31 March 2009
ON May Day in 1993, Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa was in the back streets of Colombo, greeting supporters as they streamed into the capital for the day's festivities, when he was killed by a suicide bomb. Had the conventions of diplomacy permitted it, I would probably have been at his side. He had been insistent that I should join him on this occasion.
In the previous year, Premadasa had allowed me to see some of the handiwork of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Before the bodies were cleared away, I spoke with some of the shattered survivors of LTTE massacres of simple farming folk in the pitifully poor eastern villages of Palyagodella and Alinchipotana, in one instance crouching with a wild-eyed labourer over the pools of drying blood where his family had had their throats cut.
But neither Premadasa nor his successors were as accommodating when it came to investigating the handiwork of government forces, which has so often been of equal savagery.
By the time of his assassination, however, Premadasa was coming around.
Among other things, he allowed a limited review by a small group of ambassadors (myself included) of the widespread extrajudicial killings and disappearances of Tamils at the hands of government forces.
It is often overlooked that Tamil militarism was, in the first place, spawned by the deliberate demonisation of Tamils (both Hindu and Muslim) in the early years of Sri Lanka's independence from Britain.
The situation took a significant turn for the worse following the failure of Junius Jayawardene's government to promptly intervene in the deliberate slaughter of thousands of innocent Tamils over just a few days in 1983.
In his retirement, an unrepentant Jayawardene explained to me at his residence in Colombo in 1992 that, following a tit-for-tat killing of policemen by Tamil militants, 1983 had been about giving the Tamils a "bloody nose" to "put them in their place".
He scoffed at the notion that the country's Tamils were as Sri Lankan as the Sinhalese. Jayawardene was not alone in this view then, nor is he now.
It is therefore hardly surprising that many Tamils feel it is only the spectre of the Tigers and their ability to strike back that prevents further pogroms against their people.
The answer for many Tamils to the Government's failure to broker a peace has been to flee the country to either the refugee camps of southern India or, for the more fortunate, a new start in other countries.
This is happening in such numbers that they are referred to as the Tamil diaspora.
For those trapped in the north during the current Government offensive, the risk of accepting a "haven" on the Government side must be weighed against the risk of putting themselves in the hands of Government forces.
The essential interest of Sri Lanka's Sinhalese political parties and personalities is still how to exploit the struggle with the Tigers to maintain power in Colombo.
Successive governments have more or less dressed up their intention to negotiate to assuage the feelings of the United Nations and donor countries, including Australia, but not nearly enough to fool any informed observer into believing that the underlying issue of rapprochement between Sinhalese and Tamils is any more on the government's agenda than it was 50 years ago.
There is little hope of an enduring end to Sinhalese victimisation of Sri Lanka's Tamils until Sri Lanka produces the kind of courageous and visionary leadership that can admit the errors of the past and reach out in a sustained way to all Sri Lankans, thus providing a sound basis for drawing all Tamils, including the Tigers, into the political process.
The Sri Lankan government did this with the murderous Communist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) back in the late '80s after its violent uprising had almost brought the country to its knees.
But that, it seems, was different: the JVP was Sinhalese.
Unhappily, the vision required today, free of the deeply embedded political and financial corruption that has plagued Sri Lanka for so long, is nowhere in sight.
Ordinary Sri Lankans, disempowered and cowed through decades of dominance by the business and political elite and effective exclusion from the rule of law, are still easily duped into believing that they will be better off once the Tamils have been crushed.
It is at least doubtful that the LTTE can be completely wiped out by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa's salaried soldiers, who are largely in it for the money they cannot earn at home.
Government forces should certainly be able to outgun the LTTE in military set pieces, but it is most unlikely that they will ever be able to match them in guerilla warfare.
Having so loudly abandoned the peace process, the Rajapaksa Government is throwing everything into the military fray.
Though this approach is being backed with claims of higher body counts and significant incursions into Tiger territory, the consequence of pushing the military arm of the LTTE to the wall could well be a dramatic upsurge in urban terrorism, of which the recent mosque bombing in Akuressa would only be the beginning.
It is an option for which, after all the years of its existence, the LTTE is no doubt well prepared.
Should infrastructure, transport and even tourism become systematic targets in such a campaign, Sri Lanka could be brought to its knees.
Rajapaksa, or whoever is in power, would then have to think again about a peace process, but this time from a weaker position than the one that applied through much of 2006, when a small group of uniquely qualified Americans and a former Australian high commissioner quietly tried, working with the highest levels of the Sri Lankan Government, to build capacity for statesmanship and progress before peace talks with the LTTE scheduled for Geneva in October of that year.
As it turned out, Sri Lanka's leaders only pretended to listen, and so doomed a country and a people once so full of promise to more mindless death and destruction, the worst of which may yet be to come.
Howard Debenham was Australian high commissioner to Sri Lanka from 1992 to 1994.