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WEB-ONLY EXCLUSIVE
'It Will Be A Curse Upon The Tamil People'
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar speaks out on Tamil Tigers, Jaffna and peace
By MICHAEL FATHERS

Confronted with the possibility of military defeat in Jaffna, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar is confident this latest crisis in the long and exhausting war with Tamil secessionists will end in genuine peace talks and a possible settlement. Speaking to TIME's New Delhi bureau chief Michael Fathers, Kadirgamar said the Tamil Tiger guerrillas would not be able to sustain their claim to a separate homeland in the face of intense international pressure. The Oxford-educated lawyer, himself a Tamil, is at the top of the Tigers' assassination list for opposing a separate state, which he says would be a curse on the Tamil people.

TIME: If you were to open a line to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, what would you say?
Kadirgamar:
There comes a point in time in a war when one has to take stock of where one is and what one is doing. And I am strongly convinced that it is not in the interests of the Tamil people as a whole to get into a kind of ghetto. That is what Prabhakaran has in mind when he talks of a separate Tamil state. It will be cursed from day one, if it ever happens, because there will be constant battles with Sri Lanka as well as India... What kind of life will it be for the Tamil people who have to live there? The Tamils are a very outward-going people. You just need to look at the large number of Tamils in Europe, Australia and North America. They have done extremely well for themselves. They are not going to be cooped up in a little place like Jaffna. They contribute their money to the Tigers to serve their conscience, I think, for having left the country for greener pastures. So it's the poor peasants--the farmers and the fishermen--who are going to be left behind in the north where Prabhakaran will be a little king, a complete fascist. It will be a curse upon the Tamil people. That's why I say enough is enough: Prabhakaran should come and do a deal.

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TIME: What do you think most Sri Lankan Tamils want?
Kadirgamar:
I think the general view of the Tamil community is that if we, the government, are able to deliver substantial constitutional reforms along the lines which we have laid down [devolution of powers from the central government to Sri Lanka's provinces, especially the Tamil-dominated north and east of the country], it would give them satisfaction. Fellowship between the two communities, rather than a separate state, is what I am talking about.

TIME: How can you deliver constitutional change if there is a war going on? Aren't you also facing a political and diplomatic impasse?
Kadirgamar:
Not at all. The LTTE is going to be in very grave difficulties shortly because the net is closing in on them. For the first time in the long history of this war, we have a third party on the scene. [With the consent of both sides, Norway is acting as a "facilitator" to try to find a negotiated settlement.] In the past, the government did not want a third party. We wanted to deal with the Tigers separately, and we tried that after we came to office in 1994 by having about four or five rounds of talks with them. But it came to nothing, and Prabhakaran went back to war... We are convinced that he went back to war because the moment he found out that we were serious about a peaceful political solution, he got very worried. He was using those talks merely to re-equip and reinforce his movement, to get embargoes lifted, and so on. The moment we started dealing with the big questions and said, 'come and talk about political matters,' he knew the writing was on the wall. Here is a man who is absolutely paranoid about peace. So our position was that, 'if it is war you want, then it is war you will get.' What else can we do? We are a sovereign state. We are not going to give up the north to Prabhakaran. For centuries we have been a multiethnic, multireligious, multicultural society and we are not going to change that. All kinds of people live here: Tamils, Singhalese, Burghers [descendants of Dutch and Portuguese traders], Malays and Indians. The four great religions of the world [Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam] coexist here. So we are never going to allow Prabhakaran to get hold of a corner of the country and turn it into a mono-ethnic state... We have now reached the point where it is obvious that we and the LTTE cannot speak directly. So we thought the time had come to invite a third party on the scene. India has offered to play a role as an honest broker, the U.S. is also very keen to play some kind of role, and there are many other countries who similarly want to do what they can. I think Prabhakaran will find it increasingly difficult to stand outside those talks. The pressure that is building up for talks to take place, is very strong.

TIME: That's one level, but on the battlefront it's quite a different picture. The Tigers have made substantial advances. Won't that make it difficult for the Sri Lankan government to reach an acceptable solution?
Kadirgamar:
I don't think so. Let us assume Prabhakaran is in possession of Jaffna. If he thinks that is the end of the story, he is utterly and totally mistaken. We will obviously fight back. It might take us 15 years, or 50 years, but we will.

TIME: But can the Sri Lankan government afford to keep fighting?
Kadirgamar:
We can because the stakes are so high for us. The Western world, which is interested in a solution to the problem, will simply not allow a separate Tamil state to stand out alone like that. They will oppose it absolutely, they will seek to undermine it, and it won't get any recognition. India will certainly undermine it, being the most affected nation and the closest. In terms of recognition, the United States has clearly said 'no,' and the U.S. will never do anything now that goes against India's interests. So Prabhakaran is not in a good position at all.

TIME: If that is the case, can you envisage talks beginning soon?
Kadirgamar:
Time is not a factor we can talk about. Prabhakaran's priority at the moment is to take as much land as he can in order to put himself in the best position for negotiations, which he knows will have to start soon. That is something that all guerrilla fighters do.

TIME: If he has such a lot of land, will that not put your side in a weak position?
Kadirgamar:
If his claim is going to be that, "I've got Jaffna and that I now want a separate state," we will carry on fighting. It is not going to be all that easy for him to hold Jaffna. At that stage, I wouldn't be at all surprised if India, for instance, decided that this man had really got too big for his boots. Prabhakaran is totally dependent on the sea for his supplies and he could be in big trouble there. In Tamil Nadu [the southern Indian state adjacent to Sri Lanka and a former sanctuary for Tamil insurgents], support for the Tigers is weak and is confined to a few minority political parties. They can make a noise, but grassroots support has gone. I think Tamil Nadu people find Prabhakaran and his gang too difficult to cope with. Nevertheless, the state's political leaders don't take a strong public stand against them because no politician wants to alienate any voter. But a few days ago, the Tamil Nadu chief minister came out with an astonishing statement challenging Prabhakaran's credentials to represent the Tamils of Sri Lanka when he has murdered their leaders. He even called Prabhakaran a fascist. The Tamil Nadu leadership does not want to see Indian intervention on the ground in Sri Lanka, and the Indian prime minister has to respect that. But there are a lot of other options. The navy is one, diplomatic pressure is another. Western countries are changing their financial regulations which will make things very difficult for these mafia-type LTTE people.

TIME: Are you confident a settlement is possible?
Kadirgamar:
Yes, but not because Prabhakaran wants one. I don't think he does. A settlement is possible because his own people realize that he has no viable alternative. And to a large extent, he has to watch the Tamil diaspora [his main financial supporters] because there is a large body of opinion that believes a settlement of the type we are offering--a proposal on autonomy--should be taken, and the war should stop on that basis. If Prabhakaran rejects it, there will be a lot of resentment, and it will be difficult for him to operate. Fascist though he is, there will come a point in time when the people will be pulling him towards a solution.

TIME: Is there still a cause for the righting of Tamil grievances?
Kadirgamar:
Most of the historic grievances [language, job discrimination and education] that made Tamils feel they were being relegated to second-class citizens, have been met. They had no place in this society. The use of the Tamil language is not yet fully implemented, but that is largely because of administrative problems. And I would say there is no discrimination whatsoever towards the Tamils in the public sector or the private sector. The proof of that is that a very large number of Tamils live in the south, here in Colombo and elsewhere, and prosper. There is a large number of very successful businessmen. There are many senior public servants, and if the Tamils had not left the country in such large numbers, they would be right up there at the top.

TIME: Do Tamils think of themselves as Tamils first or as Sri Lankans first?
Kadirgamar:
It depends on their background and experience. Those who have had a bad deal think of themselves first and foremost as Tamils. But there are many who have had normal lives who consider themselves Sri Lankans.

TIME: If many Tamils reject the Tigers' concept of Eelam, or a separate Tamil state, as you suggest, why do they not speak out?
Kadirgamar:
They are too scared to.

TIME: As a Tamil, do you feel threatened by Prabhakaran and the Tigers? You must be an obvious target?
Kadirgamar:
I am certainly very high on their list. They have written reams of abuse about me. It is not very pleasant but I have got used to it. I have also got used to the fact that if I want to be doing what I am doing, I have to put up with everything that comes with it. Ultimately I suppose it's the luck of the draw.

TIME: If the Tigers take Jaffna town and Jaffna peninsula, does the government fear a backlash against Tamils in the south from the Sinhalese?
Kadirgamar:
No, but this issue has been raised. The only time there was a backlash--and it was a terrible backlash--was in 1983. It happened entirely because it had the support of the government of the day. Now, if the government of the day doesn't offer any such support, then it won't happen spontaneously. This government simply will not under any circumstances tolerate or condone anything like that.

TIME: Has the emergency military equipment the government ordered from abroad to meet the Tigers' threat begun arriving yet?
Kadirgamar:
Yes, but I cannot give you details for military reasons.

TIME: Will it have an impact?
Kadirgamar:
Yes, I think it will.

TIME: Might it not be too late, and Jaffna may end up captured?
Kadirgamar:
In a battle anything can happen. That doesn't mean the army is going to give it up.

TIME: Is the army confident of holding on to Jaffna?
Kadirgamar:
There are signs that they are stiffening their resistance. So this might be the beginning of a new situation.

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