Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Amirthalingam Anthology

To mark the 20th year of his demise

by Sachi Sri Kantha, July 16, 2009

First, by following the parliamentary route, Amirthalingam permitted himself to be checkmated by his Sinhalese adversary J.R. Jayewardene. Secondly, by depending on India’s assistance and intrigues (from 1983 to 1989), Amirthalingam became a captive and virtual prisoner of India’s mandarins, who behind his back plotted his downfall. Thirdly, even if one follows the parliamentary route and continue to stand for Tamil rights defiantly, he would be tagged as a traitor of the (Sinhalese) Sri Lankan nation. How Amirthalingam’s image came to be transformed posthumously as a mascot by patriotic Sinhalese will turn out to be a good study of Sinhalese hypocrisy. I have least doubt that, Amirthalingam (when alive) would have resented such an unworthy adoption by the Sinhalese hypocrites. As Krishnakumar, an Indian journalist, recorded in 1989, even Amirthalingam’s death was “cloaked in intrigue”. He ended his obituary note with a teaser: “One thing is certain: Amirthalingam was set up. Who or why may never be known.”

I met Appapillai Amirthalingam (1927-1989) only once in Colombo, and that too as an autograph hunter. On that occasion, obligingly, he acceded to my request. But I had one opportunity which many might not have had. Amirthalingam’s youngest son Bahirathan was my student at the University of Peradeniya in 1979, for a little less than an year. At that time, Amirthalingam was holding the exalted position as the Leader of Opposition. As such, occasionally I could discuss with Bahirathan the troubles and travails faced by his father.

A. Amirthalingam Lanka Guardian cover June 15 1982As I have noted previously in one of my commentaries, only five Tamils (G.G. Ponnambalam Sr, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, S. Thondaman Sr, Amirthalingam and V. Prabhakaran) rose to the ranks of being identified prominently as the Tamil leaders in Ceylon/Sri Lanka for the past 65 years. As such, at various times, all five were at the receiving end of targeted cynicism, ridicule and taunt for their courage to fight for Tamil rights. Of these five, two (Ponnambalam Sr and Thondaman Sr) opted to join the Sinhala-dominated cabinet and, once this happened, they became exempt from ridicule. The other three never joined the Sinhala-dominated cabinet and, until their end, they had to tolerate the barbs and arrows of the Sinhalese for their convictions.

Among the other three (Chelvanayakam, Amirthalingam and Prabhakaran), luck played a role in anointing Appapillai Amirthalingam as the Leader of the Opposition from 1977 to 1983. As such, he became a tragic figure in the recent times of Sri Lankan history. After 1980, Amirthalingam faced opposition from all corners. He was tactically checkmated by his prime political adversary - the wily J.R. Jayawardene. Majority Sinhalese (especially the likes of Cyril Mathew and Dr. Neville Fernando) envied and verbally taunted him within the parliament chamber. Even among the Tamil voters, because of the political position he chose to hold, he came to be attacked. His Eastern front contemporaries like C. Rajadurai turned against him. A senior Federal Party leader like V. Navaratnam who had parted company (more than a decade earlier) critiqued him for his false steps. Within his TULF party, a ginger group (led by S.C. Chandrahasan, M.K. Eelaventhan and Kovai Mahesan) opposed him. Beyond the TULF, junior contemporaries like G.G. (Kumar) Ponnambalam needled him. Then, even the young Tamil militants who were flexing their muscles, strongly opposed his parliamentary-style advocacy of Tamil rights. Not to be harsh on him, hindsight shows that some of Amirthalingam’s troubles were self-inflicted, partially due to arrogance of a sort.

Amirthalingam’s political career deserves highlight for another reason as well. Perhaps his insight into the Sinhalese political mind (provided to Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson in 1987) can teach something about the intransigence of Sinhalese hegemony to the academics, analysts and journalists in USA and elsewhere who have jumped onto the terrorism industry bandwagon since the 1990s to outlandishly smear the LTTE and Prabhakaran.

In the past, for the purpose of recording the Eelam Tamil history, I have transcribed Amirthalingam’s speeches and interviews to be posted in this website. To mark the 20th death anniversary of Amirthalingam that fell on July 13, I have compiled the following anthology that contains the observations of journalists (S. Sivanayagam, Mervyn de Silva, David Selbourne, Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson, and B. Krishnakumar).

Though comparisons are deceptive due to the generational gap, I hold the view that Amirthalingam’s political career (both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary) provides a good foil to study the origins of Prabhakaran’s career. Three facts become clear. First, by following the parliamentary route, Amirthalingam permitted himself to be checkmated by his Sinhalese adversary J.R. Jayewardene. Secondly, by depending on India’s assistance and intrigues (from 1983 to 1989), Amirthalingam became a captive and virtual prisoner of India’s mandarins, who behind his back plotted his downfall. Thirdly, even if one follows the parliamentary route and continue to stand for Tamil rights defiantly, he would be tagged as a traitor of the (Sinhalese) Sri Lankan nation. How Amirthalingam’s image came to be transformed posthumously as a mascot by patriotic Sinhalese will turn out to be a good study of Sinhalese hypocrisy. I have least doubt that, Amirthalingam (when alive) would have resented such an unworthy adoption by the Sinhalese hypocrites. As Krishnakumar, an Indian journalist, had recorded in 1989, even Amirthalingam’s death was “cloaked in intrigue”. He ended his obituary note with a teaser: “One thing is certain: Amirthalingam was set up. Who or why may never be known.”

I provide below five items arranged in chronological order (including one that appeared posthumously) about Amirthalingam’s post 1980 career. His interview to Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson, published in their book War Zones (1988) provides a good synopsis of his career and outlook. Note that dots (wherever they are in these items) are as in the originals.

‘Mervyn de Silva’: The Tigers –a loyalty test for the TULF. Lanka Guardian, June 15, 1982, pp. 3-5.

S. Sivanayagam: The impotence of being Amirthalingam. Saturday Review, Jaffna, Sept.4, 1982.

David Selbourne: Close encounters of Various kinds - TULF. Lanka Guardian, Oct. 15, 1982, pp. 12-13. [originally appeared in the Illustrated Weekly of India.]

Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson Interview in 1987: War Zones: Voices from the World’s Killing Grounds, Dodd Mead, New York, 1988, pp. 179-183.

B. Krishnakumar: Amirthalingam always played it safe. The Week, Kochi, July 23, 1989, p. 32.

The 'TIGERS' – a loyalty test for the TULF

‘Mervyn de Silva’

[Lanka Guardian, June 15, 1982, pp. 3-5.]

‘Rival Palestinian groups fight and kill each other’s members but this does not destroy the PLO or extinguish Palestinian nationalism’ said a veteran Colombo-based Tamil lawyer who counts a brief career in politics. If his implied parallel holds, does that make the TULF the PLO of a yet unrealized ‘Eelam’?

‘Whateve may have lead those young men to shoot it out in Pondy Bazaar, Madras, the gun-battle and the political consequences here have certainly caught Amirthalingam in the crossfire’ observed a Jaffna don who is sympathetic to the ‘Sutantiran’ group.

On June 2, the first anniversary of the burning of the Jaffna Public Library by policemen on the rampage, the TULF (and Opposition) leader spoke ‘with a heavy heart’, publicly deploring ‘disunity’ among the Tamils but claiming 90% Tamil support for his party. Mathematics-minded Jaffna may give or take a few percentage points but there’s little reason to doubt Mr. Amirthalingam’s knowledgeable head-count. And now that Mr. Vimalarajah has been released after so many long months under detention without trial, the sad victim of a law which still boasts the unconsciously ironic title of Prevention of Terrorism (temporary provisions) Act, the TULF leader’s heart may be slightly less heavy.

Student strike

Even so, the Vimalarajah episode, the student demonstrations in the street, the campus strike and three-day fast, and the obvious show of sympathy by Jaffna shop keepers who put down shutters reflect the deeper problems now troubling the TULF and its top leadership. Mr. Amirthalingam (and his wife) and Mr. Yogeswaran, the Jaffna MP, were involved in various incidents and encounters all directly related to the Vimalarajah protest campaign, and all very embarrassing personally and politically. The Amirthalingams went through some rough verbal flak when their jeep had to weave its way past a winding street ‘demo’ protesting against the continued incarceration of Mr. Vimalarajah, the final year Jaffna University student.

It is widely believed that it was TULF and Mr. Amirthalingam’s personal intervention which helped wrench what seemed a government concession. Vimalarajah could study at the Gurunagar base, and sit his finals. But no. Vimalarajah was of tougher fibre. He refused to sit his exams unless he was released or brought to trial.

Mr. Amirthalingam and Mr. Yogeswaran (probably because he is the Jaffna MP, he is closer to the young radicals than most others) did visit the campus during the three-day fast. Alas, too late. Mr. Sarath Muttetuwegama, the sole CP MP (and a Sinhalese from distant Kalawana) had already been there. Some of the campus firebrands were heard to say that no photographs should be taken of the fasting students together with the TULF duo! Then came the humiliating incident of the bodyguard’s vanishing revolver!

Why TULF leader chose to go into the campus with his official bodyguard, a sub-inspector, nobody knows but it did give the anti-TULF group a chance to stage a ‘show’ of high publicity value and demonstration effect. The revolver of course was returned. Anyway, it was clear that the wave of anti-TULF feeling in Jaffna among a new, if still small, segment of Tamils was running high.

TULF’s trials

Trivial as they may seem, the campus incidents do indicate problems which have much to do with the TULF’s currently undefined and ambivalent relations with the UNP, and its increasingly evident inability to satisfy a long aggrieved Tamil constituency of wich it still remains undoubtedly the most authoritative spokesman. And these problems which thrust the TULF right into the vortex of the politics of ethnic and party conflict in Sri Lanka are seriously aggravated by a government which, it is equally evident, is nervously hesitant in granting even the TULF’s minimum demands in case such concessions entail the unacceptable risk of alienating majority Sinhala sentiment in this pre-election year.

For so many months now the TULF has been negotiating a ‘political settlement’ with the UNP leadership, starting with President Jayewardene himself, who has to approach the matter from two angles:

(a) De-fusing the ethnic tensions which have bedeviled his government’s work ever since the riots of July-August last year and improving UNP-TULF relations in the hope that the (Ceylon) Tamil vote outside the north and east will vote as strongly UNP as the Indian Tamil vote is expected to do.

(b) In the absence of a TULF candidate at the Presidential elections, the vast majority of Tamils will vote JR as the least objectionable Sinhala leader.

DDC Issue [note: DDC stands for district development councils]

Besides questions like the setting up of ‘home guards’, the withdrawal of the army, the deployment of at least 50% Tamil-speaking policemen etc, the critical political issue is the powers of the newly created DDCs, now something of an empty shell. Without financial powers these DDCs will remain only nominally progressive experiments in devolution. The Trinco[malee] DDC learnt very quickly that it just didn’t have the authority to impose taxes on hotels in that flourishing resort area. If you cannot raise money, the DDC is little better than a YMCA or Student Council.

A sizeable section of Tamils in the north appear to believe quite honestly that President Jayewardene wants to grant financial powers to the DDCs as long as it does not look as if he is giving camouflaged ‘regional councils’ (or federalism!), which is precisely what the Sinhala Bala Mandalaya will start yelling if it half suspects it or is tipped the wink by, say, Mrs. B [andaranaike] who now enjoys the company of Dr. Neville Fernando according to the Island. (So much for the TULF’s 5 party bloc and Jaffna ‘honeymoon’ with Mrs. B.)

Vested with financial power, the DDCs can inch from genuine decentralization towards a measure of regional autonomy, and that will certainly be the kind of ‘political solution’ that can satisfy a majority of Tamils, at least for sometime. So the majority of Tamils in the north are backing the TULF and JR in the hopeful conviction that a settlement could also lead to (a) a less harsh military presence, (b) the ordinary Tamil going about his daily business in peace, and living with self-respect, and (c) a gradual equalization of opportunities (education, jobs) for the new generation of Tamils vis-à-vis. the Sinhalese in the south.

Such a lowering of the temperature (first between TULF and government, and then between Tamils and Sinhalese) would make conditions more difficult for the ‘Tigers’ who are in any case engaged in a furious fratricidal war of their own. A less active ‘Tiger’ operation would also put the armed forces in a better mood, and open the way to a phased withdrawal. This is the scenario in the minds of most thinking middle class, not too politicized, Tamils in the peninsula.

It is a scenario which is warmly supported by the Colombo Tamils because they are the first casualties in that vicious circle of violence and counterviolence we have known for the past 5 or 6 years: individual terrorism, state terrorism, racial outburst. Secondly, the upper crust of these Colombo Tamils, the group that wields economic power and political influence, is as much (if not more) pro-UNP as it is pro-TULF.

The trouble is there are too many irritants, drawbacks, and impediments for such a neat settlement to take place. Many Tamil youth groups, small in number but defiant in spirit, have never had much faith in the TULF. Some believe that the TULF’s ‘Eelam’ is more rhetorical than real, a short-cut to parliament. Even those who believe that it is necessary to have a solid working relationship with the TULF do so only as a tactic, only because the TULF has an enormous mass backing and because a parliamentary forum is also essential to the ‘struggle’. Some of these groups, notably, the Tigers, have taken to the gun. Others, biding their time, may now decide to fill the vacuum if the ‘tigers’, who are really non-ideological, engage in a mass kamikaze of sorts.

It is a new factor however that worries the TULF. With the protracted negotiations dragging on, with TULF passivity more evident, and the army presence looking more permanent, Tamil frustration and helplessness grows. The TULF is now being criticized from within its own ranks, and the leadership fears a slow erosion of its once well-established support base. A new radical group of highly respectable Tamils challenging the TULF leadership has grabbed the ‘Tigers’ issue as a ready-made cudgel to clobber the TULF. On whose side are you? With the government that wants extradition or with the Tigers who are ‘better off’ in Madras?

The new group includes Dr. S.A. Dharmalingam – uncle of the Jaffna MP, the highly regarded son of Mr. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam – the Gandhian father figure of the Tamil movement, and Mr. Mahesan – the editor of Sutantiran (SJV’s daily paper) and Mr. Eelavendan – the sacked Central Bank official. Mr. Chandrahasan left for Madras, a day after the arrests.

The Test

If the ‘Tigers’ are the ‘test’ imposed by the radical Tamils, it is the self-same test that Mr. [Cyril] Mathew and like-minded Sinhala patriots always insisted upon in confrontation with the TULF. Mr. Mathew, extraordinarily quiet after the President cracked down hard on the racialist mavericks in the UNP (they were ‘heroes’ the previous month) now finds time to say a few complimentary words about the TULF leaders….but only because what the Lanka Guardian called the revanchist ‘Dutugemunuism’ has slipped  has slipped away into the hands of Dr. Fernando, the monks, Mr Siri Perera, the Bala Mandalaya, and is rapidly moving towards its natural ally, Mrs. B.! (It is their demand for the restoration of Mrs. B.’s civic rights which has alarmed the UNP…)

Mr. Mathew used to ask the TULF the same question…where do you stand vis-à-vis the Tigers? The more responsible UNP leaders, eager anyway for a deal with the TULF, make a more modest demand: disclaim terrorism, disown the Tigers. This the TULF does…but not unambiguously enough and in too soft a voice to satisfy the Sinhalese. Yet it is loud enough to incense the Tamil youth and TULF critics.

Tigers and Tamil Nadu

How quickly the ‘Tigers’ became a sensitive issue in the tangled politics of Tamilnadu. The story that the Sri Lankan ‘Tigers’ had chief minister MGR on the hit list may be somebody’s fanciful yarn. Yet it is no secret that the Tigers (and some of the TULF leaders) are much closer to Karunanidhi’s DMK than to MGR’s ADMK which has warm contacts with Mr. Thondaman.

But the poster campaign, the protest marches, the rallies and the petitions to Mrs. Gandhi about the Sri Lanka request for extradition [of Prabhakaran] had their effect on MGR and the ruling party whose Central Committee finally decided to take the same pro-‘Tigers’ line for fear of being outflanked by the DMK. As a result, MGR rejected out of hand the suggestion that these ‘terrorists’ should be sent back for trial in Colombo. Crimes in Sri Lanka? What crimes, he asked. Terrorists? Wasn’t Subhas Chandra Bose also called a terrorist?

Tigers and Foreign Policy

With his usual dry humour, President JR chose the Baden Powell Commemoration meeting to announce that ‘the Tigers have been tamed’. Will they turn out to be nice little boy scouts, trusty, loyal and helpful? Or will they just slip into their jungle hide-outs for the time being, while the gang war takes precedence over the battle against the security forces? But if this is indeed the end of the ‘Tigers’, will some other group move in to fill the vacuum?

Meanwhile, the Tigers, willy-nilly, have taught the UNP a lesson in the importance of foreign policy, a subject which Sri Kotha has traditionally spurned. Friendship with India has always been the cornerstone of JR Thought on Foreign Policy, whenever he did speak on the subject in opposition. But the UNP’s economic strategy, its heavy reliance on western aid, its economic model (Singapore/ASEAN) forced a gradual drift in its nonalignment ASEAN-wards. The Premier’s Manila announcement came only a fortnight after the first South Asian Forum met in Colombo. The pull was away from India and the subcontinent.

Foreign policy is not the same as national security, but a foreign policy that does not give high priority to security is meaningless. For small countries foreign policy is forward defence. While ‘security’ is often spelt out in ‘external’ terms (threats from outside), internal security is now a more worrying Third World problem. The Tigers could not exist, let alone thrive, without escape routes, without sanctuary outside, and a favourable political environment. That was Madras and Tamilnadu, and it is the Madras police who have broken the back of the clandestine movement.

[Notes added by Sachi in 2009: (1) In early 1980s, there was much confusion on the real identity of ‘Tigers’. So, Colombo journalists tagged any Tamil militant activity with the generic ‘tiger’. Mervyn de Silva makes a passing reference to the arrest of V. Prabhakaran on May 19, 1982, in Madras, and the extradition issue without identifying him by name. (2) He had also erred in mentioning that Sutantiran as a ‘daily’. It was a daily in 1950s, but by 1970s when Kovai Mahesan was the editor, it had become a weekly. (3) At the end of this commentary, de Silva had improvised a new word ‘Dutugemunuism’ (that cannot be located in any English dictionary) that can be understood in Sri Lankans. It refers to the ancient Sinhalese king Dutugemunu recorded in Mahavamsa chronicle, whose reign was from 161-137 BC. His claim to fame was that, against paternal advice, as a young aspirant to the throne he defeated an aging Tamil king Elara by guile, in a duel staged while both competitors were riding the elephants. As the appended prefix Dutu, (derived from Pali Dushta; literally meaning ‘bad’) to his name implies, he was probably considered ‘bad’ by his contemporaries, for his brigand demeanor and deception. (4) I view that de Silva’s assertion that MGR had ‘warm contacts with Mr. Thondaman’ was nothing but a fanciful yarn, to promote a pseudo-fantasy that J.R.Jayewardene had his own links to MGR. (5) Though this particular commentary did not carry Mervyn de Silva’s by-line, it can be safely assumed that the ‘News Background’ feature of his magazine was penned by him. Corroborative evidence for this can be traced from his style of writing.]

*****

The Impotence of being Amirthalingam

S. Sivanayagam

[ Saturday Review, Jaffna, Sept. 4, 1982]

There are two roads open to politicians – the high road and the low road. Many mediocrities in politics instinctively choose the latter. But men who have talent and ability and know they have it, develop a well-defined power impulse. After all, no man, unless he has a love of power can possibly shape the course of events in a country. TULF leader Mr Amirthalingam is one who is cast in the mould of a leader with a well developed power impulse. Even during the Satyagraha phase of the Federal Party under the benign leadership of the late Mr S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, Mr Amirthalingam was known to the Tamil masses as ‘Thalapathy’ (the peace time ‘General’).

When the Tamil politics entered into a new militant phase, the hour threw a leader. If Mr Chelvanayakam with his very sensitive face and his natural infirmities and sickness symbolized the passive, sorry state of the Tamil people, Mr Amirthalingam with his ‘chest forward’ stance and his aggressive and arrogant tones typified the new militant mood of an emerging Tamil nation. The present disillusionment with his leadership arose out of a simple reason. No leader in public life can afford to behave out of character, and that is precisely what Mr Amirthalingam has been doing over the past one year or more. It was Emerson who said: ‘Men are conservatives when they are least vigorous, or when they are most luxurious. They are conservatives after dinner.’ If Mr Amirthalingam has now earned the image of DOVE in the Tamil ranks, (surrounded by a whole bevy of parrots) it cannot be because he is less ‘vigorous’ or more ‘luxurious’. It was possibly the soporific efforts of a good dinner that has made him a ‘conservative’. And that dinner came in the form of the office of the Leader of the Opposition! It is characteristic of men like Mr Amirthalingam that they cannot be cowed down by aggression or a frontal assault. But to high office and honeyed words they have no answer in their personal armoury.

The phase of the amity talks has also ended now. But at what cost to the Tamil nation? All what the TULF has got out of the wild goose chase after Development Councils is a Mace and Throne for the Jaffna Chairman Mr Nadarajah. State-aided colonization which was one of the main planks on which Tamil grievance was built has been intensified more than ever while the TULF held their amity talks. What is worse it has become a military-aided colonization. According to the figures of the provisional census of 1981, the Sinhala and the Sri Lankan Tamil populations in the Trincomalee district, were 86,341 and 86,743 respectively. The difference was a mere 402! We are sure by now Trincomalee is well on the way to become a Sinhala-majority district. State-aided ethnic-based colonization has been the root cause of all communal conflict, and that policy is being pursued more ruthlessly than ever before.

Unless the TULF leadership has the courage to do a right-about turn at this eleventh hour, they will be the first losers even from the selfish point of view of the pursuit of power. It is foolish to talk of the importance of being Amirthalingam, at this juncture. What is distressing the vast mass of the people in the North and East is the impotence of Mr Amirthalingam as the Tamil leader right now.

*****

Close encounters of Various kinds - TULF.

David Selbourne

[Lanka Guardian, Oct. 15, 1982, pp. 12-13.]

The days of Appapillai Amirthalingam, the secretary-general of the TULF, must surely be numbered. He described himself to me as ‘no longer leader of His Majesty’s loyal opposition, but of a liberation movement’. Yet he has not only been leading his own troops away from the sound of gunfire, but at the same time denying the obvious: that it is the activities of the Tigers which have induced Jayewardene to discuss Tamil demands with the TULF in the first place. Moreover he told me that ‘we will have to learn to get used to the army in the Northern Province’. ‘How?’ I asked him. ‘Like we live with mosquitoes’, he answered, laughing. He did not sound like the Tamils’ liberator.

There are many sets of horns to his dilemma: among them, that to pacify his own Tamil militants, he is trying to extract concessions from the Sinhalese by discreet, and even secret negotiation which only the force of the militants, or a mass campaign of civil disobedience could possibly deliver.

He himself believes that dialogue, not the approach of the election season, has led to the containment of repression (though at best, it is only a lull in official anti-Tamil violence). ‘I have no army, no police, to give my people protection’, he told me. ‘I had to go to those with power and get them to maintain law and order. If I had told Jayewardene to go to hell, so many more Tamils would have gone to heaven. We are not fighting from a position of strength. We are walking on the edge of a razor’. He calls his a ‘pragmatic’ approach, and says that in the complex chess game he is playing, or thinks that he is playing, with Jayewardene, ‘we have enough brains not to be checkmated’.

The TULF President, M. Sivasithamparam, asserts (without conviction) that negotiations with the Sinhalese have ‘enabled us to buy time, to regroup ourselves’; and R. Sambanthan, the TULF MP for Trincomalee – which is gradually going under to Sinhalese colonization – that ‘we are plugging for more and more delegation and devolution’. But the main TULF leadership has already lost the support of the Tamil younger generation; even Amirthalingam’s own son is opposed to what his father is doing.

Part of the trouble is that, as Tamil militancy has grown, the TULF’s elderly parliamentarians, many of them lawyers – they call it the Tamil United Lawyers’ Front – have got out of their depths with the talk of ‘armed struggle’; to say nothing of the fact that they have more in common, in class terms, with their opposite numbers that divides them. Amirthalingam even sympathizes with Jayewardene’s own dilemma. ‘I am able to see’ he told me, ‘that he cannot move as far as he would like’; but what Amirthalingam apparently cannot see is that he is himself being overtaken.

Sivasithamparam, at least, acknowledges that it is ‘too late to ruminate on whether negotiation was an error’; V. Yogeswaran, the popular and outspoken MP for Jaffna, says that ‘the talks should never have been started’ (‘I was elected on a mandate to bring about Tamil Eelam’, he added); S.C. Chandrahasan, the son of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, a previous leader of the Tamils, declares roundly that the talks have been ‘fruitless’, and that ‘though the TULF may be seeking compromise, our people will never accept it’.

Certainly, with Lenin (increasingly) in their pockets and guns in their holsters, the Tamil militants in the north are now a world away, not only from traditional Hinduism, but from the leather-bound law reports in the Colombo offices of most of their leaders. ‘After the 1981 riots’, Chandrahasan says, ‘I told our youth: give the TULF one last chance. Instead they went back to dialogue. Ours was a mass movement’, he says bitterly, ‘until the TULF opted for negotiation’.

It seems only a matter of time before he takes over his father’s mantle from the discredited TULF leaders. And his is not Amirthalingam’s language: ‘repression’, he declares, ‘helps to make our struggle a reality and suffering takes us towards our goal.’ Amirthalingam stresses the weakness of the Tamils; Chandrahasan their determination. And if the latter were to succeed to the leadership, there would not merely be an end to negotiation, but a boycott of Sri Lankan institutions, and the setting up of a provisional government, whether in Jaffna, or ‘in exile’.

Interview to Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson

[source: War Zones – Voices from the World’s Killing Grounds, by Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson, Dodd Mead & Co, New York, 1988, pp. 179-183.

Amirthalingam was one of the 250 interviewees of Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson for their book War Zones, that covered conflicts in five lands (Northern Ireland, El Salvador, Uganda, Israel and Sri Lanka). Of the 302 pages of text, Amirthalingam interview was spread over 3 pages. The complete text is as follows. The dots and words within parenthesis, wherever they appear, are as in the original.

Front Note:

‘He lounges majestically on the threadbare golden sofa, the gold brocade curtains behind him completing the effect of a throne room. Appapillai Amirthalingam, 59, is a husky, bespectacled man wearing a white dhoti, matching shirt, and gold watch. The balding head and sturdy, rotund figure give him the appearance of a mirthful Buddha.

The room is spacious, with chairs arrayed against the walls and toys in the corner for visiting grandchildren. On the peeling veranda of this state guest house in Madras, where Amirthalingam lives on invitation of the Indian state government, a sentry is poised with an old Lee-Enfield repeating rifle. Amirthalingam’s wife moves through the room occasionally with a cordless phone; her husband receives many calls in his role as the paterfamilias to Sri Lanka’s Tamil exiles.

Amirthalingam was once the chief of the main Tamil political party in Sri Lanka, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). While historically it sought to bring about reform within the existing political framework, in 1977 the TULF campaigned on a proindependence platform, winning a majority in the Tamil areas, but also inviting the anger and suspicion of the government. In the wake of the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, the government demanded a loyalty pledge; the TULF members refused and consequently were stripped of their parliamentary seats. Today, most TULF leaders are in exile, leaving the Tamils without any elected representation in Sri Lanka. Now the Sri Lankan government is reestablishing links to the Tamil moderates; Amirthalingam plays an important role in the negotiations between the Tamil separatists and the governments of Sri Lanka and India.’

Amirthalingam’s words

“I came here to Madras as a result of the ’83 riots. You see, most of our houses were attacked and destroyed. In fact, I was Leader of the Opposition of the Sri Lanka Parliament, and my official residence in Colombo was attacked and, though it was a government house, the hoodlums attacked it and plundered everything – all my documents, my clothes, (chuckles) personal belongings. All were looted.

When the riots actually broke out in Colombo, we were having the annual convention of the TULF in Mannar, the northern city. In fact, in Mannar itself we would have been killed by the mobs, if not for some Tamil police officers who happened to be there who saved us and took us to a remote village about fifty miles away, to a place of hiding.

I wanted to come across to India, to meet Mrs. Gandhi and get India’s support to put an end to the genocidal attacks that were going on against our people. So, actually (grins), I managed to get to Colombo under disguise and took a plane and came over to India in August ’83.

To go to Colombo I had to go in disguise, or I might have been attacked on the way. I had to pass through Sinhala territory and, you know, I am easily identified – they all know me, having seen me on the television and my photograph in the newspapers and all that. I covered my bald head with a toupee, (laughs) and some of my friends helped me and took me across.

Now I am the guest of the government of Tamil Nadu state. This is the state guest house, and they have provided security and all facilities for me. Right from that time, I have been enjoying their hospitality. You would have noticed the sentry outside (laughs) and the security officers and all that, because they feel that there is a danger to me even here. They have provided that security, not that I asked for it.

The danger is also from the [Tamil] militants. In fact, that is some… a matter of …. recent development; during the last year that situation came up. You see, newspapers published reports that there was a pending agreement between us and the Sri Lanka government on some solution. That provided an occasion for… some groups – for one particular group – to attack two of my colleagues and kill them in Jaffna. Two of my former Members of Parliament were killed on the second of September, ’85. So, since that time, there is the danger…

Now, I think we have reached a stage when we have to finally decide whether a negotiated settlement is going to come through or we’ll be thrown back to a protracted armed struggle. The longer this thing gets protracted, the more radicalized the youth are becoming. And also, frustration is leading to quite a number of our youth leaving the country. From four to five hundred thousand Tamils have left the shores of Sri Lanka. They are living as refugees in India and all over the world. In Western Europe, I am sure we must be having about a hundred thousand by now! And every day the youth are leaving. I do not know where they are going! Because judging from the number of young men who come to see me, to get letters that they may use for claiming to be refugees, I can see that every day, one hundred, two hundred young men are coming here to see me, to get letters from me! So if every day there is an exodus… this can’t go on indefinitely!

My own son is a political exile. My eldest son. You see, he was one of those who…one of the pioneers in the militant youth movement at a time when I was a moderate parliamentary politician.

What happened was, in 1974 he was a student here in Madras, just seventeen years old at that time. There was a World Tamil Research Conference held at Jaffna; Tamil scholars from all over the world had come and participated. At the final meeting, where about fifty thousand people were assembled, the Sinhala police ran amok and nine Tamils were killed. That was when Mrs. Bandaranaike was prime minister, so when she came to Madras, my son, along with three other young men, got together and they bombed the deputy high commission, and he was arrested and prosecuted. But, of course, there was a general sympathy here; he pleaded guilty straightaway and some [minor] punishment was imposed.

But when he came back to Sri Lanka, the police started hunting him down. You see, the Mayor of Jaffna, a Tamil gentleman but who was thought to have had some connection with the police and had played a part in that [1974] attack on the crowd, was shot and killed by the youth. The police thought my son was responsible for it and they made him the first accused in the case. But they could never arrest him. They came and surrounded my house with eighty-four truckloads of army, navy, and police personnel! Fortunately, my son was not there at that time. So he managed to get across illicitly to India, and some friend had sent a ticket so he went to UK [Great Britain] and claimed political asylum.

That was in ’76. So he has been living there ever since. He can’t go back to Sri Lanka. In fact, even in ’79 when they published a list of thirty-two wanted militants, my son’s picture was also published, though he had been living in London for three years.

He has now become a more moderate person; he is working with a TULF branch in London. As for me, my position has always remained the same. I don’t believe in an armed struggle. I don’t think that under the circumstances…Of course, our youth were forced to take arms.

You see, for nearly twenty-five years we struggled in a nonviolent way for our rights. From 1949 until 1976, we were agitating for a federal form of government and nonviolently we were educating. No one can say there was any element of violence; we adopted purely Gandhian methods.

In 1956, they introduced a law in Parliament making Sinhala the only language, in violation of an earlier agreement that both Sinhala and Tamil would be official languages. I had been elected to Parliament in 1956, and we protested nonviolently against that by having a sit-in opposite Parliament. With the prime minister Bandaranaike looking on from the balcony of Parliament, a crowd of about three, four thousand attacked us. My head was cracked in two places and I walked into Parliament with a handkerchief tied round my head and with my dress blood-stained. Bandaranaike tried to make a joke of it. He said, ‘Honorable wounds of war’. (laughs)

That was the beginning of mob violence against Tamils. On that day, Tamils all over Colombo were pulled out of their vehicles and beaten up. And in the Eastern Province, where Sinhalese had been settling in the Tamil area, Tamil villagers were attacked by the new Sinhala settlers that night thirty years ago.

But still we continued our struggle in a nonviolent way. We had marches. We had civil-disobedience campaigns. In fact, I have been arrested and put in jail many times during the last thirty years of our nonviolent struggle. In 1961, we had a nonviolent campaign wherein we blocked all the government offices in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and for fifty-seven days we paralyzed the entire administration in a nonviolent way. Ultimately, they brought out the army, beat up the people, and arrested all of us and locked us up in the army camp in Colombo. For six months, all the leaders were locked up, including my wife. And army violence was unleashed on our people.

So, whenever we agitated nonviolently, the Sinhala people and the armed forces reacted with violence. So the cumulative resentment that built up among the Tamil youth, the younger generation that grew up in this atmosphere, decided that they had to meet violence with violence. And the last straw that broke the camel’s back was this World Tamil Research Conference in 1974 and the attack on the purely peaceful cultural meeting of Tamils by the Sinhala police. And then, of course, the youth, once they started taking to arms, they started attacking the policemen who were responsible for it. Tamils who had cooperated with these policemen were attacked. And the police retaliated by arresting young men at random and torturing them. This snowballed, and during the last twelve years it has grown to this position.

I don’t believe in violence as a method of solving political problems – it creates more problems that it solves. That is what I think, but, (laughs) of course, under certain circumstances it may…in our case, it was purely defensive action…But, nevertheless, it is bound to lead to other consequences, and today we are getting to a scale where our whole generation is getting more and more brutalized, which is revolting to our whole culture.

[Note added by Sachi in 2009: In the book, Andersons have acknowledged that ‘We have done extensive editing of the original interviews; for the most part, those sections excised dealt with detailed political themes or local specifics that we felt hindered the basic thrust of the stories.’ Thus for the complete text of the taped Amirthalingam interview, one has to reach the Anderson brothers. Of the two, Jon Lee Anderson has lately gained recognition as a war reporter.]

*****

Amirthalingam always played it safe – The Last Moderate

B. Krishnakumar

[The Week, Kochi, July 23, 1989, p. 32]

Death struck as discreetly as Appapillai Amirthalingam used to conduct his politics. He, along with trusted lieutenant V. Yogeswaran, was gunned down in the quiet of his residence in Colombo as he was conferring with party chief M. Sivasithamparam. Amirthalingam and his Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) were for long marked for elimination. The Tamil militant groups of Sri Lanka never forgave the party and Amirthalingam, its all-powerful secretary general, for sticking to compromise politcs. Both were living on borrowed time – courtesy Delhi and Colombo. And the end, for Amirthalingam and with his passing most probably for TULF, came around 7:30 pm on July 13. Amirthalingam’s brand of Tamil nationalism had earned him many enemies, and their long arm finally caught up with him.

The septuagenarian was a practised practitioner of the crafty art of the possible. Even after the Sri Lankan Tamils’ fight for autonomy blew up into a full-scale insurgency, Amirthalingam clung to his democratic beliefs.

Words, spoken in quiet conviction, not guns, were the stuff of his considerable political armoury. He preferred political negotiations to gun-point diplomacy much to the chagrin of the militant groups, especially LTTE which kept its guns trained on him.

Amirthalingam was no Mahatma, though. Consequently he moved into the safe and cosy sanctuary of the government guest house in Madras courtesy the late M.G. Ramachandran. For all his pampering LTTE, the late Tamil Nadu chief minister ensured that it did not touch Amirthalingam as long as he was in his protective custody.

But then he lost his moorings back in Jaffna where he was virtual king till the vicious ethnic riots of 1983. The party he headed, Tamil United Liberation Front, too virtually moved its headquarters to Madras, thus alienating the Tamil masses. Though he and the Indian government projected TULF as the voice of moderate Tamils, it was drowned out by the booming LTTE guns.

Yet he continued behind-the-scenes manoeuvres to get the Tamil militants and Sri Lankan government to the negotiating table. The Thimpu talks of 1984, he once told The Week, was his baby. He had convinced New Delhi to pressure the militants even as he renewed his political contacts with the Colombo establishment. During his long years as the MP from Jaffna, Amirthalingam had cultivated Sinhala politicians who now responded to the initiative.

The militants grudgingly fell in line then, but never tired of recalling how Amirthalingam nearly betrayed them. The LTTE leaders, especially, would snigger that Amirthalingam was a coward who would sooner or later pay for his ‘petty politicking’. Ever since, he had been totally isolated from his own people, though he continued to have a big say in the official exchanges between Delhi and Colombo. In a way he even prepared the ground for the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement of 1987. It was as much an initiative to end the bloody confrontation as it was to rein in LTTE which he considered a bunch of misguided hot-heads.

Once LTTE gunned down the accord, Amirthalingam was again high on its hit list. The crafty politician had moved house and headquarters to Colombo, in his capacity as TULF chief and MP because he was a persona non grata in Jaffna. A fact that made him shift his political moorings to Batticaloa during the provincial elections, only to be snubbed by the Tamils there. He lost the bid to retain his seat in Parliament. It was left to President R. Premadasa to include him in the national list of MPs, a move that, in the eyes of LTTE only confirmed his status as a self-promoting establishment stooge.

Though he did cosy up to the Indian government, if only for self-preservation, he never really appreciated Delhi’s manipulation of the militant groups. In private he used to debunk India’s policy of encouraging the militants especially LTTE which he predicted would grow into a law unto itself. But on record, his stand was of a carefully-treading politician. ‘India knows best’, he would say with a wry smile. In a way, as his intractable foes insisted, Amirthalingam put self and family before the Tamil cause. Made in the mould of the Indian politician, he had continued to operate from the airconditioned comforts of Madras. His family too were well cared for – some of his kin are settled in London.

Along with Yogeswaran and party chief Sivasithamparam, Amirthalingam controlled TULF funds, too. One reason for the militant ire against him was his refusal to fund their campaign even in the initial days. Militant guns had dispersed the party cadre and of late it had been reduced to a three-man party. And the July 13 strike all but wiped out the party – Sivasithamparam, who survived the attack, is hardly likely to have any sympathizers left.

His death, as his political pursuits, is cloaked in intrigue. Though LTTE is the prime suspect, why would it kill him just when it has had a patch-up with Colombo, his patrons? Was his elimination one of the baits used to lure LTTE to an accord? In a violence-clouded no man’s land that is Lanka today, the extremist Sinhala group, Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) is a suspect. One thing is certain: Amirthalingam was set up. Who or why may never be known.

*****