We hadn’t seen the leader of the Tamil Tigers, Prabhakaran, since 1989 when we watched him at a Jaffna football field addressing a large crowd euphoric about impending peace. The Indian Peace-keeping Force had just arrived, and we remember Prabhakaran being a small man dwarfed by his swarthy bodyguards, giving a speech in a squeaky voice. One of the world’s most ruthless militant leaders was not the most charismatic.
As it turned out, Prabhakaran soon turned his claymore mines on the IPKF, causing such heavy casualties and forcing the Indian Army to retreat ignominously. But Prabhakaran was a man harbouring long-term grudges, and it wasn’t over for him. By 1993 he had sent a Tigress suicide bomber to kill Rajiv Gandhi, the architect of the IPKF.
Last month we watched Prabhakaran in a safari suit signing the Norwegian brokered MOU which had earlier been signed separately by the country’s new prime minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe. Except for his jowls, Prabhakaran looked none the worse for a decade of jungle living.
Wonder what was going through his head, if anything, as he signed the document. Were the 75,000 Sri Lankans killed (many of them by his forces in terrorist attacks) worth it if he was willing to give up his demand for a separate Tamil homeland anyway? Ultimately, what was the sense of the suffering of the families of those ripped apart in bus bombs in Central Colombo, novice monks gunned down in a bus in Anuradhapura, the thousands of rival Tamil militants who the Tigers tortured and killed in an even more gruesome manner than they killed their Sinhalese enemies?
Provided the Norwegian initiative is successful, and let’s hope it is, there are several lessons learnt from this entire tragedy. The first, of course, must be the responsibility of a majority community. The roots of this conflict go back to post-indepdendence Ceylon when the Sinhalese thought they needed to redress perceived favouritism by British colonials of the Tamil minority. Electoral pandering to the majority voters was too tempting for politicians from the mainstream political parties, and a succession of laws weighted in favour of the Sinhalese started raising disquiet among the Tamils. Among these: favouring the Sinhala language, making Buddhism the state religion, changing the country’s name to Sri Lanka and even putting a little “Sri” sign on all car number plates.
The grievances piled up, the state battled and brutally subdued a Marxist JVP uprising in the south, the protectionist Sri Lanka Freedom Party lost elections and the United National Party returned to power in 1975 with the slogan of turning Sri Lanka into another Singapore. Things went well for a while, but in the north Tamil militancy was gathering strength and the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1983 changed everything.
The rest is too tragic to recount. Suffice it to say that a country poised to make an economic leap forward to catch up with south-east Asian tigers squandered its potential as well as the dramatic gains it had made in education and health since independence.
Today, there is hope again. Just when we thought the UNP and Peoples Alliance cohabitation was unworkable, it seems to have turned out to be the reason why the peace initiative was successful. The constituency for peace among Sri Lankans is now too large for the politicians to ignore. President Chandrika Bandaranaike, still smarting from her electoral defeat, will be tempted to put a spanner in the worksmainly because the UNP is going to take the credit for restoring peace. That would mean making the same mistake all over again.
Ranil Wickremasinghe is a survivor, one of the last remaining of JR Jayewardene’s young turks who was not assassinated by Tamil suicide bombers. He is determined to restore peace, and needs to be given the chance. The road ahead will not be easy – waging peace will be more difficult than continuing the ruinous war.