“Our foolish Sinhalese people will support this government whatever the problems they face, and in the face of international condemnation, as long as our President is around. They see him as the man who led them to victory over the Tamils and led them out of the humiliation of waking up every morning to news of military defeats, civilian deaths and bombings.”
On this gallant island of serendipity, during Sri Lanka’s twenty-six year civil war, more than 70,000 lives were lost and hundreds of thousands displaced. Skantha was spokesperson for the Peoples Liberation Organisation Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), and a politburo member. As Editor of Spark, the ‘PLOTE Bulletin‘ a broadsheet, and founding Editor the radio programme “Voice of Tamileelam” English, and “Thamileelam Handa” Sinhalese; Skantha was responsible for internationalising the problems faced by Tamils with foreign governments. Prior to the entry of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), he was also responsible for negotiating with the Sri Lankan government to bring an end to the struggle.
Sri Lanka secured independence from Britain in 1948, and since then the Tamil minority became increasingly politically disenfranchised. In 1975 the LTTE came into existence to fight for Tamil rights and vowed to form a separate state called Tamil Eelam. The world has condemned the Tamil Tigers as terrorists and the FBI described the LTTE as “amongst the most dangerous and deadly extremist outfits in the world.” Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister of the Republic of India, was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber in 1991.
PLOTE has vehemently opposed the methods of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). The militant organisation, who fought the government for an independent Tamil state. The war was brought to an end in May 2009 when the Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamil Tigers. Whilst the LTTE was also one of the groups fighting against the oppression of Tamils, “the group was basically racist anti-Sinhalese and anti-Muslim. Our organisation, on the other hand saw the Sinhalese people as part of the oppressed, and worked to join hands with the Sinhalese revolutionaries to overthrow the capitalist regime which was using race a means of dividing the oppressed people. The LTTE saw the Sinhalese as enemies and killed civilians. We always condemned attacks on civilians.”
Did I suffer as a result?… That is like asking whether you’d hurt after being hit by a train.”
Skantha negotiated with ranking members of the tthen ruling party the UNP as well as with Mrs. Bandaranaike the then leader of the SLFP. Skantha also met with LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran during discussions with Indian officials. “I think he continued talking with me on occasion as I was close to Uma Maheswaran, the leader of PLOTE. He also requested that I would be point person in the event of misunderstanding arising between our two organisations. The idea was to sort out problems before they got out of hand. We did manage to settle some problems… but that was when during a clash our chaps had captured some LTTE cadres who attacked them.”
After the failure of the Thimpu peace talks in 1985,a Tamil declaration requesting the recognition of the Tamils of Ceylon as a nation, the existence of an identified homeland for the Tamils of Ceylon, the right of self-determination of the Tamil nation and the right of all Tamils to citizenship. “Many Tamil militant groups began taking racist actions. I was sent to make direct contacts with the ruling party as well as to find a means to commence direct negotiations with the government. I was able to contact with the top ruling party politicians from the President and his Deputy Defence Minister Lalith Athulathmudali. In fact, I had several meetings with them both in the country as well as outside. Unfortunately, before these efforts could bear fruit we had the Indian intervention and the entry of the IPKF. As for me I did have a number of run-ins with the military and was once unfortunate to get caught… Did I suffer as a result?… that is like asking whether you’d hurt after being hit by a train.”
We talked of what remains of today’s LTTE leadership. “When you talk of the current leadership of the LTTE what we have to remember is that there is no real LTTE left in the country. The guys who claim to be leaders of the LTTE are out of the country, these people are those who cut and ran when caught in a difficult situation. The second rung leadership, if you can call them that, died either in the war or after they were captured. For them I really have no tears, as they forced ordinary civilians to face the guns that they themselves tried to escape. Some left the country after paying massive bribes to various people -mainly politicians, but some were also helped by corrupt officials from NGOs.”
What then is the situation for Tamils living in Sri Lanka today? “The Tamil problem -the problems which led to the war, are quite different to those which Tamils living here face today… those problems more or less do not exist… Today I would say the main problem is that they (Tamils) are not allowed to live with dignity. In the more rural areas all power rests with the military and freedom is not a reality. All public activity has to receive the blessing of the military camp leader of that area and he subsequently must attend the event. Then we also have an insidious creeping form of colonisation which is on-going. The aim is to change the demographic composition of the electorate. At the moment electoral lists are not being drawn up but it will happen. Tamils say they are not opposed to ordinary Sinhalese coming into occupation of barren lands, what they oppose is that the state or its various departments, like the military, colonise these lands with exclusively Sinhala people.”
Skantha spoke of the land relinquished to service personnel for cultivation. “I personally had a problem with the case of the Muslims who were driven out of the north and east by the LTTE. The Muslim population from Jaffna were out of their lands and homes over three decades ago. The Muslims who were driven out of Jaffna for the most part have not returned.” Another problem facing Tamils has been the continued detention of persons in prisons and other detention centres. Students are looked on with suspicion and the military gets unnecessarily involved in student matters.
“The best example is the recent unrest at the Jaffna campus, where four students were kept in custody for months on end because they organised a candle light vigil on what is known as ‘mahaveera day.’ Had it not been for military intervention, the event would not have been noticed. But the intervention gave expatriate groups fuel for ammunition.” On 27th November 2012, students from the University of Jaffna were prevented from undertaking the annual observance of “Martyrs/Heroes Day” (or, Maaveerar Naal) – a remembrance event first initiated by the Tamil Tigers.
“Actually after the defeat of the LTTE the government had offered the Tamils a deal with which we would have had no problems. Now with nothing concrete being offered or even suggested, and with the government treating the Tamils as a defeated people, there is a deep polarisation between the Tamil people and the Sinhalese government.”
Sri Lanka is ranked as the second worst country for involuntary disappearances and the 4th most dangerous country for journalists in the world. During the final stages of the war in 2009 an estimated 40,000 civilians were killed. Human Rights campaigners and charitable organisations maintained the Government forces’ deliberately shelled hospitals and designated no-fire zones, while the LTTE used civilians as human shields. These groups are facilitating a call for a strong and action oriented resolution on Sri Lanka at the 22nd session of the UN Human Rights Council.
In Sri Lanka today, the government is involved in most spheres of activity. The press is definitely not free. “There is still a fear of journalists being attacked. The last attack on a journalist tells its own story of how much the government cares for local or international opinion or condemnation. It reminds me of classical terrorist mindset. ‘You violate basic human rights and the world will condemn you the next day by the third day, many have forgotten about it and by the end of the month, the world has forgotten the incident.’ Not a very optimistic outlook, but the reality.”
Photo credits in ascending order: marcokalmann and temboo