TamilWeek Mar 12, 2006
Geneva Talks - Talking to the Tigers: How
the state presents it and the other side of
the picture

By Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby

The first round of talks on the CFA in Geneva is over. And it
is perhaps an opportune moment to place on record some
of the gnawing fears and suspicions that Sri Lankan Tamils
have towards peace moves advocated by southern political
groups.

These groups, now in government, have opposed any
genuine dialogue with the LTTE on the grounds that the
rebels are basically an ‘anti-democratic,’ ‘terrorist’
movement. The exigencies of southern politics have made
these groups into strange and unlikely bedfellows. The
mainstream Sinhala media is so full of their rhetoric that it is
hardly realised there is another side to the picture. And what
goes unsaid is more out of fear than through conviction.

The hope that a truly democratic exchange of opinion would
enable the Sinhala-based parties and ideologues to
understand what a Tamil person thinks and feels is
therefore timely, but on the other hand might not produce
desired results.

First and foremost is the very character of the talks.
Southern political parties have often said that dialogue
should be held only with the LTTE. However, this is
expressed more through a sense of desperation than in the
genuine search for peace. That makes parties, including the
SLFP and UNP, of speaking about holding talks with the
Tigers but not having a clear or definitive idea of the
problem to be discussed.

The Tamils feel that the Sri Lankan establishment has not
yet accepted as a fact the talks are basically about the
problem of the political identity of the Sri Lankan Tamils
within the country’s polity. There has never been an effort
on the part of any government to treat talks as a problem
concerning all the Tamils in Sri Lanka. In other words, there
is no acceptance of the fact that this is a national question.

Since this is not seen as a national question, the manner in
which the problem is presented to the Sinhalese is such that
they are never made aware of the constitutional, political
and administrative difficulties faced by the Sri Lankan
Tamils, who are an integral part of this country.

It is all the more disheartening to see that the JVP, which
persists in describing itself as ‘Marxist’ and has been able to
convince certain left groups in Tamil Nadu of the
genuineness of its Marxism, has never come out with its
answer to the national question. Whenever the question is
raised, both among Sri Lankan progressives and leftist
intellectuals in South India, it is the United States that serves
as the JVP’s scapegoat. In their vituperative accusations
against the CIA the lot of the poor Sri Lankan Tamil goes
unheard.

The second issue troubling the Tamil people is the manner
in which the LTTE is described and presented before the
Sinhala people. Of course the UNP does not openly speak
in these derogatory terms. But quite often the JVP and JHU,
and sections of the SLFP attack the Tigers as ‘terrorist,’
‘anti-democratic,’ ‘non-representative’ or ‘inflexible.’ Quite
often LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is demonised as
an asura of the worst order.

What Tamils are unable to comprehend is that if the LTTE
and its leadership are really so bad then why talk to them?
Why not talk to those Tamil elements which the southern
parties consider ‘democratic,’ ‘representative’ and ‘flexible’
enough to dialogue with? Would it not be a profitable
strategy to come to terms with such Tamil parties and
implement the decisions made in consultation with them,
earnestly and sincerely, so that the LTTE would be
exposed?

On this question tunes vary and the pitches change. The
Sinhalese people are often told the LTTE with its mailed fist
is obliterating all opposition in the northeast. Once again, if
this is a genuine sentiment, then why not implement
provisions in relation to the use of the Tamil language in
places such as Hatton, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Puttalam and
most importantly in areas of Colombo where the Tamil-
speaking citizens are in a majority – especially the city’s
central and northern sectors.

If one were to analyse the manner in which the state
handles references to the LTTE, one could easily notice
that it fully and unquestioningly depends for guidance on
the media unit of the security forces. There are too many
instances when the impression given by the official military
spokesman is at variance with what has actually happened
or where he is silent about some of the major events. But
the state parrots what he says obediently.

More importantly, the state electronic media, especially in
Tamil, carries on devastatingly hurtful presentations on the
LTTE. Sometimes they reach ridiculous levels as when,
(which is currently the case), the National Service of the
SLBC relays Tamil programmes of an LTTE-opposed ethnic
radio based in the United Kingdom. The tragicomedy is that
such programmes, in their fervour to blacken the Tigers,
broadcast certain news items that contradict what is being
said in the other programmes of the SLBC! It should be
stated that the Sri Lankan state only diminishes its own
standing by resorting to such broadcasts. Of course one
does not know the financial background of these broadcasts
– who is getting how much and on whose recommendation.
One should point out that in this regard that references in
Sinhala programmes are not distasteful as what is
presented through the Tamil media.

Whatever might be the rhetoric, ground reality is different.
Today, as things stand politically in Sri Lanka, it has to be
accepted that such talks should be with the LTTE. But if a
sincere and serious attempt is to be made towards solving
the Tamil problem not only is it essential to talk to the LTTE
but to tell the Sinhala people why it has to be done. In other
words, as to why and how it is that the Tigers have been
able to appropriate to themselves this position of
indispensability.

Without wallowing in political prejudice let us turn to history.
Sinhala readers, viewers and listeners are often told of the
Thimphu conference in 1985 and its aftermath. At the
conference there were delegates from the PLOTE, EPRLF,
EROS and the LTTE along with the TULF. The question is:
what befell militant organisations other than the LTTE, since.

It is no secret there was factionalism within such
organisations which made some of them support the then
government politically. It is also true there was intense
rivalry between these organisations. What happened in
1990 is significant. When the IPFK agreed to withdraw and
the Government of India began, very rightly, to dissociate
itself from an interventionist stance, groups other than the
LTTE had become so institutionally weak that they could not
withstand the Tigers or the Sri Lankan government.

What happened after 1995 is also crucial. In the name of
fighting the LTTE, nearly every Tamil home and village in
the northeast was bombed and shelled, and civilians
massacred by the security forces indiscriminately. The
number of refugees and displaced increased by the
thousands. The war was becoming a combat between two
armies involved in positional warfare and the people were
out of it.

The Tamil people of Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mannar, the
Wanni and Jaffna had to therefore seek the assistance of
the LTTE to safeguard life and limb from the excesses of the
armed forces. We should also not forget this was the time
when the LTTE developed its own system of administration
to look after the needs of the Tamil civilian population of the
northeast.

Such sentiments as these are usually too provocative for
people who do not want to know what actually happened.
But it is important to think this over very soberly because it
is at this point, historically and politically, the LTTE emerged
as the major force among the Tamil population at large.
Unless this is grasped properly excuses could be concocted
to keep the Tigers out of discussions on Sri Lankan Tamil
politics.

Let us put the question the other way. During this period
was there any other Tamil organisation, including the TULF,
which provided hope for the Tamils, or had the resources to
do so? The answer is: there was none. And more damaging
from the Tamil people’s point of view was that none of the
Tamil political organisations opposed to the LTTE had a
definite or constructive programme to deal with Tamil
demands.

The Tamil perception of this country’s post-independence
history is that they were drawn into political programmes by
governments which did not have the ability to mobilise Tamil
support by fulfilling their constitutional or administrative
demands. This lacuna enabled the LTTE to not only present
itself as an important military force but a political force as
well.

The significance of this position can also be seen in the
agreement between the TNA and the LTTE on the question
of Tamil political demands. The TNA agrees with the LTTE
politically because they are one on the demands of the
Tamil people. Let us not forget that in his latter years even a
TULF stalwart like M. Sivasithamparam wanted the Sri
Lankan state to have political negotiations with the LTTE
only. This was so in spite of the fact that Sivasithamparam
was at one stage a stern critic of the Tigers.

The place of the LTTE in the Tamil psyche has been a
knotty problem for the south. And it has become a question
of such politico-psychological importance that except for a
few thinkers and writers in the south a view such as the
present one would be seen as inflammatory. But any
attempt to ignore this situation, or worse still, to
misrepresent it, would drastically hinder moves towards a
political resolution of the conflict.

In other words, from the point of view of the Tamils, it is talks
with the Tigers that count for the simple reason that not only
does the LTTE spearhead Tamil resistance, but (more
important), Tamil opinion as well.

In this regard, it has also become very essential to go into a
type of political theorisation popular with certain NGOs
concerned with peace in Sri Lanka. They are keen to use
the concept of civilian community. The lexical meaning of the
word ‘civil’ is very revealing: “Of or relating to ordinary
citizens as distinct from military or ecclesiastical matters.”
The assumption is unambiguous and clear. The peace
hawks are trying to say there is within the Sri Lankan Tamils,
a community of people who are not interested in military
matters. It goes on to assume that military matters do not
concern them.

The question is: is there a civil community among the Tamils
today which is not affected by the military activities that
surrounds them. If the term ‘civil’ here implies that there is a
section of the Tamil community which is not interested in
these matters, it is a gross misrepresentation of the history
of the northeast – at least since 1978.

The NGOs’ references to civilians as opposed to military
argue silently to blocking the Tamil people from the realities
of the day. Totting out such theories for donor assistance to
support so-called peace moves is one thing, but to say
there is a civil population among the Tamils which is
completely insulated from military matters is a total
misrepresentation of the facts.

These are some of the burning questions that haunt the
minds of almost very adult Tamil man and woman on the
sincerity of the so-called peace moves of the south. To them
if such moves are founded upon falsifying the facts of
history, there could never be a peaceful solution to the
national problem. “To thy own self be true” is the fervent
appeal of the Tamils to both the southern politicians and the
homo sapiens NGOenesis!
[NorthEastern]