Page last updated at 23:18 GMT, Friday, 17 July 2009 00:18 UK

Tamils look for leadership after Tigers

By Swaminathan Natarajan
BBC Tamil

Tamil Tiger supporters in London
Who will Tamil Tiger supporters look to now for leadership

The military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May has thrown the leadership of Tamil politics wide open.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) never took part in elections but at its peak it had a standing army, a navy, a rudimentary air force and was able to control 15,000 sq km of land.

The LTTE proclaimed itself to be the sole representative of the Tamils and killed many leaders and intellectuals who differed from this view.

The last popular democratic leader of Tamils, Appapillai Amirthalingam, who led the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) was assassinated 20 years ago by the LTTE.

To avoid the the Tigers' bullets some politicians toed the LTTE line, others aligned themselves with the government to get protection, while others simply left the country.

So there is uncertainty over who will be the able to fill the vacuum created by the exit of the LTTE which dominated ethnic politics for more than two decades.

Whoever does emerge into a position of leadership will face many challenges.

Pressure power

Finding an acceptable solution to the ethnic problem is the main issue for Tamil parties.

But speeding up the resettlement process of close 300,000 people now living in the camps is the immediate challenge.

The LTTE's aim was for an independent Tamil homeland.

During the Oslo round of talks in 2003 , it said it was ready to explore the chances for a federal solution but this assurance was short-lived and the peace process stalled.

The leader of the Tigers, Prabhakaran was was killed in May this year

But now that the LTTE have been wiped-out, Tamil political parties are pressing for greater devolution, but they fear a triumphant Sri Lankan Government may not yield much.

Moreover, the Tamil parties themselves are divided about what exactly they want from a political deal.

"Due to effective military actions, LTTE was able to force the government to start talks. But today there is no leadership that can exert such a pressure," says K Sarveshwaran, a professor at Colombo University.

Federal Sri Lanka?

The pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA), an umbrella group of Tamil parties, secured 22 out of 23 seats in the Tamil majority areas of the north and east during the last parliamentary elections.

It is trying to assume a leadership role by proposing a solution.

"Our proposals will be based on the Canadian and Swiss model of power sharing in a federal set up. We will try to build a consensus among the Tamil parties barring the ones which support the ruling party," says R Sampanthan, the leader of the TNA.

But the senior Tamil politician and leader of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) V. Anandasangaree, has already rejected the TNA's call for unity.

"During the final months of the war, the whole world was urging the LTTE to release the civilians they kept as hostage. The TNA was the only organisation which did not ask the LTTE to free civilians. How can I forget that and ally with them now?" he asks.

R Sampanthan, the Leader of the TNA
When LTTE was controlling a large chunk of territory and negotiating with the government we supported them. But now the situation is different
R Sampanthan, Leader of the TNA

He believes the Indian model of power sharing between the central and state governments will solve the problems in Sri Lanka.

But the Sinhala hardliners in the government are not keen to dilute the unitary structure of the Sri Lankan state.

The All Party Representative Committee set up by the President is also expected to come out with its final report soon, but there is scepticism that it can pull off the feat of satisfying Tamils while not ruffling feathers in the Sinhala South.

End to violence

Former militant leaders like Douglas Devananda and Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan ("Colonel Karuna") have joined the government. Col Karuna has even joined the ruling party.

However, there is also some interest in whether the remnants of the Tamil Tigers, including its remaining leadership abroad, will have any influence on events in Sri Lanka

The head of LTTE's international affairs Selvarasa Pathmanathan, told the BBC's Tamil Service, that the LTTE would pursue the goal of independence but would not use violence.

He even announced his intention to form a transnational government.

But many Tamils in Sri Lanka are not excited. Even the pro-LTTE TNA is asserting itself.

"When the LTTE was controlling a large chunk of territory and negotiating with the government we supported them. But now the situation is different," Mr. Sampanthan the TNA leader says.

But signs of dissent have emerged among TNA parliamentarians.

Map of Sri Lanka

Some MPs have started praising the government and a few others have toned down their criticism.

But Professor Sarveshwaran says that the TNA can provide leadership to the Tamils at this critical juncture.

"The TNA won the confidence of majority of Tamils in the last elections. It can spearhead the Tamil demand to achieve an honourable settlement," he says.

The TNA is engaging the Indian government in an effort to bring pressure upon the Sri Lankan government.

But some are critical of this approach.

"Ordinary Tamils are angry with India. Without the help of India, the Sri Lankan Army would have never won the war," says one MP.

But Professor Sarveshawaran says "We must remember that even those countries which have supported Sri Lankan military efforts against the LTTE never questioned the validity of the Tamil cause."

"The Tamil problem predates the Tamil Tigers. A solution needs to be found for their aspirations. There is a leadership vacuum now but this is only temporary."

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