By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Certain short-sighted, narrow-minded parties are talking about the 13th Amendment without considering the development or welfare of the people who live in the North and East”.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Election-speech in Chavakachcheri – 19.7.2011)
When Tamil Nadu’s newly-elected Chief Minister publicly advocated an economic blockade of Sri Lanka and a war crimes trial of the Rajapaksas, Colombo responded with more than a touch of arrogance: “Sri Lanka deals with India and not with individual states”, Cabinet spokesperson Minister Keheliya Rambukwella declared, and added, snidely, “Ms. Jayalalitha is free to come here, with the permission of Delhi” (The Hindu – 10.6.2011). The Rajapaksa regime’s dismissive attitude towards Tamil Nadu is clearly unshared by the world’s sole (albeit somewhat ailing) superpower. Last week Hilary Clinton became the first US Secretary of State to make an official visit to Chennai and to hold talks with Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayaram, including on Sri Lanka.
Hilary Clinton’s visit is a mark of Tamil Nadu’s growing economic and political importance, and not just within India. Initially an Indian website quoting ‘senior diplomatic sources’ said that Ms Clinton will not discuss the Lankan issue in Chennai: Five days later, US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake announced that Sri Lanka will feature in Jayalalitha-Clinton talks. The reason given for this departure from the norm is as significant as the act itself: “Obviously the 60 million people who live in Tamil Nadu have a lot of concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka” (Rediff News -18.7.2011). This statement points to a portentous new development: a willingness in Washington to treat Chennai as a quasi-partner in any international effort to resolve the Lankan Tamil issue. Clearly Delhi’s jealously guarded diplomatic-monopoly of the Lankan issue is on the wane. With the Americans having direct talks with the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu about Sri Lanka, other Western powers are likely to follow suit. This is a new reality Sri Lanka cannot afford to ignore.
As the Wikileaks cables revealed, during the critical final months of the Fourth Eelam War India persuaded the US to adopt a stand of benign neutrality towards Sri Lanka, assuring Washington that, if left alone to deal with the LTTE in his own way, President Rajapaksa will implement a political solution to the ethnic problem. Two years later the promised political solution is nowhere in sight; to make matters worse the North is bereft even of normalcy and democracy. If the Rajapaksas execute an election-theft in the North on July 23rd, the final shreds of Delhi’s tattered-credibility on the Lankan issue will evaporate. And as the impotency of the Congress government becomes manifest, a newly assertive Tamil Nadu’s capacity to inform and influence Western policy towards Sri Lanka will increase.
According to media reports, the Jayalalitha-Clinton meeting was scheduled to last just ten minutes; it went on for an hour. The two leading ladies seem to have devoted a considerable amount of time to the issue of displaced Lankan Tamils. This subject has a relevance far beyond resettlement because of its connectivity to strategic matters such as the Sinhala-supremacist policies and militarist practices of the Rajapaksas. For instance, land grabbing by the army to set up military cantonments is related to the issue of the displaced. Thus the IDP issue is a cover-all heading under which such controversial topics as the militarization and the demographic re-engineering of the North can be discussed.
Ms. Jayalalitha is the first mainstream Indian politician to advocate the internationalisation of the Lankan issue. She stated that India should “press the United Nations to declare those responsible for the genocide against innocent Tamils as ‘war criminals’. Only economic sanctions, imposed by India and other countries, would rein in Sri Lanka” (The Hindustan Times – 8.6.2011). With this shift, Ms. Jayalalitha has placed herself firmly in the company of key Western nations which believe that tough international measures (and not persuasion) are needed to deal with the Rajapaksas.
The tectonic changes taking place in the regional landscape seem to have escaped the notice of the Rajapaksa siblings. They do not comprehend Tamil Nadu’s new assertiveness or its growing clout within and outside India (a beguiling confluence of economic growth and democratic stability – plus a market of 60 million potential consumers – is rendering Tamil Nadu irresistible to Western nations). Ms. Jayalalitha will keep the Lankan Tamil issue alive, at least until the next Indian national elections (if a hung-parliament results she may be able to play the ‘King-maker’ role). For instance, the TV station owned by her is to telecast the Channel 4 documentary ‘Sri Lanka: Killing Fields’.
True, Delhi still clings to the belief that it must deal with Colombo alone because Sri Lanka belongs in India’s sphere of influence.
But if the Rajapaksas persist in denying the North both devolution and democracy while moving Sri Lanka steadily into the Chinese orbit, even the Congress administration may feel compelled to accede to Tamil Nadu requests for a multilateral approach. Rajapaksa obduracy may actually pave the way for a future conjuncture characterised by an Indo-US-European programme of action towards Sri Lanka of which Tamil Nadu is a key architect.
Old and New Mistakes
Hilary Clinton drew warm applause when she told a Chennai audience, “India’s diverse and democratic system can serve as a model for Sri Lanka. In Chennai and in Tamil Nadu, you can see how much society can achieve when all citizens participate in political and economic life. Every citizen in Sri Lanka deserves the same” (The Times of India – 21.7.2011).
Indeed, Tamil Nadu is a macrocosm of what Sri Lanka could have become had it not indulged in a series of avoidable errors and crimes, from Sinhala Only to Black July. Tamil Nadu’s success-story also demonstrates what the Lankan Tamils lost when they permitted the ascendance of the LTTE, post-1987.
It is a measure of a country’s failure when a segment of its own populace loses faith in the national-state. Even after 1956, most Tamils expected the state to protect them from the excesses of the government. That misplaced-faith died 28 years ago, in the blood-soaked days of Black July, as the state proved itself both unwilling and unable to protect its Tamil minority.
The Lankan Tamil problem cannot be resolved without restoring Tamil confidence in the Lankan state. Post-war, the Rajapaksas are doing the opposite. The problem is not just the absence of a political solution. Even more crucial is the persistent Rajapaksa unwillingness to restore normalcy and democracy in the North (and parts of the East). The Rajapaksas are using all the power of the state to deny Tamils their basic democratic and human rights. Even the much vaunted development programme of the Rajapaksas is characterised by insensitivity and incomprehension. For instance, instead of addressing the urgent needs of the war-battered Tamils, the Rajapaksas are giving priority to the construction of a state-of-the-art sports stadium in Killinochchi. This in a district where the absolute majority of the populace lack the basics of life, including shelter, food, employment, schools and hospitals. Obviously the Rajapaksas have as little comprehension of Tamil economic needs as they have of Tamil political needs. In such a context, is hope possible?