The Tamils may have lost their military strength with the death of Prabhakaran but they are regrouping to consolidate their political strength in Sri Lanka and around the world.
Is the Tamil leadership capable enough to unite and strengthen
its political standing?
Vellupillai Prabkaharan took up arms at the age of 17 for an independent homeland for Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka and died in battle against Sri Lankan forces in May 2009 at the age of 54. He claimed all his life that he was the sole protector and representative of the Tamils and believed in the dictum “after me the deluge”. Millions of Tamils all over the world are still to come to terms with the fact that he is no more. As a result, he has died unhonored. With not just his immediate family, but the entire LTTE leadership wiped out, his Eelam dream lies in ruins.
As a logically corollary, the victor and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has, through a series of pronouncements since the elimination of Prabhakaran and his clan, made it clear that in his vision of a homegrown solution to the decades old ethnic strife, there will be no differentiating majority and minority communities, there will be no special rights for anyone and all will be treated as Sri Lankans. There will no longer be any ethnic conclave like the Tamilmajority north and east, where the separatist war was waged since 1983 and all citizens will have the right to settle anywhere in the country.
No one can quarrel with any of these premises or with his view that he was not against Tamils, but separatists and, therefore, there could be no winners or losers. The LTTE was a designated terrorist outfit, therefore there was no need for anyone to mourn the passing away of Prabhakaran. In short, post-LTTE, the President foresees a united Sri Lanka where all communities can live in harmony like in Singapore where the Chinese, Malays and Tamils proudly sport their all-embracing national identity. With this in view, he has even appointed a national reconciliation commission like the one Nelson Mandela set up in South Africa.
Ideally, he is right. But the ground situation is quite different. While Mahinda is a sophisticate, his presently disgraced army general Sarath Fonseka has put it rather bluntly that Sri Lanka belongs to Sinhalas and Tamils other minorities can live here, but on their terms. No surprise that in the post-Prabhakaran phase, Sinhala chauvinism has raised its head.
In the closing stages of the ethnic war in May 2009, nearly 40,000 unarmed civilians were killed, according to UN estimates. Since the end of the war, Prabhakaran’s parents have died. His father Vellupillai was never part of the separatist movement and he lived in peaceful retirement in India after distinguished service in the Sri Lankan Government. Velupillai and wife Parvathi joined their rebel son Prabkaharan only towards the closing stages of the war. Yet, the Mahinda administration let him die in army’s custody in the suburbs of Colombo last year. His wife Parvathi died endFebruary 2011 in her hometown in Jaffna after a prolonged illness. Not just Colombo, even New Delhi cold shouldered requests from Parvathi’s relatives and other Tamil leaders to let her go to Tamil Nadu for treatment.
An Indian Parliament member from Tamil Nadu who wanted to attend the funeral was not allowed to land in Colombo and was sent back. Even Parvathi’s other children, including a son and two daughters, all abroad, were not denied permission to visit Sri Lanka for the funeral and the last rites were performed by other relatives in Jaffna. Her body was cremated as per Hindu custom. Heavy army presence deterred many from attending the funeral. Tamils allege that the next morning they found in the grave half-burnt carcasses of two dogs with bullet wounds and Parvathi’s ashes strewn. Government is yet to deny it.
Who was responsible for the present plight of the Tamils?. Prabhakaran himself. In pursuit of monopoly of power or uncompromising
struggle for an independent Eelam, he systematically eliminated alternative Tamil leadership, moderate and militant alike. In the course of the 25-year struggle he also periodically tried to create a leadership crisis in the south by ruthlessly assassinating top Sinhala leaders. Prabhakaran’s victims include not only moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader A Amirthalingam and Neelam Tiruselvam, but also rival Tamil militant groups like Sri Sabaratnam of Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and EPRLF chief Pathmanabha. Among the top Sinhalese leaders assassinated by Prabhakaran were Sri Lankan President R Premadasa, Ministers Rajan Wijeratne and Lalith Athuthumudaly, Gamini Dissayanake. The gory climax was the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during an election rally in Tamil Nadu in May 1991. All because Prabhakaran feared that if Rajiv was returned to power, he might militarily intervene in Sri Lankan affairs again. He also wanted to avenge the killing of Tamil civilians by the Indian Peace Keeping Force during its stay in Sri Lanka from August 1989 to March 1990. It is a different matter Prabhakaran permanently alienated the people, not just of Tamil Nadu, but the entire country, by daring to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. Ultimately, it was this which led to India assisting the Sri Lankan army in its final fight to the finish with Prabhakaran in 2009.
The TULF, once the united front of all Tamil moderate groups, fragmented after the elimination of top leadership. In its place came the Tamil National Alliance, a new group of former TULF members and some of former militant groups like the TELO and EPRLF. The TNA came to be known as the voice of the Tigers in Parliament. With the LTTE itself gone, the TNA has no one to turn to for guidance and is too weak to take on the Mahinda administration which, gung ho after the military defeat, has become increasingly autocratic.
The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), headed by former EPRLF militant Douglas Devananda, can provide alternative leadership, but he is condemned as a betrayer by the Tamils as he is part of the Sinhala establishment and is a minister in the Mahinda administration.
Also in the same bracket is former No 2 in the LTTE Karuna, now part of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), whose revolt against Prabhakaran eventually led to the military defeat of the group.
The LTTE itself is in utter ruin with all top commanders choosing to die with Prabhakaran. They include top notch guerilla fighters Pottu Amman, Natesan, Susai, and many more.
In the post-Prabhakaran phase, the guerilla group has suffered splits. K P Pathmanabhan, once the trusted lieutenant of Prabhakaran and his fund-raiser and gun runner wanted by the Interpol, has since the end of the war has been caught in Bangkok and extradited to Colombo. He is now on Mahinda’s side, claiming that now that the armed struggle has come to an end, the Tamils have to learn to pursue their struggle in a peaceful and democratic manner. It was KP who announced to the world the death of Prabhakaran.
The Lankan Tamils across the globe, known as the Diaspora, are equally divided. Emerging as a rival to KP is U.S.-based attorney Rudrakumaran who is the chairman of provisional Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam. The aim is an Eelam without bounders, or a government in exile. It has even held referendum in seven countries among Tamil expatriates. Rudrakumaran has appointed himself prime minister of the TGTE and formed a cabinet of ministers.
Rudrakumar has said in a recent interview that his aim is to sustain the struggle by lobbying with the international community. As he put it, “the Tamils have lost their military might with the passing of Prabhakaran,” and they have to consolidate their po-
litical strength across the world.
The Diaspora has always been away from the heat and dust of the battle and have been salving their conscience by liberally contributing to the LTTE’s coffers. They have little relevance in the post-Prabharan phase in the homeland except as powerful and monied lobby groups..
In the Presidential and Parliamentary elections held in Sri Lanka in January and March 2010 in the immediate aftermath of Prabhakaran’s death, the local Tamils showed little interest. Yet, the embittered Tamils in the North and East rooted for LTTE proxy TNA, helping it to win 14 seats out of the total 31 seats from this region. The other 17 seats have gone to Sinhala parties like the SLFP and the UNP and the Sri Lankan Muslim Con- gress, which have won mainly from the multi-ethnic eastern provinces of Trincomalee, Batticaloe and Ampara. In other words, the Northern Province which was once out and out a Tamil region is yet to accept outsiders.
But the demographic profile is changing with more and more Sinhalese settling in Vaunia and Jaffna. Besides, the entire north and east have been militarized to prevent to revival of the LTTE. As a result, the former battle zone has now become a string of garrison towns with attending services like schools, Buddha and viharas coming up to serve the soldiers. In other words, the Sinhala army, seen as an occupation force, has come to be accepted as an inevitable evil by the local Tamils.
The demographics are changing beyond recognition. In a few years, the so-called Tamil homeland that Prabhakaran and other Eelamists fought and died for, will be wiped off the face of the earth. With the Tamil parties disillusioned and hopelessly divided, there is little hope of an alternative leadership emerging in the foreseeable future. In any case, there can never be another LTTE and there can only be one Prabhakaran, call him a terrorist or a freedom fighter depending on where your sympathies lie. He was a product of his time. The writer is a senior Indian journalist who has been covering Sri Lanka for the past 25 years. He has been associated with the Bangalore-based English daily Deccan Herald and retired as an associate editor of the newspaper.
While the Tamil leadership in Sri Lanka gropes for direction, the Tamil population
continues to live in uncertainty.