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The Little Heard Voice of Sri Lankan Tamils

October 12, 2009

The problem with the subject of Sri Lankan Tamils is that it is overshadowed by the one personality that has been the center of their struggle over the past decades – Villupilai Pirbaharan (Prabhakaran). Pirabaharan or Prabhakaran and his LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) were in the forefront in the struggle for a separate autonomous homeland for the Tamils who inhabit northern parts of Sri Lanka. But to say that every Tamil who lives in northern Sri Lanka is a LTTE man or their sympathizer is just not true. Prabhakaran killed a lot of Tamils in his quest for a separate Tamil homeland. In recent times, before the death of Prabhakaran the LTTE were finding it hard to recruit young men and women into their cadres and the popularity of the LTTE was on the wane. Prabhakaran had the chance to make a deal with the Sri Lankan government more than once but he refused them all. Perhaps he was not confident of his popularity among the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka, besides he had too many enemies and that forced him to keep on fighting. Had he joined the democratic process maybe the Tamils would have had some kind of Eelam.  Now the situation is such that after all those lives were lost on both sides, the Tamil question remains as it always was and the Tamils are still being persecuted by the Sinhala majority that constitutes almost 74% of the population in the beautiful island of Sri Lanka.

The fundamental question that begs to be answered is: why are Tamils feeling alienated in their own country. The LTTE was not the only organization fighting for the rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. There have been others including TULF, TELO and many other fledgling organizations apart from of course the LTTE fighting for the Tamil cause.  The war in Sri Lanka ended with the death of Prabhakaran on the 18th of May, 2009. What followed was pretty gruesome. The Tamil population was herded like cattle into ‘relief camps’. Any access to the Tamils in these government run relief camps has been restricted, so much so that even the international organizations like UNHCR have not been given access to these relief camps. It is being said that ethnic cleansing is being carried out and Tamils are being screened by the Sri Lankan forces. Many have fled to neighboring India. There is an influx and many Sri Lankan Tamils are reaching the shores of India in rudimentary boats with very little on their back except the clothes that they are wearing.

Map of Sri Lanka

Map of Sri Lanka

While it is true that not all Sri Lankan Tamils are LTTE sympathizers it is also true that Tamils in Sri Lanka are not treated equally by the Sinhalese majority and are denied jobs and opportunity in their own country. LTTE the way we knew it is history. It is also unlikely that there will be another such militant organization for a long time. But it will be naïve for us to believe that the problems of the Tamils have been solved. In fact the problems have just begun. For one, every Tamil is thought of as a LTTE sympathizer. For us here in India, it therefore becomes very difficult to help a people who were so thoroughly associated with militant LTTE, but we still welcome them with open arms. We have not forgotten that it was the LTTE that was behind the killing of our Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Perhaps that was their undoing. Having said that, the decision to send the IPKF to Sri Lanka was not a very smart move either! We ended up fighting the people we had supported not too long ago. It was a strategic move to expand India’s horizon and assert Indian influence in the region, but it backfired badly as we lost more than 700 fighting men in northern Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran over reached himself when the LTTE targeted Rajiv Gandhi.

There are more than a hundred thousand Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu as of now. Their numbers are growing with every passing day. More refugees are pouring in from northern Sri Lanka. The situation is precarious. There are stories galore about the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils and that does not help at all. India would embrace our Tamil brothers un-hesitantly, and there was a proposal by Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi to give them Indian citizenship. But there are questions that arise if we take this step. India is concerned that such acceptance of Sri Lankan Tamils may embolden the Sri Lankan government and the atrocities on the Tamils may increase so as to ethnically cleanse the northern region and make Tamils a minority in their own land.  Tamils are feeling the brunt of the ire of Sinhalese majority government and the army there. There is no one to hear their voice and to raise their concerns. Such callous attitude of the international community (including India) does not bode well for a people who have strong cultural and historical ties with India. A token aid of $10 million given by India to the Sri Lankan government is just not enough to ensure the welfare of the Tamils there. More than the money what the Sri Lankan Tamils need is a voice that can reach out to the world and highlight their misery and despair. Tamils are not being allowed to move out of the camps and they are being bundled together like sheep. The ruse given by the Sri Lankan government is that they are clearing the area of mines and only then can they let the Tamils go back to their homes. But their intentions seem to be sinister. The only way out for Tamils is to escape from these camps and head out into the sea. That is their best bet and many times they do not know where they will land. A few such boats landed in Andhra Pradesh in India. Another was intercepted by the Indonesians – evidently the 260 people on board, including women and children planned to somehow reach Australia.

There is a deep seated malaise that exists in the Sri Lankan society. If a people and a community feel discriminated against, then that leads to alienation which in turn could further lead to discord and disharmony. Sinhala chauvinism has again raised its ugly head after the end of the LTTE. They know that it will take a long time if ever for any kind of organized resistance from the Tamils to fructify in the foreseeable future.  It is true that peace is a welcome development. And this peace that Sri Lanka is experiencing is really emancipating. Sri Lanka deserves peace. This beautiful island nation is an amalgamation of various communities and Tamils cannot be excluded from the Sri Lankan landscape. It will be good if the Sinhala community goes out of its way to assuage the fears of the Tamils. If the Sinhala have been at the receiving end of Prabhakaran’s violent ways then the Tamils have also been his victims. The Sinhala majority will have an increasing role to play in ensuring that Tamils feel wanted and are not left high and dry. If this peace has to sustain then the government in Colombo must go that extra mile to give Tamils equal opportunities in all walks of life. Tamils are a very bright, industrious community and can contribute immensely to the growth and prosperity of this island nation. It would be foolish for the government not to tap into this invaluable human resource if they are serious about building Sri Lanka into a stronger and an important nation in South Asia and the world. For starters they would do well to rehabilitate the Tamils and ensure that they have a life of dignity and equal opportunity. They could begin by giving access to the refugee camps that they are running for the Tamil’s in northern Sri Lanka and allowing them to return home. India would like to help in this rehabilitation and development process so that the refugees that have reached Indian shores can go back to their homes. This is a chance to cement peace for Sri Lanka and a myopic, parochial approach could mean that the present peace may not sustain and that would be a real shame. Mahinda Rajapaksa regime has expectedly won a comfortable majority in the provincial elections and should win in the recently announced general elections also. Now it is up to this government to ensure a durable peace for the country leading to progress and prosperity that has eluded Sri Lanka all these decades.

Update 13.10.2009: There has been a delegation of Indian MP’s from Tamil Nadu led by Mr. T.R. Baalu who have gone to northern Sri Lanka on a fact finding mission about the condition of the internally displaced people there. This fact finding mission will try to ascertain the requirements of these IDP’s and submit a report to the chief minister. The opposition AIADMK is furious as to why the fact finding mission was not made an all party affair. While Indian political parties from Tamil Nadu slug it out and make a political issue out of a humanitarian crisis, the cry of the ordinary Sri Lankan Tamil continues to remain unheard.

Update 01.11.2009: Tamil refugees are living on a sip for the past two weeks off the Australian coast. Their condition is desperate. One shudders to think as to what kind of hell they have come out of to have ventured out into the sea with little to sustain them.They had been living in terrible conditions in Indonesia for the past five years.  The Sydney Morning Herald has reported their plight and the fact that they have appealed to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to accept them as refugees:

A written messages thrown off the Oceanic Viking, the Australian Customs ship housing 78 ethnic Tamils for the past two weeks, asylum seekers said they had been living in Indonesia for up to five years and had been accepted by the United Nations office in Jakarta as genuine refugees. They said they hired a people smuggler out of their frustration that no country would accept them.

”For four to five years we waited until we are tired before departing illegally by boat,” read the message thrown to The Sun-Herald, written in Indonesian. It insisted the Sri Lankans had arrived in Indonesia ”normally” some years back.

One can only imagine the condition of the people in Sri Lanka now that the war has ended and they are at the mercy of the Sri Lankan army.

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