Exclusive Interview with Karen Parker, JD

“If the International Community does not see conflicts amongst Tamil groups, they are more likely to listen” - Karen Parker, J.D.

Karen Parker, J.D., is an International Human Rights Lawyer and a member of the Advisory Committee in the TGTE. Charles Devasagayam interviewed her in Toronto on Dec 18, 2011. She explained about the TGTE’s progress and elaborated the difficult situation the Tamils are facing under the Sri Lankan and geopolitical context. She says that the Tamils are under the same type of oppression that led to the armed conflict in the first place and shed light on how the three major powers, China, Russia and India are shaping up the future of Sri Lanka. She also spoke about the failure of the International community in 2009 and how it has been a hot topic at the U.N. at present and the expected role of the Diaspora Tamils in the present contest.

Q: Can you briefly tell us about the ‘Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam’ (TGTE) meeting in Buffalo, USA, held from December 14 to 17, 2011 and where it is heading from here?

A: Well, I attended the session as a member of the advisory committee and actually for most of the time I was at the advisory committee meeting. So, I am more familiar with what happened at the advisory committee level than plenary.

Although all of the members at the advisory committee made presentations to the plenary, what happened at the plenary was that the ministers presented their accomplishments, plans and goals. And there seemed to be heavy emphasis in the plenary for actions to undertake at the United Nations, because of the issues of LLRC report and we were at the planning stages of getting together teams to address this issue at the March session and beyond at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The plenary also welcomed some new members who had been appointed or elected in the jurisdictions that had not been covered yet, including several from South Africa, India and some other places.

That was encouraging for me to see the spread of the TGTE in more countries and more seats being filled. Of course not every one could come to this session. So there were two Skype satellite groups who participated through screens and radios. One group was from London and the other from Paris. So, it was very good as well. I was personally impressed with how the TGTE is moving now. It has gained the kind of momentum it needed.

Of course it is a new organization, with a new mission, if you will. It has never been done before with other groups Internationally and it appears to be working well. That’s not to say there are no problems and issues. But, it is working well. The members of the assembly are getting more and more aware of the problem areas and working on formulas to fix them.

All organizations have little glitches, we say at this stage and the group as a whole is now getting much sophisticated in seeing those and finding remedies. It’s a constitutional body. So, that’s also extremely interesting and very important for the Tamil people to have an elected body.

Q: At the TGTE dinner held in Toronto you said “it is a very exceptionally difficult period right now.” Can you elaborate on this situation and how TGTE can overcome this or carry forward it’s mandate in this situation?

A: Right now, part of the problems that makes it difficult is: number one, The ground reality in Sri Lanka is very serious. The Tamils are under the same type of oppression that led to the armed conflict in the first place. The government has essentially offered nothing as far as reconciliation. And only the most modest recognition that in fact, there have been problems.

The government is not recognizing the severity of what occurred in the last several months of the war. The government is actually behind the verbal war with Ban-ki- Moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights. Very fiercely attacking any one who demonstrates any sympathy for the TGTE, for the Tamil people as a whole and for any persons seeking a real investigation of what occurred and then, some out comes would be kinds of tribunals or recommendations for the tribunals. So, in that sense its very, very difficult.

And in the second sense, it is difficult because this is a road that has not been trod before. So, every move forward is a new step into the unknown. In a way it is actually producing a path. It requires lot of efforts to inch ahead.

You ought to have road graders, you ought to have people paving the road. But, there is an end. So, treading this road every day helps. But, its not easy. Its not easy to try to get the majority of the world’s Tamils on the same page, looking at a goal and working together.

My personal view is that the Tamil people, whether they are in Sri Lanka, in Tamil Eelam or in Diaspora to have their own sense. It’s a common sense of what the Tamils should have as a people in the Island of Ceylon. And there are different ways of getting there.

So, TGTE being unique has to make an effort to carve a new road to bring the Tamil people into an understanding of what it is like to have a representative parliamentary, democratic organization.

People are used to non governmental organizations in the narrow sense of the term. Lobby groups, cultural groups, educational groups. This is a new concept and so in that perspective, it is difficult. It is difficult to educate a people in this new direction. Because, as I said, there is no model.

Third, the world politics are such, that it has enabled this Genocide to occur with hardly a word of criticism when it was on going. The states who put the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the terrorist list could be viewed as complicit in Genocide. Because as the war was going on, it was very clear of what was happening. Clearly, it was the mislabelling of an armed conflict which actually resulted in massive civilian casualties. It was also a failure to follow the proper application of Humanitarian Law or the Law of Armed Conflict, the Geneva Convention etc.

So, when people tried to raise the gravity of crime, which includes Genocide, mass atrocities, severe racism, torture and other related crimes, the International community that backed the Government of Sri Lanka during that period feels there may be a complicity charge against them.

So, getting the kind of agreement we need to go forward with investigation, gets tactically difficult. Because, if you look at the time period that needs investigation, it should be from 1983 to 2009 and beyond. Because until there is a proper resolution of a conflict, the conflict is still in a way on going. The governments who were providing arms, knowing what they were being used for, are hesitant about the time frame for an investigation.

In my view, Humanitarian Law obligations and other International Law principles require that the entire conflict be reviewed. There were war crimes being committed ten years ago, just not in early part of 2009.

If however, the International Community only allows a narrow time frame, that in a sense insults the victims of earlier periods. Its kind of saying they are insignificant, they don’t matter. And that would lead to Psychological and emotional problems which the people then need to over come.

If people are looking for or they just want a sort of vengeance for the atrocities of a certain period of time, certainly for me, its emotionally very difficult. If that may be all what we can get to, we have to over come our own disappointments and in a sense run with what we have.

I also think that the road ahead for the Tamils on the Island and the road ahead in the Diaspora is difficult, because the Sri Lankan Government has not changed. So, the Tamils on the Island are still in a very, very difficult position and trying to aid them or trying to get the International Community to provide the appropriate aid is a very difficult road as well.

So, every where you turn there are difficulties. That does not mean that we are not moving forward every day. Some times the step forward for one particular day looks quite small and it is not until, may be in two months, you see considerable progress.

If any one had been at the U.N. as long as I have been, one would remember how we tried to raise and we did raise the situations in Sri Lanka all along. But, not many governments did. And suddenly, since March 2011, the situation of the Tamils, the end of the conflict and what to do about it have become a hot topic.

So, now the Tamil issue is a hot topic, as to what to do with the Secretary General’s report and whether the U.N. system should go forward on its own investigation according to what the Panel of Experts recommended. Then there is difficulty of Ban-ki Moon being compromised.

Now, Ban-ki Moon has sent the report to the High Commissioner and to the President of the Human Rights Council, which appears to be an indication that he thinks that follow up actions ought to be theirs, rather than on his watch, as the U.N. Secretary General.

In any case, having the issue as a hot topic is an enormous step forward. And I am certain that the Tamil Diaspora or the Tamils in the Island of Ceylon are aware of the fact that this issue is such a hot topic and the Government of Sri Lanka is going all out to muffle, even the discussions. There are other hot topics for sure, but, Sri Lanka is one of them. And this, for me is an enormous victory, both personally and legally and a big victory for the Tamil people for getting the recognition they needed.

However, that places a huge burden on the Tamil Diaspora. The Tamils in Canada, for instance, need to know what to do about that, interacting with their own Governments, interacting with

their own Members of Parliament, trying to get formulas in Canada that will have the Canadian government moving forward on the proper agenda. It requires that all the different (Tamil) groups, although they may have some differences, understand that they have a common interest in working together, to achieve meaningful results.

I some times have told groups, ‘first of all you must get freedom and then you can decide what you are going to do.’ But, until you get your freedom, you should avoid five different groups presenting different or contradictory agendas at the U.N., which would lead you nowhere. The governments too may find excuse for not doing anything by pointing out the apparent disunity of groups with opposite views and suggestions.

So, this is another serious challenge Tamil groups may have to over come. For, the International Community does not care if you are Global Tamil Forum, British Tamil Forum or Canadian Tamil Congress. They want to see Tamils united, all with the same message. So, until they see that, there will be no meaningful or forward movement.

Q: Last time when Tamil Mirror interviewed, you said that ‘Tamil people are much closer to achieve their goal than Karen people ( in Burma) or Tibetans(in China).’ What went wrong?

A: Well, its not wrong forever. Definitely, it has been a huge set back. What went wrong was that the Conservative governments, particularly EU, US, Canada etc., placing the LTTE on the ‘Terrorist’ list made it very difficult. Even Obama administration was relatively new. It only came to power in 2008. The Obama administration did back off from the ‘terrorism’ language and began to have discussions on stopping the conflict. The United States through its under the table channels as well as its overt Channels, ceased to encourage or provide military assistance to Sri Lanka and it went shopping elsewhere.

That said, I think the Tamils had a better chance of at least an operable autonomy than the Tibetans do. The Tibetans have a slim chance, because China is simply all powerful and China is much less subject to international pressure. In fact, there cannot be International pressure on China at this point, particularly when it has the veto power at the U.N. General Assembly.

Sri Lanka is a small state with a clearly defined situation. The Tamil people, while a minority, have a clearly defined land and its more of a percentage per say than the Tibetan people. Mean time, you have a huge China and a little Tibet. In the island of Ceylon, you have a small country, with much less awkward land distribution situation.

So, its more likely that in the end run the Sri Lankan government would accept some realistic autonomy and could be restrained. They are much more subject to catastrophe of boycotts and freezes on humanitarian aid and investments. If they are put on a bad boy or bad girl list by a number of governments with sanctions, that would weigh far more heavily on Sri Lankan government than sanctions on China viz a viz Tibet. So, in that sense there are remedies that could assist the Tamils that are not available to the Tibetan people.

Q: China is strengthening its feet more and more in the Sri Lankan affairs, heavily investing billions of dollars. Even recently the Chinese military General visited Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka was praising all their military assistance. So, isn’t it in China’s interest to keep the Sri Lankan issue away from the U.N., so that their investments are protected?

A: In my opinion, China thinks superficially so. But, they may realize that it is in their best

interest to resolve the internal situation to enable them to get what they want out of their investments without hassles, problems, set backs and sanctions, that can befall on Sri Lanka.

China wants to be a world player. If they are playing the world player role in a small country like Sri Lanka, in a way that subsumes the people of the country. It may be that the Sinhala people will realize that the Chinese are ruling their investments, control their economy and in a sense that China is a war lord to the Island. China and Russia are now perhaps competing over building the naval base in Trincomalee harbour. The U.S. wanted the Trincomalee harbour but, the U.S. is now pushed out. China and Russia are in a sense having a diplomatic battle over who is going to develop Trincomalee and possibly even an expanded air field in Palaly, which was also an interest to the U.S.

So, Sri Lanka has become enmeshed in the Geopolitics that are far greater than what it was before and the Sinhala people may rebel against it as well. I mean, they may realize that they are selling their interests to China and Russia or that they are allowing Russia and China to have a semi warfare for control of their island and this could back fire on the Sinhalese as well.

Q: According to a recently visited Tamil person, ‘Tamils in Sri Lanka want to move along and they are not really in to the Tamil Eelam concept.’ So, Rajapaksa Regime could view this as a victory on the Tamil side. The same way by defeating the Tamil Tigers, Rajapaksa has portrayed himself as ‘ Duttu Gemunu,’ a Sinhalese king who defeated and killed a Tamil king ‘Ellalan.’ He is being portrayed as a hero by the southern Sinhalese. Mean time, according to news reports, the Media has been suppressed and the country is being militarized. Under these circumstances, how are the Southern Sinhalese people going to rebel, as you said?

A: I think, the reality is that many Tamils in Sri Lanka are likely to be; number one: Afraid; number two: So flattened that they just try to survive and build on something and that’s a fair position and I understand that position.

As it becomes more difficult for the Tamil people, due to militarization of the areas, the fact that they cannot resume their original subsistence by farming and the fact that they are no longer in control of their water supplies and their resources being diverted to the South, they are not going to remain in Tamil Eelam.

When the fisher folks are denied their livelihood; the growth and prospects of Tamil students are hampered, I think its going to fester more and more and it could become the same kind of a tinder box, perhaps with less organized resistance because of intimidation and fear. What took place especially during the final days of the war, seriously and deeply imprinted to the Psyche of the Tamil people.

And my guess is that they are still in shock. In fact I am still in shock and I am not a Tamil from Tamil Eelam. That could have happened. So, what they will do would be to try to prevent that from happening again, because, having that happen another time, cannot be borne by the people in Sri Lanka.

So, the role of the Diaspora in a sense to rally themselves and then rally the kind of International support that is needed to benefit the Tamil people on the Island, will be very important and can perhaps undermine the negative effects of having Russia and China playing into the politics.

I think the ‘Rajapaksa Triumphalism’ as the Panel of Experts Report called it, the Triumphalism will fade because even the Sinhalese are not going to see the value added. They are going to see the approbation of the rest of the world. The LLRC does not have a road map for moving forward to anything positive, actually even to the Sinhalese.

And my view is that the government is likely to target the factions and military people in the army who are from the Fonseka’s faction and generate a kind of inter Sinhala problem. In other words they are going to look like they are having an inquiry and even possibly having trials based on what occurred in the final months. They may pass it on to soldiers in lower positions and particularly those in the opposition political faction which would be very divisive.

I think the future of Sri Lankans in the next couple of years are going to be extremely complicated and very complex and the Tamil Diaspora needs to be very sophisticated to that and be really willing to look at how they can truly affirmatively effect things.

I think, having a representative organization such as TGTE is extremely helpful. Because, it gets people who are used to democracy. It gets people who are used to having representations which are lacking in Sri Lanka to a certain degree.

TNA is not able to function freely and their political survival is very difficult. As such, it becomes necessary to make kind of compromises that representatives of the TGTE don’t need. I think it’s a very, very valuable lesson.

That said, the Diaspora needs to keep up with the very complicated and complex political, economic, social and cultural events taking place in the Island and in the International community.

Q: So, under these circumstances where does India fit in? Because, it is supposed to be the ‘Regional Power.’ It has been said that after the war, India will facilitate the implementation of the 13th amendment as an interim measure to the Tamil National problem. However, some say that India could not even stop the killing of over 450 Indian (Tamil Nadu) fishermen by the Sri Lanka’s security forces in their own land. Now, riots are going on in two Southern Indian Sates, namely Tamil Nadu and Kerala and Tamils are being chased away. India could not resolve these issues on it’s own land and how could one expect it to be a major player and give some kind of a solution to the Tamil’s issue in Sri Lanka, some people question?

A: In addition to the competition between Russia and China for Economic hegemony in Sri Lanka, India is seeking its own ends as well. That’s part of the element of complexity. Indian politics sound very complex and the politics between Tamil Nadu and New Delhi are complex. The players are pressing for India’s so called promise of aid to the Tamil people which is now reduced, in a sense, to building houses.

Q: India promised 50,000 houses for the war affected people but, only a handful of houses are being built so far?

A: Its true and laughable but, it is also serious. Sri Lanka is a small island with 3 big, huge powers fighting over it and how any of that can benefit Tamils, even the Sinhala people for that matter belies my understanding. I think Tamil Nadu politics may change. It remains to be seen.

India itself has problem areas. It has Kashmir and it has difficulties in certain states. And I think

its always dicey. The relationship between Tamil Nadu and New Delhi is always kind of an unusual Tango and I think the Tamil Nadu politics is influx right now and its uncertain who’s faction or who’s group is going to rise up. Only time will tell.

As I said, next two or three or five years are going to be very complex and complicated. It makes the role of the Tamil Diaspora very difficult. But, if the Tamil Diaspora has the common goal and understanding then the rest of the world can sort of line up to combat the agenda’s of India, Russia and China in the Island.

Q: Finally, what would you like to say to the Tamil Canadians?

A: First of all, I would like to say to the Tamil Canadians that they have, as a whole, as a group and as a specific group, done a very, very important work. They have raised the issues, they have done considerable public awareness activities of what was going on during March to May 2009.

Interacting with the members of Parliament, becoming more sophisticated in dealing with the media and politicians, in dealing with the local and national politics, they have made great strides. I would say to them however, that as far as the International posture goes, that they should look like that they are on the same track, that the TGTE, CTC (Canadian Tamil Congress) and all other actors have the same goal.

It may not have hundred percent of the goal of each group but, unanimity on major issues would be a major accomplishment and from the ground it would help things evolve in Tamil Eelam. Because, as I said before, the International community looks for conflicts within groups and if the International community does not see conflicts amongst the groups, they are more likely to listen very intently to the message.

As such, I encourage Tamil Canadians to continue their efforts to seek ways to work together and to keep divisions and divisiveness out of the public view.

Q: Thank you for your time? A: You are welcome.

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