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'We are better off without the LTTE'

S C Chandrahasan
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March 24, 2008

S C Chandrahasan is the son of Samuvel Selvnayagam, a Tamil leader who was known as the Mahatma Gandhi [Images] of Sri Lanka [Images]. After the island-nation's ethnic conflict began in 1983, Chandrahasan founded the Organisation For Eelam Refugees' Rehabilitation.

OFERR works in Sri Lanka and India, and has offices in all the 104 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu. It also works in the north and east of Sri Lanka, two regions badly affected in the conflict.

The soft-spoken leader slams both the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for the mess in the island state.

He spoke at length to's Special Correspondent A Ganesh Nadar.

What was the position on the ground at the time of the ceasefire and peace talks in 2002?

At the time of the ceasefire some areas were controlled by the Sri Lankan government and others were under the control of the LTTE. There were some hazy areas where both the LTTE and government troops moved around.

What is the position now?

Currently the LTTE s presence in the east has been cleared.

Why did Colonel Karuna go against the LTTE?

The people in the east did not appreciate the way the LTTE leadership shared the facilities that came by because of the ceasefire. There was a committee to oversee development activities. Not a single person from the east was on that committee. They did not give enough positions in the administration to the people in the east. That hurt them. Karuna objected to this.

What is the composition of the people in the east?

In the east, the majority are Tamilians, then Muslims and Sinhalese. The Muslims speak Tamil but of late they want to be classified separately and not be bunched with the Tamils. So they are being classified that way. But they are Tamil speaking and culturally Tamil. The Tamils and Muslims did have a good rapport, but with the ethnic conflict, and the divide and rule policy of the government, there has been some friction.

Do you work in the east too?

We are working in the east and we work with all three communities. We like our work to be balanced. Our work in the peaceful area is easy. On the battlefront it is difficult. There both sides (the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army) are armed, and the hapless people are caught in between.

What is happening in the east now?

After the talks broke down, the army has moved forward slowly. In the east they have cleared the area and the LTTE is not visible there anymore in a meaningful way. They are moving around there but no longer in command.

Which areas have been cleared?

Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara districts have been cleared. Mannar and Vavuniya and some places in the north are still under the LTTE's control.

The LTTE's seeds of discontent

With the increase in fighting there, why has there not been an influx of refugees to India?

There are places where civilians can still move around and find alternative residence. But people usually move as a last resort after the fighting starts and it becomes dangerous. It is also difficult to get boats to India and therefore there has been no heavy influx of refugees.

There is a belief that when you have to move it is still better to remain within the country than cross the border -- then you lose everything. We work in Mannar too. We advise people to remain there. Only as a last resort do they cross over to India.

Also the climatic conditions are not conducive to crossing. Also the navies of India and Sri Lanka and the Coast Guard are patrolling the sea.

Any other reason?

Another thing that has changed now is the approach of the army. Earlier, in the eighties, they used to attack Tamil civilians. Now civilians are not attacked.

But human rights violations are occurring. When they suspect that you are connected to the LTTE or an informer or you give wrong information, you are in trouble. People have been summarily executed. People continue to disappear. The number of deaths and disappearances are unacceptably high. According to latest reports the highest number of disappearances are in the government-controlled area in the north.

How can that be stopped?

Enough public opinion has to be built up to stop that. Once people are taken we do not know what happens to them. The government has to correct that.

What game is Prabhakaran playing?

What is the difference between life in a government area and an LTTE area?

In the LTTE areas, civilians were secure. Their only fear was forceful recruitment and taxes. The LTTE's taxation was highly arbitrary.

When fighting breaks out civilians are in great danger. After the fighting, life does not get better in the liberated area. There is a screening process and the army keeps an eye on the people. Commodities are not allowed to come in as the army fears that it will fall into LTTE hands. So the civilian population is put to great hardship even after the government gets back control.

Has the LTTE helped in getting justice for the Tamil people?

The LTTE coming into the picture has two phases. Earlier they were not killing innocent people. Then they started internecine fighting and started killing innocent people and other Tamil leaders. They have become a problem rather than the solution.

What is the alternative?

Some of us who believe in the non-violent process know that the struggle will go on until justice is achieved. It will go on much more effectively if the LTTE is not in the picture.

Tell us about your father's role in the struggle?

My father S A V Selvanayagam was the leader of the Tamil people from 1948 to 1983. He was the leader of a federal party. He believed that a federal solution was possible. If people would have accepted that solution there would have been no problem now. It was a non-violent struggle. He was very firm that we must not use violence, that we must convince people. It was Gandhi's method that he adopted. Then the militants went and hijacked the process and could not sustain it.

The problem started in 1948. They brought in an act in Parliament whereby half the Tamil population lost its citizenship. The act took away the citizenship of all Tamils of Indian origin who were working in the plantations. That was the basic cause.

At that time my father said, 'What is now happening to the Indian Tamils will happen to us tomorrow'. People did not believe him and in the 1952 elections he lost. In 1956 people realised that what he had said was right.

The war in Sri Lanka

People who returned to India at that time say that the Sri Lankan Tamils supported the government in chasing out the Indian Tamils?

One Tamil leader did go along with the Sinhala government and that gave us all a bad name. My father said that any act that is discriminatory should be opposed. They began the struggle at that time. Only one percent of the Tamils driven out at that time were business people. Most of them were in the plantations. 

Then began the process of colonisation. The majority Sinhala people were sent into the Tamil areas with free land, money and equipment. The locals did not get anything. Then came the language act. That was the last straw. They said anybody seeking government employment had to be fluent in Sinhalese.

What happened to the non-violent movement for justice?

The movement gathered strength and in 1960 we paralysed the entire government machinery in the northeast without any violence. Unfortunately with violence spreading in the south in the seventies infecting other areas, the Tamil youth started reacting.

What did the government do next?

The violence on the Sinhala side increased. They first started recruiting more Sinhalese in government service. If you take the police in 1977, 99 percent were Sinhalese. The army is still worse. When you have two large ethnic communities and you fill the security forces with one side, it is a big mistake. Now it is a bit late to do anything about it.

What about the influence of the LTTE on the Tamils?

The LTTE has a hold on about 10 percent of the Tamils. That also is the fault of the government. When someone in your family disappears in a white van, there is bitterness and a desire to support the LTTE. The activities of the Sinhala government and its troops have been encouraging militancy. Tamil militancy is reactive.

Otherwise people would have gone the non-violent way. The influence of the Gandhian movement in India had a tremendous effect on the island. The actions of the army, including indiscriminate firing on civilians in the eighties, encouraged militancy.

You feel that it has changed now?

Now that has changed. There is no indiscriminate firing. Also there is a sizable population among the Sinhalese who say 'We must live together'. That is a qualitative change.

What is the position of the LTTE today?

Unfortunately, the LTTE factor is a problem. The LTTE not being in the picture will strengthen the Tamil side. It will facilitate India coming in a very meaningful way.

We had a two-day discussion in Tamil Nadu among representatives of the refugees. Everyone agreed that we should not take an LTTE-centric view of everything. The LTTE view will show everything going wrong. But if you don't look it at that way, there are other means. The struggle will go on till justice is achieved.

If the non-violent movement had continued after 1977 we would have got our rights by now.

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