Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka: Moving From ‘Tamil Eelam’ To ‘Eelam Tamil’

By R Hariharan

Col. R. Hariharan

Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) leader M Karunanidhi seems to have quietly acquiesced toNew Delhi’s pressure to shift the focus of his widely publicized “Eelam Tamils’ Rights Protection Conference” on August 12 from ‘Tamil Eelam’ to ‘Eelam Tamil.’ The exercise was more than semantics; except for two – Thol Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthai Katchi (VCK) and Veeramani of the Dravida Kazagham (DK) – other mainline speakers hardly made a reference to an independent Tamil Eelam. Even Thiruma’s speech was mostly devoted to redeem Karunanidhi’s reputation damaged during the Eelam War-4.

Apart from representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, delegates from a number of European countries,Australia and Mozambique, Sweden, Nigeriawere also present. Some of the overseas speakers (i.e. representatives from Sweden and Malaysia) devoted most of the speech to praise the ‘Kalaignar’ (artiste) Karunanidhi. However, Dr Wickramabahu Karunaratne, the firebrand leftist leader from Sri Lanka, did not disappoint the participants; he came out hammer and tongs at the callous attitude of Sri Lankain handling Tamils in the postwar period. Abdul Razak Momoh, member of Nigerian parliament, raised the question “If UN sanctions can be imposed on Iran for taking a nuclear route, why can’t they be imposed onSri Lankafor indulging in human rights violations?”

At a preliminary meeting organized at a city hotel before the conference, Karunanidhi said thelong-term solution to ensure the rights of Tamils was a political one, which had been discussed and debated for long. The medium term solution involved reconstruction of infrastructural and civic facilities in Tamil-majority areas in north and east to ensure a decent living for the people including the right to property, education, employment and other democratic rights. Immediate solution was to be found for resettlement, relief and rehabilitation for the war affected Tamils.

Conference resolutions

Though the 14 resolutions passed at the conference (given in annexure) cover the long, medium and short term issues, they lack logical coherence and continuity. No effort appears to have been made to structure or prioritise them to monitor action on them in a time bound manner.  Broadly the resolutions seek action from either the UN or India on the following aspects:

  • Those relating to protecting the concept of Tamil nation, identity, language and culture; restoration of democratic rights denied to Tamils; removal of Sinhala settlements in Tamil areas leading to deprivation of opportunities for Tamils; Sinhala exploitation of natural resources in Tamil areas; and on improvement of quality of life of Tamils.
  • Those relating to war crimes and violation of human rights by Sri Lanka and seeking the withdrawal of Sri Lankaa rmy from Tamil areas.
  • Other issues relating toIndia– status of Sri Lanka Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu, fishermen issue, restoration of Katchtivu toIndiaand Indian assistance to rebuild Tamil lives shattered by war. The resolution added as a tailpiece condemning the All India Anna DMK (AIADMK) for its ‘hostility to Sri Lanka Tamils and their problems’ is totally out of place. It confirmed that AIADMK-bashing was a subsidiary agenda of the conference.

It is evident that Diaspora Tamil interest groups have played an important role in shaping the resolutions. For instance, the Global Tamil Forum has been demanding the appointment of an international committee on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council to go into the war crimes allegations and punish those found guilty. Sri Lanka Tamil leaders and civil society have also raised many of the issues contained in the resolutions on the floor of Sri Lanka parliament as well as in public forums.

The objective of the DMK in rallying India’s solidarity to the Diaspora Tamil campaign against Rajapaksa and taking Sri Lanka to task for the plight of Tamils in post-war period was only partly served as major political parties from India and Sri Lanka had avoided it.  The political polemics over the theme of the conference was probably the reason for this.

Thus the conference missed a good opportunity to provide in-depth analyses of problems and come up original ideas on resolving them. It also did not recommend best options for producing the long, medium and immediate results that would impact Sri Lanka Tamils. As a result, the conference has provided only limited value addition.

The resolutions asked ‘the international community’, Government of India or the UN, ignoring the responsibility of primary stakeholders – Sri Lanka government, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim population and political parties – in finding solutions to their problems. This  marginalizes the efforts of Tamil leaders locked in eye-ball to eye-ball political confrontation in the island.

Similarly the resolutions have not addressed what Tamil Nadu should do to help improve the situation except to castigate the AIADMK which is in power.  Action plan to rally support for taking follow up actions on the resolutions have not been made public. Now the DMK is reported to be planning to take the conference message to the people. This would indicate that despite the lofty rhetoric on Tamil unity, Sri Lanka Tamil issue will continue to be a victim of polemics of Tamil Nadu politics.

So it is not surprising the resolutions provide no out of the box ideas to break the political impasse in the reconciliation process. Thus they are likely to appeal to the converted, which was apparently the limited purpose of the conference. No wonder the conference evoked only lukewarm response the conference both in the media (which had Olympic Games as priority No 1 on August 12) and among Tamils everywhere.

 Pointers to the future

The fate of the conference was decided by judicial intervention after both the Centre and the AIADMK-ruled state, in a rare convergence of goals, did not want it to be held for their own reasons. The Centre dropped its reservation after Karunanidhi relented on using the “E-word” (Tamil Eelam). Karunanidhi’s back pedaling shows the DMK’s overriding desire to stay in the Congress-led coalition as it battles for political survival in the state. So we can expect the aging Dravidian leader to defer his “lifetime desire” to see the rise of an independent Tamil Eelam perhaps forever.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms Jayalalitha indulged in no political rhetoric on the conference; but used the more effective police bureaucracy to try and scuttle the conference. While speaking at the Independence Day flag hoisting ceremony three days later, she urged the Centre to pressurise Sri Lankato ensure rehabilitation of internally displaced Tamils back in their original settlement and also devolve equal powers on par with the Sinhalese. This clearly indicates that Kalaignar would not a have free run to exploit the Tamil issue to his political advantage.

The Centre has sent a clear message “thus far and no more” on its stand on Tamil Eelam to Tamil Diaspora by not allowing some of the de-striped Tamil Tigers and pro-Eelam lobbyists to participate in the conference. This was done not only to maintain India’s objection to Tamil separatism but also to act upon Sri Lankan concern on Diaspora Tamil separatists gaining a foothold in India. When pushed,New Delhiwould probably take action to crack down on LTTE supporters in Tamil Nadu.

New Delhidid not allow a few others fromSri Lankato attend the conference. This showed that despiteIndia’s sympathies for Tamils, it was averse to allow the Tamil issue to eclipse its larger in interest in Sri Lanka.

The whole political mess stirred up by New Delhiand Tamil Nadu about the conference must have discouraged the more vociferous Tamil leaders from participation. Tamil Nadu leaders should understand that Sri Lanka Tamil leaders’ priority will continue to be to maintain working links with New Delhirather than get entangled in partisan politics of Tamil Nadu.

Tailpiece: The DMK would do well to listen to Ram Vilas Paswan, president of Lok Janshakti Party, suggestion at the conference to make people in the rest of India aware of the sufferings of Lankan Tamils to mobilise mass support for their cause. He said people in North India mistake Lankan Tamil issue as an LTTE problem. Hopefully that will educate the rest of India on the Sri Lanka Tamil issue.

[Col R Hariharan a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. Blog: ]



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