Tamilini’s testimony: a reading
By Prof. Dr. Charles Sarvan
"The present state of things is the consequence of the former, and it is natural to enquire what were the sources of the good that we enjoy, or the evil that we suffer. Ignorance, when it is voluntary, is criminal” (Dr Johnson, Rasselas)
The things that impelled me into exile are also the things that bind me to what was once home. (Adapted from A. Sivanandan’s novel, When Memory Dies.)
The things that impelled me into exile are also the things that bind me to what was once home. (Adapted from A. Sivanandan’s novel, When Memory Dies.)
In a brief introduction to this short testimony, her husband, widower M. Jeyakumaran, says that Tamilini “burnt the midnight oil”, struggled through illness and pain to complete the book: indeed, courage takes many different forms. I quote verbatim from page 42 of Still Counting the Dead by Frances Harrison: "One day Lokesan was in the hospital, counting the dead and injured, when he saw a mother, badly injured in the neck and chest but still conscious and screaming for her baby. An older lady - probably the grandmother - brought a child of about six months old, who was slightly injured. The mother took the baby, kissed it gently on the forehead, and offered her breat. She probably hadn't eaten herself for days but knew her child must feed if it was to have any chance of survival in a world where milk powder was more valuable than gold. After a while, with the baby still drinking from her breast, Lokesan noticed the woman was dead. That feed was the mother's parting gift to her child. She knew she was dying and that was why she'd been shouting so urgently for her baby."
I cite the above because I see a parallel between this unknown dying mother, moved by profound love to save the life of her infant and Tamilini, fixed upon by a fatal disease, but determined (in her words) to “continue to struggle” before her end; “to tell the truth to the people whom I love more than my life”.
It seems that Tamilini, applauding and criticising the Tigers, has fallen foul of both friend and foe: “I am an outcast now”. Those who hate the Tigers, particularly from the majority community, can “cherry-pick” that which confirms their belief, and suits their racist propaganda and purpose. A danger inherent in self-criticism is that thereby a weapon is given into the hands of those who would damage and destroy. One must also bear in mind that Tamilini wrote this in Sri Lanka, no doubt conscious that she was under surveillance. She did not write from the safety, and therefore freedom, of some Western country. Had she written this abroad, would it have been significantly different? We’ll never know.
Why is the Shoah so widely known? The answer is multiple, chief among them being the scale and horror of what the Nazis perpetrated. But the Shoah is known also because the Jews believed in the value of the written word. They testified, be it as diary, memoir or fiction. (Anne Frank began writing her diary at the age of thirteen. Written in Dutch, the Diary has been translated into about 70 languages, including Tamil.) Those who did not directly experience and endure but heard from some member of the family testified on their behalf. The horror of Nazism has resulted in a wealth of written works. Written in various European languages, these works have been ‘beautifully’ translated and are accessible to a wide readership. Some Tamils like to draw Jewish parallels but Tamils have produced but few written texts of July 1983 and of the Tamil experience following. Further, little of what there is has been translated, and often these translations are not good: one sign of a good translation is that the reader forgets s/he is reading a translated work. If the translation is good, then even those who have no special interest in Sri Lanka will read it because of its value in communicating human experience. Via Plato, it’s believed Socrates said he knew that he didn’t know: some translators from Tamil into English seem not to be aware of their lack of real competence in the language. They think they know. Or is that the younger Tamils I mentioned above don’t come forward to undertake this very important work? Tadeusz Borowski wondered: What if the Nazis had finally won? (Borowski, internationally recognised writer - This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen - a prisoner at Auschwitz, committed suicide at the age of 29. As with Tamils and others elsewhere, those who are tortured, including rape, never fully recover. The world “moves on” but they remain maimed for ever.) If the Nazis had won would the Jewish experience then have been so widely known, in all its grisly and tragic detail? But the Nazis lost; the Jews have their state and, backed by the USA, possess far more “clout” than their size and population would otherwise have led them to have. And it’s a truism that History is written by the victors. It’s their version that gets narrated in history books, in classrooms and in the media. The voice of the defeated is muted, scarcely audible. The Tamils lost, and this makes testimony all the more important and urgent. If Tamils don’t express, don’t communicate, don’t tell their story, then who will? Tamilini may be mistaken in what she writes but I for one do not doubt her sincerity. (As one far distant, I accept I may be mistaken in this opinion.) Those with direct experience but who are either unable or unwilling to write, can relate to someone able and willing to act as an amanuensis.
Tamilini who was a militant Tiger declares that she has become a “peace militant” joining others with a “passion for humanity”. Having endured war, death and destruction for almost three decades, she cites the words of Duke of Wellington who, surveying the carnage after the Battle of Waterloo, commented that the next saddest thing to a battle lost is a battle won. (The work, Art of War by Sun-tzu, BCE 380-316, was written well over two thousand years ago. In it, the ‘Master’ comments that “To see beauty in victory is to rejoice in the killing of others.”) But peace is not simple. I have suggested elsewhere that there are two kinds of peace, negative and positive. The former is marked by absence, the absence of overt war; the other is presence, the presence of harmony, security and hope which in turn are the products of justice – political, social and economic. Pax Romana (Roman Peace) was imposed on other peoples by sheer force of arms. To “pacify” is generally laudable but at the end of Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, the agent of British imperialism plans to write a book on the “pacification” of the peoples of the Niger. Throughout History, and in all empires, pacification and so-called peace were brought about and maintained through military might and physical force. Tamils in Sri Lanka now live under negative peace: Pax Sinhala. Defeated peoples and minority groups can plead for positive peace but that can only be accorded by victors and majority groups. Unfortunately, Tamilini did not live to show us what she would have done to bring about a change of heart and mind and, therefore, of attitudes and conduct.
Failing health and life, and therefore the urgency in terms of time, did not permit Tamilini to deal with what’s called ‘the wider picture’. Nor was it her aim and intention but we must take cognizance of History: see the lines from Rasselas in the epigraph above. The fact is that Tamils at the outset did not want federalism, much less separation. I quote from my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2: “In 1925-6, when Bandaranayake, as leader of the Progressive National Party, set out the case for a federal political structure for Sri Lanka and made this the main plank of the political platform of his party, he received no support for it from the Tamils: K M De Silva, p. 513. In the 1930s, the Jaffna Youth Congress rejected federalism. (They looked not look to Tamil Nadu but to Gandhi and Nehru.) They persuaded almost all the leading schools in Jaffna to teach Sinhala as a compulsory subject. As A E Jayasuriya observed, “At a time when the Sinhalese were prepared to do without Sinhala, the battle for Sinhala and Tamil was fought by Tamil leaders”: see, D Nesiah, Tamil Nationalism, p. 12. Even after the trauma of Standardisation (“racial” quota) in relation to University admission beginning in 1971, and the Draft Constitution of 1972, the All Ceylon Tamil Conference declared, “Our children and our children’s children should be able to say, with one voice, Lanka is our great motherland, and we are one people from shore to shore. We speak two noble languages, but with one voice” (Nesiah, p. 14). I recall that when C. Suntheralingam of Vavuniya argued for a separate (Tamil) state in the early 1950s, he was indulgently laughed at by most Tamils who saw it as the eccentricity of a brilliant mind. In 1952, the Kankesuntharai parliamentary seat was contested by Chelvanayagam, as a member of the Federal Party. He was comfortably defeated by a U.N.P. candidate.” (End of quote.) Jude Lal Fernando of Trinity College, Dublin, recently wrote: “During the previous decades the Tamil people had seen their every attempt at non-violent protest for equal rights and justice being met with the most horrifying racial pogroms. The LTTE was formed by dedicated youth who saw the older generations’ political methods only leading to increased violence from the Sinhalese and took up arms to defend the people from the violence of the state.” In other words, the armed struggle was the last resort of a people who had pursued peaceful, parliamentary and democratic means. As Tamilini observes, normal life was evasive in Tamil areas. Satyagraha, as in India, works when undertaken by the majority against a minority. Then again, imagine satyagraha performed against a Hitler, an Idi Amin or a Pol Pot. Tamilini herself writes that it was the series of military victories achieved by the LTTE which compelled the government to the come to the negotiating table: force – not pleas to reason, a common humanity, justice, fair play, equality etc. Tamilini writes: We came to love the gun because we believed it would bring liberation to our people. Unfortunately, it is force which makes would-be oppressors grant what they term “concessions” but that which the oppressed see as human rights. As Hegel wrote, it’s only by risking life that freedom is obtained
As I have pointed out elsewhere, identity is neither simple nor single but complex and multiple. A person can be a Tamil, a Christian, a mother and a medical doctor but if we say “She’s Tamil”, then we prioritise that aspect. An individual may have a sense of her or his individual identity but does this accord with what others think? For example, in the days of Jim Crow in the USA, a man may have thought and claimed he was American but only to be corrected: “No, you are not American but a Black”. What others think of you can matter more than what you think of yourself. (I gather some Tamils, particularly those abroad, now introduce themselves as ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’.) Identity can also be fluid, altered by circumstance. Identity being multiple, the Jews of Germany saw themselves as Jews and as Germans. Germany was the country and culture they knew and loved. Ironically, during the First World War Hitler’s superior officer, the one who recommended him for the Iron Cross, was a Jew. Ceylon did not wage an armed struggle to gain independence from Britain but received it in the wake of Indian independence. Still there was agitation for independence, and among the leaders of this demand were Tamils. The latter saw themselves (and were deceived into believing) that though by an accident of birth they were Tamil, they were fully and equally Ceylonese.
To begin with the LTTE, Tamilini observes that the movement which started out with one faulty pistol grew to be almost militarily equivalent to the state’s armed forces. Much of the credit goes to the leader who was loved and totally trusted by the cadres. This loyalty (one would say devotion) was such that even those who had been wounded ten times went into battle for the eleventh time before their wounds were healed (Tamilini). In this context, please see my article ’The Prabhakaran Phenomenon’. For female fighters, the LTTE was “a fortress”. The sheer number of women brigades had no parallel anywhere else in the world. The Sea-Tigers had a women’s wing; and certain units which consisted of both men and women were commanded by women. Tamilini sees their discipline and endurance as an offshoot of traditional society where women had to develop these characteristics because of a dominant and domineering patriarchal culture. The liberation struggle liberated women in many ways, major and minor. For example, women could go to cemeteries, and the dowry system was abolished though, as Tamilini admits, it was difficult to eradicate in practice. Now, Tamilini claims, traditional culture has reasserted itself, and women who had taken part in the liberation struggle are generally seen as being unchaste and morally bankrupt. Facing contempt, hostility and rejection, some have sunk into depression, even been admitted to an asylum. Surrounded, cut off from the wider world and its progress in various fields of human inquiry and endeavour, the cadres were confident that once the motherland was liberated, the Tamil expatriate community would help turn it into another Singapore. This belief encouraged them to fight on.
However, trying to obtain “unnecessary information” was deemed an offence. Criticising or questioning decisions taken by the leader was seen as a sacrilege: the use of the (religious) word “sacrilege” is significant. This attitude, Tamilini comments, led to the absence of constructive criticism and debate within the movement. She sorrowfully observes that the liberation movement that set out to fight for freedom became tyrannical. (Paulo Freire in his widely translated work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, observes that in fighting oppression, the oppressed must not become like the oppressors. I would describe Freire as an idealistic revolutionary.) Tamilini reports the protest of cadres ordered to shoot Tamils trying to flee the war zone: How can we shoot at our own parents and sisters? We’d rather shoot ourselves. Anton Balasingham (1938-2006), described as the chief political strategist and negotiator of the LTTE, is quoted by Tamilini as admitting, “The Tigers are not saints. If we produce a list of massacres committed by them then they will also produce a list of massacres committed by the Tigers”. As I have written elsewhere, one wrong does not cancel another wrong. No, the world is then left with two wrongs – and all the sadder a place for it.
Tamilini recognises and pays tribute to the contribution made by the people of the Eastern province: “The eastern province, land endowed with abundance of natural resources, paid a heavy price for the armed struggle.” “I can categorically say that if not for the dedication and sacrifice of the cadres from the Eastern province, the LTTE would not have achieved many of its military feats.” “Nobody could deny the fact that the cadres from the eastern province under Karuna had left an indelible mark in the military feats of the LTTE. Many victories in the Vanni battlefield had been won by them. With the departure of Karuna, half of the strength of the LTTE had also gone.”
Given courage and commitment, the question arises: How came it that the Tigers were annihilated? I attempted something of an answer in Montage, 21 December 2009, from which I quote. (The magazine was begun by Frederica Jansz, then the editor of the Sunday Leader, I think the publication is now defunct.) “To begin with numbers: exact figures are hard to come by, but it is thought that, at their height, the Tigers perhaps numbered 30,000. Towards the end, down to a few thousand and then a few hundred, they faced an army of perhaps 250,000. Then there is the matter of resources. The Tigers did not have jets and helicopters. Their propeller planes were slow and clumsy and of no real military value. Rejected by foreign governments, the Tigers were as isolated internationally as they were totally surrounded geographically. In contrast, the government of Sri Lanka received help and advice froseveral countries. The Taliban fight in mountainous, inaccessible terrain, while the Tigers occupied flat land —albeit forested. Sri Lanka being an island and the government of the nearest country, India, implacably hostile, the LTTE did not have borders over which they could easily slip to re-group, recover and return to continue the struggle. Fitting all this together, it seems to me the wonder is not that the government eventually won but that it took so long for eventual victory to be achieved. In short, the defeat of the Tigers cannot be classified as “a great military victory.” But although it wasn’t a great military victory, it is a great victory, a watershed in Sri Lanka’s history, with both immediate and far-reaching consequence in many aspects: ethnic, economic, social, cultural, and religious.’
Given the task of defeating the Carthaginians led by Hannibal, their brilliant and innovative commander, Roman Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus adopted the deadly weapon of delay (and the resulting attrition) knowing that time was on his side. (The British Fabian Society, preferring slow and cautious measures to revolution, took its name from Fabius.) Tamilini mentions war-weariness; that many senior cadres were nearing the age of fifty, and were affected by mental and health problems. Given the very great military imbalance, including the numerical, the longer the war lasted, the greater was the certainty of the Tigers’ defeat. Hitler’s early military victories fatally led him to think that he and his army (reputedly the best in the world at that time) were invincible. Tamilini states that their military might had overwhelmed the reasonable calculations of the leaders of the Tigers; they had an excessive trust in their military strength and capability; a false image of potential and possibility was built on “past feats”. Self-confidence had become over-confidence – and History is unforgiving. In the elections of 2005, the people were encouraged to vote for Mahinda Rajapakse. In the words of Tamilchelvan (as reported by Tamilini), if Mahinda became President, then rather than we being dragged into peace talks, the war will resume - and we will win! Whether all the above was really the case, those who know better will appraise: here and elsewhere, I merely report Tamilini’s opinion and statements. Sun-tzu in his Art of War writes that, paradoxically, in war to be fixed is to be temporary; to change, to adapt, is to endure: Tamilini claims that Prabhakaran was obdurate. (Sun-tzu also said that a true leader never acts out of anger, revenge or “spite”: here the many murders and assassinations, including that of Rajiv Gandhi, allegedly carried out by the LTTE, come to mind.) Darwin wrote of the survival of the fittest, and one aspect of fitness was adaptability. The full title of his book is The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life: of significance here is the phrase, “the struggle for life”, for survival. Anton Balasingham is described as the chief strategist but what was his advice and, more importantly, how was it received? Hitler had brilliant military commanders who gave the Führer advice but, if that went contrary to his opinion, they could do so only once.
General Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) is among the most famous of military theorists, and his books (particularly that titled On War) are standard texts on the subject. When Prussia was forced by Napoleon to become an ally, Clausewitz crossed over to the Russians and fought against the French. However, Clausewitz noted that war is but “the continuation of politics by other means”: war is but a means to political ends. Again turning to that ancient Chinese text, Art of War, Sun-tzu writes that the greatest victory is one that is won without a fight. After the savage pogrom of July 1983 (it was not a “riot”) there was near-universal sympathy, and Tamils occupied the moral high-ground. How was this dissipated, and replaced by distaste and distancing? Among several answers, Tamilini says that Prabhakaran who had earned the awe of the Sri Lankan security and the respect of international military analysts was unable to display the same courage and brilliance in the political sphere to progress towards achieving “a sustainable solution” of the ethnic question. His trust was on violence and the military. The awe inspiring military victories of the LTTE was not matched by them in the political field (Tamilini). As Otto von Bismarck remarked, “politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best thing”.
The Tigers faced a daunting situation – see the extract from ‘Montage’ above – but added to this was their near-total isolation internationally. If war is about politics, then this was a failure to communicate, to explain and make understand: it translates as a political failure. Tamilini notes that “at the end of the day we had become isolated”. I have cited elsewhere what a very senior Indian government official once wrote to me: The day the Tigers killed Rajiv Gandhi, they also killed all hope of Eelam. Tamilini: Popular leaders of political parties in South India used the rhetoric of supporting the Tamils of Sri Lanka “just to fill their ballot boxes”. Even countries hostile to each other, for example India and Pakistan, joined in helping the Sri Lankan government:. Several countries aided the government not only with advanced weaponry, not only with military training but with mercenaries on the ground: see for example helicopter-pilot Tim Smith’s book, ‘The Reluctant Mercenary’ and Phil Miller’s ‘Britain’s dirty war against the Tamil people, 1979-2009’ in https://www.tamilnet.com/img/publish/2014/07/britains_dirty_war. pdf June 2014. Miller condemns the “relentless and calculated assistance from Britain for Sri Lanka’s war against the Tamil independence movement at each step, particularly when Colombo’s resolve appeared to be wavering and peace was a possibility.” Tamilini states that Tiger ships carrying much-needed weapons were intercepted and destroyed by the Sri Lankan navy thanks to “international intelligence organizations”. Surrounded in Sri Lanka, totally isolated internationally, defeat was inevitable. And though a post-mortem never brought a corpse back to life (“the moving finger writes and, having written, moves on […] Nor can all your tears wash out of a word of it”), it can prove instructive.
But all this takes us away from the fact that politics is finally personal. Politics affects people, and people are made up of individuals. Therefore politics is at once both public and private, and very personal. Statistics are depersonalising: Tamilini does not deal with numbers but the human individuals represented by them. Her writing on war reminded me of a line from Wilfred Owen’s poem, ‘Strange meeting’: “The pity of war, the pity war distilled”. (Owen was killed in action in 1918, one week before Armistice. He was 25.) Tamilini writes of being alone on sentry duty, in “the pitch darkness of the forest” with swaying trees and the sounds of nocturnal animals. The battle for the Pooneryn military base started on 11 September 1993 but the LTTE had spent more than one year preparing for the attack. Those selected knew death lay before them. Each one of them had her dreams and aspirations as they penned their last letters. Tamilini writes of crawling with her friend Sambavi when she heard a sudden, strange sound from her: a bullet had pierced her heart. “I felt the last warmth of her life.” Another friend, a melancholy individual of few words, when asked whom she would think of at the moment of death replies, “the one whom I love”: he had been killed in a previous battle. There were no safehavens: the church in Nawali, in which hundreds of people, children and women had gathered for protection, was bombed by the air force. Again, a line from one of Owen’s poems (‘Greater Love’) comes to mind: “Where God seems not to care”. Tamilini writes of weeping and wailing mothers, crazed with grief, running from coffin to coffin, not knowing which one contained the remains of their children. There is no victory in war. All wars are defeats: the failure of humanity to live on Planet Earth without recourse to violence.
Anton Balasingham, when sympathised with for his fatal illness, is reported to have said that when compared to the vast ocean of the collective tragedy faced by the people, he is merely a drop. Tamilini is another.