"Adieu assassination politics"- N.Srikantha
Nallathamby Srikantha entered politics as a member of TELO in the mid 1980s, just as the LTTE began to eliminate rival Tamil armed groups. Srikantha’s own leader Sri Sabaratnam was shot by an LTTE hit squad and displayed to the people of Jaffna. TELO entered democratic politics in the wake of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord in 1987. In this interview, Srikantha speaks to C.A.Chandraprema abut the end of the Tamil armed struggle and the way forward for the Tamil people.
Q. The last time I met you was in 1991, and one of the things that we discussed was the crushing of the JVP rebellion in 1989. You were shocked at the figures given by me in my articles in The Island – 40,000 dead on both sides. Do you think there was any significant difference in the way the military crushed the Sinhalese and Tamil rebellions?
A. With regard to the JVP insurrection, there was no ethnic factor involved. But in the case of the Tamil militancy, this ethnic difference was there, and it has its own painful impact. Apart from that, these two cases differ in that the underlying causes were totally different. Generally speaking, any war, is cruel and crude. All declaration of commitment to international covenants, and also the protection of civilians, was observed in the breach in the conflict involving the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE. I would not say that it was done intentionally, but in the pursuit of victory, the government was not adequately concerned about the civilians. I shall be failing in my duty if I don’t say that. There are instances when care was also taken on the part of the armed forces. But as the army advanced further and further and with the LTTE getting boxed in, in a tiny piece of land, what was uppermost in the minds of those directing the operations was the defeat of the LTTE. On the other hand, the LTTE held back 300,000 civilians, not in the least concerned about their safety. So the civilians were really between the devil and the deep blue sea. We the TNA was helpless at that juncture because even if we had appealed to the LTTE to release the civilians, they would not have done it. It was crystal clear that they wanted to have these civilians as a kind of protective shield against the onslaught of the advancing forces of the government. So we didn’t want to ask for the impossible from the LTTE. The LTTE was in a tight spot and we knew that however much we would have pleaded, it would have fallen on deaf ears. That is why we were consistently pressing for a ceasefire. We knew that the LTTE was willing to have a ceasefire. The government of Sri Lanka was bent on taking the military operations to their logical conclusion. With one party to the conflict amenable to a ceasefire, it was our considered opinion that if we could appeal to the government of Sri Lanka successfully, in that it was a constitutionally elected government that could not forsake its obligations towards its own citizens, there could be a way out to save the civilians. But our repeated calls were rejected by the government.
Q. If your organization TELO and the other groups such as PLOTE. EPRLF and EROS, had the guts to stand up to the LTTE in the mid-1980s, things would not have come to such a sorry pass…
A. We cannot be blamed for not confronting the LTTE. Since April/May 1986, the LTTE was engaged in systematically destroying the military strength of other Tamil militant groups. Within about a year, came the Indo-Lanka Peace accord. When the Indian Peace keeping force was here, TELO, EPRLF and ENDLF, fought shoulder to shoulder with the IPKF. With the exit of the IPKF, we threw our weight behind the Sri Lankan government in fighting the LTTE. We did so in the fervent hope that while we contributed to combating the LTTE, the Sinhala polity would offer a satisfactory solution taking into consideration the basic Tamil political aspirations. But that didn’t happen. President Premadasa was very keen to solve this problem. He understood the problem better than anybody else. But it was very unfortunate that he could not come out with a comprehensive political package. But events happened so quickly that he didn’t get the opportunity to do so. With regard to the point that had we stood up to the LTTE things would have been different, I must say that we did our part. All the other Tamil militant groups were opposed to the LTTE from 1986 up to 1996. In the case of TELO. We have lost hundreds of our cadres. The LTTE also suffered casualties. The Tamil National Alliance was formed because of the realization that the Sinhala polity was not living up to our expectations. With the formation of the TNA, we contested the 2001 parliamentary elections and since then it has been our consistent position that if the government in power could engage in negotiations and evolve a political solution, we would be only too happy to back it. We left the task from that Tamil side to the LTTE.
Q. Prabhakaran was a man who personally ordered the death of your leader Sri Sabaratnam. He was shot dead and displayed to the people of Jaffna. He had all the other Tamil leaders executed as well. So what was your reaction when you saw Prabhakaran displayed in the same manner?
A. As a human being who respects the right to life of any person I feel sad when I see somebody dead in tragic circumstances. In 1986, when I was in India in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the late Sri Sabaratnam, and the murder of a number of TELO cadres by the LTTE, I wrote an editorial in the Tamil Times with the title "Adieu assassination politics". It has been a gory past. Now, Prabhakaran is no more. What is important is why did Prabhakaran take to arms in the first place. With regard to his omissions and commissions as the sole leader of a very powerful militant group, we have to leave that to impartial political analysts. Had Prabhakaran been alive, I would be more frank and forthright in expressing my views. But with him dead, I think decency demands that I should not make a critical analysis of the deeds of Prabhakaran. If I am to analyse the career of Prabhakaran starting from the assassination of Alfred Duraiappah, the then Mayor of Jaffna, in the case of militants, the yardsticks of right and wrong are different to what democrats would like to have. Violence breeds violence. Once you get into that system, it is very difficult to get out. With regard to Prabhakaran, I can only say that. No one can doubt his commitment to the cause. But at the same time, he had a good number of opportunities, to achieve something solid and tangible for the people whose case according to him, he was fighting for. He missed those opportunities. Had he been more responsive to the pulse of the Tamil masses, and also been conscious of the international ramifications of the Sri Lankan National question, I think Prabhakaran would have been alive today, and would have achieved something solid for our people.
Q. You said something about the ‘pulse of the people’. What is it that Prabhakaran missed?
A. Prabhakaran was of the view that the Sinhala political leadership would never deliver justice to the Tamil people. With the demise of his political advisor the late Anton Balasingham, there was hardly anybody who was in a position to tell him straight to his face, however unpalatable, it may be, the hard facts as the military situation was slowly and steadily changing in favour of the Sri Lankan government. I am rather sad that Prabhakaran missed more than one opportunity in recent times, vis a vis president Mahinda Rajapakse. He was more of a military commander than a political strategist. Prabhakaran was a man of indomitable courage and wonderful commitment. But ultimately, the tragic fact is that during his lifetime, he couldn’t achieve anything solid and tangible.
Q. There is an element of tragedy in that. But it also presents an opportunity. As Lenin said to Trotsky when the Kerensky government fell, "Power is now lying out on the road. All we have to do is, to go out and pick it up". The question here is, who is going to pick it up?
A. There are people who think that everything is gone with Prabhakaran. Prabhakaran was dealing with the problem militarily. Now with the LTTE defeated, it is for the democratic Tamil leadership to rise to the occasion. As far as the TNA is concerned, our consistent position has been that we are willing to have a political solution. When we said that the LTTE and government should negotiate for a political solution, we knew very well that the solution can be anything but never a sovereign state of Tamil Eelam. There was never any question of our pinning any hope on the ideal of Tamil Elam. The TNA has been misunderstood because we were willing to have the LTTE negotiating on behalf of the Tamil people, and I would say also because of the irrational and emotional utterances of inexperienced members of the TNA. One need not attach too much importance to the latter. The TNA leadership has always been for a negotiated political settlement within a united country.
Q. One cannot help noticing that the Jaffna Tamil leadership has never put forward achievable demands. G.G.Ponnambalam’s demands were rejected even by the British who would have been open to more reasonable suggestions. Since then Chelvanayagam, Amirthalingam and Prabhakaran went on the same path and ended up with the same result.
A. I agree with you that G.G.Ponnambalam’s 50:50 demand shouldn’t have been put forward. If he had asked for a federal form of government he would have got it. In India, federalism was introduced in 1936. But G.G.Ponnambalam and Chelvanayagam as his deputy in the Tamil Congress, didn’t ask for federalism. What does that indicate? The Tamil leadership never thought of separation. They did no think of federalism either, at that point of time. But within ten months of independence, the up country Tamil people were disenfranchised through the citizenship laws. Now regarding the unrealistic demands – I am not talking as a Tamil, but as an individual. What did Chelvanayagam ask for? He asked for a federal form of government. But the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact was for regional councils. The Dudley-Chelvanayagam pact was for district councils – not even regional councils. So he came down from federalism to regional councils and further down to district councils. So the demand was getting watered down by Mr Chelvanayagam himself. He wanted an adjustment. But neither Bandaranaiake or Dudley were able to honour their agreements. Amirthalingam and the TULF, won 18 out of the 19 Tamil seats in the north and east, but be came down pathetically to the district development councils. What happened to the DDCs? So don’t blame the democratic Tamil leadership. Right down the line the governments in power were engaged in the dirty political game of coming to some understanding with the Tamil leadership and cheating them thereafter. So this problem was aggravated to this extent because of the continuous follies of the Sinhala leadership.
Q. Does that mean that the politics of the north is going to continue to be oppositional politics, where you say, we don’t want governmental power, we don’t want development, what we want is to continue to fight for self government?
A. The Tamil National Alliance believes in constructive engagement in finding a political solution. We are ready to talk to the president and the ruling alliance. We are also ready to talk to the main opposition party and the JVP and whoever that matters. But we have our primary duty to the Tamil people. The Tamil people have been continuously threatened by the systematic colonization of the eastern province. That was one of the primary causes for the conversion of a political conflict into a military conflict. We are not opposed to the Sinhalese people settling down in those areas on their own like the thousands of Tamil people who have come to the south and live among the Sinhala people. In as much as I have the right to live in Colombo, the Sinhalese have the right to live in any part of the north and east. Tamil is now an official language. That should be implemented in both letter and spirit. Then there is the question of the devolution of power. Already there is the provincial councils system thanks to the 13th amendment. But the 13th amendment cannot be the solution. If it could have been the solution, there was no need for the all party conference, there would have been no need for the Mangala Moonesinghe committee, there wouldn’t have been any need for the Neelan Tiruchelvam proposals and the Chandrka Kumaratunga proposals. So we have to go beyond the 13th amendment. What should be devolved to the province should go to the provinces. What should remain with the centre should remain with the centre. No one can ask for external affairs, defense, the printing of currency, or national planning. The national budget must be in the hands of the centre. What is uppermost in the minds of the Sinhalese is that Sri Lanka should remain united. As one who believes in a political solution to the ethnic conflict, I am equally concerned about the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. I envisage a situation where the Tamils will compete with the Sinhalese in defending the sovereignty of and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. If you solve this ethnic conflict, we’ll prefer to be a part of a government, because it is only then that one can deliver. All political parties compete for power. The Tamil parties that are mindful of the grievances of the Tamil people, refuse to participate in the government. Why? Because there is a wide gap between the policies and programmes of the government and that of the Tamil parties.