Last week's events were of a historic nature and there is a palpable sense of relief in the country today.
Over the years, the violence that engulfed the country affected everyone. The victims were Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers. Presidents, professionals, pavement hawkers and trishaw drivers were all potential targets. There was a sense of uncertainty when you left home in the mornings as to whether you would return later in the day.
|Portraits of Chelvanayakam and other TULF leaders adorn Mr. Anandasangaree’s office room at his official residence in Colombo.
On the political front too no party was spared. The United National Party (UNP) suffered most, losing the likes of President R. Premadasa and Gamini Dissanayake. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) lost Lakshman Kadirgamar and even Chandrika Kumaratunge was a target. We in the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) lost A. Amirthalingam and V. Yogeswaran, to name just two victims.
And we must ask ourselves the question, for what?
In my last letter to Velupillai Prabhakaran, which I sent as an 'open letter' in March this year I pleaded with him to release the thousands of civilians who were held in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-controlled areas. Of course, Prabhakaran did not respond in word or deed-and now he has paid the highest price. If he had, thousands of lives could have been saved and many people in the Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts who have now lost everything that they owned would not have become destitute.
The blame for what happened in the past few weeks has to be shared by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) too. The LTTE was instrumental in ensuring victory for the TNA in the North and East at the last general election which, according to many independent observers was not free and fair. Thereafter, all that the TNA did was to defend the LTTE's cause.
We must realise that when the war raged there were many countries and non-governmental organisations calling for the release of civilians in LTTE-held areas. Only the TNA refrained from making that call.
If they had — and if the LTTE responded — the lives of thousands of LTTE cadres could have been saved. Thousands of civilians would have been spared the agony of injuries. I cannot pardon the TNA for that. In my opinion, the TNA members should honourably resign now, so that others can be nominated to replace them.
I do not believe there is a chance for the LTTE to re-emerge. There are no cadres to replace the lives they lost and the entire leadership of the Tigers has been wiped out. But, just as much as the LTTE is a spent force, it is equally important to eradicate gun culture in politics if democracy is to be restored to the North. All those in possession of firearms should surrender them under a general amnesty-and anyone needing security could seek protection from the government.
I do not believe the caste-system had driven the youth to militancy. The militants had their following from all castes. In the early stages, Tamil politics could have been cast-oriented, but Tamil leaders like S.J.V. Chelvanayakam had worked towards breaking down that barrier. One example was Mr. Chelvanayakam's fight against people like C. Suntharalingam to enable the minority caste people to enter the Kandasamy temple in Kankesanthurai, One of the goals of the Tamil United Liberation Front, my party, was Saathi Olippu — eradication of castes. We proved this by organizing Samapanthi Poshanam — eating a meal with people of all castes. But today's problems are not about caste. It's much more than that.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's speech in Parliament where he stated that there are no more minorities in this country is a welcome statement. The President must convince the world and the country in particular that the nation is turning over a new leaf in consideration of all the hardships that we have undergone over the past three decades.
We must start life afresh without room for dissension and misunderstandings and with no consideration for race, caste or creed. We must try to learn to live as equal citizens enjoying equal rights, acknowledging that no one is superior to another. With his military success, President Rajapaksa has generated immense goodwill. With that support, he could go before the country and ask for a mandate — or even have an election — to solve the ethnic issue to the satisfaction of the minorities.
President Rajapaksa has a unique opportunity — because of his enormous popularity — to convince the majority community about what he could do to redress the grievances of the minorities. The Sinhalese are likely to accept whatever measures he proposes because they are confident he would not betray them.
Such opportunities are rare in Sri Lankan politics. J. R. Jayewardene had a similar opportunity in 1977 but he misused it. However, if the President attempts to satisfy the more radical elements and fails to make the necessary changes, his credibility will be at stake.
President Rajapaksa cannot afford such a mistake. That is exactly what happened in 1956 with the adoption of the Sinhala Only Act and the person who introduced it was no less than S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, one of the most respected leaders of our country and one who wanted a federal Constitution at a time when the country didn't have any serious racial tensions!
I do not believe that any solution within a unitary constitution will be acceptable to the Tamil-speaking minority. In offering such a solution, the President should consider the history of the ethnic issue. There have been various offers from various governments ranging from a federal set up to provincial councils and merged provincial councils. Therefore, it is obligatory for the government to examine the rationale for all such offers to which their predecessors have committed.
My own perception is that such a solution should be based on the Indian model-and there are reasons for that. Firstly, the Indian model is silent on the concept of a federal set up-and I know the word 'federal' is allergic to some people!
Secondly, we cannot overlook the concerns of the more than 60 million Tamils who live across the Palk Straits in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu is a state that demanded separation over fifty years ago. Now, they do not have such expectations because they are satisfied with what the Indian model offers them.
Also, many do not realise that if Tamil Nadu had looked the other way in the past four months, the war could have taken a different turn. Arms and ammunition, bombs and mines were seized by the Tamil Nadu police and the Indian Navy. Without them, the LTTE's fleet of ships could not have been destroyed. Therefore, having a friendly government in India-and in Tamil Nadu- would be invaluable to Sri Lanka.
Of course, in arriving at a solution there has to be strict provisions to deter any action for separation. It should also be a solution that could be sold not only to the Tamil community but also to other communities in this country — and also to India and Tamil Nadu in particular.
This conflict has already cost over one hundred thousand lives of all communities. There are thousands of orphans and widows as a result of the war. Surely, we cannot go through this all over again.
I know that the Sinhalese are a moderate people. The typical Sinhalese I come across in a village on a Sunday is a god fearing, compassionate man or woman, disciplined by years of heritage and culture. For them, I am sure, recognising their Tamil compatriots as equals in not a difficult task.
I am optimistic. Today, the mood in the country is upbeat. It reminds me of the mood in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of J.R. Jayewardene's election victory in 1977-but is on an even grander scale.
We have a President who has been extremely fortunate with recent events — all the forces, including the stars appear to be in his favour. It is now up to the President to deliver a just, equitable and durable solution acceptable to all — and if he can do that there is no doubt that Sri Lanka will be among the more prosperous and peaceful countries in the planet within the next ten years.
= The writer is the President of the Tamil United Liberation Front and Ex-Member of Parliament for Kilinochchi, not so long ago the political capital of the LTTE.