The assassination came barely a week after the Colombo government had announced its intention of placing its constitutional package on which its peace hopes rest before Parliament in August. It has widely been acknowledged that Neelan Tiruchelvam provided most of the input into this package from the Tamil side. Although even his own party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), did not directly accuse the Tigers of being responsible for the brazen attack, it was obvious to everyone that only the Tigers had a motive for the killing and, for that matter, had the capacity to execute it with the split-second precision that was clearly evident.T
Dr Tiruchelvam was a gifted lawyer, a President’s Counsel in Sri Lanka, an intellectual, academic and human rights activist with ready access to the major players in the Lankan polity. Though not an elected Member of Parliament, he was nominated to the legislature by the TULF in preference to the son of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, the idolised founding father of the Federal Party, the predecessor of TULF. Equipped with a razor-sharp mind and finely-honed debating skills, he was the natural choice for negotiations between the Tamil moderates and the Sinhalese majority belonging to both the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which dominates the ruling People’s Alliance (PA) and the main opposition United National Party (UNP).
His killing has added to the conviction of many Sri Lankans who believe that the only way in which the troubled island can find peace, is by militarily subduing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and/or liquidating its megalomaniac leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. As a leading Colombo newspaper put it, “This incident is one more illustration of the futility of trying to resolve this country’s internal conflict with constitutional reforms before the principal threat to constitutional government in this country, namely the LTTE, is neutralised.”
The recent events in Northern Ireland have amply demonstrated that peace could be ultimately achieved not by the willingness of reasonable people on both sides of the divide to talk, but on the willingness of the militants (or “terrorists”, as President Chandrika Kumaratunga no longer hesitates to brand the Tigers) to lay down their arms. There is no shortage of eminent people urging Kumaratunga to talk to the Tigers. They come from the political, academic, religious and business spheres and their calls have been becoming increasingly strident in recent months. In fact, one group used a condolence message issued in connection with Tiruchelvam’s death to lament Colombo’s failure “to engage constructively with the LTTE”.
Chandrika Kumaratunga is clear that she will talk to the LTTE, but only if the Tigers, who regard themselves as the sole representatives of the Tamil people, recognise the rights of others to participate in the political process, that they will declare their intention of laying down arms and that the talks be limited by a time frame. Kumaratunga has rejected the Tiger demand for third party mediation although she does not object to a facilitator. Like the UNP before her, she too has been cheated by the LTTE using peace negotiations as a means of buying time to regroup and re-arm. She has vowed: “Never again.”
Some observers believe that Tiruchelvam’s assassination was part of an LTTE strategy to coerce other Tamil parties to refrain from backing the constitutional package that will soon be presented to Parliament. Though well-entrenched in the presidency, Kumaratunga survives in Parliament with the help of several Tamil parties including the TULF, of which Tiruchelvam was vice-president. Though her majority in the legislature is a technical one, she has never felt threatened because of the Tamil support. Tigers have not just targeted much of the Sinhala leadership in the country, but several Tamil leaders who do not toe their line have also been eliminated. The TULF particularly, has lost several of its leaders to the LTTE, but it stops short of branding the Tigers as brutal fascist terrorists. The days when they affectionately referred to them as “the boys”, however, are long gone.
Kumaratunga rightly said that the country had lost Tiruchelvam at a decisive stage of Sri Lanka’s political life when his services would have been most needed. “The aim of the terrorists who seek to decimate such eminent and democratic intellectuals of rare quality is to establish the terrorist leadership of the LTTE as the only valid leaders of the Tamil people,” she declared. Few will disagree with that, especially hardline militarists among the Sinhalese who say there is no alternative to crushing the LTTE if peace is to be won.
Meanwhile, the president has to live with the reality that the government’s constitutional package has not been endorsed by the country’s biggest political party, the UNP. Without its support, there can be no two thirds majority as required by the constitution to push it through Parliament. A number of other political parties, including the emerging Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), also opposes it and so does the vast majority of the influential Buddhist clergy. The LTTE, too, is opposed to it and as Sirisena Cooray, late President R. Premadasa’s chief lieutenant has it, “With the combination of these major flaws it should not and cannot be implemented. It is unviable”.
Sri Lanka’s search for peace has to begin again at the beginning