Sri Lankan Tamil Politics, Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing And Sumanthiran – OpEd


Last week, I wrote an article titled Tamil Politics, Sumanthiran and Vigneswaran suggesting that there has been a tussle between Sumanthiran and Vigneswaran, which has the potential to transform into an open conflict within the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The article was published here and was reproduced in a few other news-blogs. The article generated angry reaction from some Sumanthiran loyalists. I am not in the habit of responding to faceless online critics. However, this time around, responses were organized and emotional. It cannot be random readers. Therefore, I decided to clarify a few things and ask a few more questions.

Let’s look at the accusations first. One critic said some of my comments about Sumanthiran’s genocide speeches were “fabricated and not true.” One said, I twisted Sumanthiran’s comments. Another claimed, “for me, all the points the author has raised are showing only one point. He wants to support CV (Vigneswaran) and throw mud on Sumanthiran.” One argued that I have been listening to Tamil diaspora “propaganda” too much these days. Now, some Sumanthiran loyalists view Tamil diaspora as adversaries, which is interesting. Tamil political leaders are not accustomed to scrutiny and criticism as most of them believe in undisputed leadership and sole representation. Therefore, even a moderate analysis could not be tolerated. I understand the frustration.

Nevertheless, these views were expressed in response to two issues I raised: his recent statements on genocide resolution and the expulsion of the Muslim people from the North.


In my article, I wrote that some Tamils were upset with Sumanthiran because he “went to Switzerland and claimed that what happened during the last phase of the war, according to internationally accepted definitions, was not genocide.” Did I misrepresent Sumanthiran’s statement made in Switzerland?

I went back and listen to the tape again. This is what he said: “what is genocide? Genocide is an international crime that must be proved in a judicial form, not in a representative one… (passing the resolution) does not mean the crime of genocide is proved. The crime of genocide has certain ingredients that must be proved in an established court…even the High Commissioner of Human Rights very specifically said…it has not satisfied the act of genocide…crime of genocide is a legal issue. Not what you feel like….Unless you prove ingredients of those offences very specifically, it is not genocide.” 1

Interestingly, in the same speech in Switzerland and in other meetings with Tamil diaspora groups in other Western countries, Sumanthiran claimed that it was he who said what happened was genocide, “even before the Northern Provincial Council was formed.” Sumanthiran claimed that he said this even in parliament. Now, my question is why he called it a genocide when it did not have the “ingredients” of genocide. Was it not ingenious?

Also, if Sumanthiran had been calling the violence “genocide” even when it, according to his own assessment, did not have the “ingredients” of genocide, he should have used some other yardstick to reach this conclusion. I would like to know, according to what standard he called it genocide in parliament and other places.

One of the key points Sumanthiran keeps hammering among the Tamil diaspora is that time is not right to pursue the genocide claim because the “ingredients” of it cannot be proved. He also maintains that perhaps they will be able to do so in the future. It is not clear what would change in the future that would help prove the “ingredients” or intent of genocide. He also argues that the reason he opposed the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) genocide resolution was that he did not want the claim rejected by an international court or the UNHRC.

International Trial

These notions suggest that an actual genocide trial is a feasible idea. This is where I have some serious problems. A genocide investigation could take place in three venues: (1) national courts, (2) the International Criminal Court (ICC), and (3) an International Criminal Tribunal (ICT). In Sri Lanka, we know that a domestic trial on charges of “genocide” is not possible. Sri Lanka does not accept the genocide theory and will not do so in the future. Sri Lanka is not a signatory to Rome Statute. Therefore, without the UN Security Council intervention Sri Lankan nationals could not be tried in ICC. Special international criminal tribunals are set up by the Security Council. In the past, ICTs were established for, for example, Rwanda and Former Yugoslavia.

Therefore, it is clear that an “international” judicial trial against Sri Lanka requires the involvement of the UN Security Council. None of the permanent members of the Security Council would even entertain the idea of taking Sri Lanka to an international court on this issue or establishing an ICT for Sri Lanka. Even if the West proposes this idea, China and Russia will most certainly use their veto against such a proposal. Therefore, this issue would not go to an international court. It however, helps divert the attention from real issues and to hide the lackluster performance of the last six years. Therefore, the question is, whether they really believe that they would, one day, argue this case in an international court or wittingly mislead the people.

Ethnic Cleansing

The critics argued that an NPC resolution condemning the Muslim expulsion is the right thing to do. Agreed. Sumanthinran is not the first one who said the expulsion was wrong. In fact, several Tamils have already apologized. My point was bout the rationale of linking the violence of the last phase of the war with the expulsion. Sumanthiran argued that if the NPC cannot pass a resolution condemning the expulsion, the world would not take Tamil claim of genocide seriously. This was reported even in Indian media. The New Indian Express reported that “just as it (NPC) passed a resolution condemning the genocide conducted against the Tamils, the NPC should pass a resolution condemning the en masse expulsion of Muslims by the LTTE which amounts to ethnic cleansing. If the NPC does not do it, the world will not take the Tamils’ contention that they had been subjected to genocide, seriously…”2

My question was, how the “world” would change its opinion about Tamil claims of genocide as soon as a resolution is passed in the NPC condemning the Muslim expulsion. Nobody is explaining and I am still curious. If anybody believes Sumanthiran’s assertion, they clearly do not understand, international realities connected to the ethnic conflict. My argument was that Sumanthiran was using this issue to take a jab at Vigneswaran.

What Sumanthiran suggests is a politically motivated condemnation. I am not sure if a politically motivated condemnation would address Tamil issues with the Muslim community. If sincere, the condemnation should be unconditional and an independent act of repentance.

A connected question is this. Is it only the NPC’s responsibility to condemn the expulsion of the Muslim people from the North? Why doesn’t the TNA do it? TNA is the political entity that represents the Tamil people. NPC is a regional body, but TNA is a party that functions at a higher level. Why should the TNA not pass a resolution apologizing for the expulsion? I believe, if sincere, Sumanthiran would get his party to pass a resolution condemning and apologizing for the Muslim expulsion. This would be a much profound gesture, which may help mend fences with the Muslim people and promote larger goals of reconciliation.

1. Available at

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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