The Lion Defeats the Tiger: The past and future of Sri Lanka

Democracy Now! reports the latest news from Sri Lanka, and interviews Ahilan Kadirgamar, a Sri Lankan Tamil activist and a spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.

In the latter part of the video (3:06), Kadirgamar explains the history of the Sri Lankan government and the creation of the LTTE, and offers his opinion on the future of Tamils and other minorities in Sri Lanka.

I have excerpted his answers to common questions below, but the full transcript of the video is available at Democracy Now!

Is this the end of the LTTE?

Ahilan Kadirgamar:

Very much so. I think the civil war has also come to an end. Along with that, this is very much the end of the LTTE.

But, of course, now the question is the future of Sri Lanka, in terms of what kind of political change will be brought about. The question of minorities and, of course, the Tamil community remains.

That question, that political question, precedes the LTTE. From the time of independence in 1948, there have been a number of acts of discrimination by the Sri Lankan state against the Tamil minority and other minorities. In 1956, Sinhalese was made the only official language. In the 1970s, there was perceived discrimination against the Tamil community in education.

There have been a number of pacts between leaders of the Tamil community and the Sinhala community which did not succeed. So we did not have to go through this very tragic period where thousands of people died—possibly, you know, over 100,000 people have died in this civil war—if this had been resolved politically before that. But now there is an opportunity. It’s to be seen what the Sri Lankan government will do, and the president.

Can you talk a little bit about the history of the LTTE and of the chief of the Tamil Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran?

Ahilan Kadirgamar:

Sure. When these acts of discrimination took up—came across in the 1970s, there were a number of armed groups that took up the armed struggle. The LTTE was one of them, and Velupillai Prabhakaran was the founder of the LTTE. And following the 1983 riots, so this major program where over 2,000 Tamil civilians were killed, these militant groups mushroomed, as thousands of youth joined these various militant groups.

But in the mid-’80s, in 1985, 1986, the LTTE decimated, they physically eliminated all the other militant groups, killing their leadership, massacring hundreds of fellow Tamil cadres, and claimed that they were the only sole representative. And Prabhakaran has always had a strategy of eliminating all other alternatives within the Tamil community. They also massacred the leadership—the parliamentary leadership, such as the Tamil United Liberation Front in the late ’80s. And they have consistently assassinated Tamil dissenters, dissident activists and politicians, to claim that they can be the only representative of the Tamil community. So, the construction of a traitor has been part of the politics.

And they also—you know, to match the might of the Sri Lankan state, they also developed suicide bombing. They were one of the first forces to start suicide bombing extensively in the world. They carried out assassination of political leaders in the south. And they even brought in women and children into their forces.

But they were mainly a military organization. They did not have a strong political wing, hardly a political wing at all. And their entire organization was built around the personality cult of Prabhakaran and a military structure.

So, in that sense, what we see now with the end of the war is, as reports claim, Prabhakaran has been killed, and the LTTE’s military structure has been destroyed. So, in that sense, I see it as also the end of the LTTE.

What’s your sense of the humanitarian crisis?

Ahilan Kadirgamar:

When the war escalated over the last couple years and as the LTTE withdrew into this small strip of territory, they also took, you know, anywhere around 250,000 Tamil civilians into that little territory and held them more or less as hostages, while the army continued to indiscriminately shell.

Now, over the last couple months, those 200,000 people, the bulk of them, have come out. They’ve been put in what the government is calling welfare camps, which human rights groups have described as internment camps, where they are boxed into barb-wired camps, and they don’t have free movement out of those camps. And then, of course, even over the last few days, with heavy fighting, civilians have been killed. Many of them have been maimed. There’s untold human suffering that has gone on over the last few months. And, of course, the LTTE also cynically used those civilians. They were shooting at civilians who were trying to flee.

Now, the question is, what’s going happen to all this particular population of the Tamil community, you know, 250,000 who are in these camps? When will they be resettled? A number of activists—you know, the human rights community is pushing for the timely resettlement of all these civilians. So, there needs to be pressure on that. There needs to be much more access by international organizations, such as the United Nations human—UNHCR, of ICRC, the International Red Cross, so that they can ensure that there are no human rights abuses of the civilian population and that there is timely resettlement.

What’s your sense of what the future of Sri Lankan politics will look like? What’s the possibility for a democratic future in Sri Lanka? What are the ways of reining in Sinhala nationalism? And what are the ways of reining in, you know, what you have described in your article as a long trend of Tamil authoritarianism, as exemplified by the LTTE?

Ahilan Kadirgamar:

Yeah. What the LTTE did in their claim to sole representation was to very much decimate the entire political leadership of the Tamil community. So, in that sense, it’s going to take some time for the Tamil community to rebuild a certain democratic political culture.

But it’s also important to note that, you know, the Tamil community is not the only minority in Sri Lanka. There is a sizable Muslim minority. There’s a sizable upcountry Tamil minority. This is indentured labor brought over by the British to work in the tea plantations. Now, any solution has to address the concerns of all the minorities. And there are also, of course, caste minorities. The question of women remains. There are rural people also in the Sinhala community. So, any political solution has to address their concerns.

And the debate in Sri Lanka has been around some form of a constitutional settlement that will allow for much more devolution of power to the regions, but also an interlocking mechanism where there will be power sharing at the center, such as a bicameral legislature. And then there has to be better access, in terms of education, to employment. Now the minorities have only a very small share in state employment.

Props to brownstargirl.

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