An Open Letter to
The American Ambassador in Sri Lanka

From S. Sivanayagam
(Former Editor Saturday Review, Tamil Nation and Hot Spring)

Dear Ambassador Ashley Wills,
I have a copy of the official text in English of a speech you have reportedly made at the Jaffna Public Library on Wednesday, 7th March. I do not know from which “Jaffna Public Library” you made your address, but as far as the Tamil people are concerned THEIR Jaffna Public Library, consisting of ninety odd thousand volumes was burned down nearly twenty years ago, on the night of 1st June 1981. Since in your speech you speak of terrorism and violence, let us start talking of burning of libraries. You will concede Sir that nowhere else in this “globalising world” that you are referring to, are libraries put to the fire. I presume you are sufficiently informed as to who did the burning? Would you consider that as an act of violence? If terrorism is too strong a word for it? Or would you wave it aside as a simple non-violent act of incendiarism because the criminals who perpetrated that act were Sinhalese goons, inspired by the presence in Jaffna of two Sinhalese cabinet ministers of the Sri Lanka government? Surely you can’t?

Mr. Ambassador, you say you have lived in Sri Lanka for six months. I have lived in that country for 53 years, born and bred there along with my Tamil forefathers for several centuries; long before America was discovered. So I should know that country better. Today, I am 70 years old, having spent 17 years in the evening of my life searching for some country in “this globalizing world” to take me in. You say you have lived in Romania, South Africa, the West Indies, Yugoslavia, Belgium, India; in good comfort I believe. I have been to as many countries as you have – even more – but as a refugee, a wanderer, cut off from my family, looking for safety. That was because that country which in my naivety I thought was my own made me a “wanted man”. Not because I was a terrorist Sir, not even by the American yardstick. All I did was to edit a badly printed weekly paper from Jaffna – the SATURDAY REVIEW. In your own country you are familiar with the power of the Press, where newspapermen could even bring down Presidents like that unlamented Richard Nixon. What happened to those newspapermen? Nothing. They only write books about their achievement. They make money. They prosper and flourish, thanks to what they did.

In my case I did not attempt to unmake Presidents. I wrote condemning, yes, condemning the anti-democratic, anti-Tamil military actions of President Junius Richard Jayawardene, who you might have heard of, was a great friend of your country and was nicknamed “Yankee Dick” by his own Sinhalese people. The price I paid for that was – the paper was banned, the editorial office was sealed, and the police began hunting for me. I had to flee to India by a midnight country boat to save my life. Thank God for small mercies they did not burn down the office as they did to the Tamil newspaper – the EELANADU in Jaffna in 1981; yes, by the same arsonists who burned down the Jaffna Library. Burning of libraries and newspaper offices and bookshops belonging to Tamils (not to mention burning of Tamil humans in the Sinhala riots of 1958) has been an interesting pastime in that country Sir, where fortunately you have lived only for six months. (Incidentally, I have some news for you. One of your predecessors in Colombo, Ambassador John Reed did extend the great courtesy of calling on us at the SATURDAY REVIEW office on a weekend visit to Jaffna in1982. That I think was a small American tribute to what was after all an anti-Establishment paper)

History Sir is a great teacher. One cannot judge the present with any sense of fairness unless one gets to know the past. Let me take you back to an experience that happened to me 45 years ago ! Whatever happened to me has been happening to thousands of my fellow Tamils over the years. So let me only offer my own experience as a sample. On the morning of June 6, 1956, I was nearly pushed out of a moving train near Colombo by a gang of thugs. But for some hand of Providence that saved me, I should not be living today to write to you this. I would have been another nameless statistic among other nameless Tamils manhandled, robbed, humiliated and killed by marauding mobs over the years. Why did they want to kill me? Simple. Because they saw in me a Tamil.

Today, in the year of the Lord 2001 you make a nice, erudite speech, and of all places in government-ravaged Jaffna, and believe me Sir, I get a funny feeling in my solar plexus reading your good advice. You are after all addressing the Tamil people in Jaffna, (although there is one Sinhalese soldier there today to every ten Tamil, man, woman and child), a Tamil people who have gone through violence from mobs and terrorism from the State for 45 years now. Can you see that? You are of course asking these wretched Tigers to give up terrorism and violence. What you are asking Sir is not exactly that. No Sir. What you are really asking them is to stop overrunning Sri Lankan army camps! Let us be honest about it. This talk of terrorism is only a neat cover to hide the endless failures on the war front.

The Tigers are not born-violent, born killers from Mars or some outer space. Believe it or not Sir, they are also Tamils, a new generation of Tamils who are sensitised to the endless sufferings of their people, and who are ready to give up their lives so that succeeding generations of Tamils could live in peace in what was once their homeland. They have watched their past leaders making brave speeches in parliament, seen them crying hoarse about the Tamil plight from public platforms, they have even seen their democratically elected leaders led by that gentle Christian Chelvanayakam sitting in silent Gandhian protest against the Sinhala Only Bill at Galle Face Green on June 5 1956, only to be mauled by a violent mob in the presence of the country’s guardians of the law, the policemen. They have heard of their kith and kin slaughtered by the hundreds in the anti-Tamil riots of 1958, even poured petrol on their persons and burned alive! Would you be interested to know that the Tiger leader Prabhakaran was a 3-year old child when all that happened.

One cannot start reading history from a halfway point. If one wants to read American history, or what little of it is there, one has to begin with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and come down the line. One does not start the story by talking of the American chemical assault on the Vietnamese people. Nor does one start writing American history with that best known act of international terrorism – the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima which killed well over one hundred thousand human beings. The armed struggle of the Tamil Tigers Sir is a late arrival in Sri Lankan history, a logical consequence of a quarter century of Sinhala violence and the sorry failure of peaceful non-violent Tamil protest over the same period. It was one of your Presidents, the late assassinated John F. Kennedy who said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”. That Sir is where our Sinhalese brothers who have been ruling the country for 53 years made their mistake.

Mr. Ambassador, do I detect the tone of a world policeman when you say: “….we reject the idea of an independent Tamil state carved out of Sri Lankan territory; we regard the LTTE as a terrorist organization and do not believe it is the sole representative of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka…. With all respect to you Sir, your syllogism is flawed. While your government is certainly entitled to whatever views you hold about the LTTE, the question of REJECTING or accepting the idea of an independent Tamil state is surely a matter between the Sinhalese and the Tamil peoples. Suppose at some point of time in history the Sinhalese people come round to accepting the idea of an independent Tamil state, would your government still reject it?

You refer to the fact how some people fit facts to the theory as in the story of the Procrustean bed. In quoting Salman Rushdie where you say: “…cultures collide constantly in the modern world, crisscrossing at high velocity; one moment we are in a village with a charming sense of remoteness; in the next, we turn on TV and are connected instantly to a global village…” you are merely stating the theory. May I tell you why the facts do not fit the theory when it comes to the Tamil people? Have you ever seen on the American TV, the CNN, the war that the Sri Lankan government has been waging in the northeast of the island? CNN has shown the bombing of the Central Bank in Colombo, yes, but have you seen on your TV the bombing of the Navaly Church in Jaffna? Or the bombing of the Nagerkoil School in Jaffna? Are you saying, by fitting facts to your theory that Jaffna is OUTSIDE that global village of yours?

One of the unfortunate facts in life Sir, is that peacemakers generally give good advice to the victims, not to the villains. It was a well-thought out speech that you made in Jaffna, as speeches go, but how one wishes you would also make similar addresses in Colombo – at the Bandaranaike Memorial Centre for example.

11 March 2001

Related Stories
  1. States, Dissidents and the British Terrorism Law
  2. The US Supreme Court Decision
  3. The US State Department Country Report