Professor V Suryanarayan is described as one of India's leading specialists in South and Southeast Asian Studies, especially on Sri Lanka. Some of his major publications include Sri Lankan Crisis and India's Response and Between Fear and Hope: Sri Lankan Refugees in Tamil Nadu.
For more than two decades, he was associated with the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Madras as the founding director and senior professor.
Professor Suryanarayan spoke to Shobha Warrier about the current situation in Sri Lanka
As a person who has been writing and talking about the ethnic problem that Sri Lanka has been facing for the last 25 years, do you see any difference in what is happening now and what happened in 1983?
Obviously the military advantage is in favour of Colombo now. There are several reasons for that. The first is the international isolation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which saw it labelled as a terrorist organisation and banned in several countries. So, many governments are tightening the screws on the Tamil Diaspora and they are unable to get supplies from outside. India also is co-operating with Colombo in patrolling the sea surrounding Sri Lanka. That is a major drawback for the LTTE.
The second major drawback has been the split within the LTTE itself. The fairly long drawn out ceasefire from 2002 to 2006 resulted in all the contradictions within the LTTE expressing themselves. The split of Karuna, one time close ally of Prabhakaran, meant that the LTTE could not get much support for the Tamils in the east. Following the split, Colombo held elections in the eastern province and the TMVP (Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal) has come to power there.
President Mahindra Rajapaksa has been strengthening himself militarily. They have been able to diversify their arms purchases from Pakistan, China, the United Kingdom, France and others. They have displayed their air superiority also. The Sri Lankan Air Force has been savage in bombing Tamil areas. The LTTE does not have anti-aircraft guns to defend itself. That also meant the LTTE has suffered seriously and retreated. Obviously, the LTTE has withdrawn its manpower from Kilinochi and taken them to Mullaitheevu.
So, the LTTE is at a disadvantage compared to 1983.
The 2002 ceasefire happened because Colombo was not able to have a military victory. There were spectacular victories by the LTTE then. So, Colombo was desperately in need of a ceasefire. Today it is not so. That is why Rajapakse says there is no question of a ceasefire. He said, first they would accomplish a victory.
You said the Sri Lankan government now purchases arms from several countries. Do you feel the international community is more sympathetic to the Sri Lankan government now?
Arms purchases depend on several factors, and that is one reason. Yes, the LTTE is branded as a terrorist organisation now. And the fight against terrorism gets sympathy from several capitals.
Do you see any change in the attitude of the people of Tamil Nadu to the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the LTTE in particular?
From 1983 to 1991, Tamil Nadu was the backyard from which the Tamil Tigers were sustained; sanctuary, base, etc, and explosives and medicines went from Tamil Nadu.
After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the pendulum swung to the other extreme. And the LTTE lost considerable sympathy in Tamil Nadu. That was the time the LTTE diversified its purchases by having the whole world as their base, wherever there were Tamils.
The situation in Tamil Nadu is changing. There has always been a pro-LTTE group in Tamil Nadu. But in terms of electoral politics or mass support, they did not count for much.
Why is it that suddenly all the political parties here are talking for the Tamils in Sri Lanka?
One reason is the competitive nature of politics where the major political parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam want to project themselves as the champions of the Tamil cause. So, the ruling party does not want to be isolated from the people.
If you look at the recent events, the call for mass mobilisation started with the Communist Party of India's D Raja asking the people to observe a day's token hunger strike. The DMK didn't want the CPI to do that. With J Jayalalitha also coming out with a statement that they must support the Tamil cause and not the LTTE, Karunanidhi entered the fray. He persuaded the centre to pressurise Colombo to have a ceasefire and enter into negotiation with the LTTE.
You have to look at this from two angles. One is the competitive nature of Tamil Nadu politics. The second is the savage bombing of the Tamil areas by the Sri Lankan Air Force which has resulted in mass causalities. A large number of Tamils are suffering. There is a certain amount of sympathy for the Tamils here. Many people here including myself feel that the Tamils are badly affected there.
Sri Lanka is a sovereign country, and what is happening there is their internal matter. Does any other country have the right to interfere and dictate terms?
Colombo's argument is that it is the domestic matter of Sri Lanka. I don't think it is the right way of looking at things because there have been so many instances where there have been violations of human rights. It has become an international issue. Like Apartheid in South Africa.
Here, the government of this country is fighting terrorism...
It is true. They are fighting terrorism but in the process, the ordinary Tamils are unnecessarily affected. So, you have to distinguish between the LTTE and the Tamils.
The present government is only doing lip service to constitutional reforms. In the interview with N Ram of The Hindu, President Rajapakse said, 'they would do that later'. But if you go by the record of Colombo on how they have fulfilled the obligations and commitments, the probability of constitutional reforms is very bleak.
You can now hear powerful voices being expressed that it is a Sinhala country, and Sinhalese are the majority and therefore, the majority will has to prevail. In multi- ethnic societies, some of us believe that rights of the minorities are equally important.
Do you see victory for the Sri Lankan government?
As of now, militarily, they are at an advantage. The question is, even if the LTTE is militarily defeated, will it be followed by a political solution? Given the nature of the political leadership that rules Sri Lanka, and Rajapakse's dependence on Sinhala chauvinists, I have doubts about them giving a fair deal to the Tamils.
Among the people of Tamil Nadu, do you think there will be sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamils now?
If you look at Chennai, you see that the demonstrations are well attended. Maybe you can say that they are the hardcore DMK supporters. In my understanding, there is a certain amount of sympathy for the ordinary Tamils of Sri Lanka. Food and medicines are not available there for them.
Vaiko's MDMK, whose main plank is the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the LTTE could not make a dent in Tamil Nadu politics. Does it show that the people of Tamil Nadu do not much care for the cause?
Yes, those who are fanatically committed to the Tamil cause are not very relevant from the point of view of Tamil Nadu politics. The hardcore supporters of LTTE do not have much base in Tamil Nadu.
Then, why do you think the DMK has taken this issue up so strongly?
One of the major issues of the DMK from the very beginning is the cause of the Tamils across the world. Karunanidhi does not want to be accused of sacrificing that cause. Now, we have to distinguish between the LTTE and the Tamil cause. Ordinary Tamils are caught between the Sinhalese army and the Tamil Tigers.
Under pressure from the DMK, will New Delhi be able to force the Sri Lankan government to agree to a ceasefire? Rajapakse has said it is an internal matter of Sri Lanka.
In an earlier period, India could. Sri Lanka was considered to be India's backyard. In 1987, neither Pakistan nor China helped them. Today, both China and Pakistan are selling arms to Colombo. Rajapakse has successfully diversified arms purchases. The fact that Colombo is fighting terrorism has helped them. So, our own clout with Sri Lanka is far less today than in 1987.
With the Congress at the Centre, how will the Indian government look at the Sri Lankan issue?
New Delhi has started distinguishing between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. The fact of the matter is New Delhi would like non-LTTE democratic forces to represent the Tamils. But to what extent New Delhi can extend support is a big question mark. It is a complex situation.
If Tamil Nadu political parties take this as a political issue in the next elections, will the ordinary people give more importance to it than lack of power, unemployment and price rise?
An election is not fought on a single issue. This will be one of the issues but this will not be the major issue which is going to tilt the balance in favour of any party.
Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj