The two-day International Conference on the conflict in Sri Lanka jointly hosted by the
Australian Human Rights Foundation and the Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations
was held on Thursday, 27 June 1996 and Friday, 28 June 1996. The Conference conclusion
called for "negotiations aimed at a just and durable political solution reflecting
the reality that Sri Lanka is an island inhabited by the Sinhala and Tamil peoples, each
with their own historic and traditional lands."
Participants had come from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Europe, Malaysia, India, New
Zealand, USA and the United Kingdom.
The conference began with the lighting of the lamp for peace by three prominent
Australians: Mr Ian Sinclair, Chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign
Affairs, Defence and Trade, Mr Bill Armstrong, President of the Australian Council for
Overseas Aid. and Mr Alex Kilgour, Chairman of the Australian Human Rights Foundation.
A message from President Nelson Mandela was read out in which the South African
leader wished the conference every success by saying "It is my profound belief that
every effort to stop conflict, war and human misery must be applauded and supported. It is
our fervent wish and hope that the efforts such as the Australian Human Rights Foundation
and all other endeavours to bring peace and a climate for a negotiated solution to the
conflict in Sri Lanka will achieve this goal."
The impressive array of speakers at the conference included Australians and others who
sought to explore various aspects of the conflict. Justice Marcus Einfeld of the
Australian Federal Court, and a former chairman of the International Commission of
Jurists, said that "international pressure on the Sri Lankan government to move
towards a negotiated peace settlement with the Tamils is essential".
According to Justice Einfeld, "The Tamils' call for self determination, is at the
heart of the war in Sri Lanka. Undoubtedly the principle of self determination is one of
the most vigorously disputed group rights in modern international law" The learned
Judge then examined the concept of self-determination in respect of the Tamil people by
quoting a report by the International Commission of Jurists which said, "The Tamils
can be considered to be a people. They have a distinct language, culture and a separate
religious identity from the majority population and to an extent, a defined territory.
The application of the principle of self determination in concrete cases is difficult.
It seems nevertheless that a credible agreement can be made that the Tamil community in
Sri Lanka is entitled to self determination. What is essential is that the political
status of the people should be freely determined by the people themselves."
He then said that "Before there can be any meaningful attempt to resolve the
conflict in Sri Lanka, the underlying cause of the conflict, namely the Tamil struggle for
equity and eventually some form of self expression as a people, must be recognized as
valid. This also involves recognizing the armed struggle of the Tamil people arose as a
response to decades of oppression by the Sinhalese within the confines of the unitary Sri
Mr. Pannerchelvam, the Chief of Bureau (South) of the New-Delhi based South Asian
weekly magazine "Outlook" was certain that no solution was possible without the
LTTE. According to the Indian journalist "..when it comes to the contentious question
of the legitimacy of the LTTE I am very clear that no settlement to the ethnic issue is
possible without their participation, and trying to replace them with some weak quisling
from Colombo or Timbauctoo would only complicate the already complex issue. I arrive at
this conclusion not from the Tamils' point of view but from the point of view of the two
governments -- Indian and the Sri Lankan.
Right from 1986 successive Indian and Sri Lankan governments, whenever they preferred
to talk to the Tamils, have preferred the LTTE and have shunned other groups. The 1986
SAARC meet at Bangalore actually recognised the LTTE as the major representative of the
Tamils as the then President J R Jayawardene acknowledged Velupillai Pirabaharan as the
leader with whom he would like to talk and negotiate. All the other Tamil groups were
ignored. Later, when the Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987 was signed, the two governments
gave importance only to the LTTE in the formation of the still-born Interim Administrative
When the relationship between India and Sri Lanka got strained during the Premadasa
regime, he (Premadasa) used the LTTE as his main ally and declared that they are the
trusted representatives of the Tamils. And Chandrika in her phase of offensive - which I
would like to term as peace offensive - recognised only the Tigers and the four rounds of
negotiation prove this point. However, the moment the relationship between the negotiating
governments and the LTTE got strained, the governments start talking about the other Tamil
voices and how it cannot accept the LTTE as the sole arbitrator of the Tamil destiny. This
double-speak of the governments is the fountainhead for my belief that without the LTTE it
is impossible to work out a lasting solution."
The largest contingent was from South Africa and included two speakers-Rajah Naidoo and
Pravin Gordhan in addition to three members from PASLO(People Against Sri Lankan
Oppression), a South African organisation supportive of the Tamil struggle for
Rajah Naidoo, a Regional Director, with International Mediation Services in South
Africa and a former minister in the government of National Unity under Mr Nelson Mandela,
chose to view the conflict in the following terms: Sri-Lanka is a divided society,
culturally, economically and militarily. The Sinhalese majority is the "Goliath"
in terms of numbers and military strength. The Tamil minority is the "David".
Can "David" get "Goliath" to sit round the negotiating table, to
acknowledge his aspirations and to agree to his terms? How do you achieve this?
Mr Naidoo acknowledged that Human Rights concerns often yield to political expedience
but recommended that notwithstanding this all countries subscribing to upholding human
rights have to be pressured to intervene. Mr Naidoo drew from the experience of his own
country comparing the ANC to the Tamil Liberation Movement and suggesting that there
should be "talks about talks" before actual negotiations.
The other speaker from South Africa, Mr. Pravin J. Gordhan, a member of the South
African parliament also spoke of the negotiating process drawing once again from the South
The second largest contingent was from Sri Lanka and consisted of Rev Dr S J Emmanuel
Dr Sunil Ratnapirya and Mr G G Ponnambalam.
Rev Dr S J Emmanuel, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Jaffna and Rector of St
Francis Xavier Major Seminary in Jaffna. has been the adviser to the Asian Bishops'
Conference for the past 8 years. Having fled to the Wanni as a result of the Sri Lankan
Government's occupation of the Jaffna Peninsula, Dr Emmanuel provided an eyewitness
account of the plight of the people and a first hand account of their mood.
The Catholic priest spoke movingly of the exodus of the people to the Wanni in the face
of two weeks of continuous aerial bombing and shelling by the Sri Lankan Government during
Rivirasa 1. He condemned the Government's Press Censorship and the role of the Sri Lankan
media in "muzzling" the truth. He also exposed the Government's strategy of
"Peace through War" as a "self-contradictory" exercise that "can
only be sustained by falsehoods. And the subsequent escalation of the war by the
Government under the pretext of reaching out for Peace has progressively revealed the
hidden intentions of the Government.
Rev Emmanual pointed out that that "the military occupation of Jaffna, the
hoisting of the Lion Flag over a ghost town, the Riviresa II Operation to trap the people
into the Army command, the denial of food to those who crossed over to the Wanni in the
Riviresa II Operation - all these disprove the intentions of the War for Peace and reveal
the hidden agenda of the Government for a subjugation of the Tamils under a military
rule". The speech concluded with the priest declaring "I am standing here as a
man of God in service to a suffering mankind. I have hope in the goodness of God and of
men. From amidst the deafening sounds of thousands of bombs and shells falling on our soil
and consuming sacred lives, I cry out with Moses of old, "Let my people go from this
slavery, to freedom"
Dr Sunil Ratnapiriya, a Sinhala activist from the NSSP (Nava Sama Samaja Party)
spoke of the Sri Lankan Government's failure to build on the genuine desire on the part of
a substantial section of the Sinhala people for a negotiated political solution. Instead,
the Government's actions have been to strengthen the militaristic-chauvinistic camp
thereby completely betraying those Sinhalese people who had voted the Peoples Alliance
Government into office.
He then placed the position of the NSSP by declaring "The party which I represent,
the Nava Sama Samaja Party(NSSP), from its inception in 1977 has campaigned for the right
of self determination and autonomy for the Tamil speaking people. In parliament and in
every other forum the NSSP has consistently campaigned for this stand. "HARAYA"
a, weekly which publishes similar views to the NSSP has campaigned for these views for the
last 10-12 years". He then went onto say that several trade unions including The
Joint Council of Trade Unions (JCTU) which is the main trade union centre and other unions
such as the Government Clerical Services Union(GCSU), Central Bank Employees Union(CBEU)
and the Ceylon Teachers Union(CTU) have taken a similar stand on the question of
The address by G G Ponnambalam, General Secretary of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress
traced the intransigence of the Sinhala political establishment over the last seventy-five
years in respect of the political aspirations of the Tamils. Ponnambalam spoke eloquently
on the subject by beginning with the breach by Sir James Peries and Samarawickrama in 1922
of their promise to Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam on establishing a special seat for the
Tamils in the Western Province, and ending with the attempt by the current Sinhala regime
to pursue a military solution to its conflict with the Tamil people.
Ponnambalam concluded :"Taking all these into account, I wish to state that
Singhalese intransigence is intractable. It is getting worse day by day. This, coupled
with the fact that the Singhalese do not want international third party mediation, suggest
that there does not seem to be much room for ''Peace with Justice". After
independence, responsive cooperation, parliament, dialogue, pacts, satyagrahas and fasts
yielded nothing. It is only the show of force that has jolted the intransigent Singhalese.
It is my position that even peace packages are non starters because the whole approach is
wrong. We will hobble along for sometime more before the Singhalese and Tamils together
herald the separate state of Thamil Eelam. It seems only this will bring "peace with
Visuvanthan Rudrakumaran, Political Adviser to the LTTE's International Unit spoke
on the question of self-determination and the principle of equal political power sharing
at the centre.
Mr Lawrence Thilakar, a member of the LTTE's Central Committee and its chief
European spokesperson began by expressing the hope that "this conference would pave
the way for peace with justice in the island of Sri Lanka." and then continued by
declaring that "The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is committed to a peaceful
resolution of the conflict and is deeply disappointed that the peace talks with the
Kumaratunge Government collapsed in April 1995."
Mr Thilakar then went on to make it clear that: "The peace talks collapsed because
Kumaratunge simply failed to conduct them on an equal basis... At no stage did the Sri
Lankan Government seek to negotiate on the basis that the Tamil people are a distinct
nation with a homeland of their own and an inalienable right to self-determination. This
inclination to negotiate on an unequal basis was made abundantly clear by Kumaratunge's
choice of delegates. Whereas, the LTTE's delegation was led by the Head of its Political
Section, the Sri Lankan Government side did not include a single cabinet minister.
The "unequal" approach was further evidenced by the Government's unilateral
decision to open the Pooneryn causeway having refused the LTTE's request that the Pooneryn
Army camp be removed. There was also the callous disregard on the part of the Government
to the LTTE's request that the economic embargo on the north be lifted. Instead, the Sri
Lankan Government continued to use the embargo as an instrument to pressure the LTTE
during negotiations. The Sri Lankan Government persisted with its "unequal" and
"unilateral" approach to negotiations and was dismissive of the LTTE's repeated
assertions that negotiations cannot be conducted in this manner. It refused to review its
hard-line position despite the LTTE having extended its deadline by three weeks.
Mr Thilakar then outlined the LTTE's response to the present situation by asserting:
"This military approach by the Government will only escalate the war as the LTTE does
everything in its power to defend the Tamil people and their homeland against this
onslaught. The LTTE cannot be pressurised or made to accept under duress anything that
does not meet the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people.
However, the LTTE is deeply committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
There are still possibilities to pursue a negotiated political settlement provided the Sri
Lankan Government abandons its military approach and creates conditions for the
de-escalation of the war and the withdrawal of troops." Mr Thilakar ended his speech
by calling upon the international community to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to give
up its militaristic approach and negotiate with the LTTE on an equal basis under
international facilitation and observation.
Mr Thilakar was also afforded an opportunity during the duration of the conference
to address the Australian Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence &
Trade outlining the LTTE position.
Other speakers included Dr Dagmar Hellman-Rajanayagam from the German-Malaysian
Institute in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia., Dr John Powers of the Australian National
University, Mr Peer Mohamad, a Tamil Muslim writer from Malaysia,
Rajah, a Producer with the BBC and a former Chairman of Sri Lanka's state-owned
Television Network, Professor Margaret Trawick from the Department of Social
Anthropology at Massey University, Palmerston, New Zealand, Professor Peter Shalk from the
Department of History of Religion in the Uppsala University in Sweden,
Ms Karen Parker,
an attorney specialising in International Law, Humanitarian (armed conflict) and Human
Rights Law, Dr Sriskantharajah a Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Agriculture and Rural
Development at the University of Western Sydney and the President of Eelam Tamil
Association, New South Wales, Ms Janet Hunt, the Executive Director of the
Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA), Mr Brian Wolf, the Executive Secretary
of the NGO Forum on Sri Lanka based in the UK. and Mr.Ana
Secretary of the Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations.
The Conference concluded with a Conference Statement by a sub-committee chaired by
Justice Marcus Einfield making the following salient points:
- Negotiations aimed at a just and durable political settlement reflecting the reality
that the Island is inhabited by the Sinhala and Tamil peoples, each with their own
historic and traditional lands, be commenced.
- Negotiations to be conducted under mutually acceptable facilitation and international
- The Unitary State in its present form incorporating both Sinhala and Tamil peoples,
is inconsistent with the peace and security of the peoples of Sri Lanka.
- Negotiations aimed at reaching an agreement to result in the Governance of the Tamil
people being vested with the Tamil people, be commenced.
- The economic embargo imposed by the Sri Lankan Government on the traditional Tamil
areas, be lifted immediately.
(Courtesy, Tamil Monitor 6 July 1996 - published by the Australasian
Federation of Tamil Associations)