamil nation from passing into the hands of the Tamil resistance organisations. The TULF members made token demands for the withdrawal of the Sinhalese armed forces from the north, partly to placate their political constituencies. In reality, as the elected representatives of Tamils, the TULF members collaborated with the UNP regime to achieve two objectives. Firstly, they sought to politically marginalise the Tamil organisations by colluding in the Sinhalese-controlled regime’s propaganda that the vast majority of the Tamil people represented by the TULF were on the side of the regime. Secondly, they encouraged the decimation of the Tamil organisations by in effect conferring legitimacy upon the regime’s claim that the military repression of the Tamil national movement is a ‘security operation’ against a ‘minority’ of ‘extremists’.
The palpable intention of both the TULF and the UNP regime was to create the impression that they together would formulate a political solution to the Tamil Question. This convergence of interests between the two was dictated by their separate but inter-related aims. The TULF schemed to retain its hegemony of Tamil politics by emasculating the Tamil organisations. The Sinhalese-controlled regime manoeuvred to crush the challenge to its power posed by the Tamil national movement.
However, military repression increasingly discredited the TULF, rapidly radicalised the Tamils, swelled the ranks of the Tamil organisations and catalysed the emergence of the organisations as the dominant force in Tamil politics. The regime’s knee-jerk was to further escalate the violence against Tamils.
By the mid-1980s, the growing mass participation led to the qualitative transformation of armed resistance into national liberation. This metamorphosis was officially recognised when the five Tamil organisations were invited to the 1985 Thimpu Talks, hosted by the Indian Government in Bhutan.
India: limits of external intervention
The Indian Government entered the arena as an active participant in the early 1980s. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had viewed with disquiet President Jayawardene’s pro-United States stance in the late 1970s. However, the political turmoil surrounding the declaration of emergency rule, the defeat of Congress Party and Mrs Indira Gandhi’s subsequent re-election absorbed the attention of policy makers in New Delhi. The Indian Prime Minister appeared not to pay much attention to the battle between the Sri Lankan regime and the Tamil national movement until she was jolted by a proposal made by President Jayawardene at the 1981 Conference of the Heads of State of Non-Aligned Countries in New Delhi.
At the Conference, the Indian Prime Minister was assiduously promoting the concept of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace. Her intention was primarily to prevent the United States from establishing further military bases in the countries on the rim of the Indian Ocean and especially to force the United States Government to dismantle its base in Diego Garcia. But President Jayawardene injudiciously suggested that Diego Garcia should be excluded from the proposed Zone of Peace.
The President’s blatantly pro-United States position threatened the southern flank of India for the first time in post-independence history. The Indian government was already faced with sensitive security problems on the Pakistani border in the west, Bangladeshi border in the east and the Chinese border in the north. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy re-orientation in the late 1970s towards the United States, combined with its cordial relations with China, struck at India’s underbelly and stoked Indian fears of encirclement by anti-Indian forces. The Indian Government was particularly concerned with the reported intention of the Sri Lankan regime to permit the establishment of a transmitting facility for the Voice of America on the western coast and to lease out a petroleum storage facility in Trincomalee to the United States Government.
Moreover, India’s threat perception was radically changing in the 1980s. Up to the mid-1970s the Congress Party dominated national politics and the stability and continuity of the Indian Union was taken for granted. The national movements and the emergence of new States in countries on the borders of India were not seen as dangers to the unity of India. In the then East Pakistan, for instance, the Indian Government confidently supported the freedom movement and assisted the independence of Bangladesh. However, by the early 1980s the so-called ‘regional’ political parties in many of the states successfully challenged Congress dominance and the proliferating national movements in the states gradually weakened the hegemony of the central government. The changing internal balance of power impelled the Indian Government to view the national movements in neighbouring countries as potentially subversive; it feared that these movements would have a type of ‘domino effect’ and encourage and embolden similar nationalist forces growing in strength within India.
In the perception of the South Block, Sri Lanka appeared to provide an almost ideal opportunity to demonstrate the Indian Government’s ability to deal with national movements in bordering countries as well as to project India as the pre-eminent regional power. Although the foreign policy posture of Sri Lanka was hostile to India, the comparative smallness of the country, which in the early 1980s had an essentially ceremonial army, made it seemingly easy for the vastly larger and stronger India to dominate and control the island. Consequently, the Indian Government anticipated that it could bring to heel the Sri Lankan regime fairly quickly. Also the Ceylon Tamil national movement had by the early 1980s become the most potent liberation struggle in South Asia. By neutralising the Tamil liberation organisations, the Indian Government would be able to send a forceful warning to similar national movements within India, that their struggles are doomed to fail, and simultaneously to stake the claim to the status of regional policeman.
The Indian Government chose first to deal with the Sri Lankan regime. It employed a time-tested tactic of geo-politics: ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. The South Block identified the Tamil organisations as the most credible opposition to the UNP regime and cultivated links with the leaders of these organisations. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi began publicly to express concern for the welfare of Tamils in Sri Lanka, no doubt with one eye on political dividends that could be harvested in Tamil Nadu.
The UNP regime played into the hands of the Indian Government when it organised and carried out the Holocaust of July 1983. As Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka poured into Tamil Nadu, the Indian Prime Minister expressed serious concern for the tragic plight of Tamils and seized the opportunity to legitimately demand a role for India in resolving the Tamil Question in Sri Lanka.
Diplomatic exchanges took place between India and Sri Lanka between 1983 and 1987. They were, however, not the substantive element of the Indian Government’s strategy. Concretely, it adopted a two-pronged approach. At the political level, the Indian Government rapidly isolated the Sri Lankan regime in international fora by championing human rights issues and forcefully arguing that the regime was committing genocide against the Tamil people. At the military level, the Indian Government increased the internal pressure on the regime by supporting the armed struggle of Tamil liberation organisations.
In retrospect, it is evident that the aim of the South Block was to corner the Sri Lankan regime, through a combination of increasing international isolation and rising domestic instability, and impose a security treaty under which the regime would be compelled to accommodate India’s security concerns. The supposed resolution of the Tamil Question was to serve as the Trojan Horse to introduce the treaty. This could explain the apparent contradiction of New Delhi and Colombo reaching agreement, under the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, when the war was in fact between the Sri Lankan regime and the Tamil national movement. The Accord had almost everything to do with the bilateral issues relating to India’s national security enumerated in the annexures to it and virtually nothing to do with securing the national rights of Tamils.
The relationship between the Indian Government and the Tamil organisations, however, was more complex. Indian support was finely calibrated in order to make the organisations militarily affective but not strong enough to win against the Sri Lankan armed forces; for a military victory of the organisations would, in India’s view, send the wrong signals to similar national movements within India.
The central issue was the post-treaty scenario. What was to be the Indian Government’s approach to the Tamil liberation organisations after the Sri Lankan regime was coerced to concede India’s hegemonic position? Obviously, the organisations would have outlived their usefulness from the military standpoint. Nevertheless there remained the political problem of ensuring that the Sri Lankan regime did not renege on a treaty. So it was necessary to keep at least one Tamil organisation operational but under the control of the Indian Government in order to compel the Sri Lankan regime to honour any agreement.
Moreover, the Indian Government sought out a Tamil organisation that would do its bidding since it was also necessary to contain, if not eliminate, those Tamil liberation organisations which were loyal to the national movement and therefore would not endorse the agreement reached between New Delhi and Colombo. In a press interview granted on the eve of the Thimpu Talks, Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi explained the approach thus: by the end of 1985, he said, the Thimpu Talks were expected to yield a mutually agreed framework for conflict resolution in Sri Lanka; and India would assist Sri Lanka to implement the agreement and, if necessary, to ‘mop up residual terrorism’.
Available evidence strongly support the conclusion that, by the end of 1986, TELO served as the proxy of the Indian Government. It is also common knowledge that the Indian Government viewed the LTTE as the organisation most loyal to the Tamil national movement, hence least accommodative of India’s interests and, therefore, as the ‘residual terrorism’ to be ‘mopped up’.
The LTTE leader, Mr Velupillai Prabakaran, reduced the carefully laid plans of the South Block to shambles with a few well-timed moves. Firstly, he virtually eliminated TELO in early 1987. The Indian Government replaced TELO with EPRLF, which however lacked the capacity to take the battle to the LTTE and, consequently, was of little use to advance Indian interests. Secondly, within a week after the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed, Mr Prabakaran took the LTTE out of contention by declaring a cease-fire. Immediately the focus shifted to the implementation of the Accord and the contradictions between the Indian Government and the Sri Lankan regime came to the surface.
The PLOTE misjudged the depth and strength of Tamil nationalism, and it unwisely abandoned the Tamil national movement and sided with the Sri Lankan regime. In contrast, the EROS leadership in Jaffna was considerably farsighted; they aligned themselves with the LTTE.
More importantly, the systematic efforts of the regime to scuttle the Accord revealed the deep-seated hostility among most UNP politicians not only to India’s hegemonic intervention but also to any attempt, however superficial, to address the Tamil Question.
The regime’s hostility to the Accord should not be interpreted to mean that the first section of the Accord, dealing with the Tamil Question, genuinely contemplated devolution of power. The Accord did not require the preceding repeal of Article 76(1) of the Constitution. Thus the provisions supposedly designed to devolve power were a deception; and the proposed Provincial Councils (PCs) were nothing more than local government institutions utterly irrelevant to the resolution of the Tamil Question.
However, the TULF politicians avoided any mention of Article 76(1). They disingenuously defended the Accord as a viable basis for resolving the Tamil Question. The Tamil politicians desperately sought to legitimise the Accord in the hope that its implementation may reward them with crumbs of provincial political office as well as marginalise the LTTE as the intransigent opponent of ‘peace’. Many Tamil politicians were to pay with their lives for thus betraying the Tamil national liberation movement.
The political milieu
One must view the LTTE-led national movement within the political milieu defined by the foregoing events. When the war re-started between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE in June 1990, the prospects for advancing the Tamil national movement appeared very grim indeed. The LTTE (together with EROS) faced opponents on four fronts within the country. Of the two military fronts, the first front against the LTTE consisted mainly of the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Special Task Force (STF) of the Police.
The second front against the LTTE was manned by most of the other Tamils organisations, whose members by then had degenerated into mercenaries collaborating with the armed forces against the Tamil national movement.
The third and fourth fronts were political in nature. President Ranasinha Premadasa’s apparent search for a political solution to the Tamil Question through the toothless All Party Conference (APC) was the third front. He was in fact prosecuting a propaganda war. His primary intention was to conjure up the illusion of a political alternative and thereby to legitimise the military campaign unleashed against the Tamil national movement as necessary to defeat the ‘terrorist’ and ‘intransigent’ LTTE.
President Premadasa’s propaganda was made all the more credible by the fourth front, made up of the left-wing Sinhalese political parties, the TULF and Tamil mercenary (erstwhile resistance) organisations registered as political parties. The left mouthed empty slogans calling for the unity of Tamil and Sinhalese working classes. They deliberately ignored the fact that the Sinhalese bourgeoisie has co-opted the Sinhalese working classes as junior partners in oppressing the Tamil nation and that national oppression had resulted in a cross-class national alliance within the Tamils social formation leading to the emergence of a national movement for self-determination. But, with disarming simplicity, the Sinhalese left made the utopian offer to secure the rights of Tamils; an offer they fondly believed was sufficient to remove the need for a Tamil national movement.
The Tamil parties ritually and unconvincingly urged the regime to include the LTTE in any negotiations that may take place. But, through their collaboration with the Sinhalese-controlled UNP regime, the Tamil political parties – with the important exception of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) – in fact deliberately lent credence to the President’s dishonest claim that the vast majority of Tamils were on the side of the regime and opposed the armed resistance conducted by the LTTE (together with EROS). The Tamil parties obviously conspired to politically isolate the LTTE and so to contribute to the military defeat of the Tamil national movement in order to re-float their collaborationist politics in the north and east of the country.
However, the domestic military campaign and political propaganda against the Tamil national movement fell into disarray between 1990 and 1994 due to internal killings within the UNP regime, the abortive attempt to impeach President Premadasa and his assassination in May 1993 and the unimaginative leadership of President DB Wijetunga.
The Tamil political parties pursued their collaborationist politics with the Peoples Alliance (PA) coalition, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The Tamil politicians supported PA’s campaign for the 1994 parliamentary and presidential elections because, they alleged, the SLFP’s Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunga is the ‘symbol of peace’, that the PA represented the ‘last chance’ for arriving at a negotiated settlement to the Tamil Question. The TULF purveyed this cruel myth whilst President Kumaratunga’s armed forces ruthlessly advanced on Jaffna between July and December of 1995.
The fifth, external front against the Tamil national movement was composed of the international community and led by the Indian Government. From about 1991, allegations of human rights violations, resort to ‘terrorism’ and, more recently, recruitment of children (less than 15 years of age) have been levelled against the LTTE with increasing frequency. The stated objectives of the international community were to minimise the human cost of war and to induce the LTTE to enter into negotiations with the Sri Lankan regime.
The external front was most active during the period from the announcement of President Kumaratunga’s Devolution Proposals in August 1995 to the release of the Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on Constitutional Reform in October 1997. Both documents outlined constitutional reform measures, which, the international community assumed, constituted windows of opportunity to initiate political processes towards resolving the Tamil Question. Consequently, the international community intensified the pressure on the LTTE to enter into negotiations with the PA regime.
By early 1998, the interest of the international community in catalysing a process of negotiations waned as it became increasingly obvious that the constitutional measures proposed by the PA regime are a political mirage. The PA regime’s single-minded pursuit of a military solution to the Tamil Question has once again focused attention on the political legitimacy of the armed struggle of the LTTE-led Tamil national movement.
Toward a military solution
The foregoing is by no means an exhaustive account of the events as they unfolded during the past two decades. But it, however, is adequate to draw attention to important lessons of history, which ought to inform an assessment of the tasks that await the Tamil national movement in the next decade of struggle.
The methods employed and tactics adopted by the Tamil national movement in its resistance against national oppression intensified, on both political and military fronts, by the Sinhalese-controlled regime vindicate Nelson Mandela’s dictum: it is the oppressor, not the oppressed, who determines the form of struggle.
The ‘peace bubble’ burst when the PA regime released the October 1997 PSC Report. Article 92(1) of the Report provided that "Parliament shall not abdicate or in any manner alienate its legislative power and shall not set up any authority with any such legislative power". This provision is virtually identical to Article 76(1) of the UNP’s 1978 Constitution and to Article 45(1) of the 1972 Constitution formulated by the SLFP-led United Front (UF) regime. In short, there is no substantive change in the obstinate rejection of devolution of power by Sinhalese-controlled regimes over the past two and half decades. The PA regime, like its predecessors, does not seek a negotiated settlement; it, too, is relentlessly pursuing a military solution to the Tamil Question.
Indeed the provision on State religion reveals the intensely Sinhalese-chauvinist stance of the PA regime. The PSC Report did not merely reiterate the provision in Article 9 of the 1978 Constitution, that Buddhism shall enjoy ‘the foremost place’. It did more. Article 7 of the PSC Report further entrenched Buddhist supremacy by providing for a ‘Supreme Council’ of Buddhist Clergy to advise the regime.
Given that the regime never did and still does not seek a political solution to the Tamil Question, what are its chances of achieving a military victory over the Tamil national movement?
When war broke out in June 1990, Sinhalese hawks in Colombo theorised that the LTTE had antagonised the Indian Government by attacking the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and so lost New Delhi’s support and forfeited the sanctuary of the rear base in Tamil Nadu. They concluded that the LTTE therefore could be trapped in the Jaffna peninsula with ease and gleefully anticipated a quick military victory for the regime. The strategy employed by the armed forces appears to have been based largely on this reasoning. Gen Kobbekaduwa went first to the east to drive the LTTE cadre to the north where they were to be cornered in the Jaffna peninsula and hopefully eliminated for good. The staggering naivete of the strategy, and its dismal failure, is well known and need not be recounted here.
Sinhalese analysts then attributed the military success of the LTTE to the advantages accruing from the control of liberated territory by the LTTE particularly in the Ceylon Tamil cultural heartland, the Jaffna peninsula. The solution, they blithely assumed, lay in demoralising and weakening the LTTE by dislodging it from the peninsula. So when Operation Riviresa rolled into the city of Jaffna in December 1995, the ‘conquest’ of Jaffna was openly celebrated on the streets in the south as signifying the end of the war and imminent destruction of the LTTE.
Critical Tamil analysts, however, drew parallels with the experience of the IPKF and predicted that a similar fate awaited the Sinhalese armed forces in the north. It would, they reasoned, be a matter of time before the LTTE’s guerrilla war exacted a heavy toll in men and materials from the armed forces and imposed a military stalemate.
Sinhalese hawks blandly dismissed these arguments on grounds that the Sinhalese soldiers are generally more educated, and therefore more intelligent, than the Indian soldiers and possess superior fighting capabilities. They seriously believed that the LTTE, expelled from the peninsula, would have no choice but to slink into the jungles of Vanni and wither away.
These delusions of grandeur evaporated in the face of military reversals on the ground. The armed forces in the peninsula are trapped in a war they cannot win. Operation Jayasikurui, unleashed in May 1997 to open the road link from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass, encountered fierce resistance from the LTTE and has all but run into the ground. Even if the objective is achieved, it is blindingly obvious that the armed forces cannot hold the entire stretch of the road for any length of time.
The next decade
The LTTE has proved to be resilient not only because of the tenacity of its cadre but, more importantly, because it represents a popular national movement, firmly rooted in the Tamil people. As the military reversals continue to mount, the PA regime is growing desperate. It is sliding into the genocidal frame of mind, which dictates as follows: that which cannot be conquered must be destroyed.
The regime is fully aware that the strength of the LTTE resides in the Tamil nation. So the indiscriminate aerial bombing and artillery shelling, often blindly at night, of Tamil homes in the north and east and the embargo on food and medical supplies are designed to break the will of the Tamil nation.
The Sri Lankan regime’s actions could qualify as genocide under Genocide Convention, which defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such". Article 2(c) in particular applies to the situation in the north and east of the country; for it includes under genocide, "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part".
A Sinhalese hawk helpfully explained the rationale underlying the genocidal attack on the Tamil people. He borrowed Mao Tse Tung’s famous dictum and conceded that the LTTE cadre are no doubt ‘fish swimming in friendly [Tamil] waters’; since the ‘fish’ cannot be caught, he said, ‘we will poison the water’.
The regime is impelled by an additional and urgent need to intensify the military onslaught against Tamils. The SLFP and its coalition partners in the PA have completed the first half of their term of office. They have to face parliamentary and presidential elections within the next two and half years. The SLFP is very unlikely to be able to show positive results by way of improvements in the economy. Nor is President Kumaratunga likely abolish the Executive Presidency and so fulfil her election pledge.
However, if the SLFP could show progress on the military front and whip up Sinhalese nationalism it is bound to attract Sinhalese voters and improve its chances of winning the forthcoming elections. In fact, this is the only option open to the SLFP.
In other words, at present there is little scope for a negotiated settlement to the Tamil Question. Any so-called ‘peace process’ bandied about by the Sri Lankan regime is in reality its war strategy, to hoodwink the Tamil people and international community, politically isolate the LTTE and to legitimise the military solution to the Tamil Question.
The duplicity of successive Sinhalese-controlled regimes has more than convinced the Tamils living in Sri Lanka that the LTTE-led Tamil national movement is the legitimate struggle for their inalienable national rights. They are firm in their unflinching resolve to defend the movement and confident of final victory.
Tamils have drawn considerable inspiration from the British precedence. The British government has recognised the right of self-determination of the Scottish and Welsh nations by the very act of holding the two referenda. The Tamils in Sri Lanka will continue their struggle until the Sri Lankan regime accepted the right of national self-determination of the Tamil nation.