TIME: How close are we to war? Can we pull back?
Tamilselvan: There is a war environment. The government is seriously engaged in provoking people and creating an environment that looks like war. On a daily basis, three or four people are being killed and in places that are fully under military occupation. Even a Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission office outside a military base was attacked. This shows the degree of government involvement. The Tigers are not engaged in any [similar] effort. Our commitment to take things forward as we have done in the last three to four years remains the same.
TIME: Do you have any doubt about who is carrying out the attacks?
Tamilselvan: We don’t need to think of rogue elements in the Sri Lankan army forces. It’s very clear that the military structure under [Sri Lanka President] Mahinda Rajapakse is made up of hardliners who believe in war. They have a history of it. They are hawks. These things come from the top. On one hand, the government makes statements that it is committed to peace. On the other, it openly commits atrocities.
TIME: To be absolutely clear, you say there’s no link between the Tigers and the deaths of more than 70 soldiers, mostly in claymore mine attacks?
Tamilselvan: The sophistication in which the attacks have been carried out does not necessarily mean the LTTE is involved. All the battles we had with the Sri Lankan army [during the 1983-2001 civil war] were done with the full participation of civilians. Over 100,000 underwent training and without them we would have not been successful. To understand who’s attacking the army, look at the background. A humanitarian disaster [the Dec. 2004 tsunami] that necessitated joint action did not bring about a change of attitude in Colombo. So in July 2005, the Tamil people, in an uprising of their own involving hundreds of thousands of people, [demonstrated] their disappointment at the [government’s failure] to deliver normalcy. The government had failed miserably to fulfill its obligations under the ceasefire agreement, such as minimizing their military presence. The military is abducting females, raping them, killing them, killing families. These are people battered by two decades of war, who expected normalcy and who were not given anything through the joint mechanism [for tsunami aid]. Expecting those people to remain calm forever is simplistic. People were forced to take matters in their own hands because they are so frustrated. But, yes, we accept they have been trained.
TIME: The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission says your denial of involvement is “unacceptable.”
Tamilselvan: We are prepared to cooperate in any investigation. Today we’re going to meet the Norwegian ambassador and we are going to put forward our resolution to cooperate in any proceedings they deem fit to satisfy them that we are not responsible.
TIME: If you feel the government is trying to provoke you, to create an environment for war, are you going to be provoked?
Tamilselvan: As a responsible political organization, we’re not provoked. We have a commitment to the ceasefire agreement and the international community’s concern for peace in Sri Lanka. What [worries] us is the grave risk to the ceasefire by the civilians who are being killed, tortured and arrested, and kept under military occupation, people made to feel helpless, who are resorting to actions that any normal human being would take. We read the statement put out by the UN Secretary General which says that both parties should stick to the ceasefire agreement. And what does the agreement say? Deliver normalcy to people affected by war for two decades. Who are these people? They are the Tamil people. Those people need peace. This is the message. They have not specifically mentioned that the government has failed, but it is very clear that this is what the international community feels.
TIME: If I accept your insistence that this is a people’s uprising, will there come a point at which the LTTE feels it has to join in?
Tamilselvan: We would like to join the people, but not in the way you suggest. We would like to join them in the peace process and alleviate their hardship. But if people continue to be harassed, we will definitely defend them.
TIME: Why is Sri Lanka’s history so often one of wasted potential? It has a booming tourist industry, a population of smart and educated people, and billions of dollars pledged in development and tsunami aid. There’s a golden future within reach. But it all depends on peace. Why throw it all away?
Tamilselvan: We appreciate your realistic assessment of the situation. Yes, this island is blessed with such potential in manpower and material resources. Why are we unable to tap this potential? Well, look at countries that are prospering. Those countries too have different nationalities, traditions and cultures. But they commingle. There is a dignified approach to governance. The people, whichever race they belong to, consider themselves rightful citizens and contribute towards the country’s prosperity. A similar thing can definitely happen in this island as well. But that’s if there is a change of attitude in Colombo and arrangements are made to bring back the status quo of two nations, Tamil and Sinhalese, living side by side.
TIME: Two separate nations living side by side? Is this a hardening of your position from accepting federalism?
Tamilselvan: You may be correct. But our position is based on historical fact. Both nations have their own way of life, culture and language. If all that is restored, and respected, and we are returned our dignity and right to self-determination, then moving away from federalism will be ruled out. We can have a relationship and political arrangements can be worked out. But first, accept the sovereignty of our people.
TIME: There can few more blighted places on earth than one which has suffered two decades of war, a tsunami, and now looks to be tumbling back into war. Where is the compassion?
Tamilselvan: We are not a separate entity from the people. When you say ‘you’ and ‘the people’, that is inaccurate. We are part of the people. I and other LTTE members came from the people. Our families were affected by the war and by the tsunami. To ask about our compassion for the people is irrelevant. We are part and parcel of the same unit. The LTTE spearheads the freedom fighters, but we are the same community. Also, in the Tamil homeland, there is deprivation in material needs, yes, but people are living in peace and not under subjugation and that is a wholly different quality of life from people who are under military occupation. Why are people from military-occupied areas coming here? Why are they leaving their homes and jobs? Because they are prepared to undergo difficulties, but not live under military occupation.
TIME: Should fighting resume, many people think there’s so much frustration, that it’s going to be even more bloody than before.
Tamilselvan: War is not gentle and nice. It’s definitely going to be cruel. We hate war and we do not see it as an option that will produce a political solution. But we were forced into war. The decision to avoid such bloodshed, to avoid the killing of thousands of people, is for the occupying military power, the prosecutor of war, not the oppressed.
TIME: What can the international community do to help prevent this tragedy?
Tamilselvan: The international community is serious and relentless in its pursuit of peace and we appreciate that. But they are finding it very difficult to handle the situation in the south, because of the hardliners. Our opinion is that the international community has to bring about sanctions on a rogue state.
TIME: The Tamil boycott during the November presidential election helped elect Mahinda Rajapakse, the more hard-line candidate. Why do your enemies a favor?
Tamilselvan: [Laughs] Boycotts are nothing new to the Tamil people. They are born out of frustration and the Tamils have always given Sri Lankan presidential elections a lukewarm response. If Mahinda is a hard-liner, the Tamil people do not see [losing opposition candidate] Ranil [Wickremesinghe] as any different. He didn’t do anything for us. The Tamil people had no reason to participate in the election.
Alex Perry is the South Asia bureau chief for the Time magazine
TIME: How close are we to war? Can we pull back?