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Going Home Ending the Exile and Back to Roots: Fears, Challenges and Hopes.

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.

– www.groundviews.org

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