Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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A Piece of Advice to Prof. Dayan Jayatilleke: 

Holier-than-thou attitude does not serve peace

by A Concerned Australian Tamil

Dear Prof. Jayatilleke,

I am an ordinary Tamil living in a corner of the world. I long for peace in my country of birth, just as you do. On reading the news item: ‘Realignment of Sinhala Nationalist forces spells trouble for Sri Lanka Peace – Gajendrakumar’ [TamilNet, November 05, 2005], my heart urges me to share with you some candid thoughts.

Mr. Gajendrakumar Ponnampalam MP, who made the above observations at the Washington forum on ‘The Sri Lanka Peace Process: Dead End or is There Hope?’ – organised by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in association with the East-West Centre – lamented the imminent collapse of the peace process. Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the US, Bernard Goonatilleke, attributed the deadlock in the peace process to Norway, the Ceasefire Agreement, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission and the LTTE, but, predictably, not the Government of Sri Lanka!

What caught my attention the most was the following news:

Dayan Jayatilleke said the LTTE was the cause for the collapse of the past four peace efforts. He said the LTTE will not be satisfied by federalism as evidenced by its assassination of several eminent Tamil federalists including Neelan Thiruchelvam and Appapillai Amirthalingam. He said the International community [US and India] should first send a strong message to the Liberation Tigers to shun violence, and if this fails, they should be prepared to augment the Sri Lanka military to subdue the LTTE.

Professor Jayatilleke,

Peace is a product of goodness. Peace is an outcome of truth and justice. And peace is about the future. If we do not want to look forward, but forever harp on the past, there is no hope for peace or the future. But since you have chosen to dwell on the LTTE’s past at the forum, I wish to rekindle your thoughts on the State and its terrorism of the 1970’s and 1980’s, let alone the 1950’s,1960’s, 1990’s & 2000’s.

I left my country Illankai (Sri Lanka in Sinhala) in the mid eighties when I was 31, so I have sound memories of the political events in the island before the assassinations of Amirthalingam (1989) and Thiruchelvam (1999). For the most part of the 1970’s and 1980’s there was no press freedom or judicial independence in the country, and civil liberties were severely curbed.

In October 1972 Mr S J V Chelvanayagam, the revered Tamil leader of the Federal Party, resigned his seat in Parliament and challenged the government to contest him on the validity of the 1972 Republican Constitution. Prime Minister Srimao Bandaranaike refused to hold a by-election until February 1975! When Chelvanayagam won back his seat in the by-election held 2 ½ years later with a crushing majority, he said this in his victory speech:

“…. We have for the last 25 years made every effort to secure our political rights on the basis of equality with the Sinhalese in a united Ceylon. It is a regrettable fact that successive Sinhalese governments have used the power that flows from independence to deny us our fundamental rights and reduce us to the position of a subject people. … I wish to announce to my people and to the country that I consider the verdict at this election as a mandate that the Tamil Eelam nation should exercise the sovereignty already vested in the Tamil people and become free.”

In January 1974 the ‘Fourth International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies’ was held in Jaffna and Tamil scholars from all over the world attended this week long conference. This greatest international conference ever held in Jaffna was marred by tragedy on the final day. The town was in a festive mood and an unprecedented crowd of over 50,000 people had gathered at the esplanade opposite the hall where the Conference was being held. It was after 8.00 pm when armed Sinhalese policemen arrived in a truck and jeep made a relentless attack on the people. Tear gas and gun shots added to the terror and overhead electric wires were brought down by gun shots. Seven people died in the resultant stampede and thousands were injured. My sister, a brother and a cousin narrowly survived the stampede. I went and saw the carnage the following morning.

In the July 1977 General Elections, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) won a resounding victory in the northeast on a mandate to establish an independent state of Tamil Eelam. Mr Amirthalingam, who was the leader of the TULF, also became the Leader of the Opposition by a strange quirk of fate. The Sinhala people’s sense of fury at this development led to the mob attacks on Tamils which in August ballooned into island-wide anti-Tamil riots. One half of Jaffna Supermarket, the adjoining central bus station and scores of wholesale and retail shops were burnt down by the police. I have vivid memories of showing around the gutted bazaar to family friends from Bandarawella who had made their first ever visit to Jaffna on August 16, following a pilgrimage to the holy shrine of Madhu. Elsewhere in the country hundreds of Tamils lost their lives, thousands sought refuge in the Tamil areas in the north. The police and army were on the side of the Sinhalese thugs, looters and murderers. Did the government of the day do enough to quell the riots?

1981, May 31- June 1: Two nights of anarchy, arson and terror. Sinhalese policemen and a set of Sinhala hoodlums imported into Jaffna by the government went about burning down everything: the TULF office; the house and jeep of V. Yogesvaran, MP for Jaffna; the office of the only Jaffna daily Elanadu; and to cap it all the Public Library – the soul of Jaffna’s pride – with its 97,000 volumes, precious tomes and rare ola manuscripts. Statues of Tamil scholars in the bazaar were beheaded. All these outrages went on while two senior cabinet ministers, the Defence Secretary, the Inspector General of Police and the security forces were in the town 'to ensure law and order' at the impending District Development Council elections on June 4.

July 1983: The worst ever island-wide anti-Tamil rioting of July 24-29 saw hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Tamils massacred, thousands of Tamil homes and shops looted and burnt, and over 75,000 Tamil refugees lingering for weeks in several camps in Colombo alone. My wife and I, like hundreds of others, had divine protection to stay alive. Fifty-four Tamil political detainees, some held from 1981 under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, were massacred in Colombo gaol by Sinhalese prisoners, aided and abetted by prison officers. Murder and torching in Nuwara Eliya and other up-country areas caused large numbers of plantation Tamils to flee their line rooms to the relative safety of the northern towns. The active participation of the police and armed forces was evident – yet President Jayawarderne remained indifferent through it all.

What I have mentioned so far, Prof. Jayatilleke, is only the tip of the iceberg of the State violence. And I wished that in 1983 the International Community (India & US) had sent a strong warning to the Sri Lankan Government and its military machinery to shun violence in favour of a political solution, and when that failed, had assisted the Tamils to realise their legitimate political aspirations! Wishful thinking indeed. But, had it done so, Amirthalingam, Thiruchelvam and thousands more Tamils and Sinhalese would have been alive today!

For the past five decades, the use of repressive force and the prevention of political change taking place through constitutional and political channels has been the order of the day. The ‘Round Table Conference’ of the 1980’s, the ‘Devolution Package(s)’ of the 1990’s and the ‘Constitutional Reform’ of the 2000’s are all nothing but long tedious deceptive dramas of the Sinhala polities. Suppressing Tamils had been their underlying scheme. But let’s face it...The draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, the insidious War for Peace, the Chemmani Mass Graves and the Bindunuwewa Massacres – all have failed to stifle the psyche of the Tamil Nation.

So, looking for scapegoats in the peace process (eg. LTTE violence) is not an option for the Sri Lankan government anymore. We need a ‘new order’ and ‘real solution’ here and now. The Tamil Homeland is real, the Tamils' right to self-determination is real, and that the Tamils are oppressed in the Sri Lankan unitary state is also real. Burying your head in the sand or joining the chorus of 'democracy in the north' won’t provide a solution. George Washington or Nelson Mandela or even Mahathma Ghandi did not insist on democracy first for their people – they all wanted freedom first!    

If you really care, it is not difficult to understand where Mr Pirabhakaran is coming from:

  • Respect for Tamil Rights
  • Creation of a Tamil state in complete equality with the Sinhalese state so that both nations can live happily side by side.

In fact, these are the ‘goal posts’ set by the Tamil leaders since the 1950’s into which the LTTE has been kicking since the 1970’s.  Ambassador Gunatilleke, career diplomat for nearly 3 decades and former Director General of the Peace Secretariat in Colombo, seems to be unaware of this unfeigned cause of the Tamils. How can peace become a reality in the northeast with security forces trotting guns on the streets, occupy people’s homes, farms, schools and places of worship even after 3 ½ years of signing the Ceasefire Agreement?

At the International Conference on the Sri Lankan Conflict held in Canberra in 1996, Justice Marcus Einfield, Federal Court of Australia and member of the International Commission of Jurists, said:

“… … After all, if the majority was not willing to embrace the minority and grant them due recognition, a dignified status and an equal opportunity to a fair chance, they must set them free. Oppressing and terrorising them are not options.

“The plea by the Tamils for self-determination should be respected by the community of states. It is true that self-determination does imply some erosion of sovereignty and in some places it may so liberate national minorities as to give them separate statehood, and membership in the United Nations. However, the existing list of UN members and non-member states is not inviolate, and there are, and there will be cases when the price of untrammelled sovereignty, calculated as it is in human misery and suffering, is too high. …  …The enjoyment of Human Rights can be increased in many cases by recognising the right of peoples to some form of autonomy, even independence – this much is evident from the UN charter.”

Also speaking at the same conference was Mr Kumar Ponnambalam, Barrister, human rights advocate and courageous Tamil leader, himself a victim of pro-government gunmen for exposing the hypocrisy of the Sinhala state. I wish to conclude my reflections with his forthright opening remarks:

As the minutes roll by, the intransigence of the vast majority of the Sinhalese on the Tamil Problem is getting stronger or worse. Indeed, in some quarters, and surprisingly at the higher echelons of society, one could perceive today, marked and naked hatred of the Tamils displayed by the Sinhalese. … … This must be clearly understood by the international community, if they are to play some part in helping to sort out the crisis in Sri Lanka. And, it is this same intransigence of the Sinhalese that is preventing ‘Peace with Justice’ in Sri Lanka even at the moment.”