For decades, T. Sritharan, general secretary of the Eelam Peoples' Revolutionary Liberation Front-Pathmanabha wing (EPRLF-P), engaged in politics covertly. Under the watchful eye of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), he and his political party struggled to get their politically moderate message across to the people of the north and east. Despite the LTTE's claim of being the sole representative of the Tamil people, there were those who disagreed. Those dissenters were often suppressed.
"Our people couldn't live anywhere," Sritharan says. "Our people were living only in a very low-profile way. They couldn't (engage) in any political activities. Anybody thinking against the LTTE, they kill. That is the problem. LTTE not only killed political leaders, they also killed intellectuals, even NGO people. They also killed [politically] left people and trade union people."
The EPRLF (before it split into two groups), along with other Tamil political parties, was banned by the LTTE in 1986. But Sritharan managed to survive the LTTE's ruthless elimination of those it considered Tamil moderates. Today, Sritharan and his party are allied with the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, working to address the grievances of the Tamil minority in post-war Sri Lanka.
In an interview in Colombo that lasted nearly two hours, Sritharan spoke candidly about the issues facing Sri Lanka's Tamil population.
For decades, the Sri Lankan diaspora -- both Tamil and Sinhala -- played a crucial role in the conflict. Political scientist Christine Fair wrote about the Tamil diaspora communities in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics in 2005.
"As has been noted, the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora has been a fundamental component of the Tamil insurgency," she writes. "It has been the backbone of the LTTE's global operations and has been a financial lifeline of the militancy."
The last stages of Sri Lanka's 30-year conflict with the LTTE saw massive protests staged in capitals around the world against the government's military offensive. Toronto was a key flashpoint. According to some estimates, the city has a Tamil population of approximately 200,000, including many LTTE supporters. Thousands from Toronto's Tamil diaspora poured on to the streets to protest, forcing road closures and disrupting civil life.
Now, with the military struggle over and the LTTE defeated, Sritharan says the diaspora will have to assume a new role.
"The Tamil diaspora in the last 20 years, a section of the diaspora, supported to build up the LTTE war," he says. "They also, right or wrong, contributed a number of children. Now, their contribution [must be] to the upliftment of the people and their lives. They must contribute very positively."
"[In] their countries also, different kinds of people are available. Different societies also tolerate each other. Living in another country, your experience, your education (and) your wealth must be shared locally."
Speaking emotionally about the numbers of Tamil people killed, injured and widowed through the conflict, Sritharan accused the Tamil diaspora of not understanding the realities on the ground.
"They think the children are poor peoples' sons and daughters," Sritharan says. "Some people in Toronto, in LTTE uniforms, rallying [demonstrating]. The ordinary soldier from the Sinhala south is also from a poor peasant family. These children are from poor families. These people are also fighting in the front. It is not some school program or sports meet."
Sritharan's contention is that diaspora communities have the luxury of observing from a distance. They have the luxury of free speech in countries such as the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia (with large Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora populations) to protest and speak out without having to face dangerous consequences. But they have "no sentimental attachment with the land," Sritharan says, and the children of poor Tamil and Sinhala families end up fighting for the cause.
"The battlefront is not on Toronto's streets," he says. "This is not a bloody joke. These kinds of people also exploit the ordinary peoples' life and limb."
Working for Peace
On Sept. 7, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), widely known as the LTTE's proxy party, met with President Rajapaksa for the first time since the defeat of the LTTE. The TNA consists of five Tamil political parties: Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchchi, All Ceylon Tamil Congress, Tamil United Liberation Front, EPRLF-S (Suresh wing led by Suresh Premachandran) and Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization. The focus of the meeting was the humanitarian crisis in the north, particularly the resettling of internally displaced persons.
Sritharan did not attend this meeting but says he spoke about the issue with President Rajapaksa when he attended an all-party meeting July 2.
"I mentioned to (President Rajapaksa), you also played a good role in the latter part of the 80s on human rights," Sritharan says. "You also played a historical role for 20, 25 years to eradicate the Tamil fascism. In the same way, you will try to devolve the powers to the other communities, Tamils including other communities, as well as value the peoples' respect and dignity."
Sritharan believes President Rajapaksa faces pressure from the People's Liberation Front (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya parties against devolving power, but he is hopeful.
"Now the government must take some risks," says Sritharan. "Peace is the main agenda. Free the people from camps. Celebrate the peace. At that time, if one or two LTTE (members) create problems, the people will punish them. Now if the (existing) situation continues, that is a fertilized ground."
Sritharan calls on the government to release from IDP camps those who can easily be identified as not being a threat -- families with five or six children, widows, pregnant women and the elderly.
"Now people also want to live," he says. "They want their children educated. They want jobs. They want peace."
Read more of the interview with EPRLF-P General Secretary T. Sritharan here.