'Struggle for Tamil equality won't end with LTTE'
R Sambandhan, parliamentary leader of the Tamil National Alliance in Sri Lanka and a pro-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam party of Tamils, was the first leader with whom India set up contact after the recent escalation of violence. He led a delegation to visit National Security Advisor M K Narayanan in April and sought India's intervention.
In Chennai now, Sambandhan talks to Krishnakumar P about LTTE's end, the way forward, the Tamil people's distrust of President Mahinda Rajapakse and how the dreaded outfit's end is definitely not the end of the Eelam issue.
Now that the LTTE has been comprehensively defeated, how would you put it in the context of the Tamil ethnic struggle?
The struggle for Tamil equality and justice for Tamils did not start with the LTTE and will not end with LTTE. I am not saying that the LTTE has come to an end. But the Sri Lankan government claims to have dealt a comprehensive military defeat.
If indeed their top leadership has been killed that will be a major setback for the LTTE. The struggle for equality and justice of the Tamil-speaking people is very legitimate and has existed even before the LTTE came.
Image: A photograph released by the Sri Lankan military shows the body of LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran. (Inset) R Sambandhan
Photographs: Sri Lankan Government/Handout
'Tamils of Sri Lanka are very distinct'
We, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, are a very distinct people. We have inhabited the country as long as anyone else. In fact, certain historical accounts suggest we have lived there longer than the Sinhalese. We have historically lived in the northeastern place. The Indo-Sri Lankan agreement merged the northern and eastern provinces. These are matter that can't be brushed aside.
We have been demanding that the Sri Lankan unitary constitution must be transformed into a federal constitution where we will have effective power sharing arrangements. We will be sovereignly competent. We don't want ambiguity. We want control of resources, land, law and order, socio-economic affairs, finances pertaining to our territory to a substantial extent and internal self determination.
We did not demand separation. That came much later when the Sri Lankan government began suppressing the people. The LTTE was a manifestation of the failures of the Sri Lankan government to accommodate Tamil aspirations in a reasonable way -- unleashing racial pogroms in 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, when the Tamil people carried out non violent protests.
Image: The LTTE flag being waved during a pro-Tamil demonstration in front of the Houses of Parliament in London
'India must play a pro-active role'
The LTTE became powerful as it had the support of the Tamil Diaspora, and the government was unleashing violence on the civilians. This drove the youth to take up arms. The LTTE indeed had its rough edges, some of which we could never have agreed to. But the real issue was the government suppression. So, unless that equality and justice is granted, our struggle will continue.
Today, we have come to a situation where India, the UN, US, EU, UK, France, Canada, Australia -- all have taken a view that there is a serious problem pertaining to the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. The Tamil people must have the right to determine their destiny in areas that they have historically inhabited.
Do you see another violent phase in the near future?
I am a non-violent person. I would not say violence is a solution. But in this situation, this is a stage where India must play a pro-active role. And the international community must support India in a very vibrant way. It must be made clear to the Sri Lankan government that there must be no further loss of rights and devastation on the Tamil areas.
The Tamil people must be allowed to commence life and lead a life of equality and dignity in the country. I don't look forward to an armed struggle.
Image: A protester waves a poster of LTTE leader Prabhakaran during a demonstration in support of the Tigers in Paris
Photographs: Charles Platiau/Reuters
'Displaced people should be resettled'
What would be the lot of the Tamil people in the coming months?
We will continue to pressurise the international community to ensure that the rights
These things will come later. What needs to be done right now?
The primary thing is that the displaced people should be resettled and must be enabled to commence their lives. Their houses have been destroyed, their assets have been destroyed, their farming equipment has been destroyed, their fishing equipment have been destroyed, their plantations have been destroyed, their animal husbandry have been destroyed.
Persons who led honourable lives have been reduced to a state of penury and destitution. They are now stretching their palm out to someone. They never lived on a dole. Neither the Sri Lankan government nor anyone else gave them a dole.
Secondly, if the LTTE has been defeated, what is the need for a heavy overwhelming armed presence in the north and the east. That too an armed force that is completely Singhalese. Why on earth are you there oppressing and suppressing us?
Image: This photograph released by the Sri Lankan military shows civilians wading and using inflatable tubes across a lagoon to escape the island's war zone
Photographs: Sri Lankan Government/Handout
'There must be genuine sharing of power'
The process of demilitarisation of the north and east should commence. I am not saying they can't have naval bases and army bases there. But the oppressive situation where the Tamil people live under the boot of the Sri Lankan armed forces must end.
It cannot continue. Then there must be, if that is possible, genuine sharing of power -- with Tamil speaking people in the northeast as one region in terms of the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement. If genuine substantial power is given to the region -- whether it is confederal or federal -- if that happens then there is a possibility of this being brought to an end.
If it does not happen, one cannot predict that the LTTE will not be revived or some other organisation would take up arms. Militancy will resume.
One phrase often used by you and a lot of people while talking about a solution is 'generous'. What do you mean by 'be generous'?
I mean don't try to think that you can fudge, that you can take us for a ride. Okay? Be quite forthcoming, be genuine. And if you are genuine and genuinely forthcoming, then of course we don't want violence or continued trouble in Sri Lanka. We would like to see peace in Sri Lanka and want all the people of Sri Lanka to live in peace.
Image: A Sri Lankan government soldier walks with his weapons near the town of Putumatalan located at the 'No Fire Zone' in northern Sri Lanka
Photographs: David Gray/Reuters
'Rajapakse has been staging a big drama'
Had the LTTE accepted even to explore a political solution, would things have been different today?
Rajapakse has not come up with any political solution. In my opinion, he has been staging a big drama in regard to finding a political solution because he was under pressure from the international community and India. To come up with an acceptable political solution, I do not think Rajapakse genuinely has a clear conception of what sort of political problem this is
Yes, even now! He thinks he can fudge and hoist some solution on the Tamil people. In fact, Prabhakaran -- in the course of the first martyrs day speech after Rajapakse took over as President in November 2006 -- had called upon Rajapakse to come up with a political solution and put it on the table.
(Raising his voice) Where is this proposal that he wanted you to put forward. If that had come up and been put in public, we would have prevailed upon the LTTE not to continue with the armed struggle. A solution, which the Tamil people find acceptable, workable, durable and the international community is ready to back. So that has not happened.
Image: Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa waves after disembarking his airplane at Colombo airport
'People may not accept LTTE, but they do support Tamils'
You saw election results in Tamil Nadu. Would you agree that the Eelam issue did not find acceptance as an election issue with the people of the state?
I don't think the feelings and the views of the people of Tamil Nadu with regard to the rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka can be determined by the electoral results. The people are convinced that the Sri Lankan state is not genuinely interested and are convinced that the Sri Lankan government is trying to inflict a military solution on the Tamil people.
My own view is that the Tamil people are clear and are fully supportive of the struggle of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.
Of course, in Tamil Nadu, the DMK supports that position. The AIADMK, the PMK, Vaiko, Tirumavalavan all support that. Even the Congress supports that. It is only a question of degree.
So I don't think that voting for any one party in Tamil Nadu can be related exclusively to the question in Sri Lanka. In some areas, in some constituencies it might have had some impact. Thus I don't think the elections in any way reflect a weakness or ambiguity with regard to the support of Tamil Nadu for the aspirations of Tamils in Sri Lanka. People may not accept the LTTE, but they definitely support the Tamil people.
Image: Schoolgirls form a human chain to protest against the conflict in Sri Lanka, in Chennai