By Ranga Jayasuriya –
When the inaugural conference of Tamil Eelam Supporters Organization (TESO) was held on May 4, 1985, its stated objective was to unite Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups and their elected representatives of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). But two days after the conference, even before the ink dried out in the conference resolution, the LTTE launched a massacre of members of the rival Tamil militant group, Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) led by Sri Sabaratnam. In the subsequent weeks, over 500 members of TELO were rounded up and slaughtered by the LTTE in its battle for the monopoly of the Tamil Eelem cause. Irrespective of a resolution adopted by participating Tamil militant groups, including the LTTE, which was represented by Lawrence Thilakar, to avoid internecine clashes among Tamil militant groups, TESO proved itself to be a farce.
TESO itself was born out of a political turf war between its patron M. Karunanidhi and then Tamil Nadu chief minister M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), both of whom competed to be the principle benefactor of the Tamil Eelam cause. The LTTE’s decision to send a low level representation, Lawrence Thilakar to TESO was attributed to Prabhakaran’s veneration of MGR – Karunanidhi’s main electoral opponent.
The objective was to link the military and political actors of the Eelam struggle. Hence, Amirthalingam, Sivasithamparam and R. Sampanthan took to the podium alongside the members of the militant groups. Later, Amirthalingam was killed by the LTTE; Sivasithamparam, who succeeded Amirthalingam as TULF leader, died a natural death, and the aging Sampanthan is now the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Two years later, in 1987, India hand-twisted the J.R. Jayewardene government to sign the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) that arrived in Sri Lanka, was soon forced to fight a ruthless enemy, which New Delhi itself armed and trained in camps in Tamil Nadu (TN). Indian soldiers numbering 1400 perished during the next two and half years compared to 400 odd Sri Lankan soldiers who died since the beginning of the conflict in 1983 to the Indian intervention of July 1987, which had forced the Sri Lankan Army into their barracks. The IPKF, which inducted much of the hitherto unseen military hardware, including M 24 attack helicopters to the battlefront, still found that they were sitting ducks to a poorly armed, yet ruthless enemy who had superior knowledge of the local terrain.
MGR, the then TN prime minister and the main benefactor of the LTTE and Sri Lankan Tamil militancy died in December 1987. Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party swept to power in the subsequent state election in 1989. DMK’s election saw an increase in LTTE activities in the South Indian state while Indian forces fought Tamil Tigers in the jungles of the Wanni.
On January 30, 1991, the Govern ment of India dismissed the DMK government in TN, citing the DMK’s growing links with the Sri Lankan militancy and deteriorating security in Tamil Nadu. However, that last minute manoeuvre could not save Rajiv Gandhi, the former Indian premier who was blown up by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in a campaign rally in Sriperumbudur,TN,India, on May 21, 1991.
Time has lapsed, the LTTE is militarily annihilated and Karunanidhi, now 89, is aging and losing his political clout. But the Tamil Eelam cause remains an aphrodisiac in TN politics. The political consideration of Karuna- nidhi is the driving force of TESO, patronized by a man who was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu during the final war in Sri Lanka, who confined his protest to a symbolic, though much publicized 24 hour fast.
And Sri Lankan Tamil political parties, most importantly TNA, of which the main constituent party, TULF, was the prime mover at the inaugural TESO in 1985, had opted to keep away. Asked about TNA’s non attendance at the conference, MP Suresh Premachan- dran said the party did not wish to comment on the matter. Inside party sources say the party considered its participation could be counterproductive for its electoral prospects in the forthcoming Eastern Provincial Council election. The only representation fromSri Lankawas left party leader Vickaramabahu Karunaratna, whose speech was reportedly interrupted by the organizers when he bashedIndiafor its role in the final stage of the war.
The TESO conference held last week passed 14 resolutions, the most contentious of which was that a UN monitored referendum be held in the north-east of Sri Lankato determine its future. However, such resolutions are least likely to influence the policy makers of New Delhi, who have fiercely opposed the calls for a referendum of similar nature to decide the future of Kashmir, the disputed region which led to two major wars between India and its arch rival, Pakistan.
Earlier, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) demanded that a reference to “Eelam” be dropped from the conference title. The conference title was: “Eelam Tamil Rights Protection Conference.”
The objections from the Centre and a subsequent police order preventing the organizers from holding the conference at YMCA ground in Chennai, located in close proximity to Chennai’s second largest hospital caused a judicial wrangle. Later on Sunday, the Court overturned the police order. However, by then, the conference had run out of steam. Karunanidhi had also been deserted by his own fellow travellers such as Nedumaran who boycotted the conference.
The Sri Lankan government which habitually tends to shoot from the hip at every international reaction was unusually restrained in its response this time around. However, remarks by Keheliya Rambukwella, media minister and the government spokesman, that the local participants at the conference would be monitored, perturbed New Delhi.