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Toothless tigers
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 05 - 2009

Gamal Nkrumah scrutinises the sense of celebration among the citizens of Sri Lanka with this week's cruel crushing of the Tamil Tigers
Magnanimous in victory, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakase delivered an astoundingly reconciliatory speech to the nation in celebration of the rout of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) by the Sri Lankan government armed forces. Sri Lankans would breathe easier if they knew for sure the fate of the leader of LTTE. President Rajapakase bravely put a positive gloss on his armed forces' resounding defeat of the Tigers.
President Rajapakase's rule-of-thumb is that Sri Lanka now has time to look beyond immediate survival. His victory speech was couched in appeasing and accommodating terms to the country's 2.5 million ethnic Tamils. This was his moment of triumphal glory, and he humbly accepted the accolades. He called for a freer, more open and better-integrated nation. However, he wanted no ethnic enclaves on the island.
"We have decided to silence our guns," Selvarasa Pathmanathan, LTTE's chief of international relations proclaimed. "We have liberated the whole country from terrorism," Sri Lankan army chief Lieutenant General Sareth Fonseka retorted.
The plaudits poured in from all corners of the world. However, in Sri Lanka LTTE supporters sang the requiem. Overseas, they took to the streets in violent protests. The angriest and loudest demonstrations took place in London and in Geneva where outraged Tamils called for "justice and retribution".
In Geneva, Tamil protesters were offended because the World Health Organisation recently selected Sri Lankan Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, of all people, to head the international, United Nations-affiliated organisation. Twelve British police officers were injured in clashes with Tamil demonstrators in London's Trafalgar Square.
Such anger erupting spontaneously from Tamils who have long fled their homelands and settled in the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia is detrimental to the cause of nation-building in Sri Lanka. These angry overseas Tamils cannot be drawn into a reasoned debate about a united and democratic Sri Lanka.
"To protect the Tamil people living in this country is my responsibility," the Sri Lankan president proudly proclaimed. At one point during his remarkable speech he switched from the Singhalese language, his native tongue, to the Tamil language, one of the three official languages of Sri Lanka -- the others being English and Singhalese. Nowhere else in the world, except in neighbouring India's Tamil Nadu state is Tamil an official language, the Sri Lankan president noted. This victory, he stressed, was a homegrown solution to a domestic Sri Lankan problem.
The 26-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka was Asia's longest-running conflict. The results were nothing short of catastrophic. At independence Sri Lanka was the second wealthiest per capita of all Asian nations. Today, it ranks among the continent's poorest. Yet, the enchanting Indian Ocean island-nation is a country of great economic potential.
Another perverse consequence of the war is the paucity of debate among the Tamils themselves. The LTTE made sure of that by brutishly silencing all voices of moderation. There is no doubt that moderate Tamils are relieved that their nemesis is finally gone.
The ethnic Singhalese majority of Sri Lanka were not the only people to suffer at the hands of the Tigers. The Tamils, too, were victims of LTTE terrorism. In the 1990s, LTTE destroyed no less than one half of Sri Lanka's air fleet in a daring terrorist attack on Colombo's international airport, with many victims being Tamils working there.
Many Tamils languish in crowded displacement camps dotted around the island, but mostly in the north and east. But then the Tamil Tigers forcibly deported all Muslims, some 100,000, from the Jafna Peninsula when they took control of the area in June 1990.
These reactions born of rage are visceral responses to justice not seen to be done. But now is not the time for retribution. Long forgiven, but not forgotten, was the brutal assassination by a female LTTE suicide terrorist of the late Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in the outskirts of Chennai, capital of India's Tamil Nadu state -- home to an estimated 90 million Tamils.
The Sri Lankan president declared the country "totally liberated from Tamil Tiger terrorism" and it did it alone, or rather with a little help from China. Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, brother of the president was instrumental in the Sri Lankan government military exploits. He survived an assassination attempt last year and both he and President Rajapakse dismissed international calls for restraint. Indeed, it is felt in Colombo that it was wise of the Sri Lankan government to keep at bay "Western intruders" as a Sri Lankan pundit put it. "That was a wise move on the part of the government. Had they [the Western intruders including the United Nations and humanitarian agencies] been there, the government would have lost against the terrorists."
The LTTE issued two statements saying their leader isn't dead. But their protestations fell on deaf ears. The Sri Lankan president warned that it is necessary "to protect the Motherland to protect the Tamil people living in this country". He stressed that the victory was a homegrown solution and that the military aspect isn't the whole solution. The crux of the matter is in the process of rehabilitation and reintegration of the Tamils into Sri Lankan civil society.
The demise of Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the charismatic leader of LTTE, means the decisive victory for the government even though the pro-Tamil website insists he is still alive even as the president was delivering his victory speech. Prabhakaran belonged to a clique of unpatriotic Tamil separatists, the Sri Lankan ethnic Singhalese majority reason. To his detractors, Prabhakaran was a head-in-the-clouds revolutionary.
The noose was tightening around the neck of Prabhakaran and his tattered band of wearied fighters. The Tamils had tired of war as the government launched its determined offensive.
Prabhakaran had prepared his supporters for the final onslaught. Mass suicide was his logical conclusion, his most trusted warriors carried cyanide pills in their pockets and they waited for his orders to commit suicide rather than being caught by the Sri Lankan army. They fought to the bitter end. The presumed remains of Prabhakaran's charred body were found among other Tiger leaders.
The LTTE issued a statement that Prabhakaran wasn't dead, but failed to produce a video that would verify that he was still alive and well.
The long-running dispute resulted in the death of some 64,000 people and hundreds of thousands homeless and injured.
LTTE is designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States and Britain; however, Tamil exiles exercised considerable clout in support of their separatist agenda and helped fund and arm the rebels.
Tamil-Muslim reconciliation is of vital importance in the Eastern region where the two ethno-religious groups are geographically concentrated and vie for the control of meagre resources. A Tamil child soldier is currently chief minister of Sri Lanka's Eastern region.
If Sri Lanka could open up even a little more in the months ahead, its officials and citizens would be better prepared for the onslaught of criticism and political activism by disgruntled Tamil elements at home and overseas.
Sri Lanka will not only rebuild faith in its future as a prosperous and politically stable nation, but may also gain benefits for all the ethnic and religious groups of the island.
By implementing higher standards of transparency and a rejection of the culture of secrecy and violence, the country will prosper. The Tamils cannot be treated as a privileged minority -- a situation cultivated by the British colonialists in a divide and rule policy. Indeed, their perceived interests must be treated with at least as much stringency as it applies to the majority Singhalese concerns. These are useful first steps.
While it is true that most Tamils in Sri Lanka do not want to provoke Singhalese wrath by opting to divide the island nation, they are adamantly opposed to being absorbed by the Singhalese majority. But there is a dawning realisation that the Tamil people cannot usurp their rights by force. Democracy is the way forward.
Overseas Tamils argue that Tamil independence is unthinkable to almost all Singhalese largely because decades of fierce propaganda have led the Singhalese to be convinced by their own rhetoric. They assume that any move towards Tamil self-determination is a threat to national unity.
Mistakes of the past cannot be repeated and a new chapter in the country's history must now be written. The absence of public participation in Tamil majority areas in the north and east of the island does not necessarily mean that Sri Lanka has failed to produce rational policy.
The next stage is to broaden public debates on the rights of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. There is a desperate need to permit facts and ideas to flow freely to and from the Sri Lankan public and especially among the ethnic Tamils. However, it is wise to remember that the reality is always more complicated than propaganda.


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