And now to Sri Lanka and two views of this week’s historic declaration that the bloody 26-year civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the government is all over, bar the shouting, of course, of which we have heard plenty in the days since. But where to from here for that savagely divided subcontinental island nation? Nirmala Rajasingam is a Sri Lankan Tamil activist and writer living in exile in London. In the 1980s, she was the first woman to be detained under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act and in 1990 her sister Rajani was assassinated by the LTTE, the notorious Tamil Tigers, for her outspoken views. Given her almost contradictory personal background to this week’s momentous shift, Nirmala’s reaction has been, to say the least, mixed. George Negus spoke with her from London.
GEORGE NEGUS: Nirmala, thanks for joining us on what is a momentous week – Asia’s longest-running civil war, we are told, is now over. But as a former member of the LTTE, a former Tamil Tiger adherent, reading what you have written, you seem to have mixed feelings because you do not feel very affectionately towards either the Tamil Tigers or the Sri Lankan Government.
NIRMALA RAJASINGAM, TAMIL ACTIVIST, SRI LANKA DEMOCRACY FORUM: I think when I heard the news of the defeat of the LTTE, I felt a sense of relief simply because I knew that the war had come to an end and also the insistent, the continuous killings of Tamil dissenters, Tamil democracy activists would stop.
GEORGE NEGUS: Including your sister Nirmala?
NIRMALA RAJASINGAM: Including my sister and so many others – very famous ones and not so famous ones who were community activists who had been murdered by the LTTE. I realised that this will come to an end now. And, of course, we can start organising our lives, in the sense the Tamil people can start organising their political lives in a much better fashion. Secondly, at the same time, I am very, very apprehensive about the future because the current government, the Sri Lankan Government, has mobilised Sinhala Buddhist nationalist opinion to prosecute this war and, of course, with all this, as you can see, in Colombo, with the celebration of the defeat of the LTTE, well, fine, OK, people can celebrate the end of the war, but I am anxious as to whether it is a bit too jingoistic, the kind of celebrations.
GEORGE NEGUS: Your family past in this whole civil strife is intriguing. Your sister as you say was gunned down by the then LTTE leadership. You were the first woman as I understand it to be imprisoned under the government’s protection against terrorism, prevention of terrorism laws. That is very unusual to hear you saying anything decent or reasonable about either side.
NIRMALA RAJASINGAM: That’s right. I was detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, kept in solitary confinement for 22 months, I was at that time a sympathiser of the LTTE. But when I escaped from prison and I joined them as a full-timer in Chennai, I realised that they were a really ruthless military organisation devoid of any progressive political values and I began to notice there were internal killings within the movement and that the leadership was planning killings of leaders of other groups, and I realised that I couldn’t stay there any more and within six months I left and I was, of course, since then, very critical of the LTTE. So I have been persona non grata with the Sri Lankan state as well as the LTTE for many years.
GEORGE NEGUS: But you don’t believe that this military victory against the Tamil Tigers is the way to solve this problem?
NIRMALA RAJASINGAM: No. Basically what it is is that this conflict started, began long before the LTTE was born. It is a political problem – it is a problem of democracy, democratic governance, about how minorities are treated. How the Sri Lankan state is a majoritarian state and it discriminates against its minorities and it has been for decades and when the minorities challenge it, as the Tamil have, they respond with violence. They have responded with violence through the decades.
GEORGE NEGUS: So do you trust the government when the leadership is saying that they have liberated Sri Lanka from terrorism by this military victory? They are now talking about democratising the entire nation state of Sri Lanka. Do you really believe after 25, 26 years of nonstop conflict and fighting, terrorist acts, responses from the government, that this government really does mean that they are going to include Tamils in any Sri Lankan democracy?
NIRMALA RAJASINGAM: I am rather apprehensive. I’m worried, I am anxious as to whether they will come out with a sufficiently, democratic and inclusive process to discuss the ethnic conflict. I hope they do. The other very serious problem is that for the last three years there have been a horrendous number of abductions, extra-judicial killings, disappearances, exclusively targeting the Tamil community. If the government wants to make this peace a real one, a sustainable long-lasting one, these violations have to stop right now. For instance, the surrendered LTTE cadre – we need transparency, we need to know how many people have been taken in, how many people have been taken away from their families for rehabilitation, we need to know what happened to the three doctors who have been detained. This has to be transparent and has to be put in front of the Sri Lankan public and internationally.
GEORGE NEGUS: Could it be a test of the genuineness of the government’s attitude if someone like yourself was able to return to Sri Lanka? I guess I have to ask you who would you fear, your life might be taken from you by, and could you go back? Will you go back?
NIRMALA RAJASINGAM: I would like to go back. I have returned. For nearly 22 years I didn’t go back. I stayed only in the south, in Colombo. The LTTE was the greater threat, definitely. The LTTE was the greater threat. I knew that if I went to the north and east, or the east, I would have been finished off.
GEORGE NEGUS: That is a tragic irony, that the people you supported were the greatest threat to your life.
NIRMALA RAJASINGAM: Absolutely. They told us, “Well, you do not have the right to do politics. You have to stay, you have to keep silent. You either do politics under us, or you don’t.” So that is how they took away the voice of the Tamil people. Now of course, the Tamil people have to rethink how they are going to continue their campaign for their democratic rights. Of course, armed struggle is completely out of the question, and I don’t think there will be a return to armed struggle. I think that whole phase is over and secession is out of the question and Tamils have to publicly disavow any connection they have with secessionist notions and win the confidence of the other communities. And that’s what will be good for the Tamils for the future.
GEORGE NEGUS: Nirmala, thank you very much for your time, and I hope that your aspirations and your hopes become a reality.
NIRMALA RAJASINGAM: Thank you very much.
GEORGE NEGUS: Thank you.