Editor’s Note: I first arrived in London in 2005 to edit a small Sri Lankan community magazine. One of the first stories that I covered was the release of a documentary called “No More Tears Sister” which told the moving story of Dr Rajini Thiranagama, a gifted young academic, feminist and human rights activist murdered in 1989 by the LTTE. Dr Thiranagama had been one of the founding members of the University Teachers for Human Rights, which during the war, carefully documented the rights violations committed by both the government and the LTTE. Dr Thiranagama’s story – as well as those of the countless others who were brutalized by the madness of Sri Lanka’s Civil War – was an eye-opener for a Sinhala Buddhist boy born and raised in the relatively comfortable confines of Colombo, fed a diet of ‘them against us’. Whilst Dr Thiranagama (nee Rajasingham) was a Tamil, her husband was the Sinhala leftist Dayapala Thiranagama; their union and humanitarian efforts led the family to exile. Here, Mr Thiranagama recounts his story and his hopes for Sri Lanka’s future.
“Politics can be relatively fair in the breathing spaces of history; at its critical turning points there is no other rule possible than the old one, that the end justifies the means” (Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon, London, 1940, Page 81).
On 27 December 1989 I arrived in Heathrow along with my two young daughters, aged 9 and 11 years. At the Immigration Desk the Officer asked me how long we intended to stay. I replied ‘a couple of weeks’. My youngest daughter still hanging on to my hand and whispered to me ‘Thaththa, don’t tell lies we are not going back to Sri Lanka’. She of course was telling the truth. Now after more than two decades I had to return to Sri Lanka alone, leaving them behind.
There were two main reasons that made ending my exile possible: the achievement of my personal commitment to my children which was to ensure that they were independent, and the change in Sri Lanka’s political climate, which is the focus of this account.
By the end of 1989 when we fled Sri Lanka we left behind a country gripped by seemingly insoluble political contradictions. They seemed to require a comprehensive military defeat of one party over the other for the resolution of the crisis. The JVP was fighting the Sri Lankan state which had sought India’s help and the LTTE had taken on the mighty IPKF(Indian Peace Keeping Force).
The JVP had begun a ‘patriotic war’ accusing that the Sri Lankan State of capitulating to Indian imperialism.They demanded that the people patriotically oppose the devolution of any power to Tamils just as the UPFA at present defines its patriotism in order to deny the possibility of granting of democratic rights to the Tamil speaking people. At the time the JVP had begun assassinating all those who supported the devolution of power to Tamils. Their targets included the activists and the leaders of the Left parties and groups, as they were in the forefront of the campaign in support of the 13th Amendment, which allowed for the devolution of power. The JVP had become cruel and ruthless killers of other political activists in the name of ‘patriotism’ and appeared to be knocking on the door of the state power.
I had joined the Vikalpa Kandayama (Alternative Group) and later organised the Movement for Socialism and Democracy uniting all the left groups ,democrats and some prominent individuals in trade unions.The state also responded with equal cruelty and ruthlessness to the JVP rebellion. There were death squads acting with impunity and the roadsides in certain areas became open graves. The LTTE was not any different from the JVP and they also assassinated all those who were critical of them. With these murders there were personal sufferings within families who experienced irreplaceable losses.
Rajani Thiranagama, my wife who was brutally gunned down by the Tamil Tigers merely because she was a vocal critic of their human rights violations. This was despite the fact that she had given medical treatment to leading LTTE cadres at the very inception of their organisation. Her assassination was symbolic of both the Tamil Tigers’ fascist nature as well as the bleak future that the so called ‘Tamil liberation’ would have brought about in the North and East, if they were not comprehensively defeated.
Rajani was brutally killed on 21 September 1989. My children lost their most stable primary carer who was their great source of love , stability and hope. Despite the fact that I took the full responsibility for their upbringing after her death, I feel that I could not replace fully the love and support they should have had from their mother. Like them, thousands of children in Sri Lanka have suffered the loss of their parents leaving them experiencing a legacy of pain and vulnerability that has continued long after the war has finished.
When Rajani was assassinated I had to assure my children that I would be there for them.But unfortunately I could not carry out this responsibility whilst being in Sri Lanka and having an underground or semi -underground life . Sri Lanka had become very unsafe, as there was not even the slightest regard for human life. All the parties who fought their armed opponents threw away almost all internationally accepted norms of warfare and when they had audacity to kill their unarmed critics or civilians they also threw away unhesitatingly all the civilised norms of resolving human and political conflicts. The victims of the armed violence never had a chance to comprehend or to know the specific charges against them at the time when the gunman or the suicide bomber appeared before them. Like many others, Rajani never knew the specific charges against her. She only knew that the Tigers did not tolerate dissenting views and that these would be punishable by death.
By 1989 the Sri Lankan state was in grave danger of being defeated by the armed groups led by the Sinhala extremist JVP. It survived. In all three armed struggles , two of them led by the JVP in 1971 and 1987-89 and the Eelam war led by the LTTE, the challengers to the state and parliamentary democracy has been comprehensively defeated by the Sri Lankan state. It is ironic that that the defeat of the reactionary,violent and fascist forces of the JVP and the LTTE has been won at an unbearable cost for Sri Lankan society and its parliamentary democracy. The survival of the state in this fashion has posed difficult questions as well as presenting an opportunity to reform the Sri Lankan state political structures.
The absence of a commitment from the current government to meet the democratic aspirations of all our communities and the lack of political will for democratic reforms appears to be the main challenge facing Sri Lanka at present. The massive loss of human life,legacy of the war,its effect on ordinary civilians and the imprint it has left on political activity has reshaped our future.Understanding and addressing what is felt on an individual level as a deep personal loss and what is felt by us collectively as a tragedy is fundamental to the creation of a different country and a different politics,where such events cannot happen again.
President Rajapaksa enjoys a solid political support among the Sinhalese rural masses, which hither to no other political leader has been able to command . His popularity is unassailable and the recent local election results show that it is not going to be any easier now for his political opponents. This popularity is undoubtedly due to the political leadership he was able to provide in defeating the LTTE separatism. This will continue to have huge political significance in the country for generations to come. Without the Rajapaksha brothers at helm of the state power it would not have been possible to defeat the Tamil Tigers. Whether we would like it or not as long as the West pursues the war crime allegations against the state, Rajapaksa’s popularity is bound to increase, solidifying the support that President Rajapaksa already enjoys. This popularity is also the main obstacle for the possibility of ethnic inclusiveness. As long as the TNA continues to apply pressure through India and West to gain a political solution to the issue of the democratic rights of the Tamils ,it will be seen as political interference in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka and thus a largely a counter productive effort.
There is also an element of this when foreign funded NGO’s campaign for the rights of Tamil people. However, the NGO’s are making a valuable contribution in defending democratic rights, a role which political parties in the opposition are unable to play with credibility as their political lines have been similar to that of the parties in the UPFA.The JVP’s anti-devolutionary violent political history against the Tamil democratic rights is a case in point.
It is unlikely that the government will be able to dismantle Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy as some critics would like to suggest but there should not be any complacency in this regard. When the tentacles of family interests spread through state institutions giving up power will not be an easy option.The most difficult situation is that the opposition is meek and feeble and the government would like to have a free ride at the expense of the political rights of the people. If the government is planning to dismantle parliamentary democracy, it will be the greatest political blunder and the folly of the capitalist class in this country .
A divided opposition hugely disadvantages ordinary people.They are in disarray precisely at the time when there is an urgent need for a common political programme to protect basic democratic and political rights. Each opposition party is also deeply divided within themselves on the issue of political leadership and/or political ideology and strategy. The UNP and the JVP are undergoing the most serious and catastrophic splits within their own parties by weakening their capacity to oppose the government and to change the balance of forces in their favour. The UPFA political hegemony appears unbreakable despite their shortcomings. The government is also using every possible corrupt incentives to lure the opposition figures to their side. As long as the opposition is unable to mount a credible and mass base democratic political challenge to the government, the possibility of launching a successful battle to win for greater democratic rights is still long way off. This has meant that the government have felt able to get away with any anti-democratic act or legislation.In Gramscian terms this is the ‘effective reality’ at present in the country . Gramsci further sees the need for any political opposition to‘transcend beyond’ this ‘effective reality’ and alter the balance of forces in their favour.
The Mulleriawa incident exposes the continuing thuggish and criminal behaviour of some of the government politicians . It is also a warning that what they are capable of doing to their own they will feel able to do double fold to those who aim to challenge them democratically. These are legitimate and genuine issues that need to be addressed by both the opposition and the government. If they fail at this juncture, they will not be forgiven nor forgotten by the people. In the deep fault-line of our politics the effect of the breakdown of civil society and political culture can be still felt.The forces of violence ,the climate of fear and the suffocation of democratic voices that took centre stage in our politics have not yet been defeated despite the end of the war.
I returned to my village, Happawana-Harumalgoda West in Habaraduwa to reside . I had last left as a young man in 1967 to attend the university. All my memories in growing up here were of the poverty and destitution of this village, matched only by the generosity of its people when I had difficulties with the security forces. Growing up in this village made me conscious of the path of the personal sacrifices that have to be made to achieve social justice,political rights and fairness for all ethnic communities in our country. The legacy of this village lies deep within my political history and identity.
In 1971 the villagers protected me from the CID and police as they encamped this village to apprehend me.When I was acquitted in my trail in1975 they took me home in a huge procession that filled a two-mile long stretch from the Pilana junction of Deniyaya-Akuressa Road to my house.
In Sri Lanka, the journeys we make , both politically and physically are often defined by great losses.This two mile long route runs through the village that connects it to the George Ratnayake Mawatha, which was named after my comrade and friend George Ratnayake who was brutally assassinated by the JVP in August 1989. He was the finest human being this village has ever produced. His loss is felt deeply not least by me.Without him my village is a lonelier place. George was a trade unionist and a Central committee member of the Communist Party .
He stood for the provincial council election and won in 1989. He was killed by the JVP because he openly supported the devolution of power to the Tamils. His assassination stands a testimony to the brutality of the JVP and their racist politics of Sinhalese supremacy. This village will never forget this heinous crime. The JVP had sent a group of faceless assassins from outside that day. The day the village buried their finest human being they also defied all the funeral restrictions imposed by the JVP.
This village has changed since I left it and will continue to change at increasing speed. It no longer bears the hallmark of destitution and abject poverty I witnessed as a child. It no longer exists in the same intensity. Both male and female wage labour has increased here. This I hope will influence its future political direction and enable it to continue making a political contribution to win and preserve democracy.
In Sri Lanka in general the politics in the countryside where the electoral bulwark of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy reigns supreme will be pivotal in the coming years of re-drawing electoral battle grounds. This is partly due the UPFA regime shifting the political emphasis to its village based support structures and has undertaken infrastructural development hither to unseen in rural areas.Sri Lanka will not be able to resolve its thorny issue of nationhood unless rural communities support an electoral victory that would resolve the issue of the devolution of power to to the Tamil community.
During these turbulent years of violent politics, the personal losses including having to leave my own country have made a lasting impact on my life.Those comrades and friends who knew me closely including my wife Rajani who fell victims to the LTTE, the JVP and the security forces would have expected in their last moments that I would continue their struggle for social justice and democracy. But I could not evade my personal responsibility towards my children at the time.
Rajani , my comrades and friends knew very well the mortal danger that would pose to any individual in Sri Lankan politics. But they never hesitated. These murderous non -state actors eager to justify these crimes in the name of ‘revolution’ or ‘national liberation’. They have made no apology for these murders.The security forces have not shown any accountability.They have acted with impunity in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘national sovereignty’.
It is great to return home.
However, Sri Lanka as a nation has not ended its own political exile even after wining the separatist war. Unless Sri Lanka resolves its critical issue of ethnic inclusiveness, she will be in political exile. There will be a day, the masses of this country will drag her out of this and make us a proud nation where all ethnic communities will enjoy democracy and freedom.