Who Speaks for Sri Lanka’s Tamils?
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
An article I posted on Groundviews on May 28 elicited many responses.
On May 16, a seminar was held at the Marga Institute to launch a publication by the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka (IDAG-S) – The Numbers Game: Politics of Restorative Justice.
Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, Chairman Emeritus of the Marga Institute, opened the proceedings by answering the question: “Do numbers matter”. He acknowledged that, while even a low number of civilian casualties was cause for anguish, citing large and inaccurate figures could only inhibit the healing process.
Counting the Dead
After careful consideration, the IDAG-S concluded that the civilian death toll in the final months of Eelam War IV was probably between 15,000 and 18,000. This estimate itself has been challenged by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, who points out that “only 6,000 injured were taken off by the ICRC (Red Cross) ships over four months, along with bystanders, suggesting that the figure of the dead would have been less.” The 18,000 figure includes civilians killed by the LTTE, the IDAG-S says, although “it is probable that more were hit by government fire than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small”.
The IDAG-S estimate is, despite the ire of some critics, somewhat higher than some calculations by Tamils.
Rajasingham Narendran talked to IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and later with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere. He said : “My estimate is that the deaths — cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute said “[approximately] 12,000 [without counting armed Tiger personnel] “. Dr Noel Nadesan: ““roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”. Note that Nadesan includes fighters and natural deaths. In any population, a number would die from natural causes of ill health or medical misadventure at child birth or surgery. On 13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay issued a press release saying that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, data “primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net”, put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaithivu at 2,972 until 5 April 2009.
IADG-S consider that Frances Harrison and Alan Keenan, by claiming 147,000 civilian deaths, have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity/ morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”
Response from TGTE
The first response to my Groundviews article came from Usha S Sri-Skanda-Rajah. Dr Sri-Skanda-Rajah has long lived in Toronto but claims to speak for those Tamils who lived in Sri Lanka under the brutal rule of Prabhakaran. She continues to campaign for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. She describes herself as “Senator Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam”. Her Groundviews comment was highly critical of my article and of the IDAG-S report, although she later admitted that she had not actually read it. In her first comment she said: “Numbers don’t matter, it is the truth that matters”.
In a conciliatory spirit, Amar Gunatilleke of the Marga Institute responded to the senator: “I accept the fact that terrorism in Sri Lanka was born because of grievances of the Tamil people. There is no debate on that. I don’t want to debate on what became of the LTTE later and how it ended. We all have to accept our faults if we are interested in reconciliation…. My personal view on this whole matter is that one cannot have lasting peace and reconciliation unless there is collective atonement, admission of guilt, confession, repentance, forgiveness. Forget the state, the Rajapaksas. Can you and I do this together? Are you interested?”
The senator’s response was: “there are gaping holes in your offer”. Amar responded: “Even if a small group of civil society, private sector organizations and NGOs involved in humanitarian work can make a difference in the lives of some of the people who were affected by the war, I will find peace and joy in my life by being involved with such group.”
Does the Diaspora Speak for Tamils in Sri Lanka?
In an exchange with me Amar said: “It will be interesting for the Tamil diaspora to hear what some Tamils in the North actually have to say. I can arrange that if they are interested. I will leave it at that. As a starting point maybe we should arrange that.” Throughout the comment thread, Dr Sri-Skanda-Rajah’s position was challenged. It was particularly telling when she was challenged by Tamils who had lived in Sri Lanka throughout the war.
Here is one: “I am really fed up, as a Tamil, to be told by those of you who live in the west in your comfy postcodes that you represent me. None of you do, because during the war when you all left, it was the poor Tamils without exit options who died…and it was their sons and daughters, who were either conscripted by force or went willingly, who died. During the final days of the war, in the west, it was quite the rage to walk around with wrist bands and banners saying ‘free Tamil Eelam’ …but no one among them sent their children back to fight…oh no, it was all OK for some poor mother’s son to die, but not their precious offspring…. Let us turn away from calls for separation, but instead look for ways to ensure equal rights for Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers and please help us celebrate our diversity instead of going behind pipe dreams.”
The TGTE Case According to the Senator
The senator frequently resorted to the clarion call of those with entrenched positions who are not prepared to do the work required to present a logical argument. “Do your homework”. I have had similar calls from committed Catholics, dedicated Muslims, convinced Zionists, militant atheists. It means that the truths of which they are convinced are so obvious that it is up to their opponents to do the heavy lifting.
The senator persistently refused to answer direct questions. She did provide long list of links which she claimed supported her argument that large numbers of civilians were deliberately killed by government forces in pursuit of a policy of planned extermination of the Tamil race. David Blacker tirelessly checked out these links and found them to be spurious or irrelevant. One link leads to a collection of videos with titles varying from Vampire Weekend to Trampoline Fails. Another redirects to a page advertising a mobile ringtone and game called Chicken 2. Another says “Oops page not found”. The “evidence” she presents consistently and disingenuously confuses dead Tigers with dead civilians.
David Blacker: “Usha, you say that the GoSL has killed all dissent on the Tamil side; but isn’t it true that it was the Tigers that destroyed all other Tamil voices? Isn’t it a fact that this action ensured that once the Tigers were destroyed that there was no other Tamil voices? Isn’t it also true that by destroying all other representatives of the Tamils and usurping the role of sole representation the Tigers ensured that any voice of Tamil dissent in the foreseeable future would be bound to the Tigers by association? Also, do you not see the TNA as a voice of Tamil dissent? Or do you believe that your unelected so-called government in exile is the sole representative of the Tamils now?”
David Blacker further commented: “the Tamils need to take a good look at what has led them to the place they are in and stop repeating the mistakes that got them there and disassociate themselves from people who got them there; people who do not have their best interests in mind. The waving of Tiger flags in international capitals was directly instrumental in preventing foreign governments from interfering. So why do the very same damaging things and think that now it’ll be different? That self-examination is not happening.”
Amar Gunatilleke commented: “After going through 142 comments I could see only a handful of suggestions regarding the way forward posted by those who were not present at the Seminar.”
David Blacker replied to Usha: “I would expect a far higher quality of debate from a self-declared representative of the Tamils.” He continued: “This is symbolic of the Tamil Diaspora’s total lack of commitment to the cause that their SL brethren died for; you threw some money at the problem and got on with your lives over there in the west. Now, you are bitter at the defeat, but still are unwilling to actually do what is necessary.”
I will let the Tamil who calls himself “Fed Up” have the last word: “Please understand Usha, that I would love to see Tamil activists committed to ensuring our rights within a unified country. My concern about this separate state is that even if you get it, how will Tamils treat fellow Tamils, let alone those of other ethnicities? The caste system is alive and well in the north, so will low caste people be allowed into top positions? If you are fighting against racism, will you allow a Muslim or Sinhalese into top positions in Tamil Eelam? Usha, practically speaking, why don’t the TGTE conduct a survey amongst the Tamils who live in Sri Lanka, to find out what we really want….don’t claim that you speak for all of us without finding out what we who live here, really want.”
The Marga Institute plans to undertake research to enable the views of Tamils living in Sri Lanka to be heard. Watch this space.