Search for the Destroyed Church and Collapsed Bunker

Tsunami Part-3

The Gap Widens

by T.Sabaratnam

In my books, Thanthai Chelva (Tamil) and Murder of a Moderate, I pointed out that every act of the Sinhalese-dominated Colombo government generated an equal and opposite reaction among the major minority community, the Tamils.  And I pointed out that the failure of the Sinhala leaders to realize this human behavioral pattern is the cause for the current ethnic crisis in the country.

In my first book, I documented how the Sinhala acts of state-aided colonization, citizenship, Sinhala Only, University admission and the 1972 Republican Constitution weakened G. G. Ponnambalam and his All Ceylon Tamil Congress, the last in the line of Tamil leaders who believed in cooperating with Sinhala leaders and working under a unitary state depending on their goodwill and munificence.  The above-noted acts of discrimination by the Sinhala leaders destroyed that confidence Tamils had in them and led to the birth of the Federal Party under the leadership of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam.  The Federal Party agitated for the safeguarding the Tamil people and their identity through autonomy for the Tamil majority northeastern region under a federal constitution. In five parliamentary elections - 1956 to 1972 - Tamils voted for autonomy.

In my second book, I traced the history of the failure of the Federal Party which adopted Gandhian, nonviolent, peaceful agitation to push its autonomy demand.  The Sinhala leaders used the armed power of the state to suppress this nonviolent agitation.  That hurt the feelings of the Tamil people, united them, made the youths take up arms and induced them to advocate the formation of a separate state.  The passage of the Vaddukoddai Resolution of May 1976 and the formation of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) were the result.  The Vaddukoddai Resolution proclaimed the right of the Tamils to carve out a separate state for themselves and gave the TULF parliamentarians the mandate to form themselves into a constituent assembly to ‘enact and implement’ a separate constitution.  At every election, since 1977, the Tamil people have voted for a separate state.

I also documented in the second book the failure of the TULF to act on the mandate given to it by the people in the 1977 parliamentary election and the efforts it made to accept much less - the District Development Councils.  Jayewardene's government refused to make the District Development Councils work and made the TULF lose face among the Tamil people.  Jayewardene unleashed the army on the armed groups and the citizens, killed civilians and burnt Jaffna, and organized the 1983 July riots.  These actions strengthened the Tamil armed freedom struggle.

In the current series, titled Pirapaharan, which is being posted in the Ilangai Thamil Sangam, USA website,,  I am documenting the actions of the Colombo government which further strengthened the freedom struggle and turned into a mass struggle.  The military solution Sinhala leaders attempted has resulted in the emergence of a de facto Tamil state in the northeast.  Pirapaharan, leader of the Tamil freedom movement, is currently administering the major portion of the northeast.  He has put in place administrative, judicial and income-raising mechanisms, all the basic structures of a state.  The writ of the Sri Lankan government does not run in the areas under Pirapaharan’s control.

Where does Sri Lanka go from here?  Political analysts are agreed that the Sri Lankan government has only two options - to defeat Pirapaharan, recapture the areas under his administration and then give the Tamils some minimal concessions to satisfy the international community, or work out a political accommodation with him.  TheiInternational community is pushing for the second option as they feel that the first - the military option- will not work.

The tsunami provided a welcome opportunity to take forward the political accommodation process.  It proved nature, in its destructive fury, does not differentiate people on the basis of race, religion, occupation or otherwise.  In 15 minutes It devastated three-fourth of Sri Lanka’s coastal areas, pounding the buildings and pushing and pulling the people.  And, in the wake of this mammoth tragedy, people acted as human beings trying to save life.

Selvakumar Rajadurai was in his home when the massive wave rushed in.  He took hold of two of his children and ran inland, telling his wife and the other children to follow him.  He was thrown up and put on a branch of a tree.  He lost hold of one child.  He saw waves dragging the child towards the ocean.  Then his daughter, who was holding the trunk of the tree, shouted, "Appa, there is a child under my feet."  She picked the child and gave him to Rajadurai.  He kept the child on his shoulder, while holding his own child by his hand.  He saved the other child also from drowning.  When he climbed down from the tree, he found his child that had been torn from his hand  was dead.  He wailed, "I saved another man’s child, but lost mine."

Disaster united the people.  Sinhalese fed the Tamils.  Tamils helped the Muslims.  And Muslims worked with the Tamils.  They acted as human beings, helping each other.  Rebel fighters and government soldiers worked together to rescue the victims from the swirling water, clothed and fed them.  A rare outpouring of unity emerged.  Hopes were expressed that that unity would serve as the foundation to take forward the peace talks.  Hopes were expressed that President Chandrika Kumaratunga's government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would seize this opportunity and work together.

Hopes were also expressed that the efficient rescue and relief operation conducted by the Tigers in the areas they administered would be made use of by the government to encourage the peace process.

Soon after tsunami waves surged inland, Tiger supremo Velupillai Pirapaharan took charge of the situation.  He directed his military commanders - Sea Tiger chief Soosai who was in Mullaitivu, Trincomalee Special Commander Sornam and Batticaloa-Ampara Special Commander Bhanu to spring into search and rescue action.  Their fighters were in the water carrying survivors inland.

Kayalvizhi, a women’s wing member of the Sea Tigers, told a foreign correspondent that she saw a child being dragged by the water into the sea as she entered the wave-hit area.  "I dived towards the coast, clutched the child by the leg and carried her to safety," she said.

This was one of several instances reported by the media.  Tamil and international media have praised the efficient action of the Sea Tigers on the Mullaitivu coast and the work of the other military wings in the other areas.

"Some international aid workers have said they were surprised by the speed and efficiency with which the Tigers organized relief efforts after the tsunami hit on Dec. 26.  While some Sri Lankan authorities appeared to be overcome by a shock-induced inertia for days, the Tigers organized search and rescue operations in the first hours of the disaster, according to refugees," reported another foreign reporter.

He reported,

"The Tigers also set up a multi-agency task force of Tiger officials, representatives of the international organizations present in the area, local nonprofit groups, and even some Sri Lankan government officials.  This facilitated the quick disposal of bodies, clearing affected areas and setting up more than 35 refugee camps."

Aid workers in the LTTE-administered areas too sprang into action.  The Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) organized relief work in cooperation with the Tigers.  They put up welfare centres and looked after the survivors. The LTTE and the TRO also worked in the government-controlled areas in the eastern province.  They worked in many places with the government forces, the army in the Trincomalee district and the Special Task Force in the Batticaloa- Ampara district

Pirapaharan was monitoring everything from his hideout.  On the fourth day of the disaster, December 29, he issued an appeal to the EXPATRIATE Tamils, the international community and the United Nations to generously assist the people of the northeast devastated by the Tsunami.

"I express my deepest sympathies and condolences to my people who lost their kith and kin in this disaster.  I also extend my deepest sympathies and condolences to our Muslim and Sinhala brethren in the south who were affected by the Tsunami," he said in a statement issued in Tamil by the headquarters of the LTTE.

His condolence to "our Muslim and Sinhalese brethren" was an acknowledgement of the growing togetherness of the three communities in the wake of the disaster.

Many hoped that this spontaneous unity among the peopleand  Pirapaharan’s condolence message would bond the estranged Sinhalese and the Tamils.

Norwegian ambassador Hans Brattskar who met LTTE political chief S. P. Thamilselvan two days later in Kilinochchi was given a message from Pirapaharan about his readiness to meet the Norwegian Foreign Minister to discuss the resumption of peace talks.  Brattskar told the media, ''Events like the one here change history.  The situation today can either bring both parties closer or move them further apart."

Three main events that happened in the first week of this year moved the parties further apart. The rumour about Pirapaharan’s death inflicted the greatest damage.  It showed clearly the desire of the Sinhala people to defeat the Tamils and subjugate them.

A week after the Norwegian envoy received a message from the Tiger leader, the state-run radio, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), interrupted its normal program and announced the death of Pirapaharan.  The story, repeated several times, said Pirapaharan was one of victims of the tsunami killer wave.  Such repeat announcements are usually given in the case of death of the head of state or government.

But, unlike in the case of the death of a very important persons' announcement, which normally saddens the people, this announcement gladdened the majority of the Sinhala people.  Tamils were not perturbed.  They watched the drama with annoyance.

The SLBC announcement attributed its source to Sri Lanka’s top security service official, Chief of Defence Staff and Navy Commander Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri.  He told an SLBC reporter that military intercepts had not heard Pirapaharan since the Tsunami hit Sri Lanka and there were rumours that he and his intelligence chief, Pottu Amman, had been washed away.

The SLBC reporter, with uninhibited enthusiasm, wrote the story and handed it to his chief, Director, News, who took it to his chairman, Hudson Samarasinghe.  Samarasinghe ordered that the story be given top priority and it was broadcast repeatedly.

The Island and its Sinhala sister paper Divaina, the torch-bearers of Sinhala chauvinism, picked the story and added something of their own.  Their reporter rang his contact in the EPDP propaganda unit.  He was provided with an ‘inside’ story of two expensive coffins, each costing around one million Sri Lankan rupees, being smuggled to Vanni hidden in the lorries that carried tsunami relief material.

The Sinhala dailies and weeklies vied with each other to carry the story with embellishments to ‘inform’ the Sinhala people that their number one enemy was dead and coffins for them had been smuggled.

In their zeal, they forgot to take into consideration some well-known facts.  Pirapaharan is a man of conviction and morals.  He had forbidden extravagance in weddings and funerals in the territory he administers.  The funerals of his fighters killed in battle are simple and reverential.  The martyrs are laid to rest in inexpensive coffins and buried in neat rows of graves.  He has decreed that he, too, be buried along with the other martyrs when he dies.

Tamil editors did not use the story.  They knew that Pirapaharan was busy coordinating relief work.  Tamil people did not bother about the SLBC story which was also broadcast in Tamil.  They knew that it reflected the desire of the Sinhala people and not a fact.  They were also aware of the previous occasions when Sinhala media ‘killed’ Pirapaharan.

I know at least three instances.  Once, Janata, the Sinhala evening daily, led with the death of Pirapaharan.  And, for over a week, its editor was the butt end of teasing by his journalist colleagues at Lake House.

The death story had a deeper impact on the Tamils.  They were hurt.  They were annoyed.  They were angry.  They asked the question: Why do the Sinhalese desire the death of Pirapaharan?  Their answer was: The Sinhalese want Pirapaharan dead because then they need not give the Tamils their rights.

That answer united the Tamil people behind Pirapaharan.  They wished him long life.  They wanted him to live longer because he is the only Tamil leader who would wrest their rights from the Sinhalese.

Most of the Sinhala people do not bother to think of the Tamil reaction.  The gossip column 'Santhiyil' of Monday’s Virakesari, the conservative Tamil newspaper published from Colombo, which subtly ridiculed the death story, reflected the thinking of the Tamil people. The popular column, written by its editor under the pseudonym Vayadi, uses three main characters: Paruvatham Paddy, Banda Aiya and Saleem Nana, to voice the diverse opinions and feelings prevalent among the three major communities in Sri Lanka.  The writer poses a current problem and allows these characters to discuss their opinions.  The following is a rough translation of the column. The nuances of the language cannot be brought out in a translation.

Who are the persons behind the story which said that a thing that should not happen, happened to ‘Thamby’ Pirapaharan?  Who are those persons who broke their noses by concocting that rumour?

Paruvatham Paddy: How can I pinpoint a person?  The people who spread the ‘story’ were those in the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation.

Banda Aiya: I object this accusation.  They did not manufacture this story on their own.  The reporter who wrote the story attributed it to the Navy Chief Vice Admiral Sandagiri.  The Navy Chief told the reporter that he was not certain whether Pirapaharan was living or dead.  He added that people say he had been washed away by tsunami waves.  The reporter lost his balance and caution due to his enthusiasm and wrote the story and gave it to his news editor.  It was broadcast repeatedly.  Some newspapers too have copied that story.

Paruwatham Paddy: A state-owned newspaper also published that story.  Another newspaper added to the story some spicy details fed by the EPDP propaganda unit.  It said expensive coffins, each costing one million rupees, had been smuggled to Vanni hidden in tsunami aid materials.

Banda Aiya: The information contained in the story was conveyed to the leader.  Will she stay quiet?  Is it not earth-shattering news?  She summoned the Navy Chief and asked him, "Where is the body? What are you doing without looking for it?"  The vice-admiral used all the resources available to him to search for the body.  All his efforts ended in failure.

Saleem Nana: Do you know that all anti-Tiger elements in foreign countries including Canada issued condolence messages?  They even printed leaflets expressing their sympathies.  These messages and leaflets also created among the government leaders a feeling of victory.

Paruvatham Paddy: Do you know that the intelligence services used all kinds of methods to check the story?  They took lorry loads of aid materials to Mullaitivu.

Banda Aiya: The intelligence officials were asked to check on the two rumours their superiors had heard.  One was that Pirapaharan was at a Church in Mullaitivu at the time the tsunami struck that coastal town.  He used to visit that church every Sunday they were told.  The other rumour they were asked to check was that Pirapaharan was inside a bunker that had collapsed.

Saleem Nana: So intelligence officials searched for destroyed churches and collapsed bunkers.  They could not find any trace.

Banda Aiya: The news about Pirapaharan’s death has spread throughout the length and breadth the south.  But Pirapaharan was active during this period. The Tigers denied the death story and called it mean and malicious.

Paruwatham Paddy: News about Thamby’s death has been spread several times previously.  He is a worshipper of Goddess Kali.  He lives with death.  He will live a long life.

Pirapaharan should live long was the silent prayer of the vast majority of the Tamil people.  The desire of the Sinhalese that he should die has transformed Pirapaharan into an idol of the Tamil people. 

The LTTE issued an angry statement.  It charged the government with moral irresponsibility.  It said, "The government has a moral responsibility to ensure that its media exercise extra caution in broadcasting news material that tends to create tension and confusion, especially at a time the people are in distress consequent to the natural disaster.  This is not the time for gossip-mongering and malicious propaganda," the LTTE press release said.

Political analysts are agreed that this irresponsible behaviour of the Sinhala media, the state-controlled media in particular, has widened the Sinhala-Tamil gap and increased the LTTE’s distrust about the government.

The second event that contributed to the growing distrust of the Tamil people was the blocking of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan from visiting the LTTE-administered areas.  President Chandrika Kumaratunga admitted to foreign journalists that she asked Annan not to visit Kilinochci or Mullaitivu.  She had told him that a visit to Mullaitivu would strengthen the Tamil concept of a separate state.  She also told him that she would not be in a position to ensure his safety.

Tamil people were hurt by Kumaratunga’s action. The LTTE’s political chief, S P Thamilselvan, expressed his anger when he said, "We have reached a stage of irreparable damage in relationships."

The unfair distribution of international aid and handing over the administration of the welfare camps to the army further strained the relations between the government and the Tigers.  The Tamils in the government-administered areas and the Tiger-administered areas are not treated as citizens of Sri Lanka. They are treated as aliens.

Soosai put it succinctly when he said, "Those who claim that Tamils are Sri Lankan citizens are not treating them as Sri Lankan citizens.  They are telling the Tamils, 'You don’t belong to Sri Lanka.' They are discriminating against them."

"In addition to discriminating against the Tamils, the Sri Lankan government is placing all sorts of roadblocks and impediments to the aid expatriate Tamils have sent from reaching us," said S. Puleedevan, the head of LTTE’s Peace Secretariat in Kilinochchi.

The Norwegians have come.  They raised the question of discrimination with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse on Thursday evening.  They are due to meet President Chandrika Kumaratunga and then go to Kilinochchi where a meeting with Pirapaharan is scheduled.


Posted January 20, 2005