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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
On the Tightrope Acts of Neelan Tiruchelvam: Eight Critiques
2 August 2007
[see also The Deals of Dr.Neelan - Revisiting the Views of G.G.(Kumar) Ponnambalam Jr - Sachi Sri Kantha, 19 July 2007 and Tamil Eelam & Neelan Thiruchelvam - Nadesan Satyendra, 7 August 1999]
Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha
As one would have expected, the Sinhala-owned Colombo news media paid their 8th anniversary tributes to Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam. Among the items I casually glanced, Daily Mirror (July 28th) carried a feature authored by Prof. Bertram Bastiampillai, with the caption ‘A Salute to a Great Man: Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam’, and a companion piece by Rev. Sydney Knight, entitled ‘Lest We Forget’. Its sister publication, the Sunday Times (July 29th) republished a 1999 obituary (titled, ‘Neelan: Why did LTTE kill him?’) written by the Indian pundit Praful Bidwai.
If Colombo’s media moguls think that this kind of soppy sophistry on Neelan’s tightrope acts would make him a paragon of virtue among Tamils, they are sadly mistaken. However enchanting to non-Tamil minds, Neelan Tiruchelvam’s grandiose political exploits during his adventures as a member of the ‘kitchen Cabinet’ of Madam Chandrika Kumaratunga, can be summed up by a derisive Tamil idiom, ‘Malaiyai kelli eliyai pidiththa kathai’ (i.e., the story of blasting the mountain to grab a rat). After all the huffing and puffing noise of blasting the mountain of Sinhala political hegemony, in Neelan’s case, what turned out to be not a rat - but a gnat!. Neelan Tiruchelvam’s so-called ‘new Constitution-authoring’ façade between 1995 and 1999, turned out to be a damp squib. This mal-formed, still-born Constitution parented by G.L. Peiris and Neelan Tiruchelvam, has been aptly characterized by Prof. John Neelsen in 1999, as follows:
But, being a charmer, Neelan Tiruchelvam had prominent journalist contacts in the international circuit. John Stackhouse, of the Globe and Mail (Toronto) was one such influential hack who spilled the beans about Neelan’s back-door contacts with Madam Chandrika. To quote,
John Stackhouse appears to have been ignorant on affairs relating to Sinhala politics in Colombo. Did he know that once Neelan Tiruchelvam’s bones turned into ashes, President Chandrika Kumaratunga dumped those draft papers as a junk. That tells something about Neelan’s much hyped “politically insightful” intellect. Here is an excerpt of a commentary by the ‘political editor’ of a Colombo newspaper, which appeared under the caption, “Package pushed further down” on August 22, 1999.
Assassination or no assassination, that this would be the plight to any of the so-called political pacts and “packages”, co-drafted by Tamil politicians was no secret to Tamils. Blame-shifting is an art perfected by the Sinhalese politicians and polity to Olympian levels. Even as early as mid-1996 (three years before Neelan’s death), respected Tamil commentator Taraki (D.Sivaram) had prophesied the ultimate disintegration of this Neelan Tiruchelvam conjured ‘Devolution Package’. To quote,
Previously, I had presented the critical views of G.G. (Kumar) Ponnamblam Jr. on Neelan Tiruchelvam. Ponnambalam Jr.’s critique of Neelan Tiruchelvam’s politics had pugilistic pungency, in that he had to pummel the lopsided polymath projection of Neelan, as presented by journalist-analyst D.B.S.Jeyaraj. One should also note that apart from Ponnambalam Jr., quite a number of Eelam Tamils had measured Neelan Tiruchelvam’s deeds by the common yardstick of ‘contribution to the Tamil society at large’ and have inferred that the substance Neelan’s reputation was made of was nothing but fake gold, and not real gold. For record, I provide below an anthology of published critiques on Neelan by his seven Eelam Tamil peers and one German academic Prof. John P.Neelsen from the University of Tubingen.
Though these eight critiques differed from those contributed by Neelan’s academic peers from Southern Sri Lanka and some of his naïve international contacts, they definitely are not exhaustive.
Note: In all these contributions, the words and phrases in large case letters, italics and bold fonts, are as in the originals. The dots, wherever they appear, are also as in the originals.
Tiruchelvam: The Assassination & the Fall-Out
Let us first place this on record: No Sri Lankan President, Presidential aspirant or public figure in the island’s post-independence history has earned at his death such plethora of tributes from high places, such profusion of accolades and such volume of media space (both local and international) as did Neelakandan Tiruchelvam – Neelan as he was popularly known.
Strange! Let’s look back at the many political heavy weights whose deaths occurred during the past few years: Vijaya Kumaranatunga (the idol of Sinhala cinema fans and husband of the present President); the all-powerful first Executive President (“I have the power to do anything except change a man into a woman or a woman into a man!”) Junius Richard Jayewardene, a man who straddled the political life of the country for 60 years; President Ranasinghe Premadasa, the ambitious Oxford-returned, one-time war minister Lalith Athulathmudali, India’s favourite and co-architect of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, Gamini Dissanayake. “So are they all, all honourable men”, as Mark Anthony would have said it, all of them politicians of commanding stature, all of them Sinhalese and members of the ruling race, and all of them victims of political assassination, or near-assassination.
And yet, this man who held no office, wielded no ostensible power, not a man of the people by any means, and what is worse, a Tamil by birth in a country where Tamils as a people have long been reduced to second class citizenship, has now emerged in death, (if not in life), as a seemingly more deserving figure than the rest of them for public lionizing. How does one account for this paradox?
Even President Clinton and his good First Lady Hillary thought it fit to come down from superpower perch and brush aside all norms of protocol to say how “saddened and shocked” they were to learn the death of a man whom hardly any American citizen would have heard of, or even of the little country that he came from. UN Chief Kofi Annan, not to be left behind, showed proof that the world was indeed a global village with hardly any distance separating Manhattan from Rosmead Place in Colombo 7.
Condolences and condemnatory messages came from the Foreign Ministers of Canada and Australia. The Times (London), The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, Toronto’s Globe & Mail – (who usually run long obituaries of people whom most readers are not even sure whether such people were alive) – gave more space for this man’s death than to report the death of 60,000 civilian killings in Sri Lanka.
Varying shades of concern and grief were expressed by various international bodies claiming to speak for human rights and human freedoms (outside Tamil areas mostly, that is!). The Colombo Press (practically all Sinhala-owned) went out of the way to give generous space for outpourings from columnists and cousins of the dead man, and from grateful people for favours granted and other assorted feature writers.
Descriptions of the dead man ranged from ‘intellectual giant’ to ‘indefatigable champion of peace’. One man, who said he was a cousin, wrote in a government-owned newspaper – “What Shakespeare has been to literature, what Bacon has been to philosophy, what translators of the authorized version of the Bible have been to religion, Neelan has been to the legal systems and Constitution both in Sri Lanka and around the world”. If someone failed to nominate Neelan’s name for next year’s posthumous award of the Nobel Peace Prize, it was a glaring oversight no doubt.
One writer in his obituary quoted Schopenhauer, another one quoted Swami Vivekananda. One columnist brought back memories of ‘the slayings of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King’, while another quoted the Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata…and so on and so forth.
What impelled all these obituary writers, some of them I’m sure otherwise sensible people to lose their sense of proportion? Is it a sign of the impending end of the world in the new millennium, or have they all lost their marbles? For good measure, may I also quote someone. Western philosopher Spinoza once said: ‘What Peter says about Paul tells us more about Peter than Paul.’
Before anyone accuses this writer of showing insensitiveness over the memory of a dead person, let me say this: I had known Neelan during his younger Marga days, and met him once later in Jaffna when he was nominated MP for Vaddukoddai, and found him to be very affable and an inordinately modest person. His mother, Punitham, a great lady of tremendous charm and vitality, and a lover of Tamil culture and the Tamil arts, was a family friend of this writer.
There is no questioning the many personal virtues ascribed to Neelan as a man, as a scholar, as a jurist and as an academic and constitutional pundit. But all that do not add up to the motivations behind the adulatory postures struck by many of his obituary writers. The reason is not far to seek. Every man who enters public life chooses his own favourable constituency and builds on it, which is a fact of life; and some obituary writers have their own private agendas.
One can assert with certainty that had poor Neelan died of natural causes, half of those obituaries would not have been written and whatever written would not have had the ‘fire’ that characterized those eulogies. To put it in plain language, many of them exploited the assassination at the hands of a suspected Tiger suicide bomber to use the opportunity to indulge in Tiger-bashing. What a pity, even in death, he had played into the hands of those whose only motive was to discredit the LTTE.
Copious references were made to Neelan being a ‘moderate’, a ‘democrat’, and so on, but surely he was not killed for being any of this? The one writer who came closest to finding the right word to describe the victim in the eyes of the assassin – AND INDEED IN THE EYES OF THE WIDER TAMIL COMMUNITY, was Lakshman Gunasekera (Sunday Observer, August 1). That word was COLLABORATOR.
Collaborators, as anyone who knows the history of peoples fighting for justice and freedom know, end up by being executed by their own people, status notwithstanding. In war-time phraseology the word ‘collaborator’ (with the enemy) invokes in people a sense of shame and anger. If what is happening in Sri Lanka is not war, what else is it? The Vichy regime in France collaborated with the German occupation force during World War II, and Admiral Darlan, Commander-in-Chief of the French Navy, was himself assassinated by a fellow Frenchman because of his Nazi sympathies.
Obituary writers from the West, and those who live smug, cocooned lives in Colombo have no need to empathize with the sufferings of fellow human beings who are facing death every day of their lives a mere 200 miles away. In their way of thinking, hundreds of unnamed ‘Neelans’ being bombed to death from the air or disappearing from the face of the earth is only a matter of war statistics, but one Neelan killed in their own cocoon turns out to be ‘brutal slaying’.
In talking about an act of political assassination, knowing the history of the victim assumes immediate relevance. The most illuminating aspect of Neelan’s political life was the fact that irrespective of changing power equations, he always managed to be close to the seats of power.
He was equally close to the late President Jayewardene in 1981 as he was to President Chandrika Bandaranaike in 1999. In 1981, he teamed up with Professor A.J. Wilson to produce a devolution package, and a decade and a half later he got together with Professor G.L. Peiris to produce another package. Professor Wilson was a well-known academic and always remained one; his expertise in constitution making was available to anyone who sought it, but he had no hand in the fashioning of power structures. On the other hand, Neelan was a politician through and through.
It is interesting to learn from Colombo police versions that Neelan knew that he was an assassin’s target, except that his habitual modesty prevented him from thinking that a suicide bomber would be used against him. He had told his security men that his assassin, at worst, would be a gun-man, thereby miscalculating even the manner of his death.
Let me recommend an Arab proverb to every one concerned. It runs thus: ‘GOD SAYS, TAKE WHAT YOU WANT OUT OF LIFE, BUT PAY FOR IT.”
The mistake most people make is to take what they want but when it comes to payment, they squeal. It is time that Neelan’s obituary writers stop squealing. Neelan has paid for it, and that is it.
Black Tigers and the ‘Blue’ Neelan
[Note: The word ‘Blue’ refers to the color with which SLFP is identified by Sri Lankans, inferring that Neelan was functioning as a closet SLFPer, though sporting the TULF label.]
Death, it may be trite to say, is the most awful, irreversible and the ultimate tragedy to befall a human being, especially when the person is healthy and young. All the loving and fighting joking and snarling, singing and crying and otherwise responding and interacting and the field-force of emotional ties flowing out, touching, pulling and pushing others end for ever, never to return leaving the love and affection of all othes towards him or her wither away unrequited henceforth.
For those of us who are ‘chance’ survivors the daily grind of our exigence does not allow time to ponder the contingency and tenuity of our lives for what they are worth. For the young, death is mostly an abstraction and remote unless it is personified in someone very close and dear. Even here the ‘passing away’ of a person is mourned but the brute fact of death takes time to ‘sink in’.
This manner of musing is the familiar Tamilian ‘wisdom of the crematorium’ [Note by Sachi: The tamil word is ‘sudalai gnaanam’], so derided because of its fleeting, superficial and occasional nature. But, then, most of our lives were unremarkable, mundane and temporal with hardly a physically risky venture or a ‘death-defying’ gesture until the Sinhala mob in the South and its uniformed counterpart armed to the teeth invaded our homeland. For many generations the Tamils led timid, fearful and sequacious lives behaving as if they were puppets to be manipulated by others, with little control over their destiny. The Tigers changed all that, for better or for worse.
There is everything about suicide commandos or a warrior that spellbinds ordinary mortals like us. They seize the initiative, grab their fate by its throat and embrace death fearlessly. And when they do this on behalf of lily-livered and timorous Tamils like us, our enormous debt to them looms massive like a mountain. What makes a suicide commando so disdainful of life dig we pitifully cling to, so defiant of death that we even shudder to contemplate? All I can say is that we are in awe, in thrall, and are totally unworthy of their supreme sacrifice.
I am writing this in the waning days of the month of July traditionally dedicated to the commemoration of the Black Tigers. It is NOT about violence – it is indeed fighting against cowardly violence. It is about valor of the highest order and it is about sacrifice of the noblest and the highest kind. If the Tiger warriors are some of the best in the world amongst guerilla fighters, the Black Tigers are the elite of the elite among them.
When a young person, in the prime of his or her life takes the vow to be a Black Tiger, knowingly and willingly, goes through the rigors of training, every moment aware that the mission will end his or her life and goes out on that fateful day to perish for the cause and ends more often than not, with the fragile body that was the temple of the indomitable spirit in smithereens – that is something for people like us to be awestruck about. Our of the six billion people on this earth how many would even contemplate such a sacrificial endeavor?
That the Tamils of Ceylon, some of the most selfish people on earth with a non-existent social conscience, should produce such remarkable a group of people as the Black Tigers is a phenomenon totally unforeseen even twenty years ago. They and their deeds will, I am certain, continue to inspire many a future generation. In a more creative age yet to come, I hope, the legend of the Black Tigers will give rise to works of art, literature, music and drama of the highest evocative quality.
We, as an ethnic group, now have the experience and the exploits; we need the artists and artistes, writers and poets to recount them for ourselves and our posterity. We should take all measures to preserve and protect the memorabilia relating to the Tigers fully aware that the Sinhala mob whether in uniform or mufti will instinctively turn its wrath on our heritage as it did with out irreplaceable treasures in the Jaffna Library and the revered monuments to our warriors.
Having said all this, I must confess here to a deep ambivalence about the whole thing. I mean, I wish there were no occasion to have to immolate 147 of our golden youth in this uncalled for brutal ethnicidal aggression of the Southerners. We wish that the Sinhalese had the political wisdom to concede the Tamil nation its rights. The Tamil person, that includes me, is an extreme pacifist at heart – pacifist to such a degree that his pacifism lost its positive aspects and degenerated into timidity. The Sinhala man, watching them like a predator for weaklings took this as a signal to pounce on them which he did repeatedly. And the Tamils ran and ran and kept running as the Sinhalese, both the mob and the politicians, preyed on them well near their hearts’ content. But this blood sport of the Sinhala gave rise to consequences that they did not care to contemplate in the giddy days of the early Bandaranaike dynasty. As if out of mutated genes playing its role through natural selection, there was born the Tigers and they changed the Sinhala man’s expectations of an easy kill from then on.
With an impeccable credo, relentlessness in the pursuit of it with unshakable faith and determination they have restored some self respect to the Tamils. Along the way to maturation, they have learnt and are continuing to learn from their mistakes too. It is worth restating their central credo as I understand it: As long as a single Sinhala soldier (or anyone else considered inimical) is on the soil of Tamil Eelam, uninvited, every action taken by Tigers anywhere in the territory of the soldier or in Tamil Eelam in order to facilitate the removal of the soldier, directly or indirectly, is to be construed as in defense of Tamil Eelam. They have striven single-mindedly in pursuit of this belief.
Half way through writing this, I learnt about the death of Neelan Tiruchelvam through the actions of a suicide bomber. It is indeed, more correct to say there were two coincidental suicides. Mr.Tiruchelvam is said to have confessed, perhaps with some guilt, that he expected to be killed by a somewhat different method – with bullets, and inexplicably, it appears, he worked towards it, regardless. It was short sighted and tragic and my opening remarks about death is eminently applicable here, too.
He could have channeled his considerable talents in the service of the long suffering Tamils whose representative in the Parliament, he was. Instead, he worked in the service and in collusion with the government, the armed services of which, murdered and disposed of the bodies of hundreds of Tamil civilians, continues to make people ‘disappear’, bombs and shells people in and out of their homes, rapes and loots, makes thousands homeless, and brings death by starvation and disease.
He never criticized Chandrika Kumaratunga nor her government for any of the atrocities even when pointed out by international agencies or NGOs. He even refused to join his own party, TULF, on the rare occasions when it voted against the government. He was playing the ‘nice guy’ to those very people who were murdering the people he was expected to protect.
There is an outpouring of grief in the Southern newspapers in the island about Neelan Thiruchelvam which is unusual considering he is a Tamil. It was as if he was once of them which indeed, in a manner of speaking, he was. He worked tirelessly for the aggrandizement of Kumaratunga and her government, of course, at the expense of the interest of the Tamils. In this deadly ethnic-war game team-spirit, it is undoubtedly of paramount importance among the chosen players especially representing those fighting for their survival.
Mr. Thiruchelvam chose to join the team and as a TAMIL Member of Parliament. He had a position if not in the offensive line up at least in the defense. Not only did he fail to tackle the opponents in his own territory, he sneakily nudged in a few goals against his own side, expectedly, to the applause of the opposing side. Naturally, he was loved by the other side. The captain or the manager of the team would not or could not remove him, so probably an enraged fan of the team took him out, for the ‘game’ ultimately, may not be lost.
It is well to impress upon the reader this metaphorical scenario because it throws into relief the possible motives and urges not of just the Tigers but of the hundreds of thousands of Tamils who continue to suffer because of Thiruchelvam’s ‘errors’ of omissions and commissions. (Too facilely, every suicide attack is attributed to the Tigers. Premadasa and Athulathmudali were not killed by Tigers just because some hapless Tamils’ heads were produced by the police. As we now know it was the result of deadly internal warfare.) Just as a person is rewarded for performing well, he is also dismissed for a bad job and can be sent to jail for attempting to bankrupt the firm by selling the trade secrets to the competitor. Any employee could have implicated him.
The Tamils are literally fighting for their lives. In the very long history of the Tamil nation one cannot recall such a sustained period of tribulations and betrayals. Any Tamil leader who ignores the sufferings or contributes to them has thus betrayed the Tamils and should, duly, step down or be prepared to be removed. This is not the law of the jungle but of the real world of business or politics or any organized activity.
Getting Run Over
Thiruchelvam is talked of as a gentle, peaceable, non-abrasive man. I do not doubt this at all nor do I doubt the thesis that he lost his life NOT because of those attributes. In social intercourse, these are universally loved qualities in an individual. Jimmy Carter, ex-President of the US is such a man. Americans called him a ‘wimp’ and replaced him for not doing his job more aggressively. There is nothing wrong about Mr.Thiruchelvam having desired to play a political role, though, apparently, he was not savvy enough for it. Even nice people get run over if they do not watch where they are going.
The draft constitution he crafted with Peiris and which was repeatedly watered down to the disadvantage of the Tamils is, to be presented to the Parliament in its very emasculated form. It is a kind of a surrender instrument to implement a Pax Romana by Chandrika Kumaratunga and Thiruchelvam is inextricably associated with it.
Every time a Tamil like arch villain Kadirgamar, or Thiruchelvam, is used as a willing tool in promoting an anti-Tamil policy, the media in the South broadcast to the world accompanied by a supporting statement, like ‘Mr.Kadirgamar (or Thiruchelvam), who is himself a Tamil, says’. This riles the Tamils to no end.
These men bear a great responsibility for their utterances, whether in speech or writing. With all his learnedness he failed to perceive the anger and resentment caused by his actions and the concern that he failed to articulate on behalf of the people that he was meant to represent. So, as Brutus spoke of Caesar at the latter’s funeral we could say, mutatis mutandis,
‘If there is any friend in this assembly, any friend of Caesar’s to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less, I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy, for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death, for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended…’
Neelan’s Real Assassins
Dr Neelan Thiruchelvam is no more. According to reports, he fell victim to a suicide bomber in Colombo on Thursday 29th July. His security guard, seated in front in the same car, did not save him. The world has lost a leading constitutional & human rights lawyer and academic. The Sri Lankan government has lost an ally. President Chandrika, Foreign Minister Lakshman and others have lost a personal friend. TULF has lost a vice president. Sri Lanka’s parliamentarians have lost an able and mild-mannered, persuasive debater. A practitioner of peace and non-violence is lost to our world for good.
But what have the suffering and down-trodden Tamils living outside Colombo lost? And who were Dr Thiruchelvam’s real assassins? These two questions are difficult to answer. The answer to the first question is unclear and murky, judging from newspaper reports and social chit-chat. I will try to answer the second one briefly, with the hope that we could thereby see the safest path which lies ahead of us.
I never knew Neelan personally. Statistically he belonged to half a generation after me. He was born in Colombo and lived there all his life. I was born in Jaffna and have lived for 20 years each in Jaffna, Colombo and the UK. The other five years were spent in West Indies and in traveling around. Neelan studied at Royal College, and I, at Jaffna Central. At university, I was at the Colombo Campus reading engineering, and Neelan studied law at Peradeniya. Our postgraduate and academic links were with the UK and USA respectively.
But I knew Neelan’s parents; more his mother than his distinguished lawyer-politician father. Punitham, his mother and I were fellow committee members when we organized the (in)famous 1974 International Association for Tamil Research Conference in Jaffna. She was a Vice President, and I, the de-facto General Secretary who negotiated visas for delegates with PM, Sirimavo. Thus I knew Neelan’s family and do grieve his sad and sudden departure, deeply and sincerely.
And who are Neelan’s real assassins? The LTTE, as widely suspected? If so, for what reasons? With what real, useful purpose? We don’t really know. We may never know. The manner of Neelan’s execution does not leave much room for authentic, indisputable information.
But I would place the bulk of the responsibility for Neelan’s death, and of those 60,000 equally important lives so far lost in the ethnic war in Sri Lanka, squarely in the laps of the successive governments of independent Sri Lanka from 1948 till now.
The responsibility presently lies unshirkably with the PA Government of Chandrika, Sirimavo, Lakshman and crowd, as well as (I would say) personally with Ranil Wickremasinghe who is misleading the Opposition’s UNP.
The above ladies and gentlemen were elected by the impoverished people of Sri Lanka to govern the country justly and fairly and to maintain law and order in an even-handed manner, to pass appropriate legislation by reforming the constitution so that all the racial and religious groups live with equal rights under a non-presidential political structure, to solve the ethnic problem peacefully by negotiations with the LTTE, to lead the country towards economic prosperity, and so on. But what are they really doing?
They are squandering billions on an unjust futile war, dragging their feet on justice and progress, living, enjoying and flapping around, arrogant with power and prestige, in the comparative safety and luxury of Colombo. If they had worked harder, land more honestly and efficiently, with the interests of all the people equally in mind, Neelan would not have met his untimely end.
Thus I conclude that the real assassins of Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam are: (1) The PA government’s inability to solve the country’s ethnic problem as they promised when they came to power; (2) The oppressive and brutal war carried on by the government against the Tamils of the Northeast; and (3) The UNP leader’s unstatesman-like intransigence and non-cooperation.
The death of Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam on 29 July 1999 is a particularly unfortunate turn of events. Each one of us in The Action Group of Tamils (TAGOT) interacted with him on numerous occasions over several years and had known him as a friend and colleague. We regret the passing away of an individual of considerable intellectual stature and unusually personable demeanour.
However, Dr. Thiruchelvam was assassinated, that is, it is a politically motivated killing. He is the most recent casualty among the many Tamil politicians who have paid with their lives for the politics of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). If his killing as alleged was carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), then historical lessons arising from the circumstances leading to Dr Thiruchelvam’s assassination, and from the tragedy itself, have to be acknowledged.
Dr Thiruchelvam in his personal capacity was a scholar of exceptional repute. He was concerned with defending human rights in the international arena. But, he was also a member of a political party, the TULF; he was a politician.
As Vice President of the TULF, Dr Thiruchelvam exercised a decisive influence in crafting and purveying the party’s widely condemned politics of collaboration with the Sinhalese State. Even the proverbial child knows that this assassination had nothing to do with his work in human rights and had everything to do with TULF’s treacherous politics, which he promoted as its loyal member.
Yet, we find that most commentators writing on this tragedy nimbly side-stepped the all-important political aspect of Dr Thiruchelvam’s life. They focused instead on his personal qualities, which were undoubtedly exemplary, to substantiate political assertions; that by killing him ‘a voice of reason and sanity’ has been ‘silenced’, that Sri Lanka has lost a ‘democratic-reformist thinker’.
From portraying him as a democrat who was killed, the commentators slid almost imperceptibly into the assertion that he was killed because he was democrat. The caption, for example, of the United News of India (UNI) report of 29 July, filed from Colombo screamed: “Leaders condemn killing of intellectual” (The Hindu, 30 July 99).
By this sleight of hand the Colombo intelligentsia and the media have sought to structure the discussion: Why does the LTTE target a moderate like Dr Thiruchelvam who was trying to bring constitutional reforms and devolution proposals for the Tamils? Their obvious intention is to engineer the condemnation of LTTE for killing a Tamil man of peace, a democrat.
But as life would have it, the intelligentsia and the media were thrown off balance by an unforeseen event. The Tamil people did not participate in Dr Thiruchelvam’s funeral in Colombo. An Indian journalist who noted the Tamil response reported that the Tamil community is ‘unmoved and unprotesting’ (Indian Express, 3 Aug. 99).
The verdict of the Tamil people is loud and clear. Their unequivocal response, of not attending the funeral, is a definitive statement. It is a statement against, and a firm rejection of, the TULF’s reviled politics of running with the (Tamil) hare and hunting with the (Sinhalese) hound. Moreover, the united expression clearly showed that the Tamil people as a whole are not impressed by Dr Thiruchelvam’s credentials as a democrat and human rights advocate in the international arena. They judged him by his track record in Sri Lanka with respect to the violations of human rights of Tamils.
TAGOT expected those who crave for ‘democracy’ and swear by ‘the will of the people’ to abide by the virtually unanimous declaration by Tamils of their revulsion over the politics of TULF. Perhaps we are idealists.
If the commentators’ assertion that Dr Thiruchelvam was killed primarily, if not solely, for his work as a democrat and defender of human rights of Tamils is to hold water, then the Tamil people’s popular verdict against him had to be neutralized. So a few days later the Colombo intelligentsia began damage limitation ploys and, before the end of the first week, they employed a logical twist; they invented a fear of the LTTE.
In the weekly columns of national papers the intelligentsia patronizingly alleged that Tamils did not attend Dr Thiruchelvam’s funeral because of a ‘debilitating fear’ (The Island, 4 Aug. 99) of the LTTE and political violence. A political commentator in the Colombo-based English media gratuitously insulted Tamils; he arrogantly declared that ‘there were no longer peace loving Tamils but only frightened Tamils’ (The Island, 8 Aug. 99).
The members of the intelligentsia seem to have conveniently forgotten that Tamils showed ‘no fear’ when they voted for Mrs Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in the 1994 elections as well as when they enthusiastically hugged and kissed the helicopter that brought to Jaffna the ‘peace emissaries’ of her Peoples Alliance (PA) Government.
The establishment in the South also sought to denigrate the judgement of the Tamil people. At a briefing to the diplomatic community on 2 August, Foreign Minister Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar told Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad to ‘pause to consider’ and to ‘open their eyes’. And the Indian journalist dismissed Tamil opinion out of hand as the response of a community that ‘has mortgaged its soul to the LTTE’ (Indian Express, 3 Aug. 99).
As a Tamil parliamentarian, Dr Thiruchelvam was accountable in the first instance and always to the Tamil people. The views of others, including those of the international community, however valid are nevertheless secondary; and they are credible only insofar as they duly respect and take into account the verdict of the Tamil people.
The concrete reality is that the Sinhalese State is at war with the Tamil people. The fundamental issue in dispute is the right to national self-determination of the Tamil people, the right to State power, and not the farcical ‘defence’ of ‘minority rights’. The TULF’s political wheeling and dealing with the Sinhalese State is cheered in the south of the country as ‘the capacity and commitment to re-conceptualise Tamil politics in democratic emancipatory terms’. From the standpoint of Tamils, they are TULF’s opportunistic manoeuvres to undermine the rapidly growing competing centre of political power, namely, the LTTE-led Tamil national movement for the right of national self-determination.
From 1994, the year in which the TULF appointed Dr Thiruchelvam as Member of Parliament (MP), the TULF parliamentarians have callously voted in favour of the Government’s defence budget year after year. By ensuring adequate financial resources for the Sinhalese war machine, the TULF members joined the chauvinist Sinhalese MPs of the PA Government in effectively signing the death warrant of a whole generation of Tamils. Barring the occasional statement made by Mr Joseph Pararajasingam, no other TULF member, parliamentarian or otherwise, defended within Parliament or outside the human rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. But some among the southern intelligentsia would like the world to believe that TULF politicians are ‘working for peace’.
In the eyes of the ‘unmoved and unprotesting’ Tamils, Dr Thiruchelvam is unfortunately a comprehensively discredited Tamil politician. He tried among other things to exonerate President Kumaratunga, by issuing a ‘character certificate’ of dubious origin, when she clearly was wrong in making anti-Tamil remarks in a private gathering. He was instrumental in obtaining the Nandhi flag, which the TULF shamelessly supplied to be hoisted at the infamous ‘victory’ ceremony of the army after the ‘conquest’ of Jaffna on 5 December 1995.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the unprecedented outpouring of grief among Sinhalese intellectuals and politicians and in the Sinhalese-controlled media confirms the usefulness, to the Sinhalese State, of Dr Thiruchelvam’s invaluable contribution to legitimize TULF’s collaborationist politics.
We categorically state that what is not, we repeat, not at issue are Dr Thiruchelvam’s endearing personal attributes and impressive professional accomplishments. What is necessary at this tragic juncture is a clinical review of the bankrupt politics of the TULF. And we pose a different question, which is in the hearts of most Tamils: Why has the TULF repeatedly attempted to sabotage the Tamil movement for national self-determination through a counter-revolutionary strategy seductively packaged as ‘democratising project’, ‘ethnic as well as social pluralism’ and ‘ethnic inclusivism’?
Picture, Title and the Editorial – Neelan Tiruchelvam
There have been few editorials written with such assertive strength, in defence of the oppressed Tamil people of Sri Lanka. They were made to feel guilty by many influential agencies for their indifference at the assassination of Neelan Tiruchelvam. The editorial in the Hot Spring of Aug-Sep.’99, is one of those bold and robust rebuttals in the defence of the Tamil people.
The Sri Lankan Tamils have suffered violations of their human rights for decades. There is copious documented evidence of this by reputed international agencies spanning many decades. Food and essential medicine were deprived. Discrimination, torture, rape and arbitrary arrest, is the order of the day. The Sri Lankan state has committed grievous crimes against the Tamil people and is responsible for the second largest recorded disappearances in the world.
It is to this state that Neelan was slavish, it is with this state that he collaborated, in undermining the struggle and the democratic aspirations of the Tamil people. While pursuing this agenda, he never tried to persuade or explain his position to the Tamil people.
For the past few years we have witnessed efforts of many powerful institutions in falsifying these evidence. The Fourth Estate in particular is guilty of losing all sense of perspective and objective reporting. The publication in The Times (UK) on Saturday the 16th of October ’99 implicating the loss of ninety thousand lives on the LTTE, is not only cynical but a heartless deception to show the Sri Lankan Government, in good light.
Neelan’s efforts have been to tarnish the LTTE’s image in the international arena and thereby subvert the aspirations of our people. The LTTE should grasp the significance of this ploy and mobilize the resources of the Tamil Diaspora to challenge these inaccuracies as they occur.
The gradually developing perception of a poor international image cannot be a good thing for the Tamil aspirations. A mood of frustration exist within the Tamil expatriate community at their helplessness to meaningfully challenge these deceptive propaganda and change the international image.
The Hot Spring cover picture, the caption, and the editorial came to lift us all. It was a very powerful message based on universal norms of justice and truth. A laudable piece of work, as if emerging from the very ancestral roots and ideals of the Tamil people – to be just and truthful – the themes of Kannagi and Natkeeran.
The Cover Picture, The Title, and the Editorial are all together a piece of history in the making. Well done Mr.Sivanayagam. Please accept our appreciation.
The allegation of being a CIA agent in Sri Lanka is a serious one to tag to any individual. Thus, one sentence in G.G. Ponnambalam (Jr.)’s excellent commentary on the political career of late Neelan Tiruchelvam deserves further analysis (Hot Spring, Aug-Sept. ’99).
This particular sentence states, “…Tamil who now charge that Tiruchelvam, with his ‘international connections’ as was evidenced by the outpourings that came from abroad and specifically from America, had a hand in the designation of the LTTE [as a ‘terrorist organization’] and that Tiruchelvam was indeed a CIA agent.” Is there any proverbial ‘smoking gun’ for the charge that Neelan could have been a CIA agent?
Before I read G.G. Ponnambalam (Jr.)’s commentary in the Hot Spring, I was intrigued by a couple of tid-bits which appeared in the eulogy of Celia Dugger to Neelan, published in the New York Times of Aug.24. In it, she had written as follows:
“Tiruchelvam’s elder son, Nirgunan, 26,an investment banker in Singapore, became almost obsessed with his father’s security. He begged his father to stay inside their house, or to wear a bullet proof vest and travel in a bomb-proof car. The son tracked down an aging bomb-proof Jaguar that had carried the Queen of England when she visited Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. But when his father used the car, it broke down. The one garage that could fix it always seemed to be busy.”
I feel that some vital information is missing in the above passage. How Nirgunan was able to locate the bomb-proof Jaguar which carried the Queen of England for his dad? Did he receive any extra-ordinary help from ‘foreign hands’ to purchase this car? Why “only one garage” could fix this bullet-proof car? Why this “one garage” was always “busy?” How many months (or years) did Neelan use this car?
In addition, the condolence message of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to Neelan’s untimely death needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. I wish to elaborate a little. Early this year, New York Times (Feb.23, 1999) published an article by Philip Shenon with the title, ‘CIA was with UN in Iraq for Years, Ex-Inspector says’. First two sentences of this article is very relevant to the readers, I believe. Thus I reproduce them below:
“The CIA began placing American spies among UN weapons inspectors in Iraq only a year after the end of the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and worked closely with the United Nations to organize the inspections, a former arms inspector says. The former inspector, Scott Ritter, said in a new book that he and a senior CIA official operating under an assumed name had planned some of the largest and most complex inspections undertaken by the United Nations and that the United Nations inspection teams had included CIA paramilitary covert operatives.”
This exposure revealed to neutral observers that CIA has infiltrated the United Nations, and even the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan seems to behave like a person on CIA’s pay roll. It is a pity that Kofi Annan is being fooled by the CIA and he has a lot to learn from the master-statesman Nelson Mandela.
In his autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, Mandela did not mince his words about the nefarious role played by the CIA. He had written explicitly that “the CIA has been responsible for many contemptible activities in its support of American imperialism.”
One should also note that during President Reagan’s regime, quite a segment of those who posed as the ‘human rights activists’ in the USA did not criticize the then prevailing apartheid system in South Africa strongly, while Mandela was in prison. They just believed the ‘doctored version’ of the CIA-supplied ‘truth’ that Mandela and those who supported him in the international scene (such as Libya’s leader Muammar Qaddafi) were ‘terrorists’.
Thus, unless evidence to the contrary is revealed publicly, messages of condolences offered by Kofi Annan as well as President Bill Clinton on Neelan’s untimely death have to be taken as circumstantial evidence of a link between Neelan Tiruchelvam and CIA.
Mr Tiruchelvam was always described adoringly as a moderate in a struggle between parties who were polls apart. The Tamils wanted to be freed from SINHALA domination, while the Sinhalese were determined to maintain it. Mr Tiruchelvam, was a ‘Colombo 7 Tamil’ – a phrase used to describe an elitist group of Tamils who were born and lived in the most exclusive residential area of the nation’s capital. He was educated in Colombo’s prestigious Royal College, Colombo, and later abroad at Harvard. He never lived amongst his TAMIL counterparts in the North or East, and was never a heartfelt advocate of separation.
He was an advocate of concessions to the Tamils while retaining SINHALA supremacy. The problem with such compromises was that it always ensured SINHALA domination over the Tamils. The concessions made to the Tamils were subject to withdrawal by a displeased SINHALA government. This provision was necessary in order to preserve the UNITARY NATURE of the CONSTITUTION. The uninvolved, who did not discern this, praised the government for being conciliatory for making concessions subject to this proviso. The Tamils were characterized as obstreperous for turning such concessions down. The architects (always agents of the government) were hailed as moderates with a neutral bent.
Mr Tiruchelvam, was made a nominated member of Parliament by the TULF in 1994. He was never elected to Parliament. From the date of his nomination to this year, not one peace proposal of constitutional dimension has been presented to the LTTE. The government has published a host of proposals none of which have been submitted to the other party to the conflict. They have been presented to those cooperating with the government. Of what use is that in bringing about a peaceful solution to the war.
The TULF swept every ELECTION in the North & East in 1977 on a platform DEMANDING INDEPENDENT STATE. No meaningful elections have been held in this region since. Just before his sad demise, Mr Tiruchelvam was invited by the President to prepare a new constitutional proposal with the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Mr G.L. Peiris. The TULF now seeks to find a solution working with, rather than against the SINHALA government. What then can one expect. A perpetuation of the ‘UNITARY CONSTITUTION’ by which the Sinhalese with a commanding majority in the central parliament can dominate the Tamils. The Tamils demand a FEDERAL CONSTITUTION (analogous to that of the United States) whereby they will control much of their own destiny through their regional government. They will then be freed of SINHALA control in areas of government that matter to them most.
For them to submit to an UNITARY CONSTITUTION would be to revert to square one. This whole violent struggle to attain goals they could not win by constitutional means because they were a permanent minority in the central parliament, would be be meaningless. Lives would have been lost and property devastated in vain. They would in fact be conceding the right of the Sinhalese to rule them on any terms the Sinhalese desired. Is that a compromise or a total surrender to end the conflict?
These are a people who saw one million of their Indian counterparts denied their franchise and citizenship within a year of Independence. These are people who were denied equality of access to jobs with the introduction of the SINHALA Only Act. These are people who were denied equal access to the universities. These are people who were massacred at the hands of SINHALA mobs in ’56, ’58, ’61, ’77, ’79, ’81, ’83 when they engaged in nonviolent protests over these compounding inequities.
These are a people who saw agreements with the government torn up at the behest of Buddhist monks, who openly advocated, and continue to advocate, discrimination as a policy to be pursued. Can any moderate find a solution to ease the Tamils of their fear and suspicion of the SINHALA politician, after these experiences?
Can any moderate, at the other end of the spectrum, convince a SINHALA government to let go the reins of power over a dissatisfied and disgruntled segment of the population who are a majority in their region of the island? The moderates can devise academic alternatives which will never satisfy the aspirations of a people hungering for Independence, struggling to control their own destinies, ready to suffer physical assaults on their people and property to attain these ends. They have reached the end of their patience, their tolerance has evaporated. All they ask is to be left alone to look after themselves, just as the Sinhalese did when they sought independence from the British.
The international community has to develop a more fined tune understanding of Tamil resentment and suspicion before jumping to characterize them as extremists. What after all is an extremist? A person with a strong and unbendable commitment to alter the inequities of history? What is a moderate? One without such a commitment, who hopes to placate both sides? Does the latter deserve more plaudits than the former?
The press has to open its eyes and aim its viscous pointed claws to burrow under the rubble to see what is going on. When moderates work with the government against the Tamil fighting forces, are they collaborators or neutral interveners?
Mr Thiruchelvam was a well intentioned man. So are many others involved in this conflict. The question is, who can solve it? Are partisan moderates the answer? Can the opposition be expected to have faith in such a government appointed intermediary? Is an alternative intermediary necessary? Is an observer to be present at unconditional negotiations an answer? Will the Sinhalese government ever consent to this? If not, why not?
Soverign states have been subject to international INTERVENTION when human rights are violated. KOSOVO is an example. The UN charter permits it. Can we do this without military intervention? The answer is yes, as neither party seeks that. Can we have an intervention short of a military onslaught? Yes, if the government does not object. But they have and will.
So why blame the LTTE for failure to negotiate? There has not been a single proposal put on their plate since 1995. They have offered to negotiate with international observers present. The government has turned this down. Who is fearful of exposure and why? What can be expected of the proposals yet to come?
The press should lift up its socks or skirts and look at the situation anew. Praising the well intentioned is to be applauded. Looking for better answers, on the other hand is the way to go. It should be evident that the stalemate has lasted too long for the status quo to remain. A rash of fresh intermediaries is needed, before we can even dream of any prospect of success in ending this everlasting conflict. We have to reach for the roots to find a solution, to discover if one is possible.
as seen by a Foreign Academic
The assassination of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam has met with an undivided echo: his death has been mourned as the severe loss to Sri Lanka in particular, to the defenders of human rights the world over in general.
Thus, President Clinton made the extraordinary gesture to express his shock, mourn the loss of this voice for reconciliation, the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights paid tribute to his memory and included his name in a special resolution resolutely condemning the assassination of human rights defenders.
The Sri Lankan government in its turn as much as the US delegation at the United Nations along with international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the international press, e.g. the International Herald Tribune of 25 August, were quick to identify the authors of the murder, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil military organization engaged in a war against the Sinhalese Buddhist government in Colombo.
No doubt, Neelan Tiruchelvam displayed by all accounts a highly likeable character, was an internationally known scholar in constitutional affairs, and fought for the righs of minorities elsewhere. They explain this expression of sorrow and outrage. At the same time they have, however, tended to obscure the fact that Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam was not just a ‘defender of human rights’ and ‘peace activist’, but a prominent politician in a war-torn society.
His role in the Sri Lankan political context has to be illuminated in order to fully appreciate not least Neelan Tiruchelvam himself and to better understand why the Tamils of Sri Lanka did not share in this grief.
The following text seeks to provide some such background information.
(1) Whatever its formal credentials as to a democratic society, Sri Lanka has - long before the confrontation with the Tamils turned to armed conflict – been characterized by an increasingly authoritarian regime, characterized by a concentration of power in the hands of an ‘executive presidency’ (since 1978), a rule of emergency (almost uninterruptedly for over 20 years) and an institutionalization of political violence, accompanied by large-scale human rights violations for which the reports of the UN-Human Rights (Sub Commission), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch bear ample witness.
This includes extrajudicial killings of innocent people by the security forces, instigation of ethnic hatred and pogroms by political parties, including those in government. As far as the assassination of prominent politicians is concerned, jit has been resorted to by all major Sinhalese parties (UNP, SLFP, JVP) in their fight for power and also by both sides in the war raging in the North-East of the country. Thus as many as 13 candidates, all of them from the then Opposition, were killed during the six weeks election-campaign of 1989. To these may be added the murders of the army chief of staff, General Kobbekaduwa in August 1992, of the defense minister Lalith Athulathmudali in 1993, of President Premadasa in May 1993, and the Opposition candidate G.Dissanayake in October 1994.
Responsibility for all these assassinations was instantly and invariably blamed by the Sri Lankan government and the media on the LTTE as were the more recent cases of the Pannali massacre of 9 Tamil civilians in January 1997 or the crash of a Lion Air plane in 1998.
Later investigations revealed these accusations as either not tenable or outright false. Thus, lack of evidence (Premadasa and Dissanayake, the latter’s family does not believe in the LTTE’s culpability and complains about the government’s disinterest in a official inquiry although this was announced by President Kumaratunga herself immediately after the murder), a contract killing by an underworld figure accompanied by planted evidence and lack of security provisions (Athulathmudali), army responsibility (Pannali massacre), internal explosion (Lion Air crash), and finally, murder on the demand of the President himself (Kobbekaduwa) were established.
These few examples illustrate that murder and assassinations are not only commonly resorted to means of politics among the Sinhalese, but that they are, furthermore, readily sought to be exploited as propaganda tools in the ongoing civil war with the aim to denounce the adversary nationally and internationally as ‘terrorist’, to rally the Sinhalese electorate, to instill fear of the LTTE specifically, and hatred against the ‘Tamil population’ in general.
Against this background, a responsible government that came to power with the promise to return to the rule of law and to end the war through reconciliation, would have expressed its shock over the assassination of Neelan Tiruchelvam, but absolutely refrained from assigning responsibility without having any proofs. The Sri Lankan authorities having decided otherwise, are not just responsible, they are guilty of instrumentalizing for narrow political ends the death of the very person over whose dead body they shed tears.
(2) Neelan Tiruchelvam has been hailed as a human rights activist, a moderate, a peace-maker and a bridge between the different warring ethnic groups.
But Neelan Tiruchelvam was not a powerful voice of civil society, a moderate and a voice of reason in a war-torn society. On the contrary, he was a politician who had taken sides in a military conflict conducted by the security forces in the North-East of the country against the Tamils, a war that has claimed over the last 15 years the lives of over 60,000 people, over 90% of them Tamil civilians, produced 450,000 expatriates and 800,000 internally displaced against whom the government uses food and medicine as weapons of war.
It is against this background that Neelan Tiruchelvam, the Tamil politician and vice president of a party has to be judged in order to appreciate his role in the Sri Lankan polity and to better understand why by all accounts the Tamils of Colombo did not mourn his death and abstained from attending his funeral.
The People’s Alliance (PA), a coalition of four parties, had obtained 105 out of a total of 225 seats in the August 1994 General election. As such, it could not have formed a government but for the active support of three minor Tamil parties which together had polled less than 2% of the vote. The biggest one of them is the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) of which Neelan Tiruchelvam, himself only a nominated member of parliament, was the vice-president. In the 1994 general election the party had obtained altogether five seats on the strength of 31,246 votes or 1.67% of the total vote, a clear manifestation that neither this party nor the other Tamil political parties,nor all three together which entered into the government, could by any means claim to represent the Tamil electorate and its aspirations.
This has not always been the case! For it was the very same TULF that had obtained overwhelming support from the Tamil electorate in the General election of 1977 based on a manifesto that solemnly committed itself to the constitution of an independent Tamil Eelam ‘either by peaceful means or by direct action or struggle’. It was against this commitment that the TULF representatives preferred to forfeit their parliamentary seats in 1983 rather than swear an oath on the recently amended constitution prohibiting even the peaceful advocacy of separatism and threatening draconian penalties (forfeiture of property, loss of civic rights, etc.).
Against this background, today’s TULF has not only betrayed its original programme. By turning to active collaboration with a Sinhalese government engaged in a war against the Tamils, the party has turned into an enemy of the people it claims to represent. Year after year, it voted for the government budget, i.e. the war effort, that included ever higher defense outlays of nearly 750 million US$ p.a. or 20-25% of total government spending.
(3) Neelan Tiruchelvam as recently elected Chairman of the London-based Minority Rights Group must have been fully aware that according to international law, a minority has no ipso facto right to self determination. There is not only no commonly agreed set of criteria to determine a minority, it is also up to the individual state to recognize a social group as a distinct minority, as the negative examples of France jor Turkey amply demonstrate.
Moreover, the rights of a minority extend primarily to its individual members (essentially protection against discrimination) in contrast to ‘peoples’ who alone are conceived of as collective holders of human rights. As far as the Sri Lankan Tamils are concerned, such a minority status, presenting no safeguard against collective oppression, does no longer satisfy their aspirations.
The history of independent Sri Lanka, namely had shown them a continuous deterioration of their condition vis-à-vis the majority community on the one hand, and the impossibility of coming to a negotiated settlement on the other hand. Having exhausted all peaceful means, a radicalization of demands and of the means of struggle on the part of the Tamils has evolved. It was their concrete and repeated experience over the last decades which convinced them that their only hope for survival lies on the battlefield, however asymmetrical the struggle; that only when the Sri Lankan government realizes the military, economic and political cost of an unwinnable war will it finally see reason.
To enumerate but the most important stages of socio-economic and political discrimination of Tamils, as a process of increasing Sinhalisation of state and society: In 1956 Sinhala (spoken by 74% of the pop.) was declared the sole official language of the country, followed by ‘the foremost place’ being constitutionally accorded to Buddhism (69% of the pop.); ever since 1972, two acts which conferred on the Tamil speaking population (18%), the Hindus (15%), Muslims (7%) and Christians (7%), at best a secondary status. In the economic sphere, not only were the minor ethnic communities discriminated against in terms of access to government employment and alienated state land.
The introduction of ‘standardization’ in higher education openly favoured the admission of Sinhala youth at the detriment of students educated in the Tamil language. The government sponsored policy of sending Sinhalese to the Northern and Eastern provinces which Tamils consider their traditional homeland, finally, was aimed not only to change the ethnic balance but calculated to disrupt the demographic continuity of the Tamil population in the two provinces.
This policy of discrimination was accompanied by riots and politically inspired pogroms with generalized arson, murder and mayhem against the Tamils, including those in the capital, and on the plantations. The worst occurred in 1956/58, 1977 and 1983. This bloodshed and terror sealed the hopes in the success of peaceful means to end the conflict (the war began in 1984) and marginalized those in the Tamil community who had advocated a negotiated settlement within the existing Sri Lankan state.
Not that there had been a lack of initiatives in this direction. About 20, mainly coming from inside the country, have been launched over the decades, the most important being the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957, the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1865, the All-Party Conference of 1984, and the Thimpu-Conference of 1985 to which the TULF was a party and where once more the basic demands of the Tamil people were laid down.
All of them eventually foundered because the respective Sinhalese party in opposition, supported by the Buddhist clergy, regularly denounced any attempt at accommodation as a sell-out to the Tamils. Meanwhile, every offer of out-side mediation (e.g. Sweden, South Africa) have been rejected by Sri Lanka as intervention in an internal affair, the government preferring a military solution.
(4) Neelan Tiruchelvam, the constitutional lawyer and human rights activist, saw it fit to enter the Sri Lankan parliament and take the oath under the 6th Amendment of the constitution which defines already the peaceful advocacy of separatism as a crime, a clause which the International Commission of Jurists in 1984 and again the government appointed ‘Committee to Advise on Reform of Laws affecting Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression’ in 1996 qualified as limitation of the freedom of expression, and thus a violation of basic civil and political rights.
The PA government came to power massively supported by the Tamil people with the political promises of seeking a solution to the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict by entering into negotiations with the LTTE, of more democracy by abolishing the executive presidency, of reestablishing the rule of law and respect for human rights. All these promises have been deceived.
The question must be asked where has been Dr. Tiruchelvam’s voice for the reinstatement of human rights, for the immediate and independent investigation of mass graves in Chemmani and elsewhere, for the abolition of the obnoxious Emergency Regulations, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the frequent reports of murder in detention, of disappearances, of an end to impunity of security personnel implicated in human rights violations, of the use of food and medicine as weapons of war against the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Tamil people in the Vanni.
As an important member of the government, reputedly close to the President, and one who pretended being a voice for the downtrodden minority, he could and should have raised his voice against the violation of human rights and against the institutionalized mistreatment and discrimination of his people. He neither spoke out, nor did he attempt to dissociate his party from the governing coalition. On the contrary, he came repeatedly to the defense of the government, the President herself. As such he carries part of the collective responsibility of the government and its acts.
(5) Neelan Tiruchelvam, the constitutional lawyer, served on the parliamentary select committee on constitutional reforms, and is reputed one of the architects of the ‘devolution package’ that has been hailed in UN-Subcommission meetings not only as a solution for the conflict in Sri Lanka but as a universal model in similar situations of interethnic war. It must be clearly stated that,
(a) The devolution proposed not only falls far short of the aspirations of the Tamils, by allowing only for administrative regional decentralization but not power sharing or legislative authority; on the contrary, the unitary nature of the Sri Lankan state has been reconfirmed, the relevant articles from earlier constitutions, including the primacy of Buddhism, had been retained.
(b) The whole process, i.e. since 1995 three different versions, dependent on the situation on the battlefield, have been publicized, none of them official in the sense having been debated and passed by the relevant parliamentary hurdles; and, finally, the government has done nothing either to have a common mandate within the coalition (the Tamil parties in the coalition have reportedly never been consulted, only informed), nor to come to an agreement with the major Opposition - a step absolutely vital in view of the fact that a 2/3rd majority in parliament followed by a referendum of the whole population (!) is required if such constitutional changes are to become law.
(c) Any proposal with a chance of success must be based on the active and equal participation of the three main actors: the government, the major Sinhala Opposition party and the LTTE, as was recognized by Mr.Peiris, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, and Chairman of the parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Reforms, in an interview in early 1997. This admission notwithstanding, the LTTE was outlawed and declared a terrorist organization a few months later with the result that any kind of dealings with it are a criminal offence.
The whole process underlines the fact that the so-called devolution is not conceived as a means to accommodate the rightful demands of the Tamils, but is the calculated part of a two-edged strategy that is being fought on two levels - the military and the political front – whereby victory on the battlefield is by all accounts given absolute priority over a negotiated settlement.
The role of the ‘devolution’ proposals and constitutional reforms is not just subordinated to the war effort but a political ploy to split the Tamil population and isolate the Tamil fighters.
It is moreover aimed at the international community, on whose goodwill Sri Lanka vitally depends for military supply as well as economic and financial support, intended to persuade it of its peaceful intentions vis-à-vis an implacable enemy. Minister Peiris frankly admitted this strategy. The Vice President of a party that is partner in this government shares the responsibility for this policy of ‘War for Peace’. It was precisely Neelan Tiruchelvam, moreover, who sought to sell the ‘devolution package’ at home and abroad as a viable and equitable solution to the war and to the just demands of the various communities.
Every premature loss of life is deplorable; the violent death of innocent people even more so in the on-going war in Sri Lanka that has caused so many dead and wounded and displaced. Neelan Tiruchelvam was not an innocent bystander, a tireless worker for a peaceful and equitable solution. Subjectively he might have been convinced to work for the best of his nation and country; objectively he sided with the oppressor at a prominent position and actively supported one side in an armed conflict.
May the above contribute to a deeper understanding of the complex and dramatic situation in Sri Lanka in general, the different perspectives within and outside the country that have been observed with regard to still another of its victims, Dr. Tiruchelvam, in particular.