Kohona says it’s best for MIA to stay with music
In an exclusive conversation, via satellite from Colombo, Sri Lanka, Foreign Secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona responds to comments about the Sri Lankan government made by Oscar- and Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist M.I.A. during her recent appearance on the Tavis Smiley show.
[Aired on PBS stations on Feb 18, 2009]
Before talking to Sri Lanka's, Foreign Secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona, Tavis Smiley talked with Ravi Nessman:
Ravi Nessman has been covering events there for the Associated Press. He is the Colombo bureau chief for the AP
Tavis: Let me start by asking, for those here who do not understand what this civil war is all about, what's going on with regard to the back story of this civil war, take a minute or two just to explain to me what this civil war's all about.
Nessman: Sure. There's been ethnic tension in this country for a very long time - since independence, in fact, between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, who make up less than 20 percent of the population. After independence, there were quite a few laws passed by the Sinhalese majority that the Tamil minority felt marginalized - their culture, their language, their religion.
Basically, it created a situation where, by the 1970s, a lot of independence movements rose up. And right now what we're seeing is the culmination of a 25-year civil war between a militant faction that rose up in this foment of independence in the '70s called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the Tamil Tigers, and the government.
And what the Tamil Tigers have been fighting for is an independent Tamil state in the north and the east of this island.
Tavis: So what's the state of the civil war as we speak? You referred to the culmination of this ongoing war that we are witnessing now, but what's the status of the civil war as we speak?
Nessman: As soon as a couple months ago they used to control quite a large area of the north. They had a basically conventional army with artillery guns, with soldiers, with a small air force and navy. In the past couple of months, though, the government forces have overrun nearly all of that territory, so right now what's left of the Tamil Tigers are sort of boxed into a very, very small area on the northeast coast. It's about 100 square kilometers. Along with them, there are tens of thousands of civilians also trapped in that area.
Tavis: So does that mean that the civil war is about to come to an end?
Nessman: It looks like the conventional phase of this war is pretty close to over. It's hard, though, to write off the Tamil Tigers. This is a group that began as a guerilla group. They've carried out suicide bombings, hundreds of suicide attacks they've been blamed for across the country. They assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
So even if they lose their artillery pieces, they lose their conventional component, they still will be pretty likely able to carry out suicide bombings and other guerilla attacks for at least months, maybe years, to come.
Tavis: And what's the government's response going to be once they, beyond having them boxed in, have succeeded to the point where the civil war is over? What will the government do then?
Nessman: They want a political resolution to the ethnic tension in the country, meaning - traditionally what that's meant is that they devolve some of power down to the provinces, which would let Tamil majority provinces have some form of self-rule within the framework of Sri Lanka.
How that compromise comes about, whether it's enough to satisfy the Tamil people, remains to be seen. You have to remember that these people were angry enough 25 years ago to begin a civil war, and they haven't gotten less angry over the past 25 years.
Tavis: They haven't, Ravi, got any less angry, but to the earlier point you made, they're, in terms of the war, at least, boxed in, to your earlier point, in such a way where it appears, at least, that they can't win this militarily. So if they can't win it militarily, why not accept some sort of power-sharing arrangement?
Nessman: One thing that a lot of people don't recognize is that the Tamil Tigers themselves are not the only representatives of the Tamil community. There are political voices that are not this militant group, and it remains to be seen whether the government, being victorious on the battlefield, will be able to be magnanimous and to give what the Tamil community would see as a legitimate compromise, or will say, well, we've just crushed you on the battlefield; we'll give you the absolute bare minimum, and the Tamil community will find that objectionable.
Or perhaps they'll accept it and, another generation down the road, another conflict like this could flare up.
Tavis: The government there has been accused of targeting civilians. The U.N., in fact, has had something to say about the strategy of the government in Sri Lanka. What's your sense as a journalist of how that part of the story is being covered with regard to these accusations against the government?
Nessman: This is a very difficult story to cover as a journalist. The war zone is a black hole, Tavis. We're barred from going in, most aid workers are barred from going in. So all of these accusations that fly back and forth, a lot of it is based on scattered reports that we're getting - the very few reports we're able to get.
And from what we're able to get from doctors up there who are the very few people with telephones that still work, from some of the witnesses who've fled, some civilians who've left, is that the government appears to be shelling in this very small area with tens of thousands of civilians, and that seems to be causing a lot of civilian casualties.
On the other hand, the Tamil Tigers have been accused by some of the civilians who've fled of shooting at the fleeing civilians. The government says that they're being used as human shields to prevent the government offensive from taking that last bit of land. Both sides deny all the accusations against them, but what seems clear from the reports is that civilians are being killed, and they're being killed by both sides.
Tavis: So given, again, that the Tamil people, at least those who are fighting, are boxed in now to this area in the northeast part of the country, do you have any sense of how much longer it will be before at least the official, if I can use that word, the civil war that's underway, how long before this part of this story is over?
Nessman: We can't get up there, and the information is so scattered that we're getting. We hear reports of battles that are rumored that may or may not even be happening, massive casualties on one side, massive casualties on the other. I can't tell you if the Tamil Tigers even retain a conventional fighting component right now or still maintain a massive army up there. We have absolutely no idea.
The president himself said on February 4th we were just days away, the government was just days away from victory over the Tamil Tigers. But this is more than two weeks later, and there's still fighting going on. So it's very difficult to know what's exactly going on in the north, how long it's going to go on for, what kind of fighting is actually happening, what the capabilities are of both sides.
Tavis: Ravi Nessman is the bureau chief for the Associated Press in Sri Lanka. He's in Colombo, has been there since 2007. Ravi, nice to have you on. Thanks for sharing your insights of a very difficult and tricky story to get your arms around, but thank you for your time, I appreciate it.
Nessman: No problem, Tavis, thank you.