by Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe
In an exclusive interview conducted in June 2010 with Thirunavukkarasu Sridharan, the leader of the left leaning Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front, Padmanaba faction, (otherwise known as the EPRLF-Naba), who spoke candidly to Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe about the general situation facing Sri Lankan Tamils after the civil war, the implications of the demise of the LTTE, and Tamil aspirations for the near future.
The Return of Plurality
After nearly two decades of LTTE suppression of dissident Tamil parties, the re-emergence of plurality in Tamil politics since the May 2009 has altered the political landscape for Sri Lanka’s Tamils.
Thirunavukkarasu Sridharan: “The EPRLF is a left-wing progressive political party. Our first leader K. Padmanabha was assassinated in 1990 in Madras by the LTTE, and we have also lost about 1400 EPRLF cadres fighting against the LTTE. Today the EPRLF-Naba has about 300 full time members, mainly around Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Jaffna. In the Tamil diaspora there are also around 500 active EPRLF members in Canada, England, France, Germany and Switzerland. The EPRLF has split in two groups [the ERPLF-Naba and EPRLF-Suresh faction]; our rival splinter group is headed by Suresh Premachandran who is now allied with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) [the TNA is the largest Tamil political formation in Sri Lanka consisting of several parties]. The TNA’s politics is different to us, our politics is cadre based. Politically, the TNA are not broad minded people, their politics was circumscribed earlier by the LTTE and now by the trends of the diaspora.
“Unlike the narrow sectarian politics of the TNA, the EPRLF-Naba, Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Eelam Peopls Democratic Party (EPDP) and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) believe we must establish a good fraternal relationship with the Sinhalese. That is why the EPRLF is also traditionally allied with the left, the Lanka Sama Samajists Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL). Even though it was a large organisation earlier, the PLOTE has 500-600 cadres in the Vavuniya district and there are about 500-600 members abroad. The EPDP is has 500-600 cadres but not much support or representation overseas. The TULF character is different to other parties, it has always been a prominent persons party, they have maybe only 50 members and are not a cadre based party. Our party, the PLOTE and the EPDP are different, we are cadre based parties.”
Status of the LTTE
Since the defeat of the LTTE it increasingly appears to be the case that the prospect of an LTTE revival, however small or ineffectual, remains an unlikely probability under the present circumstances.
Thirunavukkarasu Sridharan: “The LTTE is a fascist organisation which dismantled Tamil society, which hates Sinhalese and Muslim people and even hates other Tamil parties that hold a different view. Now most Tamils realize that confrontational politics is not good. The Tamil people, particularly in the Vanni [in northern Sri Lanka] utterly hate the LTTE, as well as Jaffna people. Generally this is what the people are thinking. I do not think the LTTE can revive, I doubt even in 15 years from now that there will be any form of Tamil militant movement. There might be political violence, but I doubt there will be militancy. The extremists are a small minority. In Sri Lanka now, only about 15% of Tamils would support the LTTE. Particularly, the Vanni people are very angry and wary of the LTTE as they were exposed to their brutality at the end of the war. I was told by a number of Tamil civilians who escaped from the LTTE in the final months of the war, that the LTTE were behaving very arrogantly and ruthlessly by forcibly recruiting and shooting Tamil civilians.
“When civilians were put into IDP camps more than 8000-10,000 thousand people escaped and a number of LTTE fighters, about 500 hardcore members, also ran away. The pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora reported about these camps in a very exaggerated way. We know this because we visited the camps much earlier. Some people in the Tamil diaspora said that the IDP camps were like concentration camps, this was an exaggeration of the conditions. The pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora have a different psychology from the Tamils in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, our people are more worried about their children’s education, housing and employment. But the pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora thinks about separatism and militancy – while their children are being educated.”
Although a key concern among Sri Lankan Tamils is the full restitution of normality, resettlement, reconstruction and development, the emphasis on governance and a political solution continues to dominate the agenda.
Thirunavukkarasu Sridharan: “I repeatedly mention, at least minimum credible devolution is very important, meaning at least the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution [the 13th Amendment represents the grant of limited autonomy and the decentralization of power to Sri Lanka’s provincial councils]. The Tamil and Muslim people must feel that they are also a part of the Sri Lankan governing system with some kind of political arrangement. We think that the President should also form a committee to interpret the 13th Amendment, specifically areas such as administrative power, finance, police and the security forces. I think there should be two kinds of police; a federal police force as well as a provincial police force directed by the provincial council. The Provincial Councils must run local administration, taxation, public transport and public health. If this can be implemented, the people will feel that they are also part of the Sri Lankan governing system. I also heard some good things about the implementation of Tamil as an official language; there has been a lot of improvement. In 1987, Tamil was introduced as an official language in Sri Lanka and it has since been slowly implemented. At least Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, can also speak Tamil. Now in the south of Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese youngsters also have a better knowledge of the Tamil language. Earlier there was no knowledge. Also, the Tamil people want development, they want employment and to establish their children’s education. The only main industries in the north were the Kankasanthurai Cement Factory, Valaichenai Paper Factory and Paranthan Chemical Factory. These have been defunct for decades and need to be restarted. Earlier there were also a number of glass factories, but now there is nothing due to the destruction during the war.
“At present, IDPs are being gradually resettled in their own areas, only a small proportion of IDPs are remaining in camps. Within three to six months everybody is likely to be resettled in their home areas. From 300,000 odd people there are only 30,000 people left in the IDP camps, who have full freedom of movement and voluntarily chose to live in the camps. Resettled IDPs are given paddy seed to plant in their fields and Rs.20,000 as a package to help them restart their lives, I also heard the World Bank was providing an additional Rs. 20,000 to them. There are over 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu, southern India, that want to return to Sri Lanka now that the war is over. Definitely the majority of the people want to return to our country. They need housing infrastructure and employment opportunities, then definitely they will come. The reconstruction phase after resettlement is also very important. Things have slowly improved. For example, along the Mullaitivu coastline in the Nanthi Kadal area, new facilities have been built and are available now for use by fishermen. At the moment there is extensive demining going on throughout the north, new roads are being built, but electricity is not always available. There is also a problem with wells where the water must be purified. Educational facilities also must improve. In the heath sector also – some surgical theatres are opening in Kilinochchi and also other areas.
“However, the presence of large numbers of troops in the north and east is intimidating and needs to be reduced. As for the emergency laws, after decades some crucial laws have been lifted. The A9 road has only the Omanthai checkpoint, which is not checked heavily, but randomly, and in a polite and professional way. Civilians can now travel throughout the Vanni region, with some exceptions where restrictions apply and permission is required from the Army. There are no problems between the Army and the civilian population, definitely not. The Army has been very polite and are also helping to build homes. In the future we think the Sri Lanka Army must be organized as a multi-ethnic army consisting of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim youth – that way we’ll establish a united Sri Lanka. The police have already started recruiting Tamils now. I heard 600 were recruited from Jaffna. That is good. Even if Tamil speaking policemen are Sinhalese, there is no problem, as long as they understand the Tamil language.
However, in the north and the east, the balance of Tamil representation in the police should be 50-60%; the other remaining 40-50% should be Sinhalese and Muslim. Although the LTTE and Tamil diaspora claim that Tamils and Sinhalese don’t get along, the reality is there are many Tamil people living from Wellawatte, Moratuwa and up to Negombo, among Sinhalese. In the greater Colombo area alone, I think 250,000-300,000 people are north-eastern Tamils. In Kandy there are also a lot of Tamils. Sinhalese people also visit the north. Over the last 15-20 years Jaffna has been a quiet town, but now people are visiting and suddenly everything is booming. For reconciliation this process is a good thing, where people visit, the fear psyche also becomes reduced. I think Tamil people are not fearful of this. I don’t think this is a tense situation, it is a good situation.”
Short History of the ERPLF:
The EPRLF was formed by Tamil student activists in 1980 as a militant Tamil separatist group, which throughout the 1980s emerged as one of the dominant Tamil insurgent groups. In 1986, the LTTE, which was vying for supremacy among Tamil militants, declared war on the EPRLF. When the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed in 1987, which saw the deployment of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka, the EPRLF entered the democratic mainstream as a registered political party and contested in the 1988 provincial council elections, which saw its leader, Vadharaja Perumal appointed as the first Chief Minister of the newly created North Eastern Provincial Council. However, with the withdrawal of the IPKF, the LTTE, which was engaged in a bitter conflict with the latter, quickly reasserted its dominance and banned all other rival parties and militant groups, forcing many Tamil dissidents to either flee to India or seek protection with the Sri Lankan government. In 1990, thirteen senior EPRLF officials, including its Secretary General, K. Padmanaba, were boldly assassinated by the LTTE in Madras. Furthermore, not until 1997 was the EPRLF able to reopen its office in Jaffna town, after the Sri Lankan military recaptured the Jaffna Peninsula from the LTTE. In 1999, the EPRLF again split into two factions, with the parting faction, led by EPRLF (Suresh), choosing to support the LTTE. The EPRLF (Varathar), led by Varatharajah Perumal (who has been residing in India for nearly two decades) continued to function, however, this was latterly changed to EPRLF-Naba, in commemoration of its late leader K. Padmanaba, when it came under new leadership as seen by the incumbent General Secretary and de facto leader, Thirunavukkarasu Sridharan.