Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, terrorism expert, suggests that the Sri Lankan government should view the recently held Tamil Eelam Supporters Organization (TESO) conference as a failure of its diplomacy. “Those are indications that the media war has been lost. The government has won the war in the battlefield, but lost it at the table,” he opined.
Gunaratna is the head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at Nanyang Technological University,Singapore. He spoke to Ranga Jayasuriya of LAKBIMAnEWS.
The Tamil Eelam Supporters Organization (TESO) conference, patronized by DMK leader Karunanidhi, was held last week. Given the sheer number of Tamils in the South Indian state and Karunanidhi’s and DMK’s traditional relationship with the Eelam cause, do you see the revival of TESO, which was initially set up in the early 80s as an effort by the Eelam lobby to revive the campaign for a Tamil Eelam cause within Tamil Nadu? Or should it be simply ignored as a mere publicity stunt driven by electoral considerations of the DMK?
The timing of this event is due to the fact that DMK leader Karunanidhi needs a hot issue to galvanize and generate support. Karunanidhi believes that the Sri Lankan Tamil Eelam issue would ignite support for him. He is electorally weak at the moment, whereas Jayalalitha Jeyaram, (his main political opponent) is in a strong position. Whenever politicians are in a weak position, not only in Tamil Nadu, but even inSri Lanka, politicians play either the race (ethnic) card or religion card, both of which have a very close appeal to any human being. At this instance, Karunanidhi chose to play the ethnic card. This is a political gimmick by Karunanidhi and it has nothing to do with the ground realities of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Tamils have a much better quality of life than Tamils in Tamil Nadu. And during the last three years since the end of the war, (economy of) Jaffna is growing at 22 per cent annually, and the rest of the country is growing at 7 per cent. There are huge development projects in the north and the east. Therefore, there is no reason for Karunanidhi, who was a past sponsor of terrorism inSri Lanka to raise this issue. Most Sri Lankans regard Karunanidhi as a crook and a clown and he has no standing in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan Tamil issue has a sympathetic audience in Tamil Nadu, which has prompted, given electoral considerations, even the moderate political parties such as the Congress party branch of Tamil Nadu to express a degree of solidarity. There is an old adage that ‘every politics is local’ and understandably, those local or provincial concerns tend to influence the Central Government in New Delhi. How should the Sri Lankan government handle this delicate situation?
The Government of India has many years of experience in managing politicians like Karunanidhi. That is why the Central Government of India took a very decisive step in preventing Karunanidhi from holding this conference. Police in Tamil Nadu filed a motion preventing this conference, but theTamil Nadu Courtoverturned that order. The position ofNew Delhiwas to prevent this conference because India does not wantSri Lankato be a venue to discuss Kashmir or Khalistan separatist causes. If the Indian soil is being used to harm any neighbouring country, it could happen vice versa.
In fact, the Union government of India dismissed the DMK led Tamil Nadu state government in January 1991 for colluding with the LTTE. If not for this collaboration, Rajiv Gandhi, who was killed by the female Tiger suicide bomber, Dhanu, in May 1991, may not have died. The DMK allowed the LTTE to establish a base in Tamil Nadu. They turned a blind to LTTE activities. Today, it is important that the Jayalalitha government takes firm action against the LTTE and if there is no firm action, Tami Nadu will again become the operational base of the LTTE.
The strategy of the Sri Lankan government should be to invite Jayalalitha and other Tamil Nadu politicians to visit Sri Lanka and to show them the unprecedented development in the north and the east; and engage the Tamil Nadu politicians of both DMK, AIADMK and other parties and explain to them that there is a huge propaganda machinery that is operating in Tamil Nadu.
According to your assessment, how strong is the overseas LTTE network in Tamil Nadu? What are the main front groups and personalities representing the LTTE agenda in Tamil Nadu and other Indian states? And how do they coordinate with LTTE front groups in the West and North America and the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, headed by Rudrakumar?
The LTTE has built three structures globally. One is the Global Tamil Forum led by Father Emmanuel. The second is the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam led by V. Rudrakumar and the third is Nediyavan alias Perinbanayagam Sivaparan, who heads the Tamil Coordinating Committee and Tamil Youth Organization. All these three organizations have built their front organizations in Tamil Nadu. They are operating through mainly four politicians. They are: Muthuvel Karunanidhi, M.K. Stalin (Karunanidhi’s son), V. Gopalswamy (Vaiko) and Seeman (pro LTTE film director). All LTTE front organizations have strong relations with Tamil Nadu politicians and they have representation in Tamil Nadu.
How effective are they in shaping Tamil Nadu public opinion and influencing their policy makers?
Most Tamils do not want to associate with the LTTE. They still have memories of a foreign terrorist group coming to their soil and killing the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi. Those memories are still fresh. But in Tamil Nadu, there is a group of Tamil fanatics or Tamil chauvinists. It is this narrow band of Tamil fanatics that have been engaged by the remnants of the LTTE. It is this group that wants to create a greater Tamil Eelam (Dravidistan) one day. The Central Government of India always had those fears. In fact, the idea of separatism came toSri Lankafrom Tamil Nadu. The hardcore Tamils have not given up that idea of creating a Dravidistan.
Given the heavy militarization and the stepped up security in Sri Lanka, the reorganization of the LTTE within Sri Lanka is a long shot. This leads to the possibility that the LTTE remnants and its support network could use Tamil Nadu, reminiscent to the early 80s, as a rear base to reorganize and revive the LTTE. Are you aware of any LTTE activities, be it military or political, taking place in Tamil Nadu ?
In the 1980’s there was a geopolitical dispute between Sri Lanka and India.India was within the Soviet sphere of influence and Sri Lanka was within the western sphere of influence. The Indian government, therefore, made a decision to arm, train and finance terrorist groups in Sri Lanka. The first batch of Tamil Tigers was trained in the Uttar Pradesh, the second batch was trained in the Himachal Pradesh and all the other batches were trained in Tamil Nadu.
Politicians like M.G. Ramachandran and Karunanidhi supported terrorism in Sri Lanka. Therefore, it is very important for the Sri Lankan government to engage politicians in Tamil Nadu. If the LTTE is to strike Sri Lanka, they should have a rear base in Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka should send its best diplomat to Tamil Nadu. The one posted to Chennai should be the best diplomat and not the one in Washington DC or London. The Government of Sri Lanka should view the TESO conference as a failure of Sri Lankan diplomacy. They must now develop a strategy to engage Chennai, akin to the relationship they had earlier. During the war, there was a very good relationship, which has since then deteriorated and that is partly whyIndiavoted againstSri Lankaat the UNHRC. It is important to revive that relationship with Tamil Nadu andNew Delhi.
Are there sleeper cells of the LTTE based in Tamil Nadu, according to your knowledge?
There are a few hundred LTTE cadres based in Tamil Nadu. Some have relocated to Canada,Australia and Europe; still a significant number of them are based in Tamil Nadu. This is a matter for the Indian and Sri Lankan law enforcement agencies to handle. Some of the leaders of the LTTE living overseas are engaged in illegal activities such as human smuggling. It is important that this matter is viewed as a law enforcement issue.
In order to shape the Tamil Nadu public opinion, isn’t it advisable for the Sri Lankan government and its Diplomatic Corp to build a greater rapport with local actors in Tamil Nadu? And what else can we do to create a better perception of Sri Lanka in Tamil Nadu?
Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs should create a diaspora engagement division and it should work very closely with the Ministry of Media and Information to produce information in Tamil and constantly engage the main protagonists in Tamil Nadu. And the Sri Lankan government should appoint their best diplomat not toWashington, not to London, but to Chennai. Also a new organization should be created in Sri Lanka to restore the image of the country that has been gravely damaged by the LTTE. Today, the LTTE has transformed from a terrorist group to a criminal group and a propaganda organization. Police and law enforcement agencies can fight the criminal component of the LTTE. But, there is no organization currently operating inSri Lankato fight misinformation and disinformation activities of the LTTE. Therefore, a new organization should be created and it should be a combined effort of the Information Ministry, Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry. If they do not do it, there will be many more resolutions against Sri Lanka, many more conferences againstSri Lankaand many more protests against the president and other dignitaries whenever they travel overseas. These are all indications that the media war has been lost. The government has won the war in the battlefield, but lost it at the table.