In U.S., Gotabaya promises to engage Tamil diaspora

President’s offer sparks scepticism among Tamils

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent statement in New York that he would invite the Tamil diaspora for discussions on resolving pending questions of war-time accountability and justice in the island nation has sparked more scepticism than hope among Tamils.

In a meeting on Sunday with the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the UN Headquarters, President Rajapaksa — who is attending the 76th session of the UN General Assembly — said “internal issues” of Sri Lanka should be resolved through “an internal mechanism” of the country. The Tamil diaspora would be invited for discussions in this regard, he said, according to a media release his office.

The announcement is significant, coming from President Rajapaksa, whose government proscribed several Tamil diaspora organisations six months ago, branding their members “terrorists”. The Rajapaksa administration has repeatedly referred to diaspora groups as “pro-LTTE” outfits, often accusing them of attempting to revive the Tigers’ separatist struggle.

‘Welcome gesture’

“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wanting to engage with the Tamil diaspora is certainly a progressive move and we welcome it,” said Suren Surendiran, spokesman of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), a diaspora group with members across North America, Europe, the U.K., Australia, and South Africa.

“When requests are made by democratically elected representatives of Tamil people in Sri Lanka to meet with the President, they are “deferred with flimsy excuses”, [and] now from New York, he has declared that he wants to engage with us, Tamil diaspora,” Mr. Surendiran said in a statement, questioning President Rajapaksa’s “sudden change of mind”, months after his government proscribed organisations including the GTF.

In June, Mr. Rajapaksa was scheduled to meet a delegation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest parliamentary grouping representing Tamils of the war-affected north and east.

The announcement of the meeting drew much attention, for it was the first time that the President was going to meet the TNA, led by the 88-year-old veteran leader and Trincomalee district parliamentarian R. Sampanthan, who has been demanding a political solution to the Tamil question through substantive constitutional reform. But the meeting was postponed with no announcement yet on a likely new date for talks.

Meanwhile, political observers see little reason for optimism in the President’s possible discussion with Tamil diaspora.

Describing Mr. Rajapaksa’s recent remark in New York “a diversionary tactic”, senior journalist and political commentator V. Thanabalasingham said although Tamil diaspora groups have been backing the call for a political solution to Sri Lanka’s Tamil national question, they are no cohesive political force. “You cannot consider them to be representatives of Sri Lankan Tamils, either. They left Sri Lanka and have obtained citizenship elsewhere,” he told The Hindu.

Tamils in Sri Lanka rely on diaspora groups to exert pressure on the international community, but many groups espouse “extremist positions”, he observed. “When the President seems reluctant to fulfil the demands put forward by moderate Tamil voices within the country, what is it that he [President] can talk with diaspora elements?” asked Mr. Thanabalasingham, suggesting that the diaspora be engaged on matters such as foreign investment.

While the diaspora could try garnering international support for reconciliation efforts undertaken in Sri Lanka, “they can never be the prime force in achieving a political solution”. “It is ironic that the President who underscores the need for a domestic solution wants to engage the diaspora,” he said.

“When it comes to the ethnic question, the President must first speak to elected representatives of the Tamils,” he said, adding that even elected Tamil representatives — with known disagreements over many issues — are not in a position to approach the government with a coherent view or demand. “That is our Tamil people’s misfortune.”

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