“We Tamils, inside and outside the island of Sri Lanka, still want an independent state,” Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran, prime minister of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), told me recently in New York.
“And because the war crimes and severe brutality of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government against our people have become well known, our cause is being spoken about all over the world.”
A positive sign of recognition for Tamil rights was the dramatic Channel Four documentary from Britain Sri Lanka Killing Fields. It was shown first at a Human Rights Council session in June and then screened around the world.
Rudrakumaran is a prominent activist in the Tamil diaspora, created by the violent oppression the Tamil minority have faced in Sri Lanka in recent decades. He earned law degrees from the University of Colombo and Southern Methodist University. He has also studied and written articles about self-determination at Harvard Law School.
After the long civil war between the Sri Lankan state and the pro-independence Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, Rudrakumaran saw the need for international representation of Tamils' right to sovereignty.
He and other Tamil professionals held meetings in Malaysia and Switzerland to initiate the TGTE on the basis of nationhood, a homeland and the right to self-determination.
As these Tamil leaders in exile were gathering forces, they were surprised and disconcerted that Cuba and other progressive governments in Latin America sided with Sri Lanka at the May 2009 sessions of the Human Rights Council. They did so not only against the LTTE guerilla movement but also against the Tamil population.
“Tamils always looked upon Fidel and Che as heroes,” Rudrakumaran said. “Our people are shocked by Cuba’s position since May 2009. Perhaps it is due to poor communication.
“We want to send a delegation to Cuba, to Venezuela and other ALBA [Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Latin America] governments to explain our position and to engage in dialogue.”
Rudrakumaran maintains that the transnational government he heads is not tied to any government or international power. “We are not at the mercy of any power, but will accept support for our cause from whoever cooperates with us,” he said.
The TGTE stresses democratic forms of decision making. Last year, elections for delegates to the TGTE were held in 12 countries.
In some cases, the proposed candidate met no competition and so there was no election. Tens of thousands took part.
Fifty-six elected delegates gathered in Philadelphia to officially form the Transnational Constituent Assembly over May 17-19 last year. Thirty more delegates took part via video conference from London and Geneva.
On November 3, the TGTE announced its first cabinet. Of the 10 ministers and 10 deputy ministers, five are women.
The TGTE is not to be confused with a “government in exile”, as there had been no independent state with a government that later sought relocation. It is a transnational government in transition, and campaigns for nationhood through diplomacy and education.
The real government will be established in the homeland when that becomes possible.
The TGTE's strategy is to work with all existing local, national and international Tamil organisations in the diaspora, and to create a power centre for diplomacy with all governments possible. It also seeks to work in partnership with the Tamil leadership inside Sri Lanka, but has not been able to establish ties, at least not officially, given the belligerent nature of the Sri Lankan government.
The journey to this point started after Sri Lanka won independence from Britain, in 1948.
“Our people were conservative in many ways,” Rudrakumaran said. “We were nationalistic, not revolutionary. We had castes and women were not treated equally.
“We sought equal rights with the majority Sinhalese by using peaceful, non-violent means. But the Sinhalese governments and racist monks and other extremists beat and killed us. They conducted several pogroms in which thousands of Tamils were killed in terrible ways.
“Finally, in 1976, all the Tamil political parties in and out of parliament, from conservative to the most radical and revolutionary decided to struggle for an independent nation in the North East homeland.”
“When the liberation struggle took up arms, all the barriers were broken. In fact, women played an important role in the armed struggle.
“The Tigers [LTTE] gave us the dignity and strength to fight. Today, however, the struggle is on the diplomatic plane. We look forward. We are not mired in the past or in speculation about whether the Tigers committed terrorism.”
Rudrakumaran said the TGTE has good relations with the two other international organisations fighting for Tamil sovereignty: Global Tamil Eelam and the Council of Eelam Tamil in Europe.
“We all agree to the same goals and our means are the same — not armed struggle but peaceful protests and diplomacy,” he said. “We are different in that the TGTE has elected representation in the form of a transnational government, a rather special breed of government.”
“We are encouraged about our future prospects. We see it as favourable for us that a referendum was held for South Sudan [in 2005], in which 98.3% voted for secession. The TGTE attended the inauguration ceremony in Juba, July 10, as government guests of the new nation.”
TGTE deputy foreign minister Kanaganthram Manickavasagar and PM spokesperson Jeyaprakash Jeyalingam were among the guests when Salva Kiir signed the new constitution and was sworn in as president.
World leaders were present, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon. Sri Lanka sent a minor envoy, Tissa Vitharana, senior minister of scientific affairs.
Rudrakumaran’s message to the newest nation, the 193rd recognised by the UN, read: “We salute [you] for [your] sacrifices to become free and admire [your] courage and determination.”
“Our strategy is similar to that of the Republic of South Sudan,” Rudrakumaran said. “We want the international community to press for and supervise a referendum on Eelam as occurred in South Sudan.
“Our peoples have undergone similar fates: genocide, followed by struggles for independence met by war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Tamil guerillas had called for ceasefires and a peace deal leading to a referendum for independence. Finally, in 2001, a ceasefire was achieved, but only after the guerillas had decimated much of Sri Lanka’s military might.
However, when Mahinda Rajapaksa won the Sri Lankan presidency in 2004, he established a family fiefdom bent on annihilating all Tamil opposition.
He smashed the ceasefire, and took warring advice and technical-surveillance aid from the United States government.
He also received large amounts of weapons, communication infrastructure, boats and fighter aircraft from China; fighter aircraft, intelligence agents and technology from Israel; boats, missiles and moneys from India; moneys for oil and weapons from Iran; weapons from Pakistan; arms and patrol boats from Britain and France; and technology and loans from Japan.
Rudrakumaran has no illusions about the interests of major governments representing former and current colonialists and empires. “How does one play the game and not allow a big power to decide? Our skills and our dedication to our united goal of sovereignty determine how we act. We won’t compromise sovereignty.
“Ours is a struggle for nationality and not one based on ideological or economic grounds.”
Rudrakumaran hopes India will change its pro-Sri Lanka attitude to one of support for Tamils. He sees the geo-political wind turning toward both China and India’s interests.
As China’s influence grows in Sri Lanka, India is confused about how to act. Rudrakumaran does not believe India is acting in its long term interests by sidling up to the Rajapaksa government and thinks India will soon realise that.
The Tamil leader is also encouraged by recent developments in the 18th session of the Human Rights Council that took place over September 12-30.
It appears that the report by an expert panel appointed by Ki-moon on “accountability in Sri Lanka” now has a chance to be discussed by the HRC at its 19th session. At least, this has been proposed by Ki-moon and the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
The report was delivered in March and is quite critical of the Sri Lanka government for possible human rights abuse of Tamil civilians and combatants in the last months of the war in 2009. The report calls for an independent investigation into credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In the latest HRC session, unlike other sessions, neither India nor any of the Latin American countries expressed verbal approval of the Sri Lanka government when it denied any wrongdoing.
[See TGTE’s website: www.govtamileelam.org/gov .]
Guiding principles of the Transitional Government of Talim Eelam
1. Commitment to achieve Eelam, an independent, sovereign state ― nationhood, homeland and right to self-determination.
2. Tamil Eelam will be a secular state.
3. The TGTE shall assist in establishing health facilities in the homeland, homes and refuges for those affected by the war; promote cultural activities stressing Eelam Tamil distinctiveness. Much of this work will have to be done indirectly as the TGTE cannot be in Sri Lanka.
4. Promote education in the homeland.
5. Promote economic welfare.
6. Conduct foreign relations through lobbying.
7. Seek prosecution of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
8. Protect the equality of women and all Tamils.
9. Provide welfare of families of martyrs, former combatants and families affected by the war. One practical project is to establish monuments for martyrs in the diaspora since their memorials and graves have been destroyed by the Sri Lankan government.