Sri Lankan Officials Kill Rebel Leader, End Civil War

Sri Lanka's civil war appears to have ended. Earlier this week the Sri Lankan government announced it had killed the leader of the rebel group the Tamil Tigers. This ended their decades-long pursuit of an independent nation for the country's Tamil population. For more, Georgetown University Professor Asoka Banderage, along with former Tamil Tiger member Nirmala Rajasingam, talk about the conflict and the future of Sri Lanka.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, its time to hear from you, our listeners, about stories that caught your ear this week. It's our weekly backtalk conversation, and that's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to turn our attention to Sri Lanka. A 25 year civil war there left over 70,000 people dead. For a quarter century, the government battled the rebel group known as the Tamil Tigers, who fought for a separate homeland for the country's ethnic minority Tamil population. Earlier this week, the Sri Lankan government announced the defeat of the separate group - the separatist group and the death of the Tamil Tigers leader. Now Sri Lankans are facing a future without the Tamil Tigers, and searching for solutions to the ethnic strife that has plagued the country for decades.

To hear more about all this, we're joined by Asoka Bandarage. She is a professor at Georgetown University and she is an author of a book on the conflict. She is here with me in Washington D.C. Thank you for coming.

Professor ASOKA BANDARAGE (Georgetown University; Author): Thank you.

MARTIN: I'm also joined by Nirmala Rajasingham. She is a former member of the Tamil Tigers, who was later targeted for assassination by that group. She's been living in London for many years and she joins us now from London. Thank you also for joining us, Nirmala.

Ms. NIRMALA RAJASINGHAM (Former Member, Tamil Tigers): Thank you.

MARTIN: Asoka, could you please, - Professor, could you please start by briefly explaining the origins of the conflict?

Prof. BANDARAGE: Yes, during the British colonial period, the Tamil minority was a privileged elite. They had disproportionate access to higher education, the English language and modern professions. But with democratization of politics, the Sinhala majority, they're in greater power. And in the post-independence era, they introduced certain - the state introduced certain policies to redress those imbalances. But actually the separatist movement had even begun prior to the introduction of those policies.

So it was started by a Tamil moderate elite, but later they mobilized the masses of the Tamil youth. But they mobilized them along ethnic lines, when in fact the grievances of the youth of the majority community were quite similar. But they were at - the Sinhalese majority youth were the first to carry on an armed insurrection against the state. Again, because of lack of employment opportunities, educational opportunities and the sense of marginalization from the political center.

So the grievances were quite similar across the ethnic divides. But in the case of the Tamils, they were mobilized along ethnic lines. This is also because there is a large Tamil community in South India just across the sea, you know, and there was a sense of Tamil nationalism, and prior to independence from Britain, there had been a separatist movement in South India to create a separate Dravidistan.

And so all of these issues converged to create this very complex movement, which was later supported by the Tamil Diaspora, particularly in the western countries, which was sending arms, you know, for the militants' struggle.

MARTIN: And Asoka, it's fair to point out that you're Sinhalese also.

Prof. BANDARAGE: Yes. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Would that be accurate? That would be fair to point out. Nirmala, what is your take on the origin of the conflict? Do you agree with Asoka's analysis of it? And do you have anything to add?

Ms. RAJASINGHAM: I think I would sort of fundamentally disagree with the professor's analysis of the conflict in certain ways. One is that, you know, that the Sri Lankan state is a majoritarian state and it's dominated by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist opinion, and basically they have always, I mean since independence, this - the whole Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist mobilization started during the anti-colonial mobilization. Yes there was a parallel Tamil mobilization as well.

But it was a kind of a postcolonial, in postcolonial times, it was as a response. And the majoritarian thinking, basically what it is, is this country is the country of the Sinhala-Buddhists and the minorities, not just the Tamils, the Tamils, the Muslims and anybody else, the hill country Tamils who were indentured labor brought by the British during colonial times, and probably the most oppressed community in the whole island, the most dispossessed. And all of them are considered, were considered aliens.

And this was throughout the postcolonial period, it was, this kind of thinking was peddled. And one of the first piece of legislation that was introduced as soon as Sri Lanka became independent, was to disenfranchise the hill country Tamils - 1956 Sinhala Only Act. I do not normally like to repeat this kind of history again. Because I'm not a Tamil nationalist at all. I'm fundamentally opposed to that kind of thinking. I have advocated that we should eschew Tamil nationalism.

But I'm rather perturbed by Professor Bandarage's, you know, take on the whole issue. The Sri Lankan state remains even after the - despite the, you know, even, you know, it is a majoritarian state, and the current government has heavily mobilized Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist opinion, and they were kind of marginalized in the recent history at various times…

MARTIN: (Unintelligible).

Ms. RAJASINGHAM: …and they have been brought center stage and they are sort of big time political actors now.

MARTIN: So you - so you two have a fundamental disagreement about the origins of the conflict. I guess, is the root of the disagreement about which group is most disadvantaged? Which group has been most victimized by government policies? What is the root of it in your view, Professor, I'm gonna go to you first.

Prof. BANDARAGE: Yes, I mean, it's very difficult…

MARTIN: I mean, you're entitled to different perspectives, I just want for…

Prof. BANDARAGE: Of course, of course.

MARTIN: …our audience who isn't as familiar with the intricacies of the conflict. What do you think the origin of it is?

Prof. BANDARAGE: Well, the dominant world opinion on the Sri Lankan conflict is that it is simply a primordial ethnic conflict between the majority and the minority. And what I do in my book "The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka" is to provide a much broader and more comprehensive analysis, looking at British colonial policies and how the Sinhalese majority, especially the Buddhist majority, were marginalized.

And you know, that policies of divide and conquer, etcetera, and how, you know, as I said before, with democratization of politics, there was an attempt to redress these imbalances. But the unfortunate thing that, is that it was interpreted along ethnic lines without looking at how the Sinhalese majority, the Muslims and the vast majority of Tamils themselves were oppressed by a system, you know, which was essentially based on inequality.

But I also tried to go beyond the domestic analysis to look at the very important role of South India and the India, India in general, on this conflict and the role of the international community.

MARTIN: Let me just interrupt here to let people know what we're talking about. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And I'm Michel Martin, and my guests are Asoka Bandarage. She is a professor of the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University, and author of a book about the conflict in Sri Lanka. I'm also joined by Nirmala, sorry, Rajasingham. She is a former member of a Sri Lankan group known as the Tamil Tigers.

She has renounced her ties to that group and its nationalist ideology, and we're talking about - in fact, I think this is a good point to talk about what is the way forward, Nirmala, given that there is such intensity of feeling and different perspective on both sides here. First, I wanted to ask how you reacted, if I may, to the announcement that that the civil war is at an end. Do you indeed believe it is at an end? And what is the way forward, in your view?

Ms. RAJASINGHAM: I think, I think the Tigers are totally finished as a conventional military force. And I was frankly very, very relieved. I have publicly written about my relief on the day Prabhakaran's death was announced. I - I am publicly advocating that the Diaspora should put, the Tamil Diaspora should go through a period of serious reflection and re-look at the whole way in which they have contributed in a very destructive manner.

And that the minorities in Sri Lanka and progressive Sinhalese have to form strong alliance to challenge the majoritarian state that is Sri Lanka, which is extremely, you know - and the thing is, while I talk about the Tamil Diaspora, I must also say that most of the meetings I go to in Colombo, I'm also confronted by an equally virulent Sinhala nationalist lobby here, which has recently become very, very active.

I, you know, there are people who come with a map of Sri Lanka, with India, and even, point their finger at - I have had this pointed at me, saying, you go back to India. This is the kind of, you know, it's so polarized in the Diaspora. The Diaspora is, you know - and unfortunately, they've had an overweening influence on the conflict, I'm afraid. But the thing is…

MARTIN: So what's the way forward, Nirmala?

Ms. RAJASINGHAM: The way forward is the government, it's - the ball is in the court of the government now. The government has to move in a spirit of reconciliation, and has to move to reform the constitution, in order to accommodate greater democratization. Sharing of power with the minorities, I'm not simply talking about the Tamil minority here, with all the minorities. And make sure that minority security is ensured even outside, you know, maybe with a bill of rights or whatever. Whatever we can…

MARTIN: Yeah, what…

Ms. RAJASINGAM: There has to be a national debate. There has to be a national discussion, an inclusive, transparent discussion with all the communities involved, all the communities, the Senegalese, the Tamils, the Hill Country Tamils and the Muslim Tamils, in order to preserve a pluralist Sri Lanka. And that can contribute to what's constructing a composite Sri Lankan national identity rather than a dominant, singular, Buddhist nationalist identity.

MARTIN: Asoka, let me hear from you on this. What's the way forward in your view?

Prof. BANDARAGE: No, I absolutely agree that there has to be reconciliation. I think it…

MARTIN: What would that look like, and what steps would that require?

Prof. BANDARAGE: I think we have to recognize that all citizens of Sri Lanka are equal, you know, regardless of ethnic or religious background. They have the same constitutional and legal rights. Tamil is a national language, an official language, a status that it doesn't even have in India. And all the certain standardization or quotas, policies that are going to use a very short period of time to redress imbalances in the university systems have been done away with a long time ago.

But yes, I agree that there is a sense of fear and distrust on the part of the Tamil minority, particularly given the - what has happened over the last three decades. And there has to be reconciliation, and all groups must come together.

MARTIN: Nirmala had made the point that she feels a Diaspora in groups on both sides have outsized influence on the affairs of the country. Do you think that's true?

Prof. BANDARAGE: It's absolutely the case because, you know, there's - the Tamil minority is about three million, although, you know, it's very difficult to know the exact figures in Sri Lanka. And there's about one million outside of the country, and they are, you know, relatively wealthy and influential and have been the primary supporters of the LTTE. So why are the…

MARTIN: Which is what?

Prof. BANDARAGE: The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, this terrorist group that we've been talking about. So while the people on the ground who are trying to escape from the clutches of the LTTE, the Diaspora was actually supporting and trying to uphold and maintain its control over the people. So there is a great disjuncture between the interests of the Diaspora and the Tamil community on the ground.

So there is actually a basis for unity of people of all ethnic groups across Sri Lanka because they faced a common terrorist threat, and they all need peace and security to go on.

MARTIN: Nirmala, I gave Asoka the first word. I'm going to give you the last word. What is the most important step that you think that the government could take immediately to get the country on the path to the reconciliation that both parties seem to want, all parties say they want? Very quickly, if you would.

Ms. RAJASINGAM: Well, I want to ask for two steps. One is the human rights. Sri Lanka has one of the highest records of extrajudicial killings, abductions, disappearances, exclusively targeting the Tamil community in the last three years. That has to stop today. Without that, there's no reconciliation, one.

Two, government has to move seriously on a political solution that guarantees substantial democratization, you know, decentralization of power and devolution to the regions. And that is fundamental, these two things.

MARTIN: Nirmala, forgive me. We must leave it there, a very complex issue. I thank you both for your insights. Nirmala Rajasingam is a Tamil activist living in London. She joined us from our NPR studios in London. Asoka Bandarage is a professor in the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University. She is Sinhalese. Her book on the conflict in Sri Lanka is called "The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka: Terrorism, Ethnicity and Political Economy." She joined us in our studio here in Washington, D.C. I thank you both so much.

Prof. BANDARAGE: Thank you.

Ms. RAJASINGAM: Thank you.

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