Sunday, February 8, 2009

The double tragedy of Lankan Tamils


The real failure of the LTTE is that, instead of furthering the cause of the Lankan Tamils, it actually spoiled it. When the war was on, the majority of the Tamil population was either fleeing the country or held hostage by the militants. Now that the LTTE has lost the war, the Tamils as a whole will have to wear the badge of a defeated people – and face the consequences.

This is a double tragedy. First, the Tamils have a just cause. For half a century they have been victims of injustice and discrimination of a kind that no civilised society can justify. It began with Solomon Bandaranaike who, despite his left-wing claims, was a cheap populist. As Prime Minister in 1956 he proclaimed Sinhalese as the only recognised language of the country. As if to demonstrate the futility of vote-bank gimmicks, he was shot dead by a Sinhala extremist, even as language riots rocked the country.

Instead of learning some quick lessons, Sirimavo Bandaranaike made her husband’s blunder worse. She passed an education law in 1973 which effectively denied college admissions to Tamils even if they scored higher marks than Sinhalese students. Never was discrimination so blatant in a democracy.

Driven to the wall, Tamils revolted. But where could they turn? Sri Lanka was a functioning parliamentary system. Many Tamil leaders were active in the system. But the Sirimavo brand of foolish insensitivity snuffed out democratic hopes. This was where the second tragedy unfolded for the Tamils. With all future prospects barred to them through the education law, young Tamils were ready and willing to take to armed militancy. Enter Velupillai Prabhakaran. Evidently he was an excellent organiser and capable military strategist. But his political strategy was doomed from the start.

No sovereign country in today’s world will accept the idea of partition. Yet, that was the sole, non-negotiable goal Prabhakaran set for himself. He went further and insisted that he would be the sole, non-negotiable leader of all Tamils.

The result was serial murders that shocked Tamils as well as others. Prabhakaran’s agents relentlessly tracked down and killed leaders of Lankan Tamil groups one after another. Among them were Ministers, MPs, Mayors of Jaffna. Some were killed on Indian soil. Some of his own military commanders were shot for disagreeing with him. It was over the corpses of his fellow Tamils that Prabhakaran established his dictatorial hegemony.

One day or other this politically unviable rebel group was bound to be called to account by the full power of the Sri Lankan state. The present state, headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has succeeded because its own ways are quite ruthless. Even Sinhalese citizens who questioned some of the activities of the Government were summarily liquidated. Sri Lanka is known for a free press. Many journalists, including some leading editors, have been murdered after they reported high-level corruption by people close to the President.

Will this be the approach as the Government now turns to the problem of the Tamil population? Obviously discrimination must end and Tamil citizens of Lanka must have the rights and freedoms others enjoy. Otherwise the country will become a permanent guerilla war zone.

The Prabhakaran problem could be solved by armed might. The Tamil problem can be solved only by wisdom and statesmanship. If the Government tries to win by killing its opponents, it will only be flattering Prabhakaran by imitation.