Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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C.J.T. Thamotheram - the End of an Era

A tribute from Brian Senewiratne, MD, Brisbane, Australia, November 1, 2005

This is not an obituary, since I am not qualified to write one. It is just a note of thanks from a Sinhalese to a great Tamil for all he has done for the Tamil cause over a very long time. He is one of the unsung heroes of the Tamil struggle. It is a struggle for justice and freedom from Sinhala oppression, which has gone on for such a long time and at a terrible cost to Tamil lives, property and the complete destruction of the Tamil areas. What is unrecognized is the damage done to the much-treasured and closely knit family unit, which means so much to people of Jeyam’s generation. People of that generation (and even later ones) have paid a terrible, but unrecognized, price in terms of social disruption, indeed ‘social decimation,’ as a result of the violence unleashed on the Tamils by a succession of Sinhala Governments since 1956, and more so since 1983.

The Thamoderams have made a major contribution to education in Jaffna. Jeyam’s father was the Principal of a very famous school, Hartley College, a Methodist mission school founded in 1838 and was, if fact the first non-white Principal of any school in Jaffna. Among the many famous people coming out of that school was the brilliant Prof.C.J. Eliezer, who actually worked with Albert Einstein!  Later Jeyam himself joined the staff of that school, making a significant contribution to education in Jaffna.

Jeyam emigrated to Britain many years ago.  Unlike so many of his vintage, who, having left Sri Lanka, have sat on their hands doing nothing other than hallucinating about the future, Jeyam acted in his own inimitable way. He made an enormous contribution which is largely unrecognized because of the nature of the man. A quiet, unassuming, self-effacing man, modest almost to a fault, Jeyam had a vision of what expatriate Tamils could do in a positive way.

He founded, among other things, the first Tamil School in the UK, the Tamil Times and the International Tamil Foundation. A few years ago he telephoned me in the early hours of the morning (!) in Australia, to say that he thought it important to get together a group of international writers to highlight the problems faced by the Tamils, would I join the group? That was typically Jeyam, his mind ever active, thinking what more he could do to further the Tamil cause. I gather that he also had the largest list of Tamils in the UK and their addresses. It was the Sri Lankan concept of an ‘extended family’ being applied on an international scale!

In October 1981 Jeyam founded the monthly Tamil Times, which was to be the voice of the Tamil expatriate community. This is the only journal run by Tamils that has been published uninterrupted since its inception more than two decades ago. It is most unfortunate that the founder of this journal had to distance himself from his brain-child. As another great Tamil, S.Sivanayagam, put it in his recently published monumental work, Sri Lanka: Witness to History, the Tamil Times “changed hands midway and subsequently changed direction as well….. it was thought to be, by a wide spectrum of Tamil expatriates, no longer capable of speaking up for an oppressed Tamil nation with any conviction or courage.” When I discussed this with Jeyam at our last meeting a couple of years ago, I could see his eyes brimming with tears and could sense his disappointment and sadness.

I first met this extraordinary man in 1984 when I was campaigning to draw international attention to the genocidal massacre of Tamil civilians in the Sri Lankan South whose only crime was that they were where they were. They had every right to be where they were since they and generations of their ancestors had made a major contribution to the development and prosperity of the Sinhala South, Colombo in particular. Jeyam had extensive contacts with British parliamentarians, especially in the House of Lords, and kept them informed of what the Tamils in Ceylon were going through. Among them were Dame Judith Hart and Lord Avebury, the latter being the author of the first of a series of damming Amnesty International Reports on human rights violations in Ceylon that first drew international attention to the magnitude of the problem in that country. These are not people whom you can readily see. When I went to London to lobby them and ask for their help to apprise the international community of what went on behind the censored doors of the Sri Lankan Government, all I had to do was to mention that I was “a friend of Jeyam Thamoderam.”

In 1991 I had a call from the International Tamil Foundation inviting me as their guest speaker to address their annual sessions on The Abuse of Democracy in Sri Lanka. I thought it was completely crazy to go more than 15,000 km for a luncheon meeting. I was then told that Mr Thamotheram had specifically asked that I be invited. I was on my way.

In the packed hall, the man who was responsible for the ITF itself and should have been on the podium, unobtrusively sat in the corridor. That was the nature of the man. I am sure that the scores of people who passed him had no idea of who he was and what he had done for the Tamil cause.

After the meeting he suggested that we drive up to Cambridge to see a man who makes me proud to call myself a Sinhalese – Jeyam’s long-standing friend, Adrian Wijemanne, who has made such a major contribution to the struggle of the Tamil people.  The next day we were on our way to see Adrian, who was too ill to come down to London for the meeting. The historic photograph of that meeting is in Sivanayagam’s book.

I met C.J.T once more 2 years later, also at the annual ITF meeting, this one addressed by Gajan Ponnambalam MP. I was there as a visitor who had just ‘dropped in.’ Jeyam would have none of it. He insisted that I take a place on the podium and make a contribution to the meeting. That was typically Jeyam.

When I heard that Jeyam had passed away, I said that I was going for his funeral. What, all the way to England? “Yes”, I said, “I want to say that I was there.” He will be cremated in London on 4.11.05, the end of an extraordinary life.

When God made Jeyam Thamotheram he must have thrown away the mould. It was my privilege to have been associated with this great man. A fitting tribute to him would be to work towards the goal which Jeyam had devoted the later years of his life – a Tamil homeland where Tamils can live in safety and without discrimination and domination by the brutal and racist regime in Colombo.