x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Sri Lanka's Tamil expats try to revive separatist movement with 'government in exile'

Sri Lanka's delay in addressing Tamil grievances has opened a dangerous political space to separatists, observers say.

Tamils demonstrate outside parliament in London in May last year. Like many other western countries, Britain has a sizeable Tamil population.
Tamils demonstrate outside parliament in London in May last year. Like many other western countries, Britain has a sizeable Tamil population.

COLOMBO // A year after government troops crushed Tamil separatist guerrillas and ended 26 years of civil war, a political solution addressing the root causes of the ethnic conflict still eludes Sri Lanka, analysts say.

The slow progress in addressing Tamil grievances has already opened dangerous political space to pro-separatist Tamils living abroad. Earlier this month, members of the million-strong Tamil diaspora in the West, mostly in Canada, the UK, the US, Germany, France and Switzerland, where there are large Tamil communities, conducted unofficial polls and elected a "government-in-exile". The polls took part in community centres and Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper reported that supporters of the Tamil independence struggle organised the election on May 2 to elect 135 "government" members.

Colombo dismissed the exercise, which was overseen by various pro-Tamil groups brought together by Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran, a former member of the Tamil Tigers living in exile. However, senior government officials such as Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the defence secretary, had earlier warned of attempts by expatriate Tamils, many of whom had financially backed the rebels, to revive the movement. In May last year, government soldiers ended a lengthy operation against the rebels in their northern stronghold, killing the elusive leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, and ending the conflict that has cost the lives of more than 80,000 people since 1983. The rebels were fighting for an independent homeland for their minority Tamil community.

Kusal Perera, a political columnist for Colombo's Sunday Leader newspaper, asked whether Sri Lanka's problems were over, said: "There is nothing called peace. It was a military defeat of the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels] in a ruthless and brutal way. The political aspirations are yet to be resolved and until this happens, there is no peace." While the era of suicide bombings and brutal counterinsurgency operations may be over, analysts said the political reforms needed to appease the Tamil minority have yet to materialise.

Dayan Jayatillake, a political scientist and a former Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said while national security has been guaranteed and people have enjoyed a year of peace and relatively free movement, the government's post-war performance is far less impressive on political reconciliation, human rights and civic freedoms. Long-promised political reforms that give Tamils some authority in areas where they are a majority, have been very slow. "If we had moved faster, the international pressure on us would have eased," Mr Jayatillake said.

By now, he said, the government should have initiated negotiations with Tamil political parties and agreed on a timetable for reforms. "If the government had followed up the military victory with a political track, we could have undercut the dangerous buildup in the Tamil diaspora with its holding of a referendum on Tamil Eelam [government-in-exile] in all corners of the world." The Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who won a landslide in recent presidential and parliamentary elections, has proposed constitutional and electoral reforms to be presented in parliament in July. The senior minister Maithripala Sirisena told reporters on Monday that the reforms would strengthen representation of all communities to all elected bodies, enhance powers to independent commissions and remove the restriction on the president to seek a third term in office.

Among other recent developments is the creation of a reconciliation commission on the lines of South Africa's truth commission to address Tamil allegations of war crimes and rights abuses. There has also been an easing of some emergency powers that allow the army to check homes without a search warrant and arrest without cause. These concessions by the government do not reflect a serious effort to bring Tamils into the political mainstream or meaningfully address their grievances, analysts said.

The government on Wednesday launched a week of activity to commemorate "war heroes" - Sri Lankan soldiers who died fighting the rebels. The week of remembrance will end on May 20 with a massive military parade in Colombo, overseen by Mr Rajapaksa. "The military strategy will continue not only in the north but also in the south. That is why the government is hyping up the war heroes' week, which is to be annually commemorated," said the columnist Perera.

He said while dead soldiers from the government are heralded as war heroes, the authorities have bulldozed war cemeteries of the rebels in the north, depriving parents of dead rebels of visiting the graves of their sons and daughters. "Is this how you give rights to the Tamils? Parents cannot be penalised for what their children did." foreign.desk@thenational.ae