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The present volume was intended to mark the golden jubilee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which fell on 10th December 1998, and the 10th anniversary of the assassination of one our founding members, Dr. Rajani Thiranagama. Both the jubilee year and the anniversary year went by. In exploring material to write a book of this nature, the work tends to increase with time, and there is always another document to be read or someone else that one would like to interview, until one feels that there is a fairly complete book.

When some of us from the University of Jaffna, who later came to be involved in the UTHR(J), were involved in writing The Broken Palmyra, it was a collective effort. We were constantly meeting each other and discussing issues. In our present circumstances, it fell to me to author this book, and I trust it reflects the wider heritage of the UTHR(J). Where I had doubts I consulted my colleague Dr. Sritharan and where I have discussed Tamil fascism, I have drawn generously from the analyses of Sri (Sritharan) and Rajini (Rajani Thiranagama).

The Broken Palmyra was written in the context of the inner compulsions of a fascist polity, which turned the opportunity provided by the Indo-Lanka accord into an orgy of death. Where we discussed the State and the Southern polity, it was mainly as background to the principal story. The approach of the present book may be treated as an inversion of that which guided The Broken Palmyra. The two books reflect different preoccupations at different points of time.

We, then, in 1987, felt a need to account for the civilian dead. They were the victims of calculated provocation by the LTTE as well as the arrogance and incompetence behind India's peace-keeping role.  We viewed the Indo-Lanka Accord as an opportunity for the people to reassert some control over their destiny. This control would not come through dependence on the Indian or the Sri Lankan states. However, the people were paralysed, trapped in the LTTE's totalitarianism. Given their inability to question the LTTE in the first instance, any protest against the harshness of the Indian or the Sri Lankan states was not going restore their dignity. We hoped that pushing the Sri Lankan Government to implement the Accord would clear the air for some good to emerge. We foresaw that in the event of the people failing to deal with the LTTE, they would be driven to depending on the Indian or Sri Lankan states, or both, to do it for them. This remains largely the picture today.

Likewise, an opportunity arose in 1994 when President Kumaratunge was elected on the pledge of ushering in peace with dignity. This was wasted by the LTTE's calculated malignancy, the UNP's opportunism and the chauvinist inertia of the Sinhalese polity. The LTTE's credibility and acceptability are today in question among international observers. The exacerbation of this problem over many decades has, however, imbued them with a cynical view of the Sri Lankan State. Consequently, LTTE lobbies have been able to manipulate susceptible liberal and radical minds. The LTTE has thus acquired a survival capacity underpinned by the Tamil community's continuing devastation. Further aggravating this tragedy is the Southern polity's rejection even of Mrs. Kumaratunge's diluted constitutional proposals of August 2000.

Today's trench warfare involving very lethal weapons is very costly to the combatants. With shifting frontiers, it has also become scorched-earth warfare. When both sides are desperate, no quarter is given even to traditional places of civilian refuge (our Bulletin No.24 of 7.9.00). In the meantime, in areas under LTTE control such as the Vanni, the villages are being wiped clean of Tamil youth, who, under a system of compulsory military service, are being placed on the front-lines to be roasted by fire from Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers.

Can the State evade responsibility for Tamil child soldiers by dismissing them as victims of fascism? The eagerness to get propaganda mileage out of the LTTE's use of children has not been matched by benignant political measures. These would have blunted its ability to play on the alienation of the young. Bungling the Tamil question for more than 40 years is, in the modern era of interdependence, an unconscionably long time. Could a credible nation have waited so long without any meaningful strategy and without the will to implement ameliorative measures?

This book will primarily therefore examine the State and the Southern polity. The communal violence of July 1983 and the JVP insurgency of 1987-89 will form two central events in the development. The post July 1983 State was one that was mentally under siege. The openness of the 1970s and early '80s that allowed a new appreciation of Sri Lanka's plural legacy to emerge gave way to suffocation. Out of this emerged a malignantly violent JVP. This second tragedy resulted from the failure of the Southern polity to face up to the real meaning of July 1983, and overlaying it instead with fiction.

The JVP insurgency left the South with innumerable blood-stained hands. No political party and no sector of civil life in the South escaped its effects. Again there has been an attempt to overlay it with fiction and score points in the game of sticking the 'killer' label onto others. Less known is the extent to which the event crippled the Southern polity, including the 'progressives' and the non-governmental sector. This too will be a theme running through the latter half of the book.

There is another important difference between the present book and the Broken Palmyra, Today I and my companions of yore are relatively old and sanguine about the future. We have no illusions about being able to influence the course of things. With advancing age we are all limited by the choices we already made and by the truths we tried to bury because they were too hard to face. One is often resigned to the feeling that the clash of infernal machines that had set their ideological course several decades ago, will find its natural outcome, undeterred by counter-measures that are either too feeble or even token. Change needs to be the task of a younger generation with hope that is capable of learning from the mistakes of those gone before.

Where the advance of age carries us is well described by these lines from Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Barren Spring:

.... So Spring comes merry towards me here, but earns

No answering smile from me, whose life is twin'd

With the dead boughs that winter still must bind

And whom today the Spring no more concerns.

By comparison, in the midst of death and destruction in the wake of the Indian Army's advance on Jaffna, we had hope. It was Rajani's inspiration that we must not let the Indian Army or the other powers that be, sort out our future; we must act, not by pushing ourselves to assume heroic mantles; but by creating an institutional framework, whereby the abilities of different individuals will find their rightful place, and so help the community to determine its own future. It was within this organisational framework that any attack on the rights and dignity of the people could be resisted firmly.

It was a remarkable experiment in the University of Jaffna. It involved patient and exhausting political work, talking to people and persuading them to take on responsibility. Rajini and Sritharan were at the forefront of this effort. Its strength was that no individual was unduly exposed, because a large number of people from the Vice Chancellor to the students and non-academic staff were part of it. The LTTE found this self-assertion on the part of the University striking at the very heart of its totalitarian claims. It set about identifying individuals to put an end to it and murdered Rajini on 21st September 1989.

Time has moved on with the danger of Rajini's real contributions and her grasp of reality, which she acquired through real life experience in the struggle, being discarded in favour of token gestures. Year after year her commemoration has drawn the same kind of people, progressive and leftwing. Yet one has the uneasy feeling of having become isolated. The global culture is upon us, with its emphasis on peace and stability. The peace on offer is a euphemism for stability that is compatible with gross human rights violations.

It has suddenly become the vogue among activists to call upon others, “To show some degree of respect towards the convictions of the members of the LTTE”. The purposeful dehumanisation which drives a woman to blow herself up, and others, is too readily sanitised as ‘conviction’. One day recently, I found myself being pulled up by the scruff of my neck to be reminded where Rajini would have stood on the matter. It came in the form of an article by Nalin Swaris in the Island of 12th July 2000. It was also a reminder of how she had influenced and was admired by people who did not know her directly. What follows is an excerpt from that article:

“Speaking of the female agency, Rajani Thiranagama Rajasingham shines like a bright star in a firmament darkened by hate mongers, political opportunists, hair-splitting and sycophantic intellectuals. After the Anuradhapura massacre she stated publicly, If this is what it takes to achieve Tamil Liberation, it is not worth having at all.

“She was right when she wrote from Jaffna in November 1987:

‘Today we are trapped people. We are made to walk this suicidal trip. Our great defenders and freedom fighters lure the enemy to our doorstep ignite a landmine, fire from each and every refugee camp, and escape to safety. And then come the shells whizzing. Bloody hell! The Tigers have withdrawn and we the sacrificial lambs, drop dead in lots... Our society has no will to organise. It is totally crumbled. There isn't a single civilian structure to connect up with. The era has demised with so much loss and bitterness all around.

“Rajani believed in redemptive female agency. ‘I want to prove’, she wrote, ‘that ordinary women like me also have the courage to fight alone and hold our inner selves together.’

“Far better than shattering oneself to kill indiscriminately. The only way to honour Rajani's memory is not to compromise the principles for which she was killed, by the LTTE.

“Terrorism, whether perpetrated by the State or anti-State agencies is a Crime Against Humanity. We cannot be ambiguous or ambivalent about this."

Rajani’s political philosophy and action were based on a love for ordinary people and resisting anything that is a CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY. That is a challenge that today’s activists and peace lobby tend to forget too easily.

During the last 20 years many people, only a fraction of them known to me, have died prematurely with a great deal more to give those around them. Most of them were ordinary people, students and peasants. Few were in any sense politically active. One of them was Mrs. Mallika Rasaratnam, whom I came to know as a contributor to the Saturday Review during the mid-80s. She was an architect by profession.

During a visit to Jaffna in 1997, I discovered that she had re-designed St. Peter’s Church that was destroyed by war and so was pleasantly surprised to find that she had stayed on in Jaffna in spite of all the difficulties. My wife and I paid her two visits and talked at length. She was the mother of two girls. Her husband passed away in early 1998. She was killed by the LTTE bomb which exploded on 11th September 1998 during a conference on regulating traffic in the City of Jaffna, in Mayor Sivapalan’s office. In her article ‘Prosaic’ North and East, which well expresses the connection between her land, the psychology of its people and the need for change, she states:

“Self-immolation, as a method of showing protest in private and public life is of recent origin. With a longstanding ‘anti-convenience’ tradition, a delight in needless suffering has come to be a value of life, licked to shape, to suit a supposed spiritual development. Unwarranted, out-of-place asceticism has made us imagine even commonplace things as luxuries and also to feel, that, humble selves as we are, we have not the right to wealth, power, social importance, high office and even to a habitable environment.

“The new Values we need to know may be Aesthetic or Spiritual, reflecting the principle that beauty is an end in itself, and that man will find relaxation, renewed strength and inspiration in the views of rivers, sea-shores, bays and tall trees.”

The article with her sympathetic and thoughtful suggestions appears in full as Appendix IV. The Tamil people would become liberated only when there is freedom for the creative use of the energies of their men and women. The best have been pushed into a frustrating life of dissidence. Its effects on a sensitive mind can be seen in the despairing poems of Miss. Sivaramani Sivanandan who was finally driven to suicide.

Two other dissidents who were close to us were Manoharan and Miss. Chelvy Thiyagarajah. They were in 1990 final year students at the University of Jaffna. Their opposition to the LTTE was non-violent. They were both executed in the LTTE's prison camps. Even under the horrors of imprisonment by the LTTE, both Manoharan and Chelvy, from the last news we received of them, remained true to their belief in the values of freedom. This tells us something about why they, and many others like them, were executed in the LTTE's prison camps in the early 1990s. Translations from the Tamil of two poems, one by Sivaramani and the other by Chelvy are given respectively at the beginning and end of Chapter 22.

The ability to distinguish between individuals, institutions and processes of which they were part, came to me rather late. It was part of my education in an engagement with my Marxist colleagues in The Broken Palmyra. Most of the Jaffna youth of my time grew up as instinctive nationalists and supporters of the Federal Party. With it went a dangerous inherent assumption of the superiority of the Tamils over the Sinhalese, and a certain uneasiness about the Muslims who were also largely Tamil speaking.

Disillusionment started coming in the 1970s, but very slowly. In the face of the blind obduracy of the State - the 'standardisation' crisis of 1970, the new constitution of 1972, the communal violence of 1977 etc. - the growing fascist tendency within the Tamil community seemed no more than a passing disease. It was dangerously easy to subscribe to the 'non-violence' of the Federal Party and remain ambivalent about political killings by the 'Boys' - the incipient militant movement. Again, for those of my time, it was easy enough to go abroad, romanticise the 'Boys' and lose sight of the real dangers.

It was again my Marxist colleagues who brought home to me the reality that the very respectable non-violence that we in Tamil society had imbibed from the Federal Party was moribund. It was singularly lacking in honour and conviction. It easily became a means of escapism where one surrendered the initiative to violent elements and applauded secretly. To use non-violence as a means of struggle, an organisation needs to build up traditions and mechanisms, both to confront state oppression as well as to check violence by their own side. What we had was no more than a verbal commitment to non-violence that was averse to any personal risk.

A violent struggle involves imposing a heavy burden on the life and well being of others, and the moral degradation it brings will last for generations. Yet, faced with the reality of violent state oppression, one cannot but respect someone who took up arms out of a genuine sense of responsibility. Such persons can be challenged only by demonstrating the viability of active non-violent resistance. It requires a relentless pursuit of justice in every sphere of life. This can happen only when there is elbowroom for autonomous non-violent action. This opening in Tamil society was squeezed out in the mid-1980s by a fascist order. It reduced its living opponents to individuals, who operated in chosen narrow spheres without any possibility of organisation.

The struggle itself degenerated into pure violence without any prospect of liberation. A poignant example of its present relationship to its cadre is that of sometimes sending out explosive-strapped suicide bombers who are blasted by remote control. The foregoing gives a brief sketch of what I gained from my colleagues in The Broken Palmyra and the UTHR(J) over many eventful years, and where the community finds itself today.

In comparison with those of my time who had greater freedom to reflect, the minds of Tamils who were born after the mid-1960s have been formed by the experience of conflict and humiliation. For many of those born from the early 70s, their experience has been one of unrelieved tragedy. This casts a heavier responsibility on those of us who grew up in more tranquil times.

As I hinted earlier, I was a passive Federal Party supporter by upbringing, looking to Chelvanayakam with a sense of awe. Like the others of my time, I shared in the elation when the Federal Party leaders commemorated the birth of Bangladesh in a public meeting at the Jaffna Town Hall. That was in December 1971. Like many others I became less passive after the communal violence of 1977. I was part of a small expatriate group that tied up with the Tamil Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation and came to know its secretary K. Kanthasamy, a committed man who worked hard and lived very sparingly. On two occasions I spent a day with the Rajasundarams who ran the Gandhiyam in Vavuniya.

I was associated with the Standing Committee of Tamils in London when after the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981, a group within the SCOT launched the Tamil Times. During this period very few expatriates supported the militancy at home. An important reason for this was that Amirthalingam kept reassuring the expatriates that a political solution could be found. Thus the communal violence of July 1983 combined with the effective expulsion of the TULF from Parliament, marked a watershed.

Many of us felt the blow as the BBC announced the Welikade prison massacres and the murder of Dr. Rajasundaram. It put an end to the kind of peaceful activity where expatriates supported groups like the TRRO. Many argued that supporting refugees was useless without a solution to the problem. Some moved on to support the armed militant groups. Those who disagreed were once more reduced to observers. Even when we disagreed, we generally, at that time at least, remained friends.

Returning to Jaffna in 1985, I became involved with the Saturday Review on Kanthasamy’s suggestion. Although Gamini Navaratne was the editor, much of the day-to-day editorial work was done by A.J. Canagaratna. By that time there was growing disillusionment with the militancy. It was A.J. Canagaratna, a Marxist and a journalist with very long experience, who led me to question my implicit trust in the old Federal Party, whose pretensions to non-violence were wearing thin by the early 1970s. A.J. is one of those unsung heroes who hated hypocrisy and murder, and kept his inner integrity through very trying times.

We all witnessed with horror another watershed – the mass murder of TELO members by the LTTE in early May 1986. We were all talking about it and Gamini Navaratne suggested that I write the editorial. It was one that was strong by the standards of those cautious times. I then also met P. Jayaram of the United News of India and blurted out everything I had seen and heard. It contributed to a feature that was widely carried. By this time my nationalism had reached vanishing point. An influence which contributed to this was the writings of Karl Popper.

By the end of 1986 Rajini and Sritharan had returned from Britain after completing their doctoral studies. So began the saga that resulted in The Broken Palmyra and then the UTHR (Jaffna).

I mentioned the foregoing because these associations indicate how the scope of the book falls into place. They cover the years in which I was in some way actively involved in the events concerning destiny of the Tamil community. Most of the time I was hardly more than an observer. But I knew several of the actors, respected their dedication and shared their hopes. The untimely death of several of them left a void that is also personal. The book in general deals with or touches most of the major events that confronted a person of my time.

Writing a book of this nature often comes with an inner compulsion to withdraw – to disengage, before one’s mental and physical faculties are run down. One may perhaps like to believe in the perennial counsel of John Milton:

All is best, though we oft doubt,

what th’unsearchable dispose

Of highest wisdom brings about,

And ever best found in the close….

His servants hee with new acquist

Of true experience from this great event

With peace and consolation hath dismist,

And calm of mind all passion spent.

-from  Samson Agonistes


My chief resources for published materials in writing this book were the libraries of the Nadesan Centre and the Civil Rights Movement, Colombo. The press-cuttings covering this period filed by the latter proved an accessible and invaluable guide to crucial developments from the 1980s. I have also availed myself of the documentary resources of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies and the Marga Institute, Colombo. All these institutions have been very generous in helping me to use their materials.

In writing this book I have benefited from the kindness of many. The children Abiran, Kathya, Tania, Nadheeran and Mayuri saved me from monotony. I was greatly helped by materials, information and valuable advice given to me by Suriya Wickremasinghe in writing especially the sections dealing with the Welikade prison massacres. Gnana Hemasiri and Claire Wickremasinghe who are librarians at the Nadesan Centre bore with me very patiently in my numerous requests for books, reports, filings of paper cuttings and photocopies. Mr. Thambirajah, the librarian of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, has been readily forthcoming whenever I applied to him for materials. I am greatly indebted to Mr. George Gnanamuttu for enlightening me on matters now fading from living memory and for invaluable materials in his possession. He also gave me guidance for further search. I am also grateful to my uncle Dick Hensman for valuable insight into the July 1983 violence and some materials in his possession. Both Nalin Swaris and T. Sabaratnam gave me their time as well as their knowledge of crucial historical events. Wimal Fernando and Shiral Laktilleke helped me to clarify past events in the South. Waruna Karunatilleke, Qadri Ismail, Lucian Rajakarunayake and S. Manoranjan, who are journalists, have helped me by answering queries and obtaining further information at my request.

After much fruitless search, it was Mr. Kurumbasiddy R. Kanagaratnam of the International Tamils' Archives, Kandy, who provided me a copy of a rare document dealing with the 1977 violence. The Tamil community owes Mr. Kanagaratnam a debt for his perseverance and commitment in setting up these archives. The late Mr.A. Thangathurai MP gave me invaluable understanding into the problems of some of the difficult areas of the East during many conversations I had with him over several years. Despite our disagreements, TULF MPs Mr.R. Sampanthan and Mr. Anandasangari have kindly obliged me with information and documents from their party archives whenever I requested it.

Mr. Bradman Weerakoon readily agreed to my request to talk to him and patiently answered my questions over a number of visits. Mr. Bala Tampoe of the Ceylon Mercantile Union provided me with some very valuable information together with internal documents concerning the July 1983 violence. There are a number of others who gave me their time and answered my queries, not all whose names have been mentioned here, but the reader would find their names occurring in the text. Some others gave me information on condition of confidentiality.

The typing of this manuscript would have proved a nightmare if not for the help of a young lady, who apart from doing it devotedly on top of her work and family obligations, patiently put up with re-drafting and re-typing in several places. Miss. Sangeetha Nesiah and Miss. Venuri Perera too helped me with the typing and typed sections of the book. Mrs. Indrakanthi Perera helped me by translating documents from the Sinhalese.

Nothing that I have written took its final form without the incisive criticism and changes suggested by my colleague Sritharan and others who are close to me. Miss. Ramani Muttetuwegama kindly went through some of the chapters and sections where I had doubts, suggested redrafting and gave me advice on staying within the Law.

The last chapter has been the most difficult to write and went through several drafts. It involved selecting tendencies from a fast changing reality that are likely to have a bearing on future and discussing remedial measures. To this end I must thank several individuals, particularly those in Jaffna whom I cannot name, who have also helped in many other ways. The writing of this book was a voluntary undertaking. The cost of printing and some other miscellanies was paid for by a donor who does not wish to be named.[Top]

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