By Dr A.R.Sriskanda Rajah
As parliamentary elections loom in Sri Lanka, the past three weeks have suddenly become a time of considerable excitement for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and its supporters.
First came the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement of 9 February urging his visiting Sri Lankan counter part Mahinda Rajapaksa to take steps to ‘realise the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect within a united Sri Lanka’. Then came the so-called pledge from senior EU officials during a meeting with the TNA leader R.Sampanthan on 12 February in Colombo that a decision on Sri Lanka will soon be made.
But most exciting of all was the Valentine’s Day travel ban slapped down by the US on the Sri Lankan army commander Lt. General Shavendra Silva and his family. The ban was announced hot on the heels of a meeting held by fifteen Western diplomats with the TNA MP M.A.Sumanthiran at the office of a Canadian diplomat in Geneva. Speaking after the meeting, Sumanthiran claimed Western diplomats had promised him that they would not allow Sri Lanka to backtrack from the pledges it made in UNHRC Resolutions 30/1 and 40/1.
So, after heading towards nadir for the past five years, TNA’s diplomacy now seems to be on course to reach zenith – or at least according to Sumanthiran. The TNA stalwart Selvam Adaikalanathan was quick to point out that international conditions are now ripe for Tamils, conveniently forgetting that it was his party that spoiled the broth by bringing to power the pro-Western, pro-market Ranil Wickremesinghe, who then sought to undermine international support for the Tamil call for self-determination and international justice for genocide.
As readers may recall, this column was one of the first few to suggest that Western governments may be contemplating imposing travel bans on some of Sri Lanka’s former and serving officials accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other international crimes. Now that the forty-third session of the UN Human Rights Council is underway, it would not come as a surprise if, in the forthcoming weeks, a Sri Lankan military official leading a low profile life in a Western country is arrested and charged with war crimes.
It is now an open secret that the honeymoon between Sri Lanka and the West is fast becoming bittersweet. But everybody seems to know the reason: as Sri Lanka slowly begins drifting towards China, the West is once again resorting to its policy of carrots and sticks.
Immediately after the US slapped down the travel ban on the Sri Lankan army commander, Tamilnet came out with an article suggesting the ban was intended to a give Gotabaya Rajapaksa a ‘second chance to toe US line’. Notwithstanding some of the absurdities such as the Facebook post of the former Sri Lankan government minister Mano Ganeshan that the US is working to undermine the UNP’s chances of winning the forthcoming general election by imposing a travel ban on Shavendra Silva, the mainstream wisdom is that Sri Lanka’s so-called second drift towards China under the Rajapaksas has antagonised the West and India.
There is no doubt that there is some element of truth in these narratives. But what many in the Tamil intelligentsia have failed to take note of is the emerging signs of shifts in China’s foreign policy towards Sri Lanka and the Tamil national question; and the engagement of some Tamil Diaspora activists, and at least a TNA parliamentarian, with Chinese diplomats.
Diplomatic circles are already buzzing with stories that the Chinese government has recently suggested to the Rajapaksas that if they are to put an end to outside interferences (implying India and the West), it would be wise for them to resolve the Tamil national question; perhaps in the form of regional autonomy modelled on the development-based quasi federal system in existence in China or through the devolution of power to municipal councils.
Of course, if China is to take an initiative in the future to resolve the Tamil national question, it is certainly not going to be one that recognises the Thimbu principles: Tamil homeland, Tamil nationhood and the Tamil right to self-determination. But then, when did India or even any Western country ever advocate a political solution based on the Thimbu principles?
The Thirteen Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution that created the provincial councils, following the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987, is not even worth the paper it is printed on.
Perhaps Britain can be said to have inched closer to recognising two of the three Thimbu principles (Tamil nationhood and self-determination) on 22 November 2000 when the then British Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain stated in Colombo: ‘Whilst a Tamil Kingdom constitutionally split from the rest of the island will not receive recognition by Europe, the USA or indeed India, the principle of self-determination and control over most, if not all the key policies affecting daily life, would be supported by the international community.’
The Sri Lankan government of Wickremesinghe also came closer to accepting the Thimbu principles when it agreed with the LTTE on 5 December 2002, at the conclusion of the third round of talks in Oslo, to explore a federal political solution ‘founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples.’ But Wickremesinghe then pushed the LTTE away from its commitment to explore a federal political solution by seeking to tilt the power balance in the Sri Lankan military’s favour.
But after the military defeat of the LTTE, Wickremesinghe stopped talking about federalism. Even the Americans, whose ambassador Ashley Wills once stated during an interview with Lasantha Wickremetunge, published by the Sunday Leader on 23 June 2002, that the US would recommend a federal political solution to Sri Lanka, are maintaining a studied silence.
Tamil political activists and politicians cannot therefore be blamed for testing the pulses of China by engaging with its diplomats on the latter’s visions on the Tamil national question.
Remember, the Chinese are no strangers to the Tamils. On 19 September 2002, a day after the conclusion of first round of talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government in Thailand, Jiang Qinzheng, the then Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, visited Killinochi and held talks with the LTTE’s political head, S.P.Thamilchelvan. The LTTE later claimed in press statements that Jiang ‘discussed the difficulties faced by the Tamil people in the North and East’ and even ‘expressed his interest in providing aid to alleviate the suffering.’
China was not a major power then, even though it nominally enjoyed great power status. Today, things have changed. The world began witnessing these sea changes in 2007. The LTTE recognised this. Thus, in his Heroes’ Day address of 27 November 2007, the Tamil Eelam National Leader Velupillai Pirapaharan stated: ‘The 21st century began as the ‘Asian century’ and the world is looking towards Asia. Many countries in our region have grown in leaps and bounds in social, economic and scientific fields.’ S.Pulidevan, the LTTE’s then head of peace secretariat, later claimed in an interview with the LTTE-run National Television of Tamil Eelam that the Tamil leader was extending a hand of friendship to China.
For almost 11 years since the demise of the LTTE, the Tamil have been banging on India and the West for a political solution. It is only in the last days of the Wickremesinghe government that the Tamils began to realise that they need to develop a strategy to deal with China. Some Tamil activists even included in their roadmap for the next ten years, developed at the three-day conference organised by the Swiss Foreign Ministry in Zurich in October 2019 with representatives of 17 Tamil Diaspora organisations, their intention to engage with China.
Eelam Tamils will always remain loyal to any country that will genuinely take steps to realise their political aspirations and ensure their safety and security in their homeland in Sri Lanka. But no country should take the loyalty of Tamils for granted and use them as pawns whilst the Tamil call for self-determination and international justice for genocide falls on deaf ears.
Last week, the former Northern Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran claimed Tamils will always remain at the frontline of India’s defences in its southern flank. Tomorrow, the TNA may repeat such claims. But whether Tamils would be willing to safeguard India’s interests in the future will depend on whether it would now help Tamils realise at least their political aspirations. As some Tamil activists and dissident TNA politicians begin engaging with China, India and the West may slowly be coming to terms with the changing reality. The benevolence shown by India and the West in the past three weeks may be a reflection of this.
(The writer is an International Relations scholar)