Kath Noble

Let’s not have any more wars

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 28, 2010

Why the Government should start a dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance – a party that once took orders from the LTTE.

There are, I suspect, a lot of people in Sri Lanka who would rather cut out their own tongue than talk to the TNA.

It boils down to quite rudimentary logic. The TNA supported terrorists. And they want Eelam, even if they claim to be ready to settle for less. We simply can’t trust them.

The party hasn’t done a great deal to assuage these fears, it must be said. There has been no stocktaking of their role during the war in Parliament and with the international community. They said nothing when the LTTE killed their fellow politicians and started conscripting the youth of the North and East. They did nothing to persuade its leaders to turn away from violence. Worst of all, when Prabhakaran got trapped in Mullaitivu and it became clear that there would be no escape, they failed to call on him to release the hundreds of thousands of civilians being kept as a human shield. The TNA did a good job of exposing the suffering the Tamil people endured at the hands of the Government over the years, but it wasn’t enough. They let their own side get away with too much.

But, these are issues for Tamils to take up. The rest of the country, I propose, had better just get over it.

Members of the TNA would have been under serious threat if they had adopted a different position, we know very well. How many of us could say with anything like equal certainty that we would not have behaved in the same way?

The LTTE is gone, and that provides an opportunity for a fresh start in the relationship.

The party’s success in the election demands a change in attitude, anyway. They retained two thirds of the seats they won under the LTTE and confirmed their status as the third largest group in Parliament. The TNA took three districts, which is rather more than the Opposition managed to achieve. They represent more people in the North and East than any other party does. Given the obstacles the Government placed in their way during the campaign, it was a major victory. They are a force to be reckoned with, now they have established their democratic credentials.

This means putting a stop to the use of the TNA as a bogeyman.

The Government and its hangers-on are experts at frightening the Sinhalese community into ever greater subservience by claiming that its opponents are in league with the TNA, amongst other demons. It was done with gusto during the tussle between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, and the practice continued up to April 8th.

Having anything to do with the TNA is now a kind of taboo in the minds of a most unfortunate number of Sri Lankans.

And that is unhealthy.

Perhaps the TNA really is secretly hoping for Eelam, as the propagandists claim. I just don’t think it matters.

Separatism is no more than an idea. We shouldn’t start a ‘war’ on it, as some people have been arguing of late, to replace the ‘war’ on terrorism. Nor should it be criminalised.

It is bad enough that there is a clause outlawing its advocacy in the Constitution. That was inserted in the immediate aftermath of the Black July massacres in a vain effort to save the Government from having to face the inevitable consequences of its own actions.

I would like to see a rather more thoughtful approach to the subject.

Readers should know from what I have written in these pages over the years that I wouldn’t like to see Sri Lanka divided. I don’t consider it to be a good solution to the problems – real or perceived – of the Tamil people. Not even close. However, I don’t think it is morally wrong for other people to want Eelam, so long as they don’t use guns to make it happen. This doesn’t mean that I accept the claims they make in support of their position, only that I believe in their right to try to persuade the State and its constituent parts to grant their wish.

Where is the harm in letting people debate?

I haven’t a clue. Suppressing opinions doesn’t usually result in them going away, we should have learnt by now. I would have thought that open discussion, without the use of insults and slurs, would be far more productive for all concerned.

But, this will undoubtedly be dismissed as a Western idea, as has become fashionable.

It is true that most Asian countries adopt a very different position on separatism. India and China are only too clear about their opposition to any mention of it. But this isn’t necessarily about what is good for their people. Their size is what gives their leaders the power they are in the process of acquiring on the world stage, and they wouldn’t risk anything getting in the way of their rise to the top. It might not be just Tibet and Kashmir that tried to get away if they were given a little more encouragement.

This should give Sri Lankans even more confidence that the TNA’s views on Eelam – now or later – are not a threat, if they hadn’t concluded that already with the death of Prabhakaran in the muddy waters of Nanthi Kadal.

There is simply no need to worry about it.

What disturbs me even more than this persistent desire to crack down on an idea is the habit the Government and its fellow travellers have got into of claiming that two very different positions are in fact the same. We are told that people who support an improved Thirteenth Amendment really want federalism, and that federalists are determined to have Eelam, amongst other nonsense.

The country has got into a pretty mess when to say a good word about devolution of any sort is to risk being called a backer of terrorists.

It is, I suggest, just a means of dismissing people without having to deal with their arguments.

So let’s cut the rhetoric.

The TNA’s manifesto called for a federal state with powers over land, the police, socioeconomic development including health and education, natural resources and tax, and that is what about one third of the voters in the North and East supported on April 8th, despite the many incentives for them to do otherwise. It is significant. If the Government is genuinely interested in reconciliation, it has to engage with this platform.

And that means negotiating.

In doing so, it would be prudent for the Government to look afresh at the issues under consideration. Opinions arrived at during the war may not be valid any longer. There is no Prabhakaran trying to hoodwink them into a deal that he will not honour and instead use to his advantage. The fascist dictator is no more. It is no longer a matter of holding out against the LTTE and its terrorism.

We can’t trust politicians, I know, but we should remember that they will be thrown out by the people if they don’t follow the mood of their constituency. That is democracy, and that is what is going to make all the difference for Sri Lanka going forward.

It is time for a dialogue with the TNA.



This article was published on the centre page of the Midweek Review on April 28th, 2010. The internet version can be accessed here.

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