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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 24, May 30, 2009

Devouring Tiger: Marauding Tiger?

Tuesday 2 June 2009, by Apratim Mukarji

Velupillai Prabhakaran died the way he lived, by the bullet. The tiger of violence that he chose to ride at a young age finally devoured him. The nearly 26-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka has ended as was anticipated for sometime. Ideally, it is now time for reconciliation, rehabilitation and establish-ment of the federal constitutional structure in the island nation.

However, in contrast to these idealistic prospects, reports from Sri Lanka continue to convey a large measure of feelings of uncertainty, despondency and even outright cynicism prevailing among diverse ethnic communities. The public display of euphoria is clearly restricted to the majority Sinhala community though happy Tamil faces are on display at times. Muslims have every reason to be genuinely happy at the turn of events as they were the worst victims of Prabhakaran’s insane policy of wiping this community off the face of the northern and eastern provinces.

This widespread continuation of the largely Tamil perception of uncertainty, despondency and even fear is due to the long history of ethnic persecution and it would be illogical to expect the minority community to be overtly happy at the conclusion of the civil war.

And this is where the spectre of the marauding tiger comes in. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has spared no effort to convince his people—and especially the Tamils—that Sri Lanka can henceforth only move towards peace, rehabilitation of the uprooted population and reconstruction of the terribly deprived northern and eastern provinces.

Above all, his government must now move towards facilitating a genuine devolution of powers for the minority communities. His address to Parliament on May 19 carries ample reassurances in this regard. “The war against the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) is not a war against (the) Tamil people,” he said. “Our aim was to liberate our Tamil people from the clutches of the LTTE. Our heroic forces have sacrificed their lives to protect Tamil civilians. The victory we have gained by defeating (the) LTTE is the victory of this nation, and the victory of all people living in this country. Protecting the Tamil-speaking people of this country is my responsibility. That is my duty. All the people of this country should live in safety without fear and suspicion. All should live with equal rights. That is my aim. Let us all get together and build up this nation.”

This entire portion of a rather lengthy address was delivered in Tamil, an obvious attempt to reassure the Tamils of the government’s commitment to implementing an inclusive political settlement of the long-nurtured grievances of the community.

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Later in the speech, however, Rajapaksa brought in an element which is likely to cause concern. For example, while he said it was necessary that “we” (did he mean the Members of Parliament he was addressing or did he have the majority Sinhala community in mind?) gave these (Tamil) people the freedoms that were the rights of the people in all other parts of the country and, similarly, it was necessary that the political solutions they (the Tamils) needed should be brought closer to them faster that any country or government in the world would bring, “it cannot be an imported solution. It is necessary that we find a solution that is our very own. It should be a solution acceptable to all sections of the people.”

Was he referring to the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution that was the offshoot of the India-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987? If it was indeed so, was he hinting that he was planning to demolish the very basis on which the Tamils seek a political settlement of the ethnic question, devolution of powers of autonomy to a well-identified geographical entity—the northern and eastern provinces. An amalgamation of the two provinces, which was envisaged under the Agreement, has long been out of reckoning, but the question arises if the Sri Lankan Government is working for a formula under which the Tamils will be a minority community even though a nominal package of devolution of powers will be in place in the northern and eastern provinces.

For one thing, Rajapaksa’s reference to the unitary Sri Lankan state in the course of his address to Parliament is significant (“but the terrorists had created a situation under which there was fear even in respect of the principle of the unitary state that has been established in our Constitution”), no less so than his statement that the political solution he has in mind will not be “imported” but indigenous.

His plank in the 2005 presidential election, concretised in his so-called “Mahinda Chintana” (which he himself described as historic in his parliamentary address), does not inspire any belief that he plans to satisfy the Tamil aspirations for regional autonomy based on ethnic identity. As it is, the eastern province has an almost equal percentage of the Tamils, Sinhalas and Muslims (the latter are Tamil-speaking but do not identify themselves as Tamils), the very reason why the state and the majority community have decisively rejected the India-originated plan to amalgamate this province with the northern province where the Tamils are the only community.

And this is yet another sphere where the deeply entrenched distrust between the Tamils and the Sinhalas lies. In the aftermath of the defeat of the LTTE and the end of the civil war, there is suspicion in the Tamil community that the government plans to settle a sizeable Sinhala population in the northern province. There is no reason for this suspicion but the Tamils continue to be focussed on the history of Sinhala responses to the ethnic question and refuse to be influenced by the current presidential utterances despite their refreshing contrariness.

The last four years of the Rajapaksa Presidency has established time and again its utter disdain for international opinion regarding Sri Lankan affairs, a kind of behaviour which is not normally expected of a democratic government. In the latest manifestation of this policy of his government, Rajapaksa said the following in his address to Parliament in the context of the continuing international concern for the humanitarian situation during the Army’s operation: “Our troops went to this operation carrying a gun in one hand, the Human Rights Charter in the other, hostages on their shoulders, and the love of their children in their hearts…It is truly a miracle to go to a battlefield where civilians have been turned into human bombs, and carry on the battle without shedding the blood of civilians.” In saying these words, the President sought to reduce the international community’s criticism and concern for the humanitarian situation in the last days of the operation to the status of mindless gibberish.

While Prabhakaran has been devoured by the tiger he continued to ride, a disturbing question has surfaced: is the tiger that President Rajapaksa has been riding since his election campaign likely to turn into a marauding one? One can only hope for a negative reply.

The author is an analyst of Central and South Asia.

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