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Fri. February 03, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Asoka Bandarage
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International Affairs Forum: Aid organizations are calling the situation in the North of Sri Lanka a humanitarian disaster, while the Sri Lankan government is saying such claims are overblown. Do we know how bad the humanitarian situation really is? Asoka Bandarage: It’s a very complex situation. On the one hand, there aren’t media sources out there, so one has to go by what the government is saying. On the other hand, the government is also in a very difficult situation. Successive Sri Lankan governments have tried to negotiate with the LTTE and it hasn’t worked, so the government had to take this military offensive. The government forces are on the verge of finally defeating the LTTE. Yes, there is a humanitarian crisis—there is no doubt about that—but the question is, would a ceasefire at this point really help the humanitarian situation given that the LTTE is holding a lot of Tamil people as human shields? Even if there is a ceasefire, would the LTTE allow these people to leave? Holding Tamil people as human shields is basically their last resort. Is a ceasefire the wise thing to do at this point, when the LTTE is almost finished with? The LTTE has been a ruthless terrorist organization—conscripting children, killing dissidents, so on and so forth. Going back to your question about the humanitarian organizations, it’s not clear whether or not there is an exaggeration on their part. We would like to think that intervention and humanitarian aid is motivated simply by the desire to help the victims on the ground, but in the complicated world we live in that’s not always the case. These groups can be politically motivated. Are these organizations motivated by humanitarianism or other geopolitical interests? In Sri Lanka, there has been a history of international NGO’s being involved in the conflict and taking sides. Also, why isn’t there more of an emphasis on the part of international organizations calling on the LTTE to let the civilians go? This would be the most important thing to do at this point—to put pressure on the LTTE to let people leave the conflict zone. A lot of people have left voluntarily because the government has erected a ‘no fire zone’ for people to move into. But the LTTE has been firing at people who are leaving. These are reports that I have read—I don’t know how accurate they are—but, I think that there should be a lot of international pressure on the LTTE to let people leave, rather than simply calling for a ceasefire which could prolong the war. IA-Forum: You mentioned that we have to rely on the government for information about the military offensive. Do you see them allowing the media into the North anytime soon? Asoka Bandarage: From what I understand, no. In terms of war and security, one can understand that. But, in terms of civil rights and freedom of the press, it is a problem. There is a certain abrogation of civil rights and democratic norms in this atmosphere of war. I think that is why most people are just hoping that this military offensive ends soon, because that doesn’t necessarily end the conflict, which is much more complicated than simply defeating the LTTE. There are a lot of other issues that have to be worked out. When the military offensive is over, the political issues can be dealt with. IA-Forum: To ask a similar question to that which many have posed in the wake of the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza, does this military offensive help or hurt the LTTE in terms of public support among Tamils? Asoka Bandarage: It’s a heart-wrenching situation. Anyone can feel for the suffering of the Tamil people in the north who are caught in this war and who have suffered the most. But the thing to remember is that the Sri Lankan Tamil people are not a free population. They are not able to freely express themselves. There are certain elements, certainly, that support the LTTE because they want to see a separate homeland, but then there are also others who are coerced into supporting it. When the global media and others portray this conflict as a Sinhala government versus a victimized Tamil minority, they overlook the fact that the Tamils have been oppressed by the LTTE itself. Their use of Tamil people as human shields and human weapons is the most blatant expression of that. The situation calls for—and this is what I talk about in my book—moving beyond bipolar thinking—Sinhala versus Tamil—and looking at the intra-ethnic issues, in this case within the Tamil community, how the LTTE has engaged in censorship and internal oppression. There should be condemnation on the part of the Tamils of the LTTE for holding people hostage. The LTTE’s concern has always been themselves, not Tamil people. They have been using the Tamil people to advance their cause. IA-Forum: Do you think that those within the Tamil diaspora have made sufficient efforts to condemn the LTTE? Asoka Bandarage: No, because even those who are opposed to the LTTE—and there are quite a lot, including dissidents who have left the country because they were under threat from the LTTE—don’t speak openly because the LTTE is not just a local movement but an international network, so certainly that condemnation is not going to come. It is those who support…not necessarily the LTTE…but support a separate state who have been speaking up, and those who are opposed to the LTTE and do not support separatism are not really heard from. So in the world media there is this presentation of a unified position among Tamils, which is not actually the case. The LTTE presents itself as the sole representative of the Tamils but it is not a democratically elected regime or organization. IA-Forum: So are you suggesting that even those in the Tamil diaspora are afraid to speak their minds because they feel threatened by the LTTE, or just that they are not being given a chance to do so by the global media? Asoka Bandarage: I think it’s both. There are a few voices here and there but mostly there is a fear of speaking out against this organization, which is one of the most sophisticated terrorist organizations in the world. Also, this issue must be looked at in a broader way than a domestic issue between two ethnic groups—a primordial conflict. In my book I show that although there is a domestic aspect to it, it is really a much broader regional and international issue. For example, the Tamils are a majority in the regional, South Indian context—there are some 60 million or more Tamils there—and the demand for a separate Tamil state called Dravidistan, which was primarily for the Tamils, began during British colonial period in South India because there was a fear that with independence, the northern Indian—the non-Dravidian, so-called Aryan groups—would dominate. So even before the British left there was a very strong movement in southern India calling for a separate state. That became quite vociferous—in fact, it became one of the most activist movements in the post-independence era—until a draconian anti-secessionist amendment to the Indian constitution was passed in 1963. The Dravidian separatist movement was squashed at that point, and very heavy penalties were imposed on anyone calling for a separate state. It was at that time that the movement for Tamil separatism shifted to Sri Lanka because they are the Tamil minority, many of whom were in the North and East of the island. And then in conjunction with developments within Sri Lanka, the separatist movement evolved in Sri Lanka. The Tamil community in South India is an important and sizable community, and at a time in the world when every ethnic community seems to be gaining its own nation-state, the Tamils, who have an advanced cosmopolitan elite, feel that they don’t have a nation-state of their own. There is a world Tamil movement which says that there is a Tamil in every state of the world but no state for the Tamils. The Tamils are a transnational community. So the movement for separatism is not something that is peculiar to Sri Lankan Tamils. Rather it is something for which there is support from certain political parties in South India which have always been involved in Sri Lankan political issues, and also from other groups in Malaysia and the diaspora. So it is must bigger than just a Sri Lankan issue, which is one of the reasons why it has been so difficult to resolve, especially because of the very influential role played by South Indian political parties. So, support for separatism has a broad base. IA-Forum: But isn’t there a danger in conflating the identity of the Sri Lankan Tamils—who have lived in Sri Lanka for about 2,000 years—and the Indian Tamils? Aren’t those two very separate identities? Asoka Bandarage: Yes, they are separate identities—there is the Sri Lankan identity and there are the Indian identity and Malaysian identity, etc.—but they are also co-ethnics who share a wider Tamil culture and close links. At this point Eelam is not being conceptualized as a part of South India, but there have been talks throughout of a Greater Eelam, which includes parts of South India and Sri Lanka. So there are separate identities but there are also a lot of links and commonalities. The separatist movement is not just a Sri Lankan movement—it is regional and it is international. IA-Forum: So wouldn’t this idea of a Greater Eelam make India want to oppose any type of Tamil separatism? Asoka Bandarage: Yes, and that is a very important point. India is opposed to the creation of a separate state within Sri Lanka because it would pose a threat to India’s own unity and territorial integrity. But because of pressure from the South Indian political parties on the central government, India has also had to take up the cause of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. That’s the nature of the political system in India—coalition politics, where the Congress Party, for example, needs the support of the South Indian parties in order to stay in power. So the issue is not simply that India is so concerned with the Tamil cause, but also the interest of the Indian political parties in their own survival. The proximity to India has been a very key factor in the origin and evolution of the conflict. From the beginning, the terrorist organizations were able to find refuge in South India because it is so close to Sri Lanka. There is even evidence which shows that the Indian government was involved in arming and training the guerilla groups, including the LTTE, from the beginning. During Indira Gandhi’s time, India’s policy was to destabilize Sri Lanka because there was the fear that Sri Lanka was moving into the Western sphere of influence through its economic policies and alleged alignment with the United States and so on. So India was very much involved in the Sri Lankan conflict. Later, the arrival of the Indian Peacekeeping Forces (IPKF) came into Sri Lanka (in 1987), led to one of the worst periods of political anarchy in Sri Lanka. The Indian peacekeeping operation was a disastrous experiment, ending in a war between the IPKF and the LTTE. And after the IPKF left, [Former Prime Minister of India] Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE. After that, India proscribed the LTTE as a terrorist organization and Vellupillai Prabhakaran, its leader, has been a wanted man in India. IA-Forum: What kind of role has India played during this most recent military offensive? Asoka Bandarage: India has not played a direct role, but at the same time India is very concerned and is a key player. It is a very tricky situation because India doesn’t want to get directly involved—there have even been calls for India to come in and evacuate some of the civilians, but India didn’t want to do that. India is not trying to stop the military offensive and it doesn’t support a separate state, but at the same time it is also calling for devolution and for support for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. IA-Forum: How close is the Sri Lankan military to actually eliminating the LTTE? Asoka Bandarage: They say that the amount of land that is under LTTE control now is some 20 square miles or something like that, and they claim that this could have been finished much earlier if it wasn’t for the civilian population that is caught up in the conflict. There are different estimates that are given by the government and by other organizations. I think that the real issue is the civilian population. How can they be protected and brought to safety? I’m going by what I hear in the press myself. IA-Forum: Hypothetically, if the military offensive is successful in completely dismantling the LTTE, what happens next? Who represents the Tamils? Will there be new efforts at political reconciliation or will the government try to maintain a sort of status quo with the Tamils in a very weak state? Asoka Bandarage: What needs to be recognized is that although the LTTE claims to be the sole representative of the Tamil people, there are Tamil political parties and politicians who are part of the democratic system, so it’s not like there is no representation at all. There have been calls for the LTTE itself to join the democratic process, which they refused to do. It is really about strengthening the democratic process and making sure that all groups are really participating in that process, which is something that the LTTE tried to stop the Tamils from doing. It’s a very complicated situation because the majority of Tamils are not in the North and the East anymore—they are outside of the North and the East, and also there is a large number outside of the country. As I say in my book, devolution is not a magic formula. It is often presented like “okay, once the military offensive is finished there should be devolution,” but there should be a more integrated approach incorporating a lot of different issues, especially the concerns of the people on the ground who have suffered the most. Their needs for land, education, livelihood, employment, rehabitation, infrastructure—the development of the North and the East—should be the priorities rather than simply assuming that devolution will solve everything. Devolution is more the concern of politicians seeking power than people on the ground. Conflict resolution needs to incorporate the interests of the people not just Tamils but also Sinhalese and Muslims, who are a very important third community in Sri Lanka, particularly in the North and the East. For example, there are over 100,000 Muslims and Sinhalese who were ethnically cleansed out of the Northern and Eastern province by the LTTE. So there are all these other issues that need to be dealt with, and the sooner the country is able to deal with them, the better it is since it is going to be a long-term process of reconciliation, rebuilding and development. IA Forum: Is Tamil separatism a dead idea at this point? What about regional autonomy? Asoka Bandarage: There are some groups that are diehard. Many in both groups—the Sinhalese and the Tamils—approach this conflict in an ideological way—either for or against separatism. I think the important thing is to look at the realities on the ground—the demographic and socioeconomic realities. There may be certain situations in which devolution, autonomy, or even separatism is the right solution. But in Sri Lanka separatism cannot be justified on the basis of demographic and socioeconomic realities. As I already mentioned, most Tamils now live outside of the North and the East. The North and the East are also pluralistic. The whole island is pluralistic, that has been the case historically. In [the capital city of] Colombo, minorities constitute the majority of the population, and that is the case even in some of the districts in the Central Province. So given the increasing pluralism in the entire country, the creation of separate regions for ethnic groups is only going to perpetuate the conflict because not only the Sinhalese but also the Muslims are opposed to that. If there is an attempt to have ethno-regions, then the Muslims who consider themselves to be a distinct ethno-religious group are going to demand separate autonomous areas for themselves in the Eastern Province, which they have already done. So regional autonomy does not make sense in this particular case. It might make sense in different places, but because of the pluralism of the island, ethnic regions would have to be artificially created, and if that happens, we could see ethnic cleansing—population transfers—and that which is unlikely to create peace and harmony. IA-Forum: What does the government have to do in order to convince the Tamils that they are not second-class citizens? Might it be necessary to put aside the idea of Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist state? Asoka Bandarage: I go into the history in my book. There were policies in the 1950’s and 60’s which were attempts to redress some of the inequities of the colonial era. The Tamil elite was highly privileged and had proportionately greater access to education and professional jobs during that era. Some of the policies that were introduced in the post-independence period were attempting not just to support Sinhalese Buddhists, who had been victimized during the colonial period, but also to take away some of the privileges of the English speaking elites of all ethnic groups. The sense of discrimination resulting from legislation during the 50’s and 60’s was not something that was experienced just by the Tamil elite but by the cosmopolitan elite of the other groups, including the Sinhalese. For example, quota systems introduced for entrance into the universities gave preference to so-called “backward rural areas,” undermining the privileges of the elite Colombo schools attended by children of the elite of all of ethnic groups. But many of these language laws, university entrance quotas have long been changed, and, in fact, Tamil was made an equal official language in Sri Lanka in 1978. Even prior to that it was given the same status. This is not something that is available to Tamil speakers anywhere in the world, including India, which has over 60 million Tamils. Legally, Tamils are not second-class citizens. They have the same rights. This is not to say that there weren’t people who experienced violence, especially in riots of 1983, and people with legitimate fears and grievances and distrust of the state. So there must be work done to reconcile and make the Tamils and all groups feel that they are part of society and have equal access. In terms of the law they have equal rights, but, things like a bill of rights upholding minority rights needs to be introduced and enforced. Yes, I do think that there have to be compromises on all sides. Yes, in the Constitution it says that Buddhism has a special place, but there is much greater religious freedom in Sri Lanka than in many other countries including the freedom to convert. If you were to travel to Sri Lanka, you would see that there are Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists all living side by side. Pluralism exists, but it can be deepened and trust has to be built. But in terms of daily life, there is just so much interaction and mutual coexistence and harmony. Yet there is this tendency to use the argument of primordial enmity and exaggerate charges of Buddhist dominance to make up a case for separatism. The inter-ethnic animosity has also increased over the course of the conflict itself. For example, there are checkpoints where they tend to check Tamils more because of fear that they could be suicide bombers, and of course people experiencing that feel that they are being targeted, but the reality is that there are suicide bombers and the state needs to protect all its citizens. IA-Forum: What changes, if any, do you see—or hope to see—the Obama administration making in terms of American policy toward Sri Lanka? Asoka Bandarage: They have to see the real threat that is posed by the LTTE, what a ruthless terrorist organization it is and what it has done to the country. It’s considered the prototype of global terrorism—they were the first group to acquire airpower, they have had a navy, they have been involved in narcotics trading, they have very sophisticated fundraising mechanisms. They even infiltrate political campaigns of politicians here in the United States. The threat that this poses—not just to Sri Lanka and to the region, but to the world at large—cannot be overlooked. There needs to be greater recognition that, while democratic norms, civil rights, and human rights need to be upheld, they need to be addressed in the context of terrorism. It cannot be either/or. The Obama administration is not naïve about the world. There is a recognition that you have to address the human rights and democracy in the context of the very difficult realities of global terrorism and the complexities that go along with that. Asoka Bandarage is a professor in the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University. Her latest book is entitled “The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka: Terrorism, Ethnicity, Political Economy (Routledge,2009)

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