Other battles still to be won
As I stood at my bedroom window looking out at the red tracers and searchlights crisscrossing the sky on Friday night, I wondered how things had come to such a point. The LTTE hasn’t been very popular amongst its own community for a long time. After the suffering it has imposed on Tamils during all these years of fighting and the appaling number of Tamils it has felt compelled to kill for refusing to accept its leadership, the LTTE has been reduced to stealing children to despatch to the frontlines and even indoctrinate as suicide bombers. I wondered how an organisation with so little ready backing from ordinary people could have built those aeroplanes, and how it could have trained pilots to fly under the most trying of circumstances more than half the length of the country.
The main answer is of course the obsession and ruthlessness of its leader. Prabhakaran is willing to do anything that might bring him closer to his dream, as his recent antics in holding people against their will to effectively stand between him and the advancing Sri Lankan forces demonstrate. Shooting civilians in the back to prevent them escaping to a peaceful life somehow helps liberate Tamils in the warped recesses of Prabhakaran’s mind.
But another part of the explanation must lie in the diaspora. As has been noted many times before, the Tamil community outside Sri Lanka is huge, the majority in India, but with significant groups in the West and elsewhere too. It is from these sources that the LTTE has drawn its power since it lost the confidence of Sri Lankan Tamils. Eelam appeals to a fair number of them, and people living elsewhere have the luxury of working towards the success of an idea while rarely having to endure the pain of failure. Combined with a good bit of LTTE fascism, this has delivered the money and equipment to get things done and the political cover to get away with it.
The diaspora has been particularly active in the last few weeks, with protests almost worldwide. But a couple of individuals and their respective statements have caught my attention.
First there was the interview by the London-born singer Maya Arulpragasam on a talk show in Los Angeles. I must admit that when I first heard about it, I assumed her motive to be self-serving. Celebrities have become ever more engaged in speaking out on various causes in recent years, and while they probably do it with genuine concern for the issue they are pontificating about, they also clearly have at least half an eye on their record sales, sponsorship deals or whatever the currency of their fame happens to be.
When I finally watched it, I decided that she probably meant every word. The host had only just managed to get through the briefest of chatty introductions about her rather obvious pregnancy when Maya Arulpragasam launched into her diatribe on Sri Lanka, in response to his inquiring as to what she made of her success in being nominated for a Grammy and an Oscar in the same year. It was a little prepared, but why not. If I believed that a systematic genocide had been going on in the country that I’d grown up in for the last decade, and I were invited to an American talk show, I too would prepare. Not that preparing seems in her case to have involved looking into the facts of the matter, like whether there are 350,000 people simply trapped in the battle zone, whether aid, humanitarian work and reporting of the story are actually banned, and whether the Government really is 100% to blame. Perhaps she believes that she has, being a musician. If the reaction of the host is anything to go by, she probably isn’t used to having to defend her opinions with facts or even very coherent arguments.
Then came the suicide of Murugathasan Varnakulasingham outside the United Nations in Geneva. From Jaffna, he left Sri Lanka half a dozen years ago for London, where he completed a degree in Information Technology. Yet he somehow ended up setting fire to himself in protest at the situation here, blaming the United Nations for failing to intervene.
His motivation can hardly be questioned, although that of the politicians who were quoted in the British newspapers commenting on his death certainly must be. His local representative, who just happens to be the chairman of the British Tamil Councillors Association, explained that the young man was pushed to suicide because the media was refusing to publish what was going on in Sri Lanka. Whether such politicians truly believe that this is the case, the British newspapers happily printed this opinion that implied there was an unreported genocide underway without any cautionary references.
The LTTE propaganda machine has through the actions of these few individuals shown itself to be quite extraordinary in scope. It can get through to the ordinary man on the street, but is also capable of reaching global celebrities. Some politicians are either convinced by the LTTE or willing to go along with its lines for their own benefit, and most journalists don’t seem to know any better either. The result of all this is a lot of agitation in Western countries, as well as the age old problems with India.
It is very sad that these events were promptly followed by the news last weekend that what I hope it wouldn’t be too presumptuous of me to call Sri Lanka’s most effective diplomat is soon to return home. The Nation on Sunday reported that Dayan Jayatilleka, who has spent the last two years as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, will not have his appointment renewed when his current term is up in June. This is despite Sri Lanka’s treatment at that body having been decidedly more reasonable since he arrived.
Dayan Jayatilleka’s most enthusiastic opponents, it would seem from the emails that have also been flying around Colombo of late, are from the Sinhala diaspora. They obviously have more in common with their Tamil brethren than they might like to think, for this demonstrates about as much wisdom as was displayed by Maya Arulpragasam and Murugathasan Varnakulasingham.
Some of the characters involved have got it into their heads that Dayan Jayatilleka is a communist, and thus anathema to the Western countries they believe it very important to pretend to suck up to while pulling faces to each other. Of course this is misguided in every way, and demonstrates not only a total lack of understanding of the world and what diplomacy is supposed to be about, but also a complete failure to grasp why their own attempts to persuade the West that the LTTE is bad haven’t worked.
Shouting terrorist might have been enough to convince George Bush, but the rest of us Westerners aren’t quite so unsophisticated. The only people who are tempted to accept that the fact that the LTTE kill civilians is enough to make it stupid to agree to down weapons and talk about an Interim Self Governing Authority for the North and East are rightwing and, in case these agitators have failed to notice, rightwingers don’t make up the majority in the West any longer. Even when they did, it wasn’t a failsafe argument. John Major, while pretending that it would turn his stomach to do so, was busy talking to the IRA, and might well recommend a similar course of action to the Government here if he didn’t know anything more about the situation.
It is noticeable that the majority of Sri Lankan diplomats think more along the lines of these misguided emailers from the Sinhala diaspora, which is perhaps why Dayan Jayatilleka has become a target. There may not be anything wrong with this per se, although it would seem wise to have as much diversity in overseas representation as there is amongst intelligent people supportive of the Government at home, but it isn’t a lot of help in getting others to understand the truth of this conflict.
Friday night’s attack on Colombo marked what is almost the end of this phase of the fighting with the LTTE. Its territory is nearly gone, and with it the capacity to hide aeroplanes. But that doesn’t mean that all problems are now solved. Whatever happens to Prabhakaran, there are people abroad who believe that the Government is committing genocide against Tamils. This feeling may not be channelled into action so effectively if the LTTE isn’t around, but it can hardly be a good idea to just let it be.