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Sri Lanka's other Tamils

Robert Karniol

If the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) face imminent defeat on the battlefield as Sri Lankan government forces tighten the net around their last remaining stronghold, what of the grievances that spawned their uprising?

The LTTE was founded in 1976 by its charismatic leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and launched a full-scale rebellion in 1983. It was initially just one among several Tamil militant groups that took up arms in response to perceived post-colonial disenfranchisement and discrimination against the Tamil minority in a predominantly Buddhist country. The Tigers ruthlessly crushed their rivals and eventually came to dominate the Tamil cause.

The rebel group has sought since early on to portray itself as uniquely representing Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, but this was never the case. Some Tamil leaders rejected armed struggle outright to pursue their community's interests through constitutional means and others laid down their arms to join the political mainstream. Both groups were targeted by LTTE assassins.

Also, about half of Sri Lanka's Tamil population is thought to live by choice in government-controlled areas outside the northern and eastern regions traditionally dominated by the LTTE.

The LTTE, it should be pointed out, enjoys a degree of political representation in Colombo through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and its 22 sitting parliamentarians. Some have characterised this relationship as akin to that which existed in Northern Ireland between the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein.

A battlefield defeat for the LTTE will leave the group with two options: pursue a guerilla campaign with remnant forces that would likely depend on continued support from the extensive Tamil diaspora; or abandon armed struggle to pursue a political solution.

The hitherto hardline government of President Mahinda Rajapakse also faces two options on achieving a military victory: It can be magnanimous towards the Tamil community and its aspirations; or it can be vindictive.

"We are very much looking for signs from the government on which course they plan to take," a foreign source following developments told The Straits Times, adding: "The Tamil diaspora is critical to the outcome. They are much more difficult to convince (than the local Tamils) if Colombo aims to create a pluralistic and respectful society."

There already exists a mechanism to promote reconciliation, but it has so far proven ineffective. This is known as the All-Party Representative Committee, whose inclusive mandate was weakened by LTTE rejection and a TNA boycott. A post-conflict political process could centre on this group or it could be abandoned in favour of a new mechanism representing a fresh start.

Such a scenario could depend on the remnant LTTE agreeing to pursue a political solution and accepting the involvement of other Tamil leaders. Among the latter are Douglas Devananda, leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party and a minister in the current Cabinet; Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, the former LTTE eastern zone commander known as Colonel Karuna and also a serving Cabinet minister; and Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, a former LTTE fighter known as Pillayan and now Chief Minister of the Eastern Provincial Council.

Colombo's position in any such political process would likely centre on implementing the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka's Constitution. An outcome of the 1987 Indo-Lanka Agreement, this provides for the establishment of provincial councils with devolved powers. The Tamils would gain some degree of autonomy, but the LTTE had previously dismissed this solution. They contend it would simply "(perpetuate) the domination, oppression and exploitation of the Tamil masses by the racist Sinhala state".

A dozen years after the 13th Amendment's passage, the northern district has yet to see a provincial council while the eastern provincial council formed in 2007 after a disputed election has never been fully functional. Pillayan, the region's first Chief Minister, has complained that this is due to Colombo's broken promises while the central government argues that it is the consequence of continued conflict. In either case, this underscores the vital importance of implementing this constitutional provision.

Effective provincial councils will probably be the minimum requirement that Tamil leaders involved in a post-conflict political process will insist upon, with some sort of quasi-federal system as a stronger alternative. They would likely also seek to strengthen the role of the Tamil language, address what they see as anti-Tamil discrimination in education and government employment, and perhaps consider the rehabilitation of former combatants. The last of these points could be linked with concerns over the need for Tamil police to operate in Tamil-dominated areas.

"The Tamil diaspora tends to romanticise the LTTE, particularly if they haven't lived in the country for 30 years, but this is at least partly because the Tigers have knocked off much of their Tamil opposition. Hopefully, a military victory would provide Tamil political leaders the chance to move forward," the foreign source said. The international community, he further noted, has "a lot of money" to support reconciliation.

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