Tamils need Real Autonomy By S.J.S.Chhatwal

Reproduced from the Ottawa Citizen, Monday, November 20, 2006 p-a13



Sri Lanka, earlier known as Ceylon, won its independence from British rule in 1948. Since then, the Tamil minority in the country has faced discriminations by the Sinhalese majority. To understand the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, one has to realize that there are two categories of Tamils in that country, “Ceylon Tamils” (also referred to as “Jaffna Tamils”) and “Indian Tamils”. Ceylon Tamils have lived in Sri Lanka as long as the Sinhalese majority community itself - both having migrated from India thousands of years back, The are mostly an educated community of professionals. In contrast, Indian Tamils are comparatively recent migrants from Tamil Nadu, an Indian state, starting toward the end of the 19th century. The Indian Tamils were mostly tea plantation workers in the highlands of Sri Lanka during the British colonial period.

The vast majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka are Ceylon Tamils who number about four million. The number of Indian Tamils is about one million. There has been very little social interaction between Ceylon Tamils and Indian Tamils for more than a century now. To begin with, the Tamil struggle against discrimination was for local autonomy. When over the years their struggle did not yield concrete results, it took the shape of demands for a “Tamil homeland” created by merging the Jaffna peninsula and the three eastern districts of Sri Lanka.

The LTTE – Tamil Tigers of Eelam (Liberation) was formed in 1975. Most of its members and followers are from among the Ceylon Tamils. Until 1983, the violent activities of the LTTE were sporadic. That changed in July 1983, when dozens of Tamil political prisoners were killed in Welikada prison as part of an anti-Tamil pogrom, and the LTTE’s struggle became a full-scale armed conflict.

By 1987, with the violent clashes of the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE, the ethnic situation in the country had reached a dangerous stage. Vast areas had come under the virtual control of the LTTE. It was at this stage that the Sri Lankan government approached Indian for assistance and the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed; it provided for the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka.

Despite the tremendous difficulties faced, IPKF brought about peaceful conditions in Jaffna and the eastern province. Elections were held and a moderate Tamil party came into power in this “Tamil homeland,” However, despite specific provisions in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 promised local autonomy was not given to Tamils by the Sri Lankan government.

The reason: The newly elected President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, vehemently opposed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the presence of IPKF in Sri Lanka. Premadasa joined hands with his enemy and started supplying arms and ammunition to the LTTE, which it could no longer smuggle into the country.

The basic aim of Premadasa and the LTTE was to get rid of IPKF. This created a situation in which IPKF had to fight the LTTE to keep peace without the co-operation of the Sri Lankan authorities or the army. Tamil Nadu is barely 20 kilometres from the shores of Sri Lanka. Fifty million Tamils live in Tamil Nadu and have historical and cultural relations with the Tamils in Sri Lanka. This factor cannot be ignored by India in its relations with Sri Lanka, but it is not the only factor. And it does not mean that Tamil Nadu can dictate Indian relations with Sri Lanka. To have a stable united and peaceful Sri Lanka as a neighbour is in India’s interest and in the interest of peace and security in South Asia.

Several Sri Lankan governments in the past two decades tried to solve the ethnic problem militarily. They failed because the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka is not a military problem but a political one and will have to be solved politically. Any solution of this problem would involve a degree of devolution of powers to fulfill the Tamil aspirations for autonomy. Such a solution cannot be worked out in a unitary form of government, as is the case at present in Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, the Sinhalese government believes wrongly that a federal setup is a weak arrangement that would result in the breakup of the country. This is not so in other countries, small or big. The constituents of a federal system give strength to the centre, as can be seen in the case of Canada. A temporary cessation of hostilities in Sri Lanka with the help of Norway was a positive step. However, the talks that followed bogged down. There has been a stalemate since 2003. In the past year, the situation has worsened, with serious clashes between the Sri Lankan troops and the LTTE.

A peaceful solution of the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka is an imperative. Unfortunately, whenever a Sinhalese political party in power in Sri Lanka has proposed legislation to give a certain degree of autonomy to the Tamils, the opposition Sinhalese party has opposed it. This shows that for peace, the essential first step will be that the Sinhalese majority arrive at a consensus on what level of autonomy they are willing to give the Tamils.

While arriving at such a consensus, the Sinhalese majority has to bear in mind that the degree of autonomy offered to the Tamils must be meaningful and viable. Otherwise, it will not be acceptable to the Tamils.
Any such accord supported by Sinhalese national consensus will also have to be guaranteed by a credible third party. This is necessary because there is a long history of accords signed between the government and Tamil leaders that were not implemented on the ground.

This role can no longer be played by India since the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE. The supreme leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has been convicted by Indian courts for this dastardly act, and the LTTE is banned in India. Possibly, Norway, the current facilitator between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, could play the role of the “guarantor” with the help of the European Union and the United States.

What is important is that the prevailing dangerous situation in Sri Lanka be contained and de-escalated. This becomes all the more necessary because the recent talks in Geneva between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE did not last more than a day and failed without even having touched on any substantive issue.

(S.J.S. CHHATWAL is former High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka and of India to Canada.)
(Courtesy: The Ottawa Citizen)