We’ve all heard the saying, “Truth is the first casualty in war,” (attributed to U.S. Senate by Hiram Johnson in 1918). In war, the goals of 2 sides come into conflict, and there is a constant interplay of goals, facts (truths), and propaganda (public projection of information) in the realm of communication. This interplay makes it challenging for those without access to the original facts to understand the events in a proper context. The Eelam War that raged from 1983-2009 in the island of Ceylon/Lanka/Eelam is distinct, and perhaps unique, in that one party to the war (Tamils) had no international backers for most of the conflict. The upstart LTTE continued the fight until their own bitter end, despite being severely outmatched militarily, financially, and diplomatically. Thus, it is no surprise that there is an extreme shortage of widely-accepted facts about life in the areas under their control. The book A Fleeting Moment in My Country: The Last Years of the LTTE De Facto State, by N. Malathy, is the first such English-language book by someone who spent a very significant amount of time in the LTTE-run Tamil Eelam administration in the period of 2002-2009. More than that, this is the first extensive first-hand account of someone who lived through the end of the war, May 2009, and survived and escaped to tell the tale.
In spite of the fact that each individual’s understanding of a conflict is an unending journey, and in spite of the fact that no individual can be separated from the humanly inherent, unavoidable bias we have (whether it is personal, cultural, etc.), fortunately, there are people who still care enough to not stand idly by. Any human with an opinion has, by default, a bias. To help people suffering in a conflict requires the compassion and reasoning to insert oneself into the conflict’s blender of information and emotions, and doing so unavoidably opens one’s self to ‘disrepute’ from critics, forces with opposing interests, etc. But those who are determined to help the victims in conflict find justification in that it is more important to do the ‘dirty work’ of helping people in conflict in an earthly life than it is to attain the benedictions of a saintly ‘neutral’ life. Such a description fits the author, N. Malathy, who describes herself as a social activist at heart and a member of the Tamil Diaspora. More than what she tells us, Malathy shows us, through her dispassionate, detailed, analytical recounting of facts, that she is also a scientist. And in the tradition of good science, she lays out all of the unvarnished details before making conclusions. Interspersed in between these passages of factual descriptions, Malathy includes personal side anecdotes of her travels as well as her contextualised interpretations and analysis of the directly preceding facts. Even these interluding stories and interpretations are written in the abbreviated, matter-of-fact style she uses in telling the plain facts.
There are two things that must be immediately pointed about about the interpretive analysis and anecdotes that Malathy provides. First, with her interpretive analysis, she is unafraid in asserting conclusions that, given her inside vantage point to the inner workings of the powerful actors in the conflict, end up seeming reasonable, if not obvious. It also pulls back the cloak of secrecy over the disparity between facts on the ground and how various actors project narratives of those facts. If one does simple subtracting of the facts from the propaganda, the difference we are left with are the goals/motivations of the actors that are projecting the propaganda. Malathy’s analysis is such: it walks us through the simple mental deduction in order to show us that the geopolitical situation ultimately dictates the direction in which events proceed. It is a simple conclusion to reach, but not simplistic in the least, for the sequences of events she recounts repeatedly shows the complex and profound impact that ever-changing geopolitical equations cause. It is a profound act to include such analysis alongside the facts because many Tamils, themselves, are no less susceptible to conflicting information that mirrors conflicts institutions of power: in addition to complex, confusing information, there is also the fallacy of false equivalences. Malathy did not wait for Western media to start re-evaluating itself in regards to issues truth, balance, and fairness. Put another way, Western media is only now starting to question where its backbone went, but will they finally reach the conclusion that they are subject to the Norman-Chomsky Propaganda Model? (Ironically, Chomsky is subject to an unspoken complete blacklist in the major media of his home country, the United States.) Similar to her re-telling of the facts, Malathy’s analysis, based on its depth and amount, seems either terse or restrained, and they leave the reader wanting to know more.
Secondly, even if the anecdotes that Malathy provides might seem ‘off-topic’, the reaction of readers to these anecdotes might be more telling than the anecdotes themselves. Readers who live outside of the cultural context of those who live in the traditional Tamil-speaking homelands would most likely be unmoved by the descriptions of naaval plum fruits, the cool shade of mango and ‘veeppam’ trees from the pervasive afternoon heat, or clever monkeys stealing food out or your bag. It’s the difference between readers reminiscing over what they know intimately well through the details of the disinterested observer Malathy, and the uninterested observer who is only passing through. How do you understand the significance of females feeling extremely safe traveling alone at night in South Asia, unless you have lived there? While Frances Harrison and Gordon Weiss recently published books on their experiences interfacing with both sides of the conflict, as a reporter and a UN representative, respectively, in the beginning and in the end of the 2002-2009 era, respectively, their understanding of the Tamil side of their analyses might remain incomplete for a while to come. How long did they spend in the Tamil areas? (Were they even permitted by their organisations or by SL to do so, if they wanted to?) Do they know Tamil (the language)? Mind you, Harrison and Weiss are doing a important service to the world in collecting unreported evidence that only people in their position might be privy to. But when you hear one of them refer to “Sun God” as Pirapaaharan’s ephithet, you can only conclude that such a person has hardly read any Tamil literature by or about the LTTE, where the term is conspicuously absent actually. However, the term “Sun God” survives only because it continues to get bandied about in English by certain Indian reporters, D.B.S. Jeyaraj, Dayan Jayatillake, and the like. Similarly, Eelam is just a name, it does not mean “homeland”, and actually, Eelam means “gold” and is the oldest existing name for the island. One who knows Tamil will understand the fine line that Malathy has to tread in her translations of certain Tamil terms because of the cultural context that they exist in, how ignorant so many are of that cultural context, and how easy it is for such terms to be misconstrued by propaganda writers. After all, in honour of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, the Tamil word for sunflower (sooriya poo) was renamed (!!) as sooriyakanthi poo (sun-Gandhi flower). Either Tamils in India and Ceylon have their own way of showing affection and reverence to their liberation heroes, or else Mahatma Gandhi, too, was a megalomaniacal tyrannical terrorist of his own people in India.
What Malathy’s book does, through its brevity, is it opens up space for Tamils to follow in her footsteps in recording and preserving history. In her words, “My main motivation for writing this record, however, is the conviction that recording history is an important aspect of the survival of a people.” If we imagine collecting together all of the memorabilia, photographs, videos, songs, speeches, and first-hand memories of Tamil Eelam, there would be encyclopedic amounts of materials from which to write several books on several topics. Of course, doing so would require many photocopies of the originals to be made and stashed around the world so that the Southern Lankan government could not irrevocably destroy them like they did by burning the Jaffna Library in 1981.
After reading the entirety of A Fleeting Moment in My Country, one gets the sense that the LTTE-run Tamil Eelam administration, despite its flaws, is by far the closest thing to a progressive, liberal Western European style society that South Asia has ever seen (except perhaps the 5,000-year old Indus Valley Civilisation) or ever will see in the future. If that sounds like an exaggeration, then you probably haven’t read the book or don’t know much about South Asia. Even for Tamils who have intimate first- or second-hand knowledge of the LTTE and its administration, this book illuminates just how proactive that Pirapaaharan was in ridding Tamil Eelam of caste, and how much cultural resistance he faced within his own advisory group in giving women equality within the LTTE. (TamilNet readers would know that the LTTE banned plastic bags in 2003, long before SL or places in Canada and the US. The restaurants founded by the LTTE political wing refused tipping, and the Tamil Eelam police could not be bribed.) The book also gives many details regarding the issue of child soldiers, as Malathy initially went to Vanni with the purpose of researching this herself. She gives many of the nuances around the issue, and shows exactly how vehement Thamilchelvan was in successfully solving the problem, despite the inconsistent, retroactively punitive stance maintained by INGO’s. Much of the society was taken care of somehow by the LTTE, in spite of broken social bonds and SL resource embargoes, and perhaps that is why, as Malathy writes, there was an overconfidence by the Vanni civilians that everything would somehow end up okay when SL’s scorched earth onslaught reached Kilinochchi in late 2008. The entirety of the book shows that her use of the word “country” in the title to describe the Tamil Eelam that she lived in is indeed appropriate. She acknowledges that her experience was only one slice of life where she lived, and she does not explain that the LTTE had a full conventional-style military including an army, navy, fledgling air wing, etc. What she does describe are the well-functioning laws, courts, police, clinics, tax system, banks, etc. Some existing countries we know lack even that much, although still missing from the picture of a proper democracy is a legislative branch of government, and the absence of peace voided any possibility of it. The picture that Malathy provides is complete enough, as it stands, for the reader to be heartbroken at the destruction caused by the end of the war. For regardless of political implications, it was not just the killing of tens (hundreds) of thousands of civilians and the destruction of the social fabric, but it was also the destruction of a full set of social institutions of which a country must be the guarantor. At the beginning of the chapter about the SL onslaught ending in Mullivaaykkaal, she writes, “Has there ever been such complete destruction of a country in history? The only reason why it is not seen as such is because my country was only in the minds of its people, but was not recognized by the global system of states.”
But Malathy does not shy away from the negative aspects of the LTTE military administration. Despite the child soldier issue having its fuzziness, she does not hold back criticism of the military leaders of the LTTE who were lackadaisical or resistant to Thamilchelvan’s insistence of no recruitment below the age of 17, or Nadesan’s lackadaisical attitude after he assumed leadership of the political wing following Thamilchelvan’s assassination. She does not hold back on details of the LTTE’s actions, in 2009, in recruiting civilians to perform non-military tasks at the front-lines of the war and dying as a result. She does not hold back on the LTTE recruiting underage children to fight when the survivors were trapped in a few square miles of the beach in Mullivaaykkaal (where the SL military literally bombed half of everyone out of existence). These are issues that people who hold opinions will continue to dispute. New facts lead to clearer perspectives, especially when they’ve long been missing, and sorely so, in the public sphere.
Perhaps the simplest explanation of what LTTE-run Tamil Eelam could have been, is the Singapore of South Asia. The ingredients for making a Singapore-like Tamil Eelam already exist, and from Malathy’s details, we can clearly see that progress was made in that direction, and deliberately so. The kind of practical, off-the-cuff problem solving that the LTTE used to fix shortcomings in their governance is like the iteration that is done by startups to address and fix ‘market inefficiencies’. The LTTE was culturally biased towards taking action and implementing change much more than talking about it before, during, or afterwards — a huge PR/marketing deficiency, it seems. Sadly, cultural biases were described by Malathy as one barrier for the LTTE to explain themselves, if anyone was even willing to listen then, as she analyses. Malathy writes in her second-to-last paragraph of the book,
Impressive social changes occurred in the Vanni under LTTE. What Gandhi, Ambedkhar, and Periyaar failed to achieve in India, the LTTE achieved in Vanni. The pervasive caste-consciousness of South Asia was eliminated. Vanni held the promise of progressive ideals for women in the society and of a government oriented toward the well being of the people. Infusing people with the spirit of struggle, it united them as one people. Indeed, it held the promise for many more social changes that would have benefited Tamils and perhaps even the whole of South Asia. This powerful example has now been destroyed. Even if an independent Tamil Eelam state is miraculously born in future, it will not bring back that hope and that promise that Vanni once held.
To conclude, I will only pick up on the last sentence in the paragraph quoted above. If Malathy is correct, that the hope and promise of Vanni cannot be recaptured ever again, then the future would be bleak, indeed. Any sort of restoration or improvement in Tamil society would take at least 1 generation, if not 2 or more. If an independent Tamil Eelam state did exist, then it would indeed be a long, hard struggle for social improvement. But such a struggle would have a good template of society to work towards, and given enough progressive thinking, innovation, and time, TE could begin to fix the problems that didn’t have an opportunity to be addressed before 2009. When it comes to the ideal of living free and prosperously, the Eelam Tamil-speaking people have at least learned to never say never.