by Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe
With the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in May 2009 the situation facing the Tamil population is still dominated by genuine concerns for the future, perhaps most notably in the political arena. In this context, the views expressed by Dharmalingam Siddharthan, the leader of the moderate People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), which has a support base in the Vanni and the Jaffna Peninsula, are of much interest. In an interview conducted by Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghein June 2010, Dharmalingam Siddharthan provides his opinion on contentious issues such as war crimes allegations, the flight of asylum seekers, whether the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) can revive, the aspirations and grievances of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and future of the LTTE and the Tamil diaspora.
Allegations of War Crimes
Both the LTTE and Sri Lankan government have been accused of breaching the Laws of Armed Conflict, particularly in the final stages of the civil war.
Dharmalingam Siddharthan: “Before the final civilian safe zone operation the Army was very accurate in the use of firepower and nobody can complain that they hit civilians purposefully. Although the LTTE shouted, we know from here [in Sri Lanka] that it was not accurate. But what happened in the last stages has to be accounted for and we must ascertain the number of deaths and whether the claims are true. From what I heard from Tamil IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] who fled LTTE controlled areas on the last days, they feel the LTTE was more ruthless in that they killed a large number of Tamil people in cold blood who tried to escape. Whatever the circumstances the fact is a large number of people were killed. The figure differs from 5000-7000 fatalities. I don’t take any of these figures seriously.
“I feel what should be done is, after the resettlement of all the civilians then only we can get a reasonably, at least 90%, accurate figure of how many people were killed. When I go and talk to the villagers in the Vanni they say, ‘In that house two were killed, in that house four of them were killed.’ Then only can we know the names and collect the figures. Also, recently in Vavuniya the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) [the largest Tamil political alliance in Sri Lanka which has had pro-LTTE affiliations] won the Parliamentary election by only 4000 votes. Even in Jaffna north, the government lost only by 20,000 votes. So a large number of Tamils voted for the government. If the government committed serious war crimes, as some suggest, many Tamils would not have voted for the government.”
Even though the civil war has ended and the civilians held in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps have either been released to live among relatives or in their original villages or allowed to continue to live within the camps with freedom to leave at their will, the situation related to the flight of civilians and former LTTE fighters from Sri Lanka still continues to have currency.
Dharmalingam Siddharthan: “At the end of the civil war the conditions in IDP camps were very bad. That is accepted. Out of the 280,000 people in the camps, definitely about 50% were genuinely sympathetic to the LTTE. After the Army searched and found many LTTE fighters, many of them bought their freedom and escaped. Definitely not less than 5000-6000 people fled the IDP camps. Out of that, at least 500 hardcore LTTE would have fled overseas. Possibly 50-60 could have been Lieutenant Colonel rank, others were civilians or LTTE families and supporters. It is quite possible that more than 50% of the IDPs that fled the camps are likely to be connected to the LTTE because they had the money and the help of the expatriate LTTE community in the West. They not necessarily fled to Tamil Nadu, but they also went to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, and they found mainly Australia to be the easy way to go. Even in Canada, the LTTE might help them to go to Australia. I complained to President Mahinda Rajapakse about them buying their freedom and leaving and he was very angry.
“At the beginning many Tamil civilians were unsure whether to complain about the LTTE, because LTTE top rankers were co-opted by the Army. The Tamil civilians are very angry with these people because the men who forcibly conscripted the children are free, but many of the children are still in detention. Because of this they are very angry with the government. These LTTE people, put them in the frontline, and a large number of them were killed as a result, so that makes them very angry. Whoever goes there asks, ‘Can’t we get our child out?’ That is their main demand. That is why they did not want to complain to the Army because they know that this man is now close to the Army, so he might put them into trouble. The LTTE cadres who are working with the Army might purposefully identify the people who were opposed to them previously. There was one girl who was forcibly recruited by the LTTE and when released took refuge at someone’s house. She didn’t go to her own village because the man who recruited her is working with the Army and is going around and identifying child soldiers. Only because of the fear she has for him she is now in hiding.”
End of Militancy?
Given that significant changes have taken place in the north towards reconstruction and normalization, it is increasingly apparent that a revival of militancy, as espoused by the LTTE, remains a unlikely probability in the immediate future.
Dharmalingam Siddharthan: “I don’t think that the LTTE can revive to the extent they were in the past. If the government is wise enough, they can definitely stop it. When the LTTE was defeated many Tamils also feel they have also lost the war, that we have failed, but I don’t think like that. As soon as the war was over, within a couple of months I travelled around very freely without any armed guards to visit almost all the resettled villages in the Vanni. There were dozens of small villages I visited and the people are happy that they are back, but at the same time the hardship is there. There is much damage due to the war. Now, the people are safe, the war is over and they are at least relieved if not happy. There are still those who are angry as they have lost their kith and kin in battle, but even they feel that the end of the war is good.
“In the north, there is very good communication between the public and the army. If there’s any problem, the people don’t hesitate to tell the army, and the army tries their best to do it. I’ve never come across any serious complaint about the army. In certain areas, the army sends groups of soldiers who rebuild houses for the civilians. That is quite a good thing they are doing. In line with this, another reason Tamil people voted for the government at the recent Presidential elections in January this year is because some of them felt that at least the government has helped them to recover. In Mallavi, a town in the Vanni, there is a tea boutique owned by a lady and a son who are known to have been hardcore LTTE supporters, but now they are not. They are very friendly with me. I met one of their family members, a girl, who was an attorney at law, not real attorney at law, an LTTE attorney at law. She said, ‘We wasted our life. In the later stages we understood what was happening, that the LTTE was really cheating us. They were using us.’ In another example, I spoke to a former LTTE fighter who survived the last battle, who said ‘If anybody takes up arms again, I will chop them into pieces.’ They clearly have had enough of militancy.”
Aspirations or Grievances?
While the end of the civil war has brought immediate relief to the people of the north and east, Tamil concerns for the future on a range of issues continue to dominate the agenda. Key issues include the reconstruction of the north, implementation of the 13th Amendment and the full implementation of the Tamil language,
Dharmalingam Siddharthan: “The reconstruction of the north is slowly happening, however this is a massive task no government can manage alone. There are NGOs prepared to do it but the government is still denying access for some of them. This is justified because in the past, during the tsunami, many NGOs were working in the LTTE controlled areas, but you could not visibly see any development. They stayed in LTTE controlled areas for about two to three days and then returned and stayed in five star hotels in Colombo and enjoyed their life. That is the way they behaved. But still I think the government can now supervise the NGOs and selected agencies should be allowed to work.
“I have also seen that a lot of privately owned brick houses are being demolished all over the Vanni. The roof and the bricks were taken out, and the people say it is being transported to the south. That’s what they say. The government officials say this is not the case, but we see it happening. Even most of the contractors and labourers are from the south. That also is leading to a little resentment among the people as they have nothing to do. Why should they bring labourers from the south? Even with inland freshwater fishing, they don’t allow the local man to go and fish. I don’t know why it is a problem, but this is still happening in certain places.
“The 13th Amendment to the Constitution must be properly implemented [The 13th Amendment represents the decentralization of power to Sri Lanka’s provinces]. I think the government has made a mistake and they feel that from Dondra Head to Point Pedro, their rule must be there. That attitude must change. In Jaffna, if the TNA rule, they should let them rule it, then half the problem is over. I believe we can only implement the 13th Amendment, I don’t think India is interested in anything else and we have been told by them very clearly. As far as I’m concerned, if the 13th Amendment is implemented properly it can be a good start and we can see if it works. However, many Sinhala people think that federalism is the first step to separatism.
“When Mahinda Rajapakse speaks the Tamil language some people criticise him, I say ‘No. At least that man had the courage to learn. We must appreciate that. He is not very good at speaking Tamil, but at least he tries.’ We realise that is at least a good gesture. This is what I say about 1956, if the government was clever enough, if they had proclaimed Sinhala, Tamil and English as official languages, even if you send an everyday letter in Sinhala, no Tamil would have worried. All the Tamils would have studied Sinhalese. In Jaffna, there was a Bikkhu (Buddhist monk), who was living in my house and teaching Sinhala and at the time the Tamil schools were willingly teaching Sinhala. I really still don’t understand the stupidity of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike and why he did he implemented Sinhala as the only official language in 1956.
“Issues like the Sinhala Only act are now ancient and forgotten. At that time Sinhala Only and ethnic ratios at universities and the development of these areas were never addressed. We have forgotten about our grievances, now it has developed into aspirations. However, I feel the fundamental problems between Sinhalese and Tamils have not changed. When I talk to a Sinhala man, he will say, ‘No way, Tamil is an official language today, and now it’s not a question of language or ethnic ratios to enter universities.’ When the President talks, he says, ‘There is no difference between the races here, everyone is a Sri Lankan.’ Former Sri Lankan Prime Ministers DS Senanayake said that in 1948, and SWRD Bandaranaike again said it in 1956. However, none of them recognized that Tamil is a separate nationality. I’m not talking about a separate state, nor am I talking about ethnicity, which is where you come as minority and majority.
“I feel the Sri Lankan government has ulterior motives because the claim of our homeland must be completely destroyed. Even if it’s state land, we feel it is our land. We want recognition, that is, demarcation of land, something like a province. Why can’t we develop those areas? What happened in the Eastern Province is our fear. That is the reason we are asking for control of land power. In my opinion the most serious Tamil grievance is land power more than the police power. We are afraid of state sponsored colonization of Sinhalese. So far there is no evidence of new Buddhist temples being built in the north. I only see this Kilinochchi one, which has been there even when I was a boy and visited my farm in Kilinochchi. That was there for 70 odd years and now they have rebuilt it. That sort of thing can happen, which should be done. Buddhism is an offspring of Hinduism. The mistake was made by the Sinhala leaders, they should not have made it Sinhala Buddhism, they should have emphasized Buddhism as Buddhism and Sinhala as Sinhala, a clear separation. At least Tamils could have bonded on religion, Buddhism is a really good religion, but unfortunately in this country everything is politicised.
“A Sinhala man buying land is something completely different and nobody is opposing, but if they slowly try to build new Buddhist temples that will be a problem. Nobody cares about old Buddhist temples. If they’re trying to colonise those areas with some Sinhala people, these things definitely the people will resent. In the east, not only the Tamils, but even the Muslims have this fear. Even after the war the complaints continue. A large number of Tamils fear the aim of the government now is to change the ethnic demography in the Vanni. On the Vavuniya-Mannar road in the Vanni there’s a place called Madurote, where there was a traditional Sinhala village whose villagers left in 1983, but have since returned. As far as we are concerned that is not a problem, but are they the original people? Now their numbers also have increased from 20 families to about 30-50 families, which they say is their offspring. These are the sort of questions that need to be answered.
“Tamils want an ethno-federalist state like in Tamil Nadu or something similar. I would like to see a Tamil speaking province. The government says that they have implemented the 13th Amendment, but even Pilliyan is complaining [Pilliyan is a former LTTE commander who broke away from the LTTE in 2004 and was coopted in the political mainstream and elected Chief Minister of the Eastern Province]. There’s no need to give police powers to the provinces now, that part we understand. There are a lot of positive things being done in the Eastern Province by the government which is true. I have seen it for myself. But the local people are often not consulted which makes them feel like they do not have influence over what is happening in their home areas. Most Tamils want provincial level autonomy. Then only the hearts and minds can be won over. Our fear is justified because of the colonisation of Sinhalese in the past. We fear that if the land is not under the provincial setup what will happen is they will bring new people into these areas and because of this fear only we are talking about control over land. It is also important that Tamils are recruited in the police, and later the army. Before May, 2009, nobody would have joined. Only a few Tamils joined the police before May 2009 out of fear of assassination by the LTTE. If there are 40 policemen in a police station, and there are at least 20 Tamils and 20 Sinhalese, that way we can manage. If a Tamil policemen hits me everyone will see it as a Tamil versus Tamil. In the past, the whole thing started partly because of police excesses.”
LTTE and the Tamil Diaspora
While the LTTE has been defeated in Sri Lanka, its influence and actions, which direct a sizeable proportion of the Tamil expatriate community, will continue to have long term implications for both Sri Lanka and the Tamil diaspora.
Dharmalingam Siddharthan: “The PLOTE has a following in Canada, Britain, Switzerland, Norway, France and Germany. In Australia we don’t have many supporters. Australia is traditionally an LTTE stronghold. I don’t know why even from the 1980s the Tamil diaspora in Australia have been very strong LTTE supporters.”
“I believe the death of Prabhakaran has definitely brought the LTTE down. We expected the defeat of the LTTE, but I never thought it would be to this extent. I thought it would take another two or more years for the LTTE to be finished off. No Tamil person in the expatriate community ever believed that the LTTE could fall like a pack of cards. For pro-LTTE Tamils it was like they were watching all sorts of war movies. They never lived in the real world. Like the expatriate Tamil community, 99% are not involved with the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka. If an LTTE collector comes and they give $100, they feel, ‘I have done my part for the Tamils’. They just want to look after their own lives, it’s as simple as that. For the LTTE, Tamil separatism is a big business. Even if there is a solution in Sri Lanka, they will say, ‘No, it’s not a good thing!’ They know they can’t achieve Eelam, but they will continue to talk about it so they can extract a lot of money from the Tamil diaspora.
“Due to this, the TNA is definitely getting funding from the pro-LTTE diaspora. A lot of money was pumped in for the recent elections. All the four Tamil newspapers in northern Sri Lanka fully supported the TNA. However, the LTTE is now very quiet in the diaspora. Except for criminal activities, I don’t think the LTTE will seriously affect the national security of Western countries. Maybe one or two extremists might, but the real problem will be the continuation of criminal activities. The LTTE has created a mafia all over the world, a Tamil mafia, which is going to be a problem for a long time. But after the death of the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, that threat is also likely to weaken.”
Short History of the PLOTE
The Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) was founded in 1980 by Uma Maheswaran, after its members broke away from the LTTE due to bitter factional differences. By the mid-1980s, the PLOTE grew in size to become one of the largest Tamil militant groups and played a leading role in the Tamil resistance fighting against the Sri Lankan military. In 1987, the PLOTE became a signatory to the Indian sponsored bilateral agreement with Sri Lanka, known as the Indo-Lanka Accord, and thereafter entered the democratic political mainstream. The PLOTE received international coverage in December 1988, when 70 of its fighters staged an abortive coup to depose President Maumoon Gayoom’s government in the Maldives, but were thwarted by timely Indian military intervention. The following year, in July 1989, PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran was believed to have been assassinated in Colombo by the LTTE. Throughout the 1980s, especially after the Indo-Lanka Accord from 1987 onwards, the PLOTE was involved in sustained internecine fighting with the LTTE in a bitter intra-Tamil civil war and suffered heavy casualties with estimates suggesting that over 650 PLOTE cadres were killed. Continuously pursued by the LTTE, the PLOTE was compelled to seek the protection of the Sri Lankan government from the early 1990s onwards up until the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. Its support base has largely been centred in the Vanni, and also to a lesser extent, some areas of the Jaffna Peninsula. The PLOTE currently has about 1500 cadres and its political wing is known as the Democratic People’s Liberation Front, both of which are headed by its leader Dharmalingam Siddharthan.
Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe is an analyst specializing in South Asian and Indian Ocean politics and security.