Sri Lankan Tamil activist and a spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum
Sri Lanka’s quarter-century-long civil war is in its final throes, with the militant Tamil separatist group the Tamil Tigers, or the LTTE, almost completely defeated. The Sri Lankan military said today that the fifty-four-year-old leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran is dead. Army Commander Sarath Fonseka announced that the army had "liberated the entire country by liberating the north from terrorists." On Sunday, the LTTE said it was "prepared to silence its guns" and admitted that the fighting had reached a "bitter end." [includes rush transcript]
ANJALI KAMAT: Today’s top story is Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s quarter-century-long civil war is in its final throes, with the militant Tamil separatist group the Tamil Tigers, or the LTTE, almost completely defeated. The Sri Lankan military said today that the fifty-four-year-old leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran is dead. Army Commander Sarath Fonseka announced that the army had, quote, “liberated the entire country by liberating the north from terrorists.”
On Sunday, the LTTE said it was, quote, “prepared to silence its guns” and admitted that the fighting had reached a, quote, “bitter end.” Government forces took control of the island nation’s entire coastline for the first time in decades, trapping the remaining fighters in less than a square mile of land.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa claimed victory against the LTTE on Saturday.
PRESIDENT MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA: I am proud to announce at this august gathering that my government, with the total commitment of our armed forces, has, in an unprecedented humanitarian operation, finally defeated the LTTE militarily. I will be going back to a country that has been totally freed from the barbaric acts of the LTTE. This freedom comes after thirty long years. My government’s precious and well-coordinated humanitarian operation has succeeded in rescuing almost all civilians who were being used as human shields by the LTTE.
ANJALI KAMAT: While the Sri Lankan military claims all the civilians have left the combat zone, concern continues to grow over the fate of those still trying to escape and the thousands displaced by the fighting. The United Nations says nearly 7,000 civilians were killed and over 16,000 wounded since January.
Today, the European Union is expected to call for an independent inquiry into alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, echoing UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, who backed calls Friday for a probe into possible war crimes by both the government and rebel forces.
This is an unidentified civilian who had just fled the war zone, speaking to reporters last week.
SRI LANKAN CIVILIAN: [translated] We have not eaten for weeks. I cannot even think straight. Everyone must live. Everyone must be rescued. Tell your leaders to rescue all our children, all the Tamils. I don’t care even if I lose my life. I can’t carry on seeing the way children are suffering. There are so many children without legs. Some are dead on the streets. After seeing so many, I have lost interest in life.
ANJALI KAMAT: I’m joined now here in the firehouse studio by Sri Lankan Tamil activist Ahilan Kadirgamar, a spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ahilan.
AHILAN KADIRGAMAR: Thank you, Anjali.
ANJALI KAMAT: Ahilan, is this the end of the LTTE, after three decades of ruling the scene in Sri Lanka, ruling the state of Tamil politics?
AHILAN KADIRGAMAR: Very much so. I think the civil war has also come to an end. Along with that, this is very much the end of the LTTE.
But, of course, now the question is the future of Sri Lanka, in terms of what kind of political change will be brought about. The question of minorities and, of course, the Tamil community remains.
That question, that political question, precedes the LTTE. From the time of independence in 1948, there have been a number of acts of discrimination by the Sri Lankan state against the Tamil minority and other minorities. In 1956, Sinhalese was made the only official language. In the 1970s, there was perceived discrimination against the Tamil community in education.
There have been a number of pacts between leaders of the Tamil community and the Sinhala community which did not succeed. So we did not have to go through this very tragic period where thousands of people died — possibly, you know, over 100,000 people have died in this civil war — if this had been resolved politically before that. But now there is an opportunity. It’s to be seen what the Sri Lankan government will do, and the president.
ANJALI KAMAT: Before we go into the future, can you talk a little bit about the history of the LTTE and of the chief of the Tamil Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who the Sri Lankan military is saying is now dead?
AHILAN KADIRGAMAR: Sure. When these acts of discrimination took up — came across in the 1970s, there were a number of armed groups that took up the armed struggle. The LTTE was one of them, and Velupillai Prabhakaran was the founder of the LTTE. And following the 1983 riots, so this major program where over 2,000 Tamil civilians were killed, these militant groups mushroomed, as thousands of youth joined these various militant groups.
But in the mid-’80s, in 1985, 1986, the LTTE decimated, they physically eliminated all the other militant groups, killing their leadership, massacring hundreds of fellow Tamil cadres, and claimed that they were the only sole representative. And Prabhakaran has always had a strategy of eliminating all other alternatives within the Tamil community. They also massacred the leadership — the parliamentary leadership, such as the Tamil United Liberation Front in the late ’80s. And they have consistently assassinated Tamil dissenters, dissident activists and politicians, to claim that they can be the only representative of the Tamil community. So, the construction of a traitor has been part of the politics.
And they also — you know, to match the might of the Sri Lankan state, they also developed suicide bombing. They were one of the first forces to start suicide bombing extensively in the world. They carried out assassination of political leaders in the south. And they even brought in women and children into their forces.
But they were mainly a military organization. They did not have a strong political wing, hardly a political wing at all. And their entire organization was built around the personality cult of Prabhakaran and a military structure.
So, in that sense, what we see now with the end of the war is, as reports claim, Prabhakaran has been killed, and the LTTE’s military structure has been destroyed. So, in that sense, I see it as also the end of the LTTE.
ANJALI KAMAT: Now, the LTTE has styled itself as the sole representative of the Tamil people. What’s your sense of the humanitarian crisis, tens of thousands of largely Tamil civilians who were trapped in this northern area for months, you know, withstanding shelling, fighting from both sides? Where are they now? What’s their future in the new Sri Lankan state?
AHILAN KADIRGAMAR: When the war escalated over the last couple years and as the LTTE withdrew into this small strip of territory, they also took, you know, anywhere around 250,000 Tamil civilians into that little territory and held them more or less as hostages, while the army continued to indiscriminately shell.
Now, over the last couple months, those 200,000 people, the bulk of them, have come out. They’ve been put in what the government is calling welfare camps, which human rights groups have described as internment camps, where they are boxed into barb-wired camps, and they don’t have free movement out of those camps. And then, of course, even over the last few days, with heavy fighting, civilians have been killed. Many of them have been maimed. There’s untold human suffering that has gone on over the last few months. And, of course, the LTTE also cynically used those civilians. They were shooting at civilians who were trying to flee.
Now, the question is, what’s going happen to all this particular population of the Tamil community, you know, 250,000 who are in these camps? When will they be resettled? A number of activists — you know, the human rights community is pushing for the timely resettlement of all these civilians. So, there needs to be pressure on that. There needs to be much more access by international organizations, such as the United Nations human — UNHCR, of ICRC, the International Red Cross, so that they can ensure that there are no human rights abuses of the civilian population and that there is timely resettlement.
ANJALI KAMAT: And finally, Ahilan, what’s your sense of what the future of Sri Lankan politics will look like? What’s the possibility for a democratic future in Sri Lanka? What are the ways of reining in Sinhala nationalism? And what are the ways of reining in, you know, what you have described in your article as a long trend of Tamil authoritarianism, as exemplified by the LTTE?
AHILAN KADIRGAMAR: Yeah. What the LTTE did in their claim to sole representation was to very much decimate the entire political leadership of the Tamil community. So, in that sense, it’s going to take some time for the Tamil community to rebuild a certain democratic political culture.
But it’s also important to note that, you know, the Tamil community is not the only minority in Sri Lanka. There is a sizable Muslim minority. There’s a sizable upcountry Tamil minority. This is indentured labor brought over by the British to work in the tea plantations. Now, any solution has to address the concerns of all the minorities. And there are also, of course, caste minorities. The question of women remains. There are rural people also in the Sinhala community. So, any political solution has to address their concerns.
And the debate in Sri Lanka has been around some form of a constitutional settlement that will allow for much more devolution of power to the regions, but also an interlocking mechanism where there will be power sharing at the center, such as a bicameral legislature. And then there has to be better access, in terms of education, to employment. Now the minorities have only a very small share in state employment.
ANJALI KAMAT: Well, Ahilan Kardirgamar, we’ll have to leave it there. We’ll be following this story over the coming days. Ahilan Kardirgamar is a Sri Lankan Tamil democracy activist and a spokesperson of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.