The War May Be Over But The Idea Lives On


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The idea of a separate Tamil nation is not dead in Sri Lanka.

There was a time when this was espoused with brutal violence by the dreaded LTTE. That violence has been leached out now to be replaced by a kind of limitless — and perhaps more potent — despair. There are reasons why the idea of a separate Tamil nation refuses to die.

The chilling story of the LTTE and its lethal suicide bombers is well-known. The horrific retaliatory killing of its cadres and thousands of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan Army towards the end of the war is also now an emerging story. But this is a report on the silent war that continues till this day against the Tamils, an insidious and systematic violence they call a “structural genocide”.

There are two overriding images that greet you when you drive from the peacock- blue-themed Bandaranaike International Airport into Colombo city. Giant cutouts of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, beaming, arms outstretched to bless the people; and statues of the Buddha. For tourists, who are pouring in swelling numbers into Sri Lanka, the 30-year civil war was definitively finished in 2009. Sri Lanka is back to being an idyllic island of peace; the LTTE has been exterminated. There is, in fact, a shiny triumphalism in the air to match the new Buddhist statues smiling at you from every street corner. However, at the other end, far away from Colombo, the army is still out on every street.

Four years after the civil war ended, the Vanni — a small forested stretch of land in the north, held by the LTTE till their chief V Prabhakaran was killed by the army in 2009 — is nothing but a slice of scarred earth. A smooth post-war spruced-up highway from Jaffna town speeds to the four districts in the Vanni: Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Kilinochchi. The military presence here rises sharply. Uniformed men, covered waist-high in plastic sheets, are clearing landmines on either side of the road. Red skull and crossbow signs everywhere ask you to be careful.

The silence of the Tamils is deafening as you reach the last mile of the war — a village called Mullivaikal in Mullaitivu. In 2009, as the LTTE was pushed back by an advancing Sri Lankan Army, 3 lakh Tamils collected in this village to escape the mortar shells and bullets raining from the sky. This is the village where Channel 4 videos show Sri Lankan soldiers stomping on the naked breasts of a dead LTTE woman; where carcasses were piled in heaps as Tamil civilians were caught the crossfire of the Sri Lankan Army and a dwindling but still combative LTTE guerrilla force.

Journalists are still not welcome in these parts; we are there masquerading as tourists. Although the heaped bodies are now gone, the hollowed-out sand bunkers where people ducked the bullets and mortars are still there. The torn remains of what was once a purple sari. The plastic remains of a TV set. An open suitcase. Even a bunch of white plastic roses. And, in the midst of these torn-out buildings, pockmarked with bullet holes, the odd family. Trying to live in the land of the dead.

It is impossible to speak with them. As we step out of our van, we are ordered out of the area by two men in military uniform. They follow us on their bike for some distance.

Nearby, a ship that was once carrying 2,000 tonnes of paddy, lies rusted on a beach. The date of its capture by the Sri Lankan Army is painted on its body in Sinhala to drive home the point. It’s now a tourist spot for a busload of visiting Buddhist monks in bright orange robes.

With the war over, things have gone back to usual. Contrary to Rajapaksa’s famed 13th amendment, promising autonomy to the provincial councils in the north for the Tamils, this means a return to State policies from the 1950s that systematically and deliberately excluded them from cultivable farmland and prime fishing waters. The exclusion that sparked the Tamil resistance and war in the first place is back with a bang.

In Mullaitivu, a few streets away from the rubble, 53-year-old Thurairasa Ravikaran — once the head of the district fishermen’s union — points proudly at his chocolate-and-yellow-tiled house. Before the eruption of hostilities, the north was so good for fishing he had built his entire brick house for LKR 4 lakh (Rs 1.73 lakh), earned from the catch of just two prawn seasons. But those days are long gone. The Sri Lankan government, he said, had snatched the sea from the Tamils.

This phenomenon has manifested itself in waves. The first trigger came in 1983 with the anti-Tamil riots called Black July. The fishermen of his village had to leave overnight because of the violence. The exodus led to 300 Sinhalese fishing families moving into the area. According to Sri Lankan law, fishing permits are only given to permanent residents. But the rules were overlooked for the Sinhala fishermen. These fishermen used large trawlers with high-voltage search methods that Ravikaran claims are illegal to employ in the shallow waters of the north. This turned the fishing economy on its head. The Sinhalese fishermen with their big trawlers scooped out all the fish, leaving practically nothing for the Tamil fishermen. It reduced their income from an average of LKR 5,000 a day to LKR 500. The LTTE domination of the area provided some reprieve. But now, according to Ravikaran, the area domination by Sinhalese fishermen has begun again. “Coming back here is like living in a cemetery,” he says. “Our livelihood is completely destroyed.”

It seems this phenomenon is repeating itself in fishing villages across the region. As journalists are not officially welcome, it is impossible to independently verify Ravikaran’s claims.

Ground Views, a Colombo-based civil society group, however, published a report in March 2012 that said, “The fishing industry, one of the main sources of livelihood of a large number of people in the Jaffna Peninsula, was severely affected by 30 years of ethnic civil war.” According to this report, before the war, Jaffna was the largest fishing production district in Sri Lanka. Prior to 1983, it contributed about 48,000 metric tonnes per year, one fourth of total national production. By the end of the third Eelam war, this was reduced to 3-5 percent.

The report goes on to say, “Severe restrictions have been placed on members of the Tamil fishing communities, resulting in a drastic impact on their means of livelihood…” Disturbingly, it adds, “several Sinhala fishermen in the area have received direct permission to fish in this area from the Ministry of Defence.”

TRINCOMALEE IN the east, a long and beautiful stretch of coastline once held by the LTTE, is now back on the tourist map after it was recaptured by the army in 2006. But Trincomalee is overrun with soldiers at every street corner. Every passenger on every incoming bus to the north and east is checked by the military. Every time you board a bus, you have to write your contact numbers, purpose of visit and passport details.

A report in the Economic and Political Weekly on 14 July 2012 claimed the ratio of army to civilians in these parts is as high as 1:5. If that’s true, it’s at least four times more than the troops on ground in Afghanistan where a war is still on. Sri Lankan Army spokesperson Brigadier Ruwan Wannigasooriya calls the figures preposterous. According to him, not more than 6,000 personnel are deployed in Trincomalee. For instance, the reason they check each bus, he says, is “in case former LTTE cadre are carrying weapons on them”.

In Thennavanmarapuady, an ancient Tamil village in Trincomalee, the underlying reasons for the seemingly irreparable hostility between Tamils and Sinhalese becomes even more apparent. The village traces its antecedents to the 9th century, when a Pandian king conquered the area. The Pandian dynasty ruled large parts of Tamil territory in ancient India and northern Sri Lanka. In the 1980s, this land became the theatre of conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. Its people, therefore, fled to a camp in Mullaitivu in the north. From here too, they moved many times; some fled to India.

After the civil war ended in 2009, these farmers wanted to return to their homes and the 1,200 acres of paddy fields they had left two decades earlier. After many difficult rounds of negotiation with the local government, families began to get permits to come back in batches. But they returned to find their land overrun by the army. Nearly 150 families are back in the area now but they live in temporary camps built by the UNHRC in 2011. Instead of 1,200 acres, they are now collectively left with a mere 150 acres to cultivate. An additional 150 acres is now occupied by Sinhalese farmers. Complaints to the police have led nowhere. The head of the society they have formed has written directly to President Rajapaksa as well as every bureaucrat in between, to no avail. A farming community that, at the time of fleeing their land in 1984, made the equivalent of LKR 50,000 a month now earns not more than LKR 2,000, which for a war-inflated economy is barely subsistence level.

In another camp in the east — local guides did not wish it to be identified — a frail 53-year-old woman stepped out of her mud hut to greet us. She dashed her daughter off to get us a sweet red drink from a store nearby as her eyes slowly shifted to a faraway place. She now lives entirely in the past. Every waking moment is spent thinking of the home they fled in 2006; the two cows she had to sell, named Neerum or water and Neeruppu or fire. “Even if I don’t get back my farmland, I will live with that. All I want, even if it’s just a small hut, is to get back to my homeland,” she said wistfully.

At yet another camp in the north, a fisherman’s eyes brimmed over. Living in a camp for more than 22 years is no life, he said. In the 1990s, he left the camp to live in the Vanni, the LTTE heartland, where he felt protected and thought the Tamils would have a future. Now, at the age of 60, with that dream getting more and more blurred, he confessed, “I think I should just end it all now and walk into the sea.”

The refusal to be named or identified is commonplace among the Tamils. Their fear is palpable.

The Sinhala-Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka makes up 75 percent of the population; the Tamil minority — 32 lakh people — make for 11 percent.

According to the government, most Tamils dislocated by decades of civil war — and the last devastating push by the Sri Lankan Army — have been resettled. But an NGO working with displaced people explains what “resettled” really means. Farmers who once had one-acre plots are “resettled” on pint-sized slices of land measuring 0.125 acres. “It’s part of a State sponsored design to resettle Tamils at below subsistence levels so they can never regroup and fight,” the NGO explains.

Reliable figures for the thousands of people displaced by war and still living in camps are hard to come by. Tamils here say, like everything else, the flow of information is tightly controlled by the government and scripted to suit the story they want the world to hear. The scale of displacement and dispossession, therefore, can only be hazarded from reports like this one, based on patchwork anecdotes from the ground.

The real scale may be missing, but the architecture is clear. Tamil MP Gajendra Ponnambalam describes why the north and the east became the land of the Tamil Eelam; why Tamils in Sri Lanka almost universally supported the idea of a separate nation. His own family history makes for a telling account.

Gajendra’s grandfather, GG Ponnambalam, was an Oxford-educated lawyer and a liberal who, till the 1950s, believed in the idea of a syncretic nation where Tamils and Sinhalese could co-exist. He founded the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. By 1976, however, he had begun to back the idea of a separate nation for the Tamils. Things had begun to curdle as far back as 1956 with the Sinhala Only Act. This replaced English with Sinhala as the State language, to the exclusion of Tamil. This was further exacerbated by tussles over land, fishing rights and proportion of government jobs. In the 1970s, when it became officially mandatory for Tamil students to get 15 marks more than Sinhalese to qualify for university, the ground was laid for the rise of the LTTE. Gajendra’s grandfather eventually lived his last days abroad, broken by the idea of a Lankan nation whose identity was solely Sinhala and Buddhist.

Gajendra’s father, Kumar Ponnambalam or GG Jr as he was known, was educated at Cambridge. He became a lawyer and took on the State for its anti-Tamil stance. He paid for that by being assassinated in 2000. Gajendra — the third-generation lawyer to be educated in England — finally returned to Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. He feels Prabhakaran, despite the many mistakes he made, was the most effective leader the Tamils ever had. The time for political reconciliation with the Sri Lankan government is long over, he says. In 2010, he broke away from the Tamil National Alliance — an umbrella body of Tamil parties — over this issue. “When you face such blatant oppression, you end up focussing fundamentally on what you need to do to keep your identity alive,” he said.

Despite the contemporary devastations the Tamils have faced, the tragic story of chauvinism and racial domination in Sri Lanka is not one-sided. In keeping with the imperial games it played elsewhere, while Sri Lanka was a part of the British Empire, the British clearly favoured and nurtured the Tamils over the Sinhalese.

This meant the Tamils ended up better educated, often returning with degrees from abroad; they had a greater share of the few plum jobs in the colonial civil services; they bought the biggest properties in Colombo.

Rajiva Wijesinha, whose Liberal Party is an integral part of the Sri Lankan government, articulates this alternative side of the history of Sri Lankan discontent. The discriminatory politics that began in the 1950s with the Sinhala Only Act, he says, was really an attempt by the Sri Lankan government to unshackle the country from its colonial past. This is why English was replaced by Sinhala as the official language. “It’s unfortunate that this eventually took on the colour of majoritarianism in the years that followed.” It was corrected, he pointed out, in 1987, when Tamil was included as an official language. But by then, of course, the LTTE had already emerged as a guerilla force to assuage the anger of the Tamils.

BACK IN the north and east, this historical perspective offers no comforts. Sureka (name changed), 31, sits in a quiet backyard overlooking the sea. Her bright yellow frock with its frills and silver buckle contrasted painfully with her adult face and puffy eyes.

“I don’t want to live anymore,” she said. “But if I kill myself, people will think I’m ending it all because I have been raped by the CID or the army and I don’t want that to be the story people carry around after me. So I’m in limbo. I can’t live and I can’t die.”

Sureka was once a regular young girl in a village in the east, but the war between the LTTE and the army caught up with her. It killed her mother, leaving her orphaned. She had no siblings; her father had died a few years earlier. Soon after, soldiers began to turn up at her house regularly to torment her. They poured boiling water on her head once and hit her on the back with sticks. It’s what drove her to join the LTTE in 2000. Prabhakaran was someone she looked up to like an elder brother, she says. For the nine years she was in the LTTE, she was happy. Then in 2009, the war was over. She was back to living alone, but now in a land where the State and army was even more hostile, especially with former members of the LTTE.

A week before we met her, an unknown Sinhalese man had entered Sureka’s home in the dead of night. She shouted and fought and called the police. They took three hours to come and refused to register a complaint. Since she was a former LTTE member, she was just a troublemaker, they allegedly told her. She wonders each night if the man will return.

We met our next contact ducking in a paddy field to avoid his being seen by the rest of his village, potential informers or the army, Easwaran (name changed) displayed his right wrist with two round blotches of raw skin. Evidence, he said, of electrodes inserted to torture him after the war. Like Sureka, Easwaran was orphaned in the 1990s when his parents were killed by the Sri Lankan Army. His father, an electrician, had dared to refuse to work for free for the soldiers. They paid him back by entering his house some days later and killing him and his wife. Easwaran was eight when he saw this happen. He and his two siblings screamed for help but fear had paralysed the neighbours into silence. He joined the LTTE to avenge his parents’ death, he says.

When the LTTE was pushed back from Trincomalee, Easwaran’s past caught up with him and he was arrested. The nightmares from the time he was tortured still continue. “All I wanted is a safe place for Tamils to live,” he now says, fear spreading across his face. He once had three acres; but now he has been living in a refugee camp for the past eight years.

For still others like Vengadesh (name changed), the horror has visited him many times over. He had provided logistics support to the LTTE in the early 1990s. He was picked up by the Sri Lankan Army for this and sent to the infamous Fourth Floor, their version of Abu Ghraib. According to Vengadesh, his head was immersed in petrol fumes; he was strung upside down and suspended from just his two thumbs. He was released eight months later. He married, had children and began what he thought was a regular middle-class life. But when the civil war ended, he was picked up by the military and sent to the Fourth Floor again.

The torture, however, has not taken the idea of the Tamil nation out of him. Even as he spoke with us, he smiled as he looked back on what he calls his “contribution to the Tamil cause”. He would do it again, he says. For now though, he lives with the constant fear that torture may revisit him any time.

Looking at these stories of torture as merely a humanitarian crisis, however, is to miss the big picture. It makes activist lawyer K Guruparan very angry. “A simple human rights discourse doesn’t help,” he explains. It merely forces people to weigh one set of atrocities against another — those by the Sri Lankan Army in 2009 against those carried out over the past 30 years by the LTTE, which had one of the deadliest guerrilla armies and suicide squads in contemporary history. “Without the history of Tamil oppression and the ongoing structural genocide, the story of the Tamils has almost no meaning,” says Guruparan. “You have to look at the longstanding process of disenfranchisement from which the LTTE emerged.”

The language of terror paints absolutist pictures that remove the possibility of context and history. Despite the barbaric scale of Tamil civilian killings — 40,000 in the last six months of the army push in 2009 is the official estimate — it allows the Sinhalese majority to revere President Rajapaksa. It also allows international actors like the UNHRC, the US and Indian governments to take ambivalent positions on what happened.

Consider the UN’s pussyfooting on the war, for instance. In March 2011, a report from the UN Secretary General’s office said: “Between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lankan Army advanced its campaign into the Vanni where the army used large-scale and widespread shelling, causing a large numbers of civilian deaths.” The report further spelled out how the army had shelled no-fire zones, UN hubs and hospitals and internally-displaced Tamils.

Two years later, however, on 19 March this year, when the UNHRC drafted a resolution on Sri Lanka, it seemed to have developed amnesia about this report. The resolution was gentle in its censure of the government for what happened in 2009 and even praised it for the work done since — “welcoming and acknowledging the progress made by the government of Sri Lanka in rebuilding infrastructure, demining, and resettling the majority of internally displaced persons”.

It is this refusal to take in the whole narrative that allows Rajapaksa to tell the world all is well now with the Tamils in his country.

IN 2011, a document called ‘The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Report’ was published. It was deemed independent but conducted by people appointed by the Sri Lankan government. It listed that the security forces had lost 5,556 personnel between July 2006 and May 2009 and 28,414 were injured. The LTTE, on the other hand, had lost 22,247 of its cadre. It spoke of the “principle of proportionality” and cited instances of war crimes from the Bosnian war to make the point that the blame for atrocities against Tamils in the war was a relative question.

Among all the Sri Lanka’s living dead that TEHELKA met, perhaps the most difficult to face were those whose families have gone missing since the end of the war. The war over statistics and narratives is even starker when it comes to the missing. For instance, a group of pastors sent a report to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that put the figure of those missing from two districts in the north, where most of the Tamils had converged at the end of the war, at 1,46,679. They said they had used government data to arrive at this number, based on the population count in October 2008 and May 2009.

Not surprisingly, the army spokesperson rubbished the figures. He cited figures compiled by government schoolteachers and village-level officials. This report puts the figures of “those untraceable” across four districts of the north from 2005 to 2009 at 4,156.

Neither statistic comforts Ponamma Kandasamy and her husband. They are searching for their daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, all of whom are missing. Her son-in-law was an LTTE member who, after the war, joined the ranks of thousands of surrendered militants. Since then they have disappeared into a void, putting Ponamma and her husband’s life permanently on hold.

Around the same time, the husband of Bawani (name changed) also surrendered as a member of the LTTE’s political wing. She has tried everything to trace him and says all she wants from her life is to see her husband.

A pastor, who is actively working to help Tamils find their missing relatives, says the plight of women like Bawani is particularly bleak. His effort is to gently break it to them that four years on, they cannot sit by the door waiting endlessly. They have to try and start working and paying attention to their children that are still living.

Catholic priests in the north and east are faced with the fact that their church is divided straight down the middle. With Catholic Tamils on one side — the victims. And the Sinhalese Catholics on the other — who have thrown their weight behind the rest of the Sinhalese — the victors.

Another priest revealed how many of his parish are losing their minds. One family’s story was particularly chilling. The couple saw their two young girls die in army shelling. And a third child — their boy — lose both his arms. While the daughters lay dead and the son’s arms were bleeding, the father went mad. He just kept running round and round in circles, unable to deal with the situation. The boy has since then been sent to India to have two prosthetic arms fitted and is currently undergoing training in computers.

Priests have stepped in to help victims walk with fear every day. They take different routes while travelling, delete call history from their cell phones and despite that, receive regular calls and threats from the CID.

The Tamil media is equally under threat. At the crack of dawn on 3 April, Aramugham Ponaraja, the office manager at the Udayan daily in Kilinochchi, was getting ready to distribute the first batch of newspapers when six masked goons attacked him 17 times with cricket stumps.

Tamil MP Sivagnanam Sritharan’s office was attacked just a few days before that by similarly masked goons. Under normal circumstances, the string of attacks may have been completely unconnected. In the times Tamils live in now, all attacks point only to one place — Sinhalese mobs asserting power over the vanquished.

Liberal Party leader Wijesinha says one must not read too much into the activities of the fringe mobs. “The majority of the Sinhalese want a political solution to the Tamil problem,” he insists. “However, there are some bad elements within the government that are causing trouble.”

It’s the kind of perspective that almost deletes the history of Tamil oppression leading up to the LTTE. It’s the view that paints them as an aberration, as if terror suddenly arrived in the 1980s out of nowhere. However, every single Tamil we met has exactly the opposite story to tell. If you were a Tamil in Sri Lanka and lived through the 1980s and ’90s, they say, you were either in the LTTE or a supporter.

THE COLLECTIVE memory of injustice is what made Suvendran (name changed) join the LTTE in 1991. He is now missing one leg from laying grenades. After surrendering, he is left with nothing to say or feel. Just like him, his comrade had no particular trigger for joining the LTTE or for that matter for leaving it. It’s just what Tamils did in the 1990s. He also has an injured leg. The north is full of people with missing limbs and no will to live.

Thivagar (name changed) was just 15 when he joined the LTTE. It was an atmosphere charged with the possibility of a new beginning for Tamil youth. That’s when he fell in love with a fellow comrade. “We had to meet clandestinely since men and women lived in separate camps. It was a typical romance where we snatched five minutes to share an ice-cream together,” he recalled. Like many LTTE romances, it didn’t last. Thivagar left the LTTE in 2005 but his lover stayed on with them. After the war, he has a regular middle-class job, but has to be silent about much of what he saw and experienced. As a surrendered LTTE cadre, he has to constantly watch his step and live in fear.

The final days of the war are firmly embedded in ghoulish detail in the minds of fleeing Tamils — Tigers and others. Indrakumar (name changed) was in the LTTE’s publicity division and continued reporting right until the end, even while he and his family were on the run.

In one such attack in August 2007, 13 schoolchildren were killed and many others injured. There were no vehicles to take them to hospitals. Indrakumar remembers lifting two bleeding kids onto his bike to take them to the nearest hospital 16 km away. He was riding as fast as he could when he saw the head of one of the kids roll off. Neither survived.

As TEHELKA drove through these stretches of former war country with these former LTTE members in tow, the horrors were relived. Thivagar’s face went white when at one point we were chased away by the army. He was silent for a long time and then remarked absently: “The government has wiped out all evidence of the atrocities.”

Indrakumar had one final nightmare to share. He was running from one area of attack to relative safety and then when that became the new theatre of war, he fled again with his wife and child. And then his nine-month-old baby died. It was 9 April, the day of the Tamil New Year. The boy had severe pneumonia. No medicine was available, which Indrakumar claimed was part of the Sri Lankan government’s strategy to flush out the LTTE.

The UN report in 2011 described similar situations, but TEHELKA had no way of independently verifying this claim. Either way, what is indisputable is that Indrakumar’s son died.

At this point he and his wife contemplated suicide. That’s when they arrived at the camp populated with 3 lakh Tamils. Suddenly they were in a sea of horrors. Everyone had lost a child or two. It brought a macabre sense of brotherhood and made Indrakumar and his wife stay alive.

NOT EVERYONE in Tamil country was equally smitten by Prabhakaran and the LTTE. Especially not people like Thiruneelakandan Saroja in Kilinochchi. Under the dim light of a lantern in a tiny hut, Saroja spoke bitterly of how her 22-year-old son was forcibly taken by the LTTE as cadre. He is now missing. “We live with our mouths shut,” she said in anger. Silenced by the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE and the loss of her son. But even her individual anger is subsumed by the larger sea of collective Tamil anguish. She added paradoxically that despite everything, she supported the cause of a separate Tamil nation.

It’s a sea inside that with all its repression and terror the State has been unable to obliterate. Soon after the war, Rajapaksa had declared to the Tamils that he would forge a political reconciliation by providing administrative autonomy to the provincial councils in the north. The news was celebrated in India and announced by all political parties as sign that India had put pressure on Sri Lanka to arrive at a political settlement for the Tamils. Two years later, Rajapaksa publicly went back on his word.

While addressing the people on Independence Day (4 February 2013), he took back that promise, saying that Sri Lanka was a nation with “no racial or religious differences” and therefore there was no need for greater autonomy in the Tamil majority provinces. The speech was delivered in former LTTE-held Trincomalee and the semantics of it were all too clear. The Tamils are a people without a nation, much like the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Tamil activists and MPs say there is reason for the rest of the world and India, in particular, to sit up and pay attention. Activists like Guruparan point out that the Tamil predicament is shared by many ethnic groups across the world. Whose only hope has survived in the support generated from the Tamil diaspora.

The Tamil diaspora is large, well-funded and spread across Europe, North America and Australia. Much of the lobbying and publicity for the cause and help for displaced Tamils come from these quarters. They are now saying their long-term vision is to be able to put pressure on the international community to force Sri Lanka to carve out territory for the Tamils that is administered internationally.

Like how East Timor separated out of Indonesia in 2002, after the intervention of the UN, to become Timor Leste. The intervention was the result of incessant lobbying by the East Timorese and a truth and reconciliation commission. The territory was administered by the UN from 1999 until 2012, when it was finally handed over to an independent government. The Tamils are now trying to get their version of the truth out. And given the history of violence and broken promises, most say, reconciliation is not an option.

They say their window of hope for now is twofold: India and the US — two countries that should be scared at the increasing proximity of the Sri Lankan government with China and Pakistan. Does India want the strong presence of Pakistan and China less than 5 km away from its southern coast, they ask. And they hope that the US will have similar fears and decide to back their cause. For now, that is their only recourse.

Former Tamil MP Ponnambalam puts it simply: “I think it’s dangerous for us to think about what is possible. If we start thinking about that, it only means assimilation. We must stop talking Tamil, we must give up our religion. We must be Sinhalese and Buddhist.”

OVER AND above the geopolitics and domestic Tamil politics that directly affects India, the Sri Lankan Tamils’ story raises a disturbing question. Can the desperate and continuing plight of a people be explained away by terrorism alone? For now, more than 22 lakh Tamils within Sri Lanka and an estimated 10 lakh in the diaspora, are asking this universally perplexing question. As their story also serves as a warning to other displaced people without a nation — while the world and the UN plays a double game, your idea of nationhood could be the next to disappear.

But even in the aftermath of the terror and genocide, the Tamil idea of nationhood has not disappeared. If India does not want another cycle of violence at its doorstep, it cannot afford to be indifferent to the voices of the Lankan Tamils.


  1. Having won the long drawn out war, at gruesome cost to both sides, the Sri Lankan government was expected to display statesmanship, even magnanimity, in dealing with the legitimate grievances and aspirations of the Tamil minority. Sadly, that is not happening. Toxic seeds continue to be sown.

  2. There are factual errors in this article:

    The Jordanian vessel MV Farah III that Ms Laul saw in Mullaithivu was not ‘captured by the Sri Lankan army” (which took the paddy on board,is the subtle and rather silly implication in the article above) but hijacked by the LTTE in 2006. It had run into engine problems, was fired upon by the Sea Tigers, who then detached the anchor and ran the ship aground. Between 1995 -2006, the LTTE had attacked about six=eight ships (killing crews at times) The crew of the MV Farah were luckier: they were handed over to the ICRC. There were 14000 tons of rice on board which were taken by the Tigers, as was also all equipment. The skeleton of the ship (whose steel was stripped for the LTTE’s other ‘construction yards” then became a look-out post from where the Tigers launched attacks on the SLN. The SLN captured (only) the shell and that in 2009, during the last phase of war.

    I am surprised that Ms Laul can make one trip to the N and NE and glibly pronounce a ‘return to State policies from the 1950s.” She has obviously not heard that provincial elections are due in the northern province in September 2013. Even though 4 years after the end of a brutal 30 year conflict is not a terribly long period, one may ask why only now. Because electoral rolls were destroyed by the LTTE, many Tamil residents of the area left, and polls without conducting a new census would not be reflective of the area’s current demography. There is a hold-up also because the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has yet to join an all-party committee set up to prepare for the polls.

    I also don’t know why Ms Laul has the impression that nobody in the north and northeast talks to journalists. I have travelled to those areas repeatedly over 14 years of the 30-year civil war and more recently last month –always ONLY as a journalist and always with press accreditation. I was never followed, harassed, intimidated by the authorities (yes, it is cumbersome to talk to the army but one can, after taking permission) neither did a single Tamil citizen or a Tiger cadre ever hesitate to talk to me or other fellow-journalists. And no, I didn’t always write copy sweet to Colombo’s ears. I can proudly say that I have had my share of being slammed both by Sinhala as well as Tamil chauvinists. All my work of those years is available on the Internet in two languages. Solid research and a verification of facts on this story would have come in handy to put across your point of view, no matter how divergent from mine.

    • If you support the SriLankan Govt. they won’t touch/hurt you. Please try to write a single article against them and comment here about your experience.

    • Well Ms. Sundarji,

      Although you are right about the ship, that is a trivial issue in the post-war situation. Ms. Laul has talked to a wider cross section of Tamil civil society than you seem to have done, and that is important.

      Ms. Laul’s account is factual, and she comes off as clearly more intelligent than you. After all, you show your tremendous ignorance by swallowing the lie from the Rajapaksas— habitually mendacious politicians– about the elections to the Northern Provincial Council as well as the TNA’s stand on joining the Parliamentary Select Committee ( PSC).

      The GoSL delayed the elections because its murderous paramilitary thug and ally, Douglas Devananda—the Ramzan Kadyrov of Jaffna—would lose the elections and the TNA would win. And the All-Party committee you mention is in fact the PSC that has nothing to do with the provincial elections. You should read more about the PSC farce enacted to impeach the Chief Justice and why the TNA refuses to be part of another farce. Even The Hindu editorialists have shown a lot more understanding of the issue than you.

      I am an American citizen of SL Tamil origin, but I have deep family connections to Jaffna and know what is going on there well. Ms. Laul captures the situation correctly. I have read some of your articles and found them all to be unintelligent, showing no investigative skills, but writing about trivial experiences based on your travel.

      Perhaps being married to the son of Gen. Sundarji, under whom the IPKF failed miserably in Jaffna, you have an instinctive bias against SL Tamils, despite the fact that Gen. Sundarji himself was a Tamilian. Or perhaps you have some connection to the pro-Congress cabal originally from Kerala– M.K.Narayanan, Shiv Shanker Menon, Nirupama Rao, Satish Nambiar and Vijay Nambiar– that worked behind the scenes to support the murderous SL regime as it committed mass atrocities against civilians in the Vanni, with its depraved and misguided view of what constituted India’s national self-interests.

      Noted Indian journalist Sam Rajappa—an ex-editor of the Telegraph– has written about such a Keralite cabal at the PMO several times. If it turns out that it is not your lack of intelligence but your connection to such a cabal that makes you swallow the Rajapaksa lies, it is a great shame!

        • Kathir,

          Let us not bring caste into it, and not use offensive/hate words like ‘pApAn’ into it.
          There are many from the Brahmin community who support SL Tamils. And what was DMK’s M. Karunanithi–a non-b=Brahmin– doing back in 2009 when the lives of thousands of innocent civilians were on the line? He was busy counting the money that his family made, and stopped with a farcical fast. I don’t think P.Chidambaram is from the Brahmin community, and he didn’t do much either to stop the killings. The LTTE polarized even the SL Tamil community, so the fact that many in India were against the LTTE did not surprise me.

          But all Indians should have separated the Tamil predicament in Sri Lanka from the LTTE when it came to preventing mass murder of civilians, and intervened forcefully.

    • Padma Rao Madam, to answer your question above, The Jordanian Vessel MV Farah III was not hijacked by LTTE, you need to read the Hindu article it says “Due to mechanical failure the ship was drifted and grounded near Mullaitheevu. Also in other interview LTTE says “Sea Tigers have rescued 25 members of the crew, so far. The cargo vessel, drifting towards the coast of Mullaithivu, is in danger of grounding,” One more evidence when they interviewed the caption he saysAsked whether there has been any military standoff between the Sri Lanka Navy and the Sea Tigers, the captain of the ship told TamilNet: “This, I guess is all political. We are all safe and we have good cooperation here.” It said the head of ICRC’s sub-delegation in Vanni, Katja Lorenz, was present together with the captain and his crewmembers, when they talked to their national authorities and their families” so let’s stop this false probaganda. The ship was completely drifted and grounded LTTE sea tigers rescued the crew and handed them over to ICRC. Even there are pictures were taken and published by LTTE. Please have a look.

      Also you have mentioned “There is a hold-up also because the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has yet to join an all-party committee set up to prepare for the polls” to answer this you know TNA Sambandan clearly said that srilankan govt is not keeping their promises that they made in the past and now they are requesting international body to participate in these talks, so that Rajapakse can not fool them again which he did many times. Hope you missed this update.

    • You seem to praise Sri Lanka govt.
      To me,You are just reading Raja pakse govt statement. You are asking the critics to visit Sri Lanka before saying anything. Are you saying that We, Tamils, should forget 100s of 1000s of brothers and sisters brutally killed in the genocide?. a building here and there will erase the genocide?. you think those buildings are built by and for tamils in the nation of tamils. they are just sinhala colonisation.

      Finally You seem to have cruel anti-tamilians grudge.No idea what tamils did to you.
      you are not going to read further no matter what i say further.

      Because You are simply in the Rajapakses-M.K Narayanan-Sivasankar menon-Nirupama menon-Hindu ram-Subramania swamy-Muralithar reddy and 100s of others gang of policy makers whose purpose of birth have been to kill tamils in masses.

    • @Padma Rao Sundarji – The world is different today due to high tech and the news spread all over in seconds.

      The demand for an independent international investigation is put an end to malicious propaganda, news and to deliver justice to the victims. At present no one can talk freely in Eelam as they can be attacked, tortured and murdered like the hundreds of thousands perished at the end of the war.

      When the entire world that fights for human rights, democracy, freedom, human rights and fundamental rights are accusing the Sinhala Buddhist Apartheid regime for its atrocities and demand for an independent international investigation, how you are not getting it? Demand for Rule of Law, Justice and accountability!

  3. On behalf of Tamil people, I would like to appreciate and thank you for such a very bold and historic article bringing the truth about Srilankan government’s ethnic cleansing (Genocide) to Indian people.

    With all due respect Ms.Padma Rao Sundarji, you pick and choose people in srilanka and interview them for example Dayanidhi master, who is under Srilankan’s govt custody. I am surprised to see Ms.Padma Rao sundarji’s comment questioning Ms.Laul’s article? Ms.Padma Sundarji you have been maintaining anti-Tamil mindset ignoring the genocide which is happening in srilanka for decades. we are reading all your articles published so far. IS this shows your journalism ethics? How long you people will fool the Indian community?

    You mentioned “There is a hold-up also because the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has yet to join an all-party committee set up to prepare for the polls” to answer this you know TNA Sambandan clearly said that srilankan govt is not keeping their promises that they made in the past and now they are requesting international body to participate in these talks, so that Rajapakse can not fool them again which he did many times. Hope you missed this update.

    Ms.Padma Rao, You see truth started coming out madam. How can you forgot that so far 19 Journalists Killed in Sri Lanka/Motive Confirmed. Will you be able to talk anything against srilankan government and live there safely??? the answer is no, then how can you talk with pro-srilankan govt anti-tamil mindset????

    You jounalists in India has failed to talk the truth and you are not bothered about 19 journalists killed in srilanka who blamed govt for atrocities against tamils. Ms.Padma Rao madam with all due respect, you better focus on some other issue rather than Srialnakan issue, we tamil people have enough information and knowledge about what had happened and happening and will happen. Hope you understand. Do not attempt to divert people in India

  4. Thank you, Ms. Laul, for risking your life to visit the war-torn Tamil regions, so that the voices of the voiceless there could finally be heard. I admire your courage and your dedication. The stories you relayed were heartbreaking, and I sincerely hope this article generates pressure within India to support a meaningful solution for Tamils, such as an internationally-administered territory as Gajen and Guru advocate for, or India’s boycott of CHOGM and sponsorship of a strong UNHRC resolution establishing a commission of inquiry into Sri Lanka’s war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

  5. Dear fellow-readers, thanks for all the abuse and the crude personal attacks on my integrity, intelligence and (incorrectly) family lineage. From all the Tamil / Sinhala names above, I take it as a compliment, though sadly lacking in the finesse that both your communities are renowned for. I will continue to write what I see, hear and believe. And comment on discrepancies in stories, as and when I see them. However, unlike you, I will stop short of crudeness and accusations of belonging to any political or other lobbies, never mind how flawed and obviously one-sided a given author’s point of view.

    • Ms. Sundarji,

      Why don’t you correct me with the details if anything I mentioned is incorrect? You are welcome to do that. You are not addressing any of the points raised by readers to correct you.

      Instead you get on your high horse about “crudeness” and “finesse.”
      “I will continue to write what I see, hear and believe. “
      Aha! How intelligent!
      Did they not teach you in middle school that what you see and hear and believe is not the truth; that to arrive at the truth you have to do an in-depth investigation? Such a paragon of Indian journalism!

      Sorry Ms. Sundarji, it was a war that killed perhaps more than 40,000 civilians and left still more thousands maimed for life; you can blame the LTTE for its part, but can’t pussyfoot around the fact that Indians like you who supported the Rajapaksa regime were complicit in the mass slaughter.

    • @Padma Rao Sundarji – The world has changed due to high tech and everyone knows what is going on all over the world. When the entire world that fights for human rights, democracy, freedom, human rights and fundamental rights are accusing the Sinhala Buddhist Apartheid regime for its atrocities and demand for an independent international investigation, how you are not getting it?

  6. This is what happened when people with preconceived notions go and write things, they will pick and choose things to justify their ignorance..what people need to understand the the era of tamil land and tamil fish is no more in sri lanka. just as tamils are free to live or do business in anywhere in the country, after the decimation of the tamil tribal army sinhalse and muslims also now have the ability of go anywhere in the country and live or do business..and its hilarious the way writer poke at fishing issues while when we all know hw indians loot lankan fishing the writer points out even after the war the tamil tribal separatism has not died out(they still looking for exclusive rights, rather than learn live as equal citizens), i think we should increase the military presence in the north given the fact we already send back over 12000 rehabilitated tamil terrorists back to their homes with hidden arms still recovering in the north, we cant let bunch of tamil racists to take the whole country hostage

    • The Tamils were favored by British and were holding plum positions when the country got its independence. I agree that needed to be reversed. It would have reversed by itself over time but implementing racial policies that got started this whole mess. The riots were organised to destroy the Tamil business (58,77,81,83). No one was ever charged for killing Tamils. None of the accords with Tamil ever implemented (Even the 13th amendment which India co-signed). Now it is the turn of Muslims. They supported the Govt during the Tamil conflict but there religious and business places are getting destroyed and the Police protect those who are attacking this places. Muslim women cannot wear burqa and problems with halal products. Recently, there was a vigil to protest the attacks on the muslims and Police seems to think that they are there to protect only Sinhala budists. One more thing, everyone have the right live anywhere but the Govt should not forcibly acquire land and settle Sinhala people in the north which is wrong.


    The Srilankan military always BOMB CIVILIANS in Tamil areas in the North and East during the civil war since 1978, in 1985, Srilankan military told Tamil civilians in NAVALY, JAFFNA, to shelter into a CHURCH and after the Tamil civilians went to the Church, the SIN-HELLa racist Military bombed the CHURCH ans killed 147 civilians into pieces. Srilanka bombed a school in Nagarkovil in Jaffna and killed 120 School Children while they study in the school in 1985. these are just a tip of the iceberg.

    during the ILL FATED MILITARY ONSLAUGHT against Tamils in Vanni Mainland in 90s, Srilankan military bombed Tamils more than 1000 times on Tamils while denying even basic food and medicine to Tamil civilians.

    Srilanka, during the peace process, in 2006 to 2008, Srilankan SIN-HELLa terrorist military did the same by cutting off all food and medicine to Eastern Cites and massacred several 1000 Tamils without any sort of remorse,

    Due to the nature of the BARBARISM unleashed by the SIN-HELLa racist Military, as Srilankan military started MASSIVE ATTACKS in MANNAR civilians areas in the Western ciity Mannar and surrounding areas, Tamils from Mannar Western coast and other areas in the Mainland fled to the LTTE areas for safety as the Tamils CANNOT TRUST the racist SRILANKAN MILITARY at all having witnessed sixty years of MASS killings, MASS RAPES and MASSACRES by the Srilankan military terrorists and so called Srilanka police with Navy and Air Force.

    Even during the TSUNAMI and after the TSUNAMI, Srilanka even stopped the MOST AFFECTED Tamil areas in the North and East to get the International aid to reach them while helping ONLY SINHALA SOUTHERN areas where LEAST affected due to the TSUNAMI, LTTE were the only organisation helped the worst and most affected TSUNAMI Victims including SINHALA civilians in the North and East whole SIN-HELla racist Srilanka use EVEN THE NATURAL DISASTER to kill more Tamils.

    I can go on like these forever as Srilanks did more and more of these during sixty years of GENOCIDE and ETHNIC CLEANSING of Tamils and Muslims since 1948 to date,

    All we want an INTERNATIONAL INVESTIGATION, let them find out who done which terror and punish whoever done those terror, if LTTE did the terrorism, let them be punished. as you always blame the LTTE for all ills, you cannot refuse to accept the INTERNATIONAL INVESTIGATION, IF YOU CONTINUE TO BASH THE LTTE AND MEANTIME DENY ACCESS TO ANY INTERNATIONAL INVESTIGATION, YOU AND SRILANKA ARE THE ONES ACCEPTING THE GUILT OF THE GENOCIDE AND ETHNIC CLEANSING WHILE SAVING THE SO CALLED LTTE TERRORISTS,

  8. Whats wrong with the Srilankan racist state SUPPORTERS here??????? We Humans WANT an Impartial International Investigations into all killings of all civilians, no mater which race belongs to them, since 1948 to date, The Srilankan state terrorism stated in 1948, that is 30 years before the LTTE even born with just few people. Since 1948 until the LTTE born to fight the SRILANKAN STATE TERRORISM, there were 20,000 Tamils, Muslims and Christians were slaughtered by the so called Srilankan Security forces with Sin-HELLa Thugs. By denying ACCESS TO ANY INVESTIGATION into ANY KILLINGS of CIVILIANS, Srilanka and the Srilankan supporters ACTUALLY ACCEPTING the GUILT of Srilankan racist state. If the Srilanka and Srilankan supported are telling truth, THEY CANNOT REFUSE to ACCEPT ANY IMPARTIAL INTERNATIONAL INVESTIGATION, Period.

  9. “The War May Be Over But The Idea Lives On”. And as long as the idea (of a separate nation) lives on there shall never be peace on the island. The author, in her chosen title has in fact very appropriately honed-in on the most root cause of the island’s ethnic conflict: Tamils desire for an independent Ealam since even before the times of GG Ponnambalam.

    The sheer unreasonableness of this demand can simply be illustrated with just one simple example: Is it reasonable to demand an ethno-centric conclave that would control nearly 60% of the island’s coastline (North + East), by a minority which represents only 11% of the total population?

    And there are tons of other reasons as to why ethno or religious centric geographical conclaves (especially inside a tiny island) are completely counter to the evolving trends of globalization and societal integrations. Tamils should dispel this archaic notion of an ethno-centric-state and instead explore progressive models that advance co-existence while presenting capacity for celebrating cultural and linguistic uniqueness with guarantees of political powers for minorities. It’s only these kinds of progressive propositions that have the potential of appeal to moderate Sinhalese – the 70% majority – who clearly holds the key to real reconciliation, mutual respect and dignity for all.

    Canvassing the Indians and Americans to compel the Sinhalese to deliver a separate state – is nothing new. And then there’s the horrific armed struggle executed by the LTTE. What are the fruits of these efforts? Where are the Tamils today? The Tamils must recognize that the Sinhalese are the large majority on the island, and that it is quite unlikely that they will concur to any arrangement that undermines their basic security. And that is only human.

    The “idea” – which the author implies – has indeed been the root cause of Sinhalese insecurity. Give it up and you will see a very compassionate and magnanimous Sinhalese emerge.

  10. When there is change in politics at the Indian centre, end of the Keralite Mafias and support for Sinhala Buddhist Apartheid racism in the Centre politics of India, Tamils in Eelam will get Justice and democracy.

    Now it is history that the corrupt UPA regime’s collaboration and the Keralite mafias collaborated to the genocide of the Eelam Tamils and it is exposed all over the world. It is up to the International community and the civilized world to put these criminals at the docks of the ICC to deliver justice.

    The risk of Tamils in Tamil Nadu demanding for independence and freedom from the Indian Union is greater than ever and it is most likely when more people are knowledgeable and fully aware of the Indian Centre’s collaboration to the massacre of their brothers and sisters in Eelam.

  11. PADMA ROA SUNDERJI madam are you related to NIRUPAMA ROA? the then indian foreign secretary, ? means you are speaking the truth. we never forget madam nirupama’s and sivashankar menon’s efforts .

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