Ilankai Tamil Sangam

23rd Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Thamilchelvan

A Tribute to a Democratic Political Leader of the Tamils

by Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam, Ph.D (Cornell), (edited by Arjunan Ethirveerasingam, B.A. - Political Science, International Relations, UCSB), November 6, 2007

Thamilchelvan initiated this consultative process [in 1994] and ensured that all citizens and institutions throughout the North (the only areas fully under the LTTE’s control at that time) that were affected by the war had the opportunity to voice their concerns and solutions and provide any other input that they deemed relevant for the reconstruction. That truly was a demonstration of grassroots, participatory democracy in action and was an example of how a self-governing Tamil Nation would conduct its affairs. The approach inspired me, like it did so many other people...

The development of the ISGA was a cascading participatory democratic political process that reached a consensus after many months of discussion and debate from a wide spectrum of Tamil opinion. It was the first time that the Tamils put forward a comprehensive, detailed document that extrapolated on the Thimbu Principles and depicted the form that a self-governing Tamil Nation would take and the way it would function in cooperation and in peace with a self-governing Sinhala Nation...

Thamilchelvan, with all his diplomacy, charming smile and genuine commitment to peace, had a steel core that would not bend when it came to the right to self-determination of the Tamil people.  It is this core belief that he wished and expected all Tamil people in the world to have.

Kilinochchi – Friday Morning

Friday, 2 November 2007 was a day without the usual monsoon rain clouds in Kilinochchi - the breadbasket of the North. With the loss of Jaffna in 1995, the seat of Tamil governance from ancient times, and the ensuing displacement of about 800,000 people, Kilinochchi became the seat of Tamil government. Kilinochchi had changed hands many times since the eighties, being last liberated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1998 with the sacrifice of many lives. The Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) signed in 2002 saw Kilinochchi begin to be re-built and the main A9 highway and side roads paved once again. With the resumption of war in August 2006 and the resulting embargo and closure of the main highway to Jaffna, Kilinochchi again fell on hard times. The Rajapaksa administration is bent on a military solution to the war, defeating the Tamil forces and assimilating the Tamil people and their land into the Sinhala Buddhist state of Sri Lanka.

It was just past 6:00am on Friday, 2 November 2007 that I heard the sound of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Israeli built Kfir supersonic bombers that are a daily occurence over Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. Every day since I arrived in Kilinochchi I have heard the Kfirs very high up in the sky. This morning the sound was very loud, as if the plane was flying directly overhead and was circulating very low.  The sky was clear and I was expecting the noise of anti-aircraft guns.  I thought I should run out of the room into the open for my safety. But being used to the daily bombings I shrugged it off.  The bombings were usually on the Mullaitivu coast or around the Iranamadhu irrigation ‘tank’ reservoir.

Suddenly, I heard the loud sharp explosive sound of a bomb. It was deafening, like a thunderclap close by. It wasn’t the normal ‘thud’ that we are used to hearing when a regular bomb explodes miles away. There was an initial sharp explosion followed almost simultaneously by a loud explosion. I realized that the bomb had exploded close and that it must have been a special bomb. I automatically looked at my watch. It was 6:10am. People from Mullaitivu had previously spoken of bombs that explode in the air and were followed by another explosion/bomb that leaves craters in the ground that are 40 feet by 20 feet and 10-foot deep.  The explosion sounded like the bunker bursting bombs that one saw on TV being used while targeting Saddam Hussein. My thoughts ran through the conversations people have about SLAF drones flying at night and sometimes early in the morning.  I wondered why the SLAF risked flying so low. Soon after there was the sound of other bombers flying high and their bombs exploding with the usual thud sound.

I went out at 7:00am and the guesthouse night watchman and people around him were talking about the bombings. They told me that the bombs fell on the East side of the A9 behind the church and that there were civilians who had been killed and were injured. The lane leading to the site was closed for traffic.  At 9:00am I went to the internet kiosk to check and respond to my emails and chat with my wife using Yahoo Messenger. I wrote to my family about the bombings. 

When I returned to my office at 10:00 am, the staff of the Sports Academy, where I worked, was huddled in groups, talking in whispers and seemed sad. I asked them whether the bombings had caused many deaths. They stated simply that Thamilchelvan ‘Annai’ had died in the bombing.  He and his body guards went into the bunker when they heard the plane circling low. Two bombs fell on the side of the bunker and the roof collapsed on them. Those who were in the house, the open bunker and the compound were not injured. It was shocking news and I was at a loss for words. I felt numb and found it hard to believe that the person I have met many times since our first meeting in 1994, and who I was to meet in a few days, was no more. The official news was not yet out but the news had spread among the people in Kilinochchi. I did not want to go back online to inform my wife, my son and grandson, who had all met Mr. Thamilchelvan last year. 

In the evening, I went to pay my respects to Mr. Thamilchelvan’s remains and the remains, in a closed casket, of Alex, his closest assistant and friend. I had met Alex in 1999 and again soon after the tsunami and found him to be a person of high intelligence and integrity. The scene at the location where the bodies lay in state was heart wrenching. Family members were in tears, Thamilchelvan’s 7 year old daughter and 4 year old son among them, and their colleagues and friends stood in silent, shocked mourning. An unending line of Kilinochchi residents filed past and paid their tearful tribute to a man they respected and loved.

Thamilchelvan is liked, admired and loved by Tamils around the world, especially for his commitment to restore the rights of the Tamil people, a right that we lost in the 17th century to western colonial powers.  He is considered as the international voice of the Tamil people, as he represented and advocated the aspirations of the Tamil people.

Meeting Mr. Thamilchelvan: The Man & His Vision

I was introduced to Mr. Thamilchelvan in 1994 by Mr. Karikalan in the lead up to a seminar at the University of Jaffna on the reconstruction of the various sectors that had been destroyed since the war began in 1983. This seminar was the culmination of workshops that had been held by each sector throughout the North. The recommendations from that seminar were presented in a report that was submitted to the GOSL-LTTE peace talks in 1994. Thamilchelvan initiated this consultative process and ensured that all citizens and institutions throughout the North (the only areas fully under the LTTE’s control at that time) that were affected by the war had the opportunity to voice their concerns and solutions and provide any other input that they deemed relevant for the reconstruction. That truly was a demonstration of grassroots, participatory democracy in action and was an example of how a self-governing Tamil Nation would conduct its affairs. The approach inspired me, like it did so many other people.

Like others, my first impression of Mr. Thamilchelvan was the disarming smile that greeted me and praised me for my past performance in sports. He was genuinely happy that we had met and expressed his appreciation that I had come to teach Agriculture at the University of Jaffna (Kilinochchi Campus) and hoped that I would help our people to excel in sports once again. It wasn’t a diplomatic formality that one would expect a political head to express to an older citizen. There was a deep sense of genuine, heartfelt appreciation which touched me. Such expressions were innate and natural to Mr. Thamilchelvan.  Ever since the day I met him I decided that I would spend the rest of my able years in service to the Tamil people in the NorthEast in the fields of my specialisation.

Soon after the displacement of the people from Jaffna in 1995, Mr. Thamilchelvan guided “Potunmiam”, the economic affairs unit of his sector, to organise a workshop that included farmers, agriculturists and university agriculture specialists. The workshop was to arrive at a plan to cultivate more land without fertilizer, other agro chemicals, and fuel, as these items were banned by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). The workshop report and plan of action was implemented during the 1996 season until the GoSL ‘Jeya Sikuru’ offensive started in May 1997 and displaced the people once again. When confronted with adversity, Thamilchelvan readjusted to the new situations time and time again.

In our meetings over the years we have discussed a wide ranging variety of topics including development, Tamil rights, political theory and his battlefield experience. His quest for knowledge and information was voracious. Since 1994, every time that I returned to the Vanni he would want me to bring books on Conflict Resolution, International Politics, Economic Development and Political Theory. Every year I brought books for him on those subjects which he and the late Mr. Balasingam would request. At times Thamilchelvan would say with a smile, “Any books that you think I should read.” Some of the books I brought were: John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Karl Popper’s Enemies of the State Vol. I (Plato) and  Vol. II (Karl Marx); books on Abraham Lincoln, the American Civil War, and almost all of the books on Ethnic Conflict, Conflict Resolution and related topics published by the US Institute of Peace; Chester Crocker’s Handbook for Diplomats; books by Lee Kwan Yu, Henry Kissinger, and books on international relations. Two of the other books that I brought for him this October are still with me as I had planned to give them to him before I left – the electronic version of Hugo Grotius’s old masterpiece, The Rights of War and Peace: Including the Law of Nature and of Nations, and Heather Wilson’s book, International Law and the Use of Force by National Liberation Movements.

He always maintained a studious and respectful silence in the presence of Mr. Balasingam, his mentor in the science and art of politics. But he would engage in pleasant conversation to balance Mr. Balasingam’s serious demeanor. His thoughts and ideas were in consonance with Leader Pirapaharan who identified and groomed him for the responsibility to restore the political rights of the Tamil People. He crafted a form and style of  interaction with national and international persons and institutions that is unique to his personality.

His Legacy

It is a time for recollection and reflection on the life of Brigadier Thamilchelvan who dedicated the last 23 years of his 40 year life to defend and re-establish the rights of the Tamil people in the battlefield and in the international arena. These are rights that the colonial powers took away from us by force more than three hundred years ago when they left us chained to a neo-colonial Sinhala Buddhist state based on majoritarianism. This Sinhala Buddhist state began showing its true colors in 1956 when it put the yolk of ‘Sinhala Only’ on the neck of the Tamil people.

Brigadier Thamilchelvan was part of a Tamil force that sacrifices their lives daily to regain our freedom. After a military life, he learnt his statecraft from the Tamil National Leader Mr. Pirapaharan and Mr. Anton Balasingham, both before and during the various negotiations with the GoSL. He bore a heavy load when Mr. Balasingam passed away in 2006.  He, in essence, administered and directed the political affairs of a de jure but un-recognized state. He was the Secretary of State and a negotiator for the political rights of the Tamil people with the GoSL and the international community. In his travels he was well-liked and well-received by the Tamil Diaspora and the sections of the international community truly interested in a negotiated resolution of the conflict between the Tamil Nation and the Sinhala Nation.

At public meetings in Kilinochchi and in his travels, he would explain to the people the struggle and sacrifices that Tamils all over the world are making, have made, and must continue to make to regain our freedom. He would elaborate in simple terms the difficulties of negotiating with the GoSL and the difficultly in ensuring that the GoSL honour its commitments to any agreements reached in the past and in the future. He smiled when a smile was needed and showed a tough demeanor when it was necessary to emphasize the importance of a point.

The Interim Self-Government Authority

Mr. Thamilchelvan’s ability to get people and professional groups to work harmoniously together goes far beyond his disarming smile. It came to light in an important way when a group of Tamil legal and political professionals was assembled to formulate a document on a proposed ‘Interim Government’ to submit to the GoSL (Ranil Wickremasinghe’s administration). He got all well informed Tamils in and out of the NorthEast to review the drafts prepared by the specialist committee. The process produced nine drafts of the document, the last of which the LTTE accepted as being from the people and presented to the GoSL for discussion. 

The development of the ISGA was a cascading participatory democratic political process that reached a consensus after many months of discussion and debate from a wide spectrum of Tamil opinion. It was the first time that the Tamils put forward a comprehensive, detailed document that extrapolated on the Thimbu Principles and depicted the form that a self-governing Tamil Nation would take and the way it would function in cooperation and in peace with a self-governing Sinhala Nation. Thamilchelvan orchestrated this democratic process and thus laid the foundation of a Tamil interim government. This process laid out the concepts and buttressed the argument for the future establishment of the right to self-determination of the Tamil people and the necessary structure that would achieve self-government. With his enchanting personality, in-depth direct experience from the war front, and the long and arduous development of the civil administration of a self governing state, he guided the massive group of Tamils to come up with the ISGA. The process and the document reflected the long felt aspirations of the Tamil people.

Tsunami

Mr. Thamilchelvan was a master of diplomacy and was able to get people from all walks of life with vastly differing views to cooperate, compromise and arrive at a solution that was acceptable to all. During the Tsunami reconstruction phase he chaired the Planning Division meetings many times in an effort to get all NGOs, International NGOS, and UN Agencies to agree to a systematic efficient system of reconstruction that was well coordinated, equitable, humane, limited duplication or overlapping of efforts and ensured accountability so that the needs of the people were met. He showed patience with the many members, listening and discussing each objection or suggestion that they had until the group came to an agreement on each point.  He recognised the ideas of all and ensured that they were heard. His main questions were aimed at determining what would benefit the people the most. It was a joy and privilege to be part of the process that he chaired. He brought out the best that is deep down in each person.

In early 2006 UNDP formulated a ‘Sports for Peace’ program. Thamilchelvan gave the document for my observation. Though the project seemed to be a part of the GoSL counter-insurgency program to wean the people from those who are fighting for them, it did have continued substantial funding to improve sports in the NorthEast. It also had the provision to operate through the Ministry of Nation Building to bring young sportspersons from both communities together. I was critical of items that went beyond sports and seemed to support the political agenda of the GoSL.  Mr. Thamilchelvan’s request was whether the project could be implemented without the involvement of the GoSL. It was proposed that UNDP form an advisory council consisting of representatives of the Sports Associations that are affiliated to international sports associations with representatives from the Ministry of Nation Building. He accepted that with the caution that if children from the NorthEast are to travel to the South, then the children from the South should also come and enjoy Tamil hospitality. He advised me that I should not demand anything that would jeopardize any benefits that our Tamil children would get through the project. UNDP accepted that compromise. The war started in August, but the UNDP project continued. When Tamil children from the Vanni were to go to the South, the government refused to let the Sinhala children visit the Vanni. As there were no neutral city, that part of the UNDP project was not implemented. 

Thamilchelvan was a person who was just and compromising as long as the equality between the Tamil and Sinhala people was maintained in any activities. When that principle was violated, his charming smile disappears. He dedicated his life to equality and died from the actions of those who are bent on putting the Tamils in their choking grip.  His principles and his vision cannot be destroyed. They have taken root during the last twenty-five years amid much suffering visited on the Tamils by successive Sri Lankan governments and they have multiplied in geometric proportions.

What the Tamils and the World have lost

The Tamil people have lost a friend, a magnetic focal point that forged the political will of the Tamil people from within Tamil Eelam and around the world, especially since the CFA in 2002 and through its choppy process to the present. He was the public face of the LTTE and the Tamil people looked up to him as the person who could lead the negotiations aimed at achieving a dignified and just solution that ensured the rights of the Tamil people.  The GoSL understood the popularity of Mr. Thamilchelvan amongst the Tamil People and the international community. He genuinely projected the hope for a peaceful, final resolution of the conflict. The Rajapaksa government is bent on a military defeat of the LTTE and, like most Sri Lankan leaders throughout history, desires only to negotiate with those quisling Tamils who can be molded into the shape of a clay begging bowl and will accept the crumbs that the Sinhala Buddhist government gives them.

Thamilchelvan, with all his diplomacy, charming smile and genuine commitment to peace, had a steel core that would not bend when it came to the right to self-determination of the Tamil people.  It is this core belief that he wished and expected all Tamil people in the world to have. The Rajapaksa government finally realised this truth: that Tamils were getting stronger through the work of Thamilchelvan. Rajapaksa’s answer was to assassinate him, to cut off the Tamil people from this steely core that spoke for them and demanded their rights.  From the reaction of the Tamil people, both inside and outside Sri Lanka, to the assassination of Mr. Thamilchelvan, the Rajapaksa brothers' action is in vain.  Thamilchelvan’s life and death, and the mode of his death, have made the Tamil people unite together and now present an even more formidable challenge to the GoSL’s acts of genocide and its hope of assimilating the Tamils into a Sinhala Buddhist state that will ensure that the Tamils are dominated and kept in the position of second class citizens.

The Future

During the last thirteen years I have lived half or more of each year in Trincomalee, Jaffna, and Kilinochchi, and have traveled throughout the NorthEast and most of the ‘South.’ I have discussed the conflict with people from many walks of life and read most of the published material on the conflict. My sum-up is that the majority of Sinhala voters and the substantial majority of Sinhala politicians and Buddhist priests are not interested in a solution that would give any real powers to the Tamil people to make decisions that affect them as a community of peoples. The ‘Southern’ polity will not be able to agree amongst themselves the form that a legitimate, just political solution acceptable to the Tamils will take, let alone be able to implement and adhere to such an agreement.

The Tamil people are now left with the hope that the international community will help them attain their right to self-determination. If that fails, then the Tamils will only have the military option available to them to prevent the gradual state-sponsored, state-aided assimilation, or worse genocide, of the Tamil people by the Sinhala majority and their leaders. This is a time when decisions and choices will be made that will alter the course of the history of the Tamils in this naturally beautiful island. It is important that Tamils throughout the world recognize that the death of Thamilchelvan, over 18,000 Tamil freedom fighters, and more than 65,000 Tamil civilians, as well as the atrocities that were visited upon us, are all ominous evidence that we must stand together to establish our right to self-determination so as to achieve self-government and the recognition that under international law Tamils have the right to take up arms to restore our rights.  If we fail in our resolve then we have failed Thamilchelvan and those who died for our rights and we would have also failed the future generations of Tamils.  They may then ask, “Where did all the Tamils go when they were needed." Let us not give them the chance to answer, “They were in their silent, Virtual Worlds.”

The Tamil Nation has been deprived of this “Man for all seasons;” a man who would have been invaluable in any post conflict scenario. My wife, children, their spouses and grandchildren wish the wife and children of Mr. Thamilchelvan and the families of the others who died with him, the strength to endure this difficult time in the realization that their loved ones died for the Tamil peoples’ freedom, they did not die in vain, their sacrifice is appreciated, their Will is the Will of the Tamil people, and that Will, will be done.