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Prabhakaran Praised by Mervyn de Silva (in 1990)

by Sachi Sri Kantha, June 17, 2009

I think that one reason why Mervyn de Silva had an incisive depth on the Sinhala-Tamil conflict was that he mainly viewed Prabhakaran from his lens as a recent product of ethnic tensions and not as the prime cause of conflict. While many pundits and journalists demarcated the year 1983 as the ‘turning point’, Mervyn de Silva traced the origins of the conflict to the British colonial period in 1919 – almost 90 years ago.

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

Mervyn de Silva (1929-1999), the erudite editor of the (now defunct) Lanka Guardian fortnightly, had a keen eye in shifting the kernels from the chaff. June 22nd marks his tenth death anniversary. To pay homage to his memory, I’ve prepared here a signed feature on Velupillai Prabhakaran that he published in his magazine on January 1, 1990. He chose Prabhakaran as the ‘Man of the Decade’, who influenced the events in Sri Lanka and nearby India.

Mervyn de Silva drops quite a few names in this commentary of approximately 1,440 words. While reading this tribute to Prabhakaran, note that the names of those who are currently preening their feathers in glory are missing. Not that they were idling in the 1980s. Guys like Mahinda Rajapakse (b.1945), Gotabhaya Rajapakse (b.1949) and Sarath Fonseka (b.1950) were older than Prabhakaran. But, they were obscure non-entities then and hardly got registered in the eyes of Mervyn de Silva or in his fortnightly journal Lanka Guardian. Two of Prabhakaran’s penchant critiques (Dayan Jayatilleka and Narasimhan Ram) make cameo appearances in Mervyn de Silva’s commentary. While reading Mervyn de Silva’s commentary, you can also note that between 1989 and 2009, Prabhakaran was consistent in his ideals and objective. But such consistency was flaky for his two critics, Dayan Jayatilleka and Narasimhan Ram. It is an open secret that the Sri Lankan politician, identified by Mervyn de Silva in the third paragraph, was none other than the then President R. Premadasa. de Silva’s bottom line was: “Our choice of Prabhakaran as man of the decade is no value judgment. It is a compelling historical verdict based on the turn of tumultuous events…”.

Though acknowledging the fact that Mervyn de Silva had a liberal Sinhalese bias, one can only yearn, why we don’t have journalists of his caliber these days, with a clear grasp of contemporary events.

I think that one reason why Mervyn de Silva had an incisive depth on the Sinhala-Tamil conflict was that he mainly viewed Prabhakaran from his lens as a recent product of ethnic tensions and not as the prime cause of conflict. While many pundits and journalists demarcated the year 1983 as the ‘turning point’, Mervyn de Silva traced the origins of the conflict to the British colonial period in 1919 – almost 90 years ago. For ready reference, I also provide a time-line on the Sinhala-Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka, as  prepared by Mervyn de Silva in 1986 (and published in the South, London, monthly).

It may be of some interest to review how Mervyn de Silva analyzed Prabhakaran’s steps and moves from 1990 until the demise of the Lanka Guardian, after he had anointed him as the ‘Man of the Decade’. Time permitting, I plan to prepare this material in the near future.

Prabhakaran: The Eye of the Storm

by Mervyn de Silva

[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, Colombo, January 1, 1990, pp. 3-4.]

The question of Nationality and the National Question dominated discussion and debate in the pages of the Lanka Guardian in the early 80’s just as the military threat posed by the separatist Tamil Tigers, the spearhead of the Tamil resistance, did in the run-up to the Indo-Sri Lanka peace accord of July 87. As a direct consequence, the crucial role of India, the implications of the UNP version and practice of non-alignment, in the context of geo-political realities, continued to be an important topic in these pages. This journal itself has been often described by commentators, both friendly and critical, local and foreign, as a small ‘mirror’ reflecting the main phases of the agonizing Sri Lankan crisis, and its painful twists and turns.

It is the Tamil armed revolt that has made the strongest impact on Sri Lanka in the decade that has just ended. In the post ‘Accord’ period, and more dramatically in 1988-89, it is the threat to State power by the JVP-led insurgency which has made the Sri Lankan situation, especially after the Presidential and parliamentary polls, a crisis of the System. We do not believe that the military successes of the past few months have altered the nature of the threat, though there has been some change in the immediacy and intensity of the danger. In any event, we do not believe that the threat to the State would have assumed that particular form but for the Tamil sessionist struggle and its direct political-diplomatic expression, the 1987 peace accord and the presence on our soil of an Indian peace-keeping force larger than our own army.

Although we recognize many intrinsic, and distinctive causes, mainly socio-economic, for the JVP revolt, we do not think that its timing, its fury and most of all, its political-ideological complexion are unconnected with the Tamil rebellion. As we look back then to the 1980s, and study the decade as a whole, we are inclined to concede primacy to the Tamil threat to the unity, and indirectly, the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. In that struggle, there is one commanding personality, the LTTE supreme Velupillai Prabhakaran, regarded by many western experts as leader of one of the toughest guerrilla organizations in the world, and by military analysts as a ‘genius’ in the theory of unconventional warfare. At least one Sri Lankan politician, now at the pinnacle of power, is on record as saying that he might have been an excellent choice as the island’s army commander. Though a mere aside, it was no frivolous jest.

Our choice of Prabhakaran as man of the decade is no value judgment. It is a compelling historical verdict based on the turn of tumultuous events, and the cruel fate of a little Indian Ocean island, struggling helplessly to escape from the vicious grip of a multi-dimensional crisis.

How did we get to where we are?

Decisive Decade

‘SRI LANKA IN THE 70s’ our cover story on Jan.1, 1980, had personal contributions on Sri Lankan politics, by Lalith Athulathmudali, A. Amirthalingam, Maitripala Senanayake, Sarath Muttetuwegama, S. Thondaman, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, and on the arts by Reggie Siriwardena (cinema) and A.J. Gunawardena (theatre).

From divergent positions, Mr. Athulathmudali (UNP) and Mr. Sarath Muttetuwegama (CP) saw political change (Lalith) and ‘crisis’ (Sarath) as basically ideological and economic in origin. Mr. Athulathmudali wrote that the ‘electorate has changed’ with slogans no longer satisfying the voter. Catch phrases such as class struggle dictatorship of the proletariat, socialist democracy, ‘democratic socialism’ are no longer the most important things. The vital issues to them are: How are jobs found? How are incomes raised? How are more goods available?

Mr. Muttetuwegama saw the UNP and the local bourgeoise, confronted by the pressures of the capitalist crisis, recognizing that Sri Lanka could ‘no longer afford the luxury of liberal democracy’.

In their own way, each was right…or half-right. The people voted for ‘open economy’ and it did seem to work till the early 80s. Now the ‘market economy’ solution is widely identified as part of the problem. The referendum certainly closed the door on Sri Lanka’s much-advertised welfarist democracy. Both the anti-democratic measures and the pauperization of large sections of the socially disadvantaged did contribute much to the unfolding crises but its origins lay in the rapid deterioration of the Northern situation, and increasing use of armed force, by the State and the Tamil militants, meaning the LTTE. That is why, Mr. Amirthalingam’s reading of the issues and conflicts of the 70s looks sharper. He identified three events: (1) the first attempt (JVP) at a violent overthrow of the established order, (2) the scrapping of the Soulbury Constitution which had some built-in checks and balances to safeguard minority interests, and (3) ‘from my point of view, the vital development - the unification of the Tamil political leadership and the surfacing of the demand for self-determination’. He also noted that some frustrated and embittered Tamil youth were ‘resorting to violence’. It is not Mr. Amirthalingam’s first development, but (2) and (3), combined that was soon to emerge as the main source of violent conflict in Sri Lanka. Again, Prabhakaran stands at the point of intersection of these different trends.

How well were we prepared for these changes and to understand the political process which was shaped by such changes?

Glancing through the back numbers of the Lanka Guardian, we have reason for some satisfaction over our own collective effort, thanks largely to the ICES and Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam in particular to Dr. Kumari Jayawardene, Dr. Newton Gunasinghe and the SSA, to Professors K. Sivathamby and K. Kailasapathy, to Reggie Siriwardena, Dayan Jayatilleka, the Marga Institute, CRD etc.

Professors Kailasapathy and Sivathamby helped us understand the evolution of Tamil consciousness, the sense of distinctive identity, and the impact it had on Tamil politics, both bourgeois parliamentary and the youth militancy. While from the ranks of the Sinhalese, Dayan Jayatilleka argued the case for Tamil self-determination. His special contribution to the ongoing debate was on the armed struggle in relation to guerrilla movements elsewhere.

Prabha’s War

All this would have been one-sided or incomplete but for the well-researched material we produced on Sinhala-Buddhist thinking, on the myths and ‘official history’ which had fashioned consciousness, on the political opportunism that thrived on chauvinism and on an educational system that perpetuated and fortified prejudice. On the latter, Reggie Siriwardena did some pioneering work to expose the outrageous conduct of our school text-book writers. As Sri Lanka advanced blindly, driven by the demons of racial superiority, deep-seated insecurity and a self-styled ‘splendid isolation’, to Vadamaarachi and the ‘Accord’, the Lanka Guardian, perhaps a solitary voice in the media, continued to sound the alarm on the tragic price we may have to pay through a hopelessly vainglorious and inept foreign policy.

The JVP leadership has been decimated. Yet the JVP phenomenon will remain a major and deeply worrying, challenge to regime and system. Right now, however, it is the LTTE once more that occupies centre stage.

For the first time in recent history, a separatist rebel movement is trying to maximize its capacity to achieve its goals through the use of both armed actions and negotiations, by exploiting as far as possible, an interstate conflict and the divergent interests of the two regimes. The question is not whether it will succeed. The question is what is its goal? Is it still EELAM, or is it monopoly/hegemony in a strengthened north-east that is part of a united Sri Lanka? Could it be a sustainable trade-off, at least interim, for Eelam?

A folk hero in Tamilnadu, Prabhakaran’s picture, Hindu editor N. Ram told me years ago, could be found in many a suburban home and remote hamlet in the South Indian state’s rural areas. To the Indian newspaper reader too his is a familiar name. But his real claim to fame is that he got the world’s fourth largest standing army bogged down in an increasingly futile war in Sri Lanka’s north-east, threatening to convert a peace-keeping operation to India’s Vietnam or Afghanistan. Or Lebanon vis-à-vis the Middle East major military power, Israel.

Prabhakaran’s war will soon be a case-study in the Indian defence institutes. And as a senior Indian officer told me in late 1988, ‘we have to learn a lot, and are still learning…at least because your terrain, the jungles especially, are somewhat different to ours’. In any event, the army top brass and the Indian strategy planners regard the Sri Lankan experience, whatever its human and material cost, as an extremely valuable ‘exercise’.

Internationally, Prabhakaran’s name has probably been as widely publicized as President JR [Jayewardene]’s. So he is our choice as Lanka’s man of the 80s.

*****

Long Road to Crisis

Compiled by Mervyn de Silva

[courtesy: South, London, July 1986, p. 43.]

Note: dots and words wherever they appear in italics, are as in the originals. In 1974, within parenthesis, I have added the correction.

1919: The Ceylon National Congress is founded in conscious imitation of the Indian National Congress. The leadership is made up of the Colombo-based, western-educated Sinhalese and Tamil middle class and lacks mass support.

1920: Tamils withdraw from Congress to found the Tamil Mahajana Sabha in Jaffna, the northern province, to champion Tamil interests.

1926: “There would be trouble if a centralized form of government was introduced into countries with large communal differences…in Ceylon, each province should have complete autonomy,” says Solomon Bandaranaike, Oxford-educated intellectual and would-be prime minister.

1937: Bandaranaike forms the Sinhala Sabha, to press for majority Sinhala-Buddhist interests.

1944: The new Tamil Congress Party presses for ‘balanced representation’ for the Sinhalese majority and the minorities before the pre-independence constitutional commission of Lord Soulbury. Within the Tamil Congress, a dissident group argues that only a federal state can safeguard Tamil interests.

1945: The United National Party is formed under the leadership of the most powerful politician of the day, D.S. Senanayake. The Sinhala Maha Sabha of Bandaranaike and the Sinhala Muslim League join the UNP.

1947: The UNP wins the first elections, with Senanayake becoming Prime Minister. The Tamils split, some supporting the government, others providing the opposition, later forming the Tamil Federal Party.

1956: In the elections Bandaranaike’s renamed Sri Lanka Freedom Party sweeps the seven southern provinces and the Tamil Federal Party the north and east. A new phase of communal confrontation as Bandaranaike proceeds to replace English by Sinhala as the official language, without any provision for Tamil.

1957: Bandaranaike negotiates with the Tamils’ S.J.V. Chelvanayakam; the UNP, now outside the government, mounts new anti-Tamil campaign.

1958: Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam agree to devolution of government and to language rights for the Tamil minority, prompting new anti-Tamil riots. Bandaranaike goes back on the agreement following UNP second-in-command Junius Jayewardene’s ‘holy march’ protest.

1965: The UNP is back in power and itself agrees with Chelvanayakam to bring in limited devolution and special status for the Tamil language – but drops the plan, fearing a Buddhist backlash. Mrs Bandaranaike opposes.

1970: A new Left coalition led by Mrs Bandaranaike responds to Sinhala complaints of Tamil domination of university places, public service jobs and the professions by changing the marking rules for exams.

1971: A Sinhalese youth insurrection is defeated by the declaration of a state of emergency.

1972: New Constitution omits Article 29 of Soulbury constitution – only clause protecting minority rights. Tamil youth demonstrate against constitution, burning it.

1973: The Federal Party becomes the Tamil United Liberation Front and adopts an increasingly separatist position.

1974: Nine people die in a riot as Tamils call an international conference. There is a spate of bank robberies, and Tamil youth has its first martyr when a 19 year-old (sic: P. Sivakumaran was 24 at the time of his death.) takes poison after a failed attempt to murder a police officer.

1976: Militant Tamil youth groups force Federal Party to adopt resolution calling for independent Tamil State, Tamil Eelam.

1977: The Tamil United Liberation Front takes the Tamil vote and in the Sinhala areas the left is swept away by the UNP. TULF leader Amirthalingam becomes the first Tamil leader of the opposition in parliament, with mandate to demand Tamil Eelam.

1978: Using its huge parliamentary majority, the UNP abandons the 32-year old Westminster-style constitution for the centralized power of an executive President. Tamil is given recognition as a national language but Tamils soon complain it means little in practice. Militant Tamil organizations proscribed.

1979: Prevention of Terrorism Act. President orders army to wipe out terrorism.

1981: Anti-Tamil mob violence spreads to the south, largely the tea plantation areas. President Jayewardene deplores the active role of leading UNP members.

1982: In October, Jayewardene wins a second term. The Tamil north boycotts the election.

1983: All-party conference fails to find negotiated settlement: government offers only regional councils.

1985: India-sponsored talks between government and Tamils in Thimphu, Bhutan, fail.

1986 May: As death toll for the month tops 100, Sri Lanka tells India it is ready to offer provincial councils – what Lord Donoughmore and Bandaranaike talked about 60 years ago…

*****