Will Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Tamil diaspora shake hands?

A section of the diaspora has taken a line that it needs to bury the past and open a line with India, which many blame for the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils, writes M.R. Narayan Swamy for South Asia Monitor

M.R. Narayan Swamy Sep 29, 2021
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Tamil National Alliance party leader R. Sampanthan

It is not surprising that Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unexpected announcement to talk to the vocal Tamil diaspora, which is politically influential in key Western countries, has led to guarded welcome and some abrupt rejection.

Rajapaksa’s announcement was a U-turn as he gloated while taking office in November 2019 that he had been elected by the Sinhala majority and he will serve their interests, and who outlawed some diaspora groups only six months ago, accusing them of being pro-LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist outfit which had carried out a violent movement seeking a homeland for the Tamils in the island) and leaning towards terrorism.

Now the same President seems to realize that it will not be a bad idea to exchange ideas with the Tamils for whom he has shown contempt since the Sri Lankan military crushed the LTTE in May 2009, leaving thousands dead in the end stages of the brutal war.

Rajapaksa made his mind known at a meeting with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres of the United Nations, which remains committed to finding out the truth of what happened during the closing days of the ethnic conflict.
The President, who as the Defense Secretary presided over the war against the LTTE, said “internal issues” of Sri Lanka should be resolved through “an internal mechanism” and that he would invite the Tamil diaspora for discussions. He also pledged to pardon Tamil youths interned for years for suspected links with the LTTE, pay reparations to victims of war and also transfer lands taken from Tamils during the war back to the owners.

Tamil diaspora’s reaction

The open appeal to talk to the diaspora ignited predictable reactions. While the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) hailed it as “a progressive move” and the Non-Resident Tamils of Sri Lanka (NRTSL) too welcomed the announcement, the US-based Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) rejected it outright.

Rajapaksa’s readiness to have discussions with the Tamil diaspora is akin to a victorious Hitler calling for talks with the Jewish diaspora, the TGTE said in a hard-hitting statement. It said a dialogue of any kind with “a genocidal state” will be extremely difficult.

The Britain-based NRTSL said it supports an open, transparent and sincere engagement with the diaspora and underlined that war-ravaged Sri Lanka’s northeast needs “unhindered and vast amount of support to recover from its post-war malaise”. The diaspora, it said, is keen to engage and contribute to the welfare needs of the Tamil people.

Tamils who began fleeing from Sri Lanka since the outbreak of the separatist conflict in 1983 now live in millions around the world, with Canada, Britain, the US, South Africa, India, Switzerland, Germany, France, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore hosting the maximum numbers.

A prominent Tamil leader in London said that while he publicly supported a dialogue, he had no great hopes from President Rajapaksa, who he described as a shrewd politician “wanting to buy time vis-à-vis the United Nations”.

“He and his brother (Prime Minister Mahindra Rajapaksa) do not seem to have time to talk to even Tamil leaders elected to the Sri Lankan Parliament. Now they want to talk to the diaspora which until recently they called pro-LTTE. If this is not a game, what is it?”

What prompted Rajapaksa’s announcement

Rajapaksa’s move came just a week after the UN Human Rights Council said in Geneva that it had about 120,000 pieces of evidence on abuses by the Sri Lankan troops during the blood-soaked final months of the war when Colombo launched a merciless blitzkrieg without seemingly caring for civilian lives.

Some Tamils argue that the President may have thought that the bitterness over the way the LTTE was decimated and innocent civilians were killed would ease over the years. Instead, feelings within the Tamil community in Sri Lanka have only hardened, partly because of the high-handed chauvinistic tendencies by the Rajapaksa regime and its supporters.

Also, apparently, a section of the Sri Lankan military has made contacts with human rights campaigners over some of the brazen killings of Tamil civilians carried out in 2019. “Some of them are leading troubled lives over what was done to both the combatants and innocent civilians,” one source said.

Both in Sri Lanka and abroad, the Tamil community is a divided lot – as it has always been. Even those who continue to sympathize with the LTTE realize that nothing can be achieved through violence and that they must continue to put diplomatic pressure on the Sri Lankan government.

The Indian angle 

A section of the diaspora has taken a line that it needs to bury the past and open a line with India, which many blame for the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils. In Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has announced plans to build houses for thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils living in the state for decades as refugees.

Meanwhile, relations between New Delhi and Colombo are not looking good, particularly over the way the Rajapaksas have embraced China. It is amid all these developments that President Rajapaksa took everyone by surprise by saying that he planned to invite the Tamil diaspora for talks.

(The writer is a veteran journalist, author and Sri Lanka watcher. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at ranjini17@hotmail.com)

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