Sri Lanka Envoy in U.S. tells American Diplomats what Traditional Tamil Homeland really means
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Nov 2 14:55:04 UTC 2006
Published on Asian Tribune
Sri Lanka Envoy in U.S. Bernard Goonetilleke tells American : Diplomats
what Traditional Tamil Homeland really means
Created 2006-11-01 14:30
Washington, D.C. 1 November (Asiantribune.com): Sri Lanka ambassador to
the United States Bernard Goonetilleke had a field day in American
diplomacys most important and sacred center, U.S. Foreign Service
Institute that produces American diplomats to the world. He hit a home run
when he described the myth of traditional Tamil homeland concept before
the diplomats, and would be diplomats, casting an insinuation to some
experienced diplomats that, in supporting this mainly LTTE demand, they
are doing so without proper understanding or accurate assessment of the
ground situation in Sri Lanka. Bernard Goonetilleke wanted the interested
parties, both in Sri Lanka and in the international arena, to list out
what the legitimate Tamil grievances are to facilitate the resolution of
political issues in his country. He questioned as to why other Tamil
groups, now in the democratic process, are not brought into the
negotiating process while enlightening the American diplomats that a
majority of ethnic minority Tamils live outside the domain of the Tamil
Tigers among the majority Sinhalese in other parts of the country.
Reminding the miss-steps taken in the fifties and the seventies in respect
of language and university admission policies that alienated the Tamils,
Goonetilleke wanted the interested parties, both in Sri Lanka and in the
international arena, to list out what the legitimate Tamil grievances are
to facilitate the resolution of political issues in his country. He
cautioned the audience at the U.S. Foreign Service Institute in Washington
that Sri Lanka is a vibrant democracy reminding them that it was his
country that sowed the first seeds of democracy in the Asian region.
Following is the full text of Ambassador Bernard Goonetillekes address
before the United States Foreign Service Institute delivered on 31st
When we focus on a topic like Sri Lanka Today, it is important to look
back at the islands past, even briefly, as it has a bearing on what it is
today, just as much as what effect developments of today will have in
shaping the country tomorrow. Geographically, Sri Lanka is an island
nation the extent of which is app. 25,000 sq. miles. While in size it is
similar to the State of West Virginia, our population is much larger and
is currently close to 20 million, with an average growth of 1.1%. Sri
Lankas history goes back to over 2500 years and the island was inhabited
by several groups of people even during the prehistoric times as evidenced
by archaeological excavations. Arrival of immigrants from North India was
said to have taken place around 483 BC. Repeated invasions by South
Indians beginning in 205 BC, transfer of kingdom from Anuradhapura to
Polonnaruwa in the 11th century, the arrival of European colonizers - the
Portuguese- in 1505 A.D., followed by the Dutch in 1656 and the British in
1796, the fall of the last kingdom of Kandy into the hands of the British
in 1815 and the achievement of independence in 1948 are some important
landmarks in Sri Lankas history. These events, in one way or the other,
have influenced Sri Lanka in modern times and probably will influence the
island in the future as well. Another important aspect, which relates to
our topic today, is what we have done or some times failed to do in the
past, that have impacted on todays Sri Lanka. The time of independence
from Britain would be a reasonable marker, to understand why we are here
today and not somewhere else.
Policies that were positive
Let me focus on how some measures we took and policies we adopted then
have impacted positively on todays Sri Lanka.
You know that Sri Lanka is a democracy. However, a little known fact is
that Sri Lanka was the first country in Asia, where the seeds of democracy
were sown. That happened three quarters of a century ago in 1931, when the
Universal Adult Suffrage was introduced to the island, while it was still
a British colony. Despite the passage of time, we have been able to
nourish democracy and hold periodic multi-party elections at local
government and national levels.
Since independence Sri Lanka invested heavily on human development at
considerable cost to the state coffers. Consequently, despite being a
middle-income country, with a per capita income of $1197 GDP, our social
indicators are similar to some countries which have much higher income
Sri Lanka is perhaps among the very few countries in the world, which,
since 1944, has provided education from the entry level at the age of 5
years up to and including the university level, free of charge. In
addition, school children are provided with free textbooks and uniforms
and needy university undergraduates are provided with scholarships. This
has resulted in the creation of a level playing field for children to
pursue education irrespective of their social or economic background. This
policy has resulted in a literacy rate exceeding 90%. However, it has also
contributed to unemployment among educated youth and their
marginalization, which has contributed to two insurgencies in the south
and the north and east.
As with education, health services are also free at government hospitals,
whether the patients seek emergency treatment or have to undergo
complicated surgery. The result of this policy is that Sri Lanka has been
able to push life expectancy to 70 and to 72 years for males and females
respectively. Our infant mortality rate is a low 11.2 per 1000 births and
maternal mortality rate is 17 per 100,000.
A Robust Economy
Considering that Sri Lanka has been a victim of a vicious separatist armed
conflict for almost 30 years, it is refreshing to note that our economy
has been performing commendably. According to current figures, the economy
grew at the rate of 8.3% and 7.6 % during the first two quarters, with the
annual average for 2006 expected at 7.6 %.
It should be noted is that this commendable growth is despite the
economically debilitating armed conflict which has been stepped up since
December 2005 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the
Tamil Tigers. This growth reflects not only the resilience of the economy
in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami and in the midst of escalating
oil prices, but also the potential the country holds for development in an
atmosphere of peace.
Policies that went wrong
Despite these positive indicators, it can be said that Sri Lanka is where
it is today as a result of certain policy decisions taken by successive
administrations since independence. The language policy of the 1950s and
the university admission policy in the 1970s were some measures taken by
former administrations to address historic injustices faced by the Sinhala
community under colonial rule and those living in underdeveloped areas of
the country, respectively. However, in the course of implementation, these
measures adversely affected the Tamil community, who had hitherto enjoyed
privileges especially in the field of education and employment, which
created the first fissures that contributed to dividing the two
communities, the results of which are now being experienced by the
Similarly, as many newly independent countries, Sri Lanka too wished to be
separated from the umbilical cord that connected the country with its
former colonial master, the United Kingdom. In that process, two
Republican constitutions were adopted in 1972 and 1978, which
unfortunately further alienated the Tamil community.
What was more ironic was how the second Republican constitution failed to
meet an important objective. Focusing on the undesirability of the massive
majority it won at the 1977 general election, which decimated the
opposition, the new administration decided to move away from the
first-past-the-post to proportional representation. While this measure met
some objectives, the result of that exercise was that no political party
was able to win a comfortable majority good enough to form a government,
resulting in having to rely on coalition governments supported by several
small parties. This prevented successive administrations from taking
crucial decisions relating to pressing national issues, such as
introducing essential constitutional changes to address the problems of
the minorities and moving away from the Executive Presidential system, as
desired by some, due to the inability to come up with a 2/3 majority in
Another shortcoming was the inability of successive governments to address
policy issues in their right perspective. Instead, the party, which is in
the opposition that is in US parlance the minority party, as a rule of
thumb opposed whatever that was proposed by the ruling party. This
practice, in the absence of bipartisan support on major issues as in the
US, has made it impossible for Sri Lanka to address critical issues as
they emerge and move on to the task of nation building.
The Armed Conflict
When we speak of Sri Lanka today, our minds generally go to news items and
editorials that dominate the day. During the month of October there have
been many such editorials and news reporting. Some editorials referred to
issues concerning Sri Lanka with captions such as Asias unending war
(Boston Globe of October 22), Tiger terror, (The Times of October 19),
Targeting the Tamil Tigers (Washington Times of October 18) etc. These
referred to issues such as the ethnic conflict, terrorism,
self-determination, Tamil homeland, aspirations and grievances of Tamils,
human rights violations etc.
I would like to begin by saying that these are issues, which require
in-depth knowledge of the topic, and not superficial understanding of the
subjects. The time available is not sufficient for me to address all the
issues, but I shall focus on some major ones.
Is it really an ethnic conflict?
I would like to point out that the first mistake observers of Sri Lanka
make today is trying to generalize the conflict and attach convenient
labels to help those who do not know the subject. For example, they see
the conflict as an ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and
minority Tamils. Some compound the situation by pointing out that the
conflict is between Sinhala Buddhists and Hindu Tamils and others trying
to explain that Sinhalese are descendents of fair skinned Aryans and the
Tamils as dark skinned Dravidians! This is what we call stereotyping.
First, the Sri Lankan conflict is not a religious issue between Buddhists
and Hindus. In Sri Lanka, there are Hindu places of worship cheek by jowl
with Buddhist temples. Moreover, there are Hindu places of worship such as
Kataragama in the Southern Province and Munneswaram Temple in the Western
Province, which are places of veneration for the Buddhists as well. On the
other hand, there are Buddhist places of worship such as the Sri Pada or
to use the English name the Adams Peak, which is a Buddhist place of
worship, or the Kandy Perahera, a Buddhist religious pageant, in which
The census of 1981 provides a clear picture of the distribution of the
population in Sri Lanka, which consisted of 74% Sinhalese, 12.7% Sri
Lankan Tamils, 5.5 % Indian Tamils and 7.0% Sri Lankan Moors (Muslims) and
0.7% of others. However, what we have to understand is that the Indian
Tamils, who live the Central Province, are a distinct group from the Sri
Lankan Tamils who live predominantly in the North and the East of the
country. What is more important is that they are not in truck with the
Tamil Tigers, who are conducting an armed conflict demanding a separate
state. Moreover, elected representatives of the Indian Tamils, as a rule
of thumb, form part of the administration and hold cabinet portfolios.
The second aspect is that the conflict is not between the Sri Lankan
Tamils and the Sinhalese based on ethnicity unless fanned by politics.
While Sri Lankan Tamils live predominantly in the North and to a lesser
extent in the East, a large percentage of them currently live in other
parts of the country, along with the Sinhalese, Muslims and others, so
much so, according to the latest census, a greater percentage of Sri
Lankan Tamils live in areas other than the North and the East. The reason
for this demographic change is, while a considerable number of Tamils left
the country after 1983, in the recent past, large numbers of Sri Lankan
Tamils have voted with their feet and left the areas dominated by Tamil
Tigers, who call themselves the sole representatives of the Tamil people.
This being the situation, how accurate is it to describe the conflict as
an ethnic conflict? My response is, it is not an ethnic conflict but a
separatist war waged by an armed group using terrorism as a tactic to
achieve its political goal. It is a fact that the Tamil Tigers have been
engaged in an armed conflict with the democratically elected governments
since 1976, with a view to establishing a separate mono-ethnic state in
the North and the East, which comprises 1/3 of the land mass of the
country in the name of Sri Lankan Tamils.
LTTE and Terrorism
The Tamil Tigers introduce themselves as a national liberation movement.
Irrespective of labels, one must look into the modus operandi of the
organization, to understand what they really are. The editorial of The
London Times of October 19, 2006 speaks of the Tigers as terrorists. The
Washington Times editorial of October 18 reminds us that the US has
classified the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization. That was not a
unique decision. The Tamil Tigers earned the classification of a terrorist
group by hard work and sheer persistence. In May 1991 they assassinated
former Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi by employing a female suicide bomber
and New Delhi responded by classifying them as a terrorist organization.
The US classified the Tamil Tigers as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in
October 1997. In February 2001, four years after the US classification, UK
followed suit. This year, Canada, after much soul-searching, imposed a ban
on them. That policy decision was followed by the 25 member EU under the
EU regulations providing for the designation of terrorist organizations.
Meanwhile, Australia too has taken measures to designate the LTTE under
regulations giving effect to Security Council Resolution 1373 to curb
financing of terrorism. We must ask why, most of these countries, being
Western liberal democracies, decided to classify the Tamil Tigers as a
terrorist organization? As I said earlier, they have worked hard to earn
In case there is a disagreement, I would like to point out that while
there is no universally accepted definition of international terrorism,
the Department of State describes international terrorism as involving
citizens or the territory of more than one country, and the term
"terrorism" as premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated
against non-combatant targets by sub national groups or clandestine
agents, usually intended to influence an audience. (Country Reports on
Terrorism published annually has based its definition, as contained in
Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656 f (d).
Needless to say the Tamil Tigers perfectly fit in to the description.
Tamil Tigers, who claim to be a national liberation movement, are seeking
the right to self-determination. We are all aware that the right to
self-determination is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations as a
universal right, which has also been embodied in the International
Covenants on Human Rights, as well as in the Declaration on the Granting
of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, contained in the
General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960. However, it
must be emphasized that none of these international instruments provide
for or support the recourse to terrorism in pursuit of self-determination,
and to secede from a state, which has already attained independence
thereby in violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
We have seen numerous instances, where terrorist groups have suggested
that terrorism is permissible to achieve self-determination. Some
terrorist groups also try to support their claim by making partial
reference to the 1970 Declaration on Friendly Relations and Cooperation
among States on the same issue. The declaration does not in any way
justify secession in violation of the sovereignty and territorial
integrity of independent states. It is pertinent to point out that having
deliberated on the matter extensively, the Vienna Declaration of 1993,
while recognizing that all peoples have the right to self-determination,
declared Taking into account the particular situation of peoples under
colonial or other forms of alien domination or foreign occupation, the
World Conference on Human Rights recognizes the right of peoples to take
any legitimate action, in accordance with the Charter of the United
Nations. I need not labour the point that resorting to terrorism is
neither legitimate nor in accordance with the Charter of the United
The demand for a traditional homeland for Tamils or when it suits them for
Tamil speaking peoples has been a rallying cry of the Tamil Tigers. Others
have repeated or supported this demand without proper understanding or an
accurate assessment of the ground situation in Sri Lanka.
With a view to understanding the demand of the Tigers, let us look at the
facts, for which one must have an understanding of history, geography,
distribution of people, politics etc., of the country.
First, as I said earlier, the size of the country is app. 25,000 sq. miles
with a population of nearly 20 million.
Second, the demand of the Tamil Tigers is for the entirety of two
provinces i.e. the Northern and the Eastern Provinces, which were
temporarily merged by an executive order of the President, subsequent to
signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987.
Third, the temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces cover app.
1/3 of the landmass of the country and 2/3 of its coastline.
Fourth, over 50% of Sri Lankan Tamils live outside the Northern and the
Eastern Provinces. In short, translated into figures, the demand the Tamil
Tigers is to have 1/3 of the land mass of the country for fewer than 6% of
Sri Lankan Tamils currently living in the North and the East.
Fifth, while the Northern Province is predominantly populated by Tamils,
due to the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Sinhalese and Muslims from
that province by the Tamil Tigers, in post 1983 period and particularly in
June 1990 respectively, population distribution of the Eastern Province is
quite different. According to the 1981 census, the Tamils formed 40% of
the population in the Eastern Province, Muslims 32% and Sinhalese 25%. One
needs not to be a mathematician to calculate that non-Tamils form the
majority of the Eastern Province. Yet the demand is that the Eastern
Province, irrespective of its demography, should form part of their
traditional homeland. The Tamil Tigers are vehemently against holding of a
referendum, as provided in paragraph 2.3 of the Indo-Lanka Accord, to
consult the people in the Eastern Province with regard to the merger.
I can go on, but let me digress here a little and pose a few questions and
at the same time provide answers to facilitate those who have not quite
grasped the situation.
First, leaving the Northern Province aside, when did the Eastern Province
become the traditional homeland of Tamils? According to Websters Deluxe
Unabridged Dictionary, one explanation of tradition is a long established
custom or practice that has the effect of an unwritten law. If tradition
is something that has been long established, what about those practices
that have been established longer? Those who have studied history of the
country know that greater part of the present day Eastern Province, during
the historical period, was inhabited by the Sinhalese and later by Tamils
and Muslims. If one wishes to be fair, it can be said that the Eastern
Province was inhabited by the aborigines of the island during the
prehistoric period even before the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims made that
part of the island their home and some of their descendants continue to
live there to date. The claim of Tamil Tigers for a two nation theory has
been based on a misleading reference made in a minute by Hugh Cleghorn,
Colonial Secretary in June 1799, with regard to the areas supposedly
inhabited by Tamils bordered by Chilaw on the western coast and river
Walawe in southern coast during that period. If what he had reported was
true, we have to accept that Sinhalese people originated in Siam - present
day Thailand - and Jaffna was predominantly inhabited at that time by
people of Moorish extraction! Such was his lack of knowledge of the
country served by him briefly when the British took over maritime areas of
then Ceylon from the Dutch. Sri Lankan Tamils began to populate the
Eastern Province in significant numbers during the early British times,
and even then they inhabited only the costal areas of the East, whereas
the Moors made the East their home during the Kandyan King Senaraths time,
following the expulsion of Moors from the coastal areas by the Portuguese
1626. It is a fact that Sinhalese and Tamils lived together even in the
Northern Province in the historical past as evidenced by archaeology,
historical inscriptions and lore. Should we therefore not conclude, that
the island being a multi-ethnic society is the traditional homeland of
Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors (Muslims), Burghers etc.
Second, was the Northern, or for that matter, the Eastern Province
demarcated on an ethnic basis by the colonial masters? The answer is no.
When the British demarcated these two provinces in 1833 in terms of the
Colebrook-Cameron Reforms, or when the borders of the 9 provinces which
exist to date were demarcated in 1889, they were done solely for
administrative purposes and not on ethnic considerations.
Third, what did the Indo-Lanka Agreement say about the so-called homeland?
Was it by mistake the 1987 Agreement between India and Sri Lanka in
paragraph 1.4 recognized that the Northern and the Eastern Provinces have
been areas of historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples,
who have at all times hitherto lived together in this territory with other
ethnic groups. Thus, is it not clear that in that province lived Tamil
speaking peoples, namely the Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Moors with
other ethnic groups, which included the Sinhalese? How can then the
Eastern Province become the sole preserve of the Tamils?
Fourth, should the rights of the Sinhalese and the Moors living in the
Eastern Province be sacrificed in fulfilling the aspirations of the Tamil
Tigers to have a traditional homeland? If for a moment, we forget about
the recent history, that is when the Tamils came to populate the Eastern
Province in significant numbers, and look at the current population
distribution in that province, we see that non-Tamils surpass the Tamils
by a ratio of 6 to 4. The question we should ask is, by promoting a
separate homeland for the Tamils, as demanded by Tamil Tigers, who are
non-democratic, tolerate no dissention and promote a mono ethnic one party
state, are they not attempting to deliver not only the Tamils in Eastern
Province, but also the Moors and Sinhalese to a fascist dictatorship?
Fifth, what about the Tamils living in other parts of the country, if a
Tamil homeland were to be established by Tamil Tigers? As I have pointed
out, a majority of Sri Lankan Tamils now live outside the Northern and
Eastern Provinces. If there is an agreement to establish a homeland for
the Tamils comprising the Northern and the Eastern Provinces, how do the
promoters of the proposal, plan to look after the aspirations and
grievances of the majority of the Sri Lankan Tamil population currently
living outside these two provinces? Do they support a mass migration, just
like the one that took place in the Indian sub continent during the
partition in 1947 and deliver the hapless Tamils, who left the two
provinces to escape the atrocities of the Tamil Tigers, back to the grips
of the Tigers for a second round of suffering? Or on the other hand, is
there another formula to address their grievances and aspirations, while
they continue to remain in areas other than the Northern and Eastern
Provinces? You will note that I have not spoken of the aspiration of the
Tamils in the Eastern Province to be free of the Tamil Tigers, who are
from the Northern Province.
Tamil Grievances and Aspirations
When we discuss the conflict in Sri Lanka, we also come across of two
terminologies viz. grievances and aspirations of Tamils. Sometimes we use
the adjective legitimate to highlight the two issues.
First of all, I have to make it clear that as human beings we all have
aspirations. We aspire to do well in our lives; we aspire to our children
excelling in studies and succeed in life, and the list can go on and on.
Most of the time our aspirations can be legitimate; but then, some of us
could also aspire to achieve certain other things, which are not quite
legitimate. What is important is that, it is not only the Tamil community
that have aspirations. Other communities too have their own aspirations
and legitimate aspirations too, which may be similar to or different from
those of Tamils.
The fact of the matter is, the administration has accepted in good faith
to address the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people. But nobody has
listed or gone beyond such statements to list or examine what these
aspirations are, whether they are legitimate or not, and more importantly,
if they are justified, whether those give reason for creation of a
I could say the same thing about grievances too, but to a lesser extent.
For example, earlier I acknowledged that the Tamil community had certain
grievances resulting from the language policy adopted in the 1950s and the
university entrance policy in the 1970s. The fact is that the issues
relating to the language policy has been addressed when Tamil was made an
official language along with Sinhalese, through amendments to the 1987
constitution. Yet, we have to acknowledge that still there are certain
grievances experienced by Tamils, due to the practical shortcomings in
putting the language policy in to practice. Likewise, the issues relating
to university entrance have also been addressed and today the problem is
that the two universities established in the Northern and the Eastern
Provinces function sporadically due to the politicization of those
educational institutions by the Tamil Tigers. Remember I said earlier that
the financial responsibility of university education is borne by the
state, and that being the situation we cannot admit all those who obtain
pass marks. That is a problem faced by all communities Sinhalese, Tamils
as well as Moors. I admit that there are other grievances, such as the
land issue faced by Tamils as well as others, which need to be addressed
in good faith.
But the question that needs to be answered is whether the only remedy
available for addressing the grievances and aspirations of Tamils is by
radically changing the structure of the state to create a separate state.
If that is the case, how could Sri Lanka address the aspirations and
grievances of the other minorities, the Sri Lanka Moors and Indian Tamils?
Are we talking here something else, namely decentralizing the
administration and or sharing of power between the centre and periphery to
facilitate people living in those areas, to be masters of their destiny?
The next question is should that be done on the basis of ethnicity or on a
geographical basis, democratically or in an arbitrary manner without
consulting the people?
Needless to say that any agreement reached to devolve or share
administrative power should be done through a democratic process. Such
units must be established having consulted the people living there through
democratic means, such as multiparty elections or referendums.
It must be emphasized that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has gone on record
not once but several times that he is in favour of granting maximum
possible devolution. It is with that commitment in view earlier this year;
he took steps to establish an All Party Representations Committee (APRC),
open to all democratically elected parties in parliament. Unfortunately,
several parties have so far not joined that process. Moreover, a panel
comprising legal and constitutional experts has been established to advice
the APRC. The intention of this exercise is to build consensus among
political parties in the parliament on the extent of devolution that can
be legally and democratically granted to the people in the North and the
East. It is our hope that this process would result in working out a
comprehensive framework for maximum devolution of power and to address the
grievances of all minorities. Among the proposals that are being examined
are modalities for greater power sharing between the centre and periphery,
including the representation of the periphery in the law making process at
the centre, such as through the establishment of a Second Chamber
comprising representatives elected by the peripheral units. That is the
democratic way of governance - decisions through consultation to arrive at
In this context, the October 23 historical agreement between the Sri Lanka
Freedom Party, the majority party in the ruling coalition, and the major
opposition party the United National Party (i.e. the minority party in the
U.S. political system), can be described as a harbinger for evolving such
a consensus through the APRC process.
Negotiations with the LTTE
It will be fair, I suppose, to expect the LTTE to undergo a metamorphosis,
so that it will also transform itself to a democratic entity as several
other Tamil militant groups did after 1987. In fact, some former militants
now hold cabinet portfolios and one is entrusted with the task of regional
However, those who have studied the conflict of Sri Lanka would notice
that the Tamil Tigers engaged in negotiations with successive
administrations on 5 different occasions, namely in 1985, 1987, 1989/90,
1994/95, 2002/2003. On all those occasions, they walked away from the
negotiating table to wage war and on three occasions employed suicide
bombers to kill those who were responsible for taking them to the
negotiating table and succeeded on two occasions. More recently, in April
2006, having agreed to meet in Geneva, they refused to proceed to the
venue, and in May, having gone all the way to Oslo, refused to engage in
talks with the government negotiators on a flimsy excuse. They have
adopted a similar tactic last week in Geneva.
Despite their intransigent behaviour, the peace facilitator Norway, and
other Co-Chairs - the US, Japan and the European Union, and the Secretary
General of the UN together with many others have encouraged the two sides
to re-engage in negotiations. In the case of the US, it has taken the
position, as explained by Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, who
does not mince his words, that "The US does not recognize the LTTE. We
dont deal with them, we dont support them, we are extremely critical of
themwe have no sympathy whatsoever for the Tamil Tigers." Yet he urged the
Government to negotiate with Tamil Tigers.
The international position on negotiations with the LTTE can best be
described as seemingly contradictory but conditioned by circumstances. In
the first instance, there is a strong feeling here in the US and
elsewhere, that one should not deal with terrorists. Yet there is general
support, if not urging, that the Sri Lanka Government should engage in
negotiations with the LTTE. Is this due to the claim by the Tamil Tigers
that they are the sole representatives of the Tamil People or due to the
fact that they dominate certain areas of the north and the east and
holding a vice-like grip on the Tamil people to the extent that separating
the people from the LTTE is not a feasible exercise? On the other hand, is
it due to the fact that the Government has so far not come up with a
workable proposal for devolution or sharing of power with the Tamils? How
come the international community have overlooked the need to support and
empower those Tamil political parties, which are democratic and are at the
receiving end by the Tamil Tigers?
There is general agreement within and outside Sri Lanka that the conflict
in Sri Lanka cannot be resolved by continuing with the armed conflict. The
way out of the impasse is through negotiation. However, to think that
objective could be achieved through negotiations only with Tamil Tigers
does not seem to reflect reality. The five instances of negotiations since
1985 and the last three experiences in Geneva and Oslo are sufficient to
conclude that the vision of the Tigers is nothing but a separate state.
This is confirmed by the well-documented thinking of the leader of the
organization, that a separate state should not come on a platter either.
The Tamils have to fight to realise that objective. In fact his call to
his supporters was, if he deviated from the goal of a separate state, they
have the right to kill him.
It is exactly that goal they are pursuing right now, which exercise was
articulated by the leader of the organization last November as follows:
The new government should come forward soon with a reasonable political
framework that will satisfy the political aspirations of the Tamil people.
This is our urgent and final appeal. If the new government rejects our
urgent appeal, we will, next year, in solidarity with our people,
intensify our struggle for self-determination, our struggle for national
liberation to establish self-government in our homeland.
I should try to explain the situation for the sake of clarity. During the
2002/2003 negotiations the two sides met on 6 different times in various
cities of the world from Bangkok to Hakone with Oslo and Berlin in
between. I speak, on those meetings with some knowledge having attended
all of them. At none of these negotiating sessions was it possible to
focus on substantive issues, as at each session the LTTE dodged dealing
with core issues on the guise that they need to focus on the "existential"
problems of the Tamil civilians. However, in December 2002, when they were
urged by the facilitator to compromise, the LTTE delegation agreed to:
..explore a solution founded on the principle of internal
self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking
peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. The
parties acknowledged that the solution has to be acceptable to all
Guided by this objective, the parties agreed to initiate discussions on
substantive political issues such as, but not limited to:
- Power-sharing between the centre and the region, as well as within the
- Geographical region;
- Human Rights protection;
- Political and administrative mechanism;
- Public finance;
- Law and order.
The fact that agreement ended up being still born is seen from what
happened since then ending with the temporary suspension of the
negotiations in April 2003 by the Tigers, and the demand for a federal
structure been elevated to a confederal structure in the ISGA proposals of
October that year. It is in this context some believe that transformation
of the confederal structure to a separate state will be a matter of time.
Ahead of the October 28-29 round of talks in Geneva, political leader of
LTTE, Suppiah Thamilselvan has gone on record that it was not the
intention of the organisation to focus on substantive issues until the
restoration of normalcy has taken place and only after that they will be
able to talk about people's political aims and aspirations. Having assured
the international community that they will go to Geneva without
conditions, Tamil Tigers have insisted in Geneva that future participation
in the negotiations will depend on the opening of the A9 highway to the
north. This is very much like the position the Tamil Tigers adopted during
the 2002/2003 negotiations.
Let me conclude my presentation with some steps that need to be taken, if
we were to focus on Sri Lanka tomorrow rather than today.
I. There should be a commitment on the part of parties to the conflict
that the conflict can be resolved only through negotiations and that it
must be a democratic solution.
II. Parties should address all issues affecting all minorities, including
III. The APRC process should be fast tracked with a view to reaching
consensus on political settlement within the shortest possible period.
IV. The latest round of negotiations commenced in Geneva on October 28
should, within a specific time frame, focus on substantive matters with a
view to ending the armed conflict and achieving a political settlement.
V. In the process of negotiations for a political settlement, the
Government should not overlook the moderate Tamil parties and Muslims in
VI. Following the stance taken by the LTTE in Geneva last week, the
international community should encourage, failing which, pressurize, the
LTTE not to leave the negotiating table under spurious pretexts.
- Asian Tribune -
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