Winning Democracy For The Tamils

By Metta Spencer | 1997-07-01 12:00:00

The Sri Lankan people have been suffering through civil war for decades. R. Rajmohan is a Tamil who witnessed the violence in his homeland. He urges other Tamils in Canada to make peace their business.

METTA SPENCER: Several years ago, Peace Magazine did a book review of The Broken Palmyra, which criticizes groups in the Sri Lankan conflict, including the Sri Lankan and Indian armed forces and the Tamil Tigers, for their violence and extremism. You were affiliated with the authors of that book, who were committed to nonviolence. Can you tell us something about their movement?

RAJMOHAN: I didn't directly participate in writing the book, but I did work closely with its authors. In 1987 I was a junior staff member at the University of Jaffna, a university in the Tamil region (northern Sri Lanka). Starting in the mid-eighties, this area was usually controlled by Tamil militants, but in '87 the Indian army was occupying Jaffna as a "peacekeeping" force, arresting people and torturing them as suspected militants.

SPENCER: Where was the army of the Sri Lankan government during that period?

RAJMOHAN: They had withdrawn from Jaffna, and the Indian army had taken over after the Sri Lankan and Indian governments signed a peace accord. The Tigers engaged in war with the Indian army in an attempt to reassert their control over the people. At the same time they fought to eliminate those who opposed their political aspirations. The ordinary people were caught between these two armed groups, the Indian Army and the Tigers, and were violated by both.

In this situation the organization University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) was created; four of its main members wrote The Broken Palmyra. They were supported by many students and teachers. Their first meeting in 1988 was chaired by the vice chancellor and attended by at least 100 people.

At that time a lot of students were being taken to Indian Army camps and tortured. The army viewed students as Tiger supporters and potential informers. The university demanded that both parties allow it to remain a non-militarized zone. To some extent the Indian army complied, but the Tigers took advantage of their absence and used the university for secret meetings and hiding places. Also, as a military strategy, the Tigers wanted the army to intimidate the university community, in the hope that this would turn the university against the army. Indeed, the army was harassing and arresting students who were innocent bystanders.

UTHR members started going to the army camps, as university officials, to demand the release of students. They went because the students' parents were scared-both of the army and of the Tigers, who warned that anyone who entered an army camp would be treated as an informer and killed. Many of the university staff were also scared to visit the camps. But UTHR members were willing to do that, and during the time I was there 57 students were released. Those who had been tortured required medical and psychiatric help. The army had treated the students just as brutally as the Tigers had hoped, creating excellent political propaganda for them. Both parties were trying to win the heart of the people.

SPENCER: Did many students support the Tigers?

RAJMOHAN: Some students were Tiger sympathizers, but I don't think there were any Tiger supporters among the tortured.

SPENCER: You talked to the torture victims?

RAJMOHAN: Yes. We took them to doctors whom we knew personally, and then we would check up on them. We translated for a British psychologist working with the Quakers, who treated some of the students.

I left in 1989 because I was given a scholarship for graduate studies at McMaster University. The time of my leaving coincided with the assassination of my colleague, Rajani Thiranagama.

It is hard to work as a human rights activist in Sri Lanka. Both the army and the Tigers perceive you as working for the enemy. You are counting your time. It's easier to speak for human rights from another country. We were concerned for our safety.

The authors of The Broken Palmyra were intimidated by the Indian army and their houses were raided many times. Mine was raided twice. I had to make sure that I had nothing to warrant their suspicion. Sometimes on the first raid the army would plant something, such as bullets, without our knowledge. And then the second time they'd say, "Hey, we found something!" So after each raid we had to search for anything that might have been planted for our future arrests. It was a way to intimidate us.

The Tigers had different intimidation tactics. They would select a prominent person's house and commandeer it for a secret meeting. This put the homeowners' lives in jeopardy. Should the army attack during the meeting, the Tigers would use the deaths of the innocent homeowners to raise money in their international campaigns.

Here's another Tiger tactic. On one occasion the students wanted to protest nonviolently against the Indian army's detentions and torture, but the army refused to permit a rally in the road. So the Student Council planned the rally inside the university compound. But a few Tiger supporters encouraged the protesters from behind to go out into the street, which they did. From my office I heard gunshots. Several people were injured. Two died. The Indian army had committed an atrocity, but the Tigers also participated in it, and they immediately publicized it to gain support for their side.

SPENCER: A classic use of agents provocateurs.

RAJMOHAN: Exactly. People were angry, and they knew the inside story. In retaliation the Tigers planned an attack on the army camp closest to the university, using Lebanon-style attack with a carload of bombs. But it exploded prematurely in the civilian area and killed and injured many people.

In a guerrilla war, militants intentionally attack the army in a civilian-populated area. Injured and panicked soldiers will fire on any moving object: civilians are shot and the young people who witness it get angry and join the militants. Also the Tigers can sell that story outside Sri Lanka, saying the army killed innocent people. It has been a successful propaganda and military strategy.

People sometimes tell the Tigers, "Boys, you have to fight against the Indian and Sri Lankan armies, but never plant a land mine in front of my house." They want justice, but from ambushes on their neighbor's turf, not their own. Such military activity divides people. Everyone comes to suspect everyone else.

The Tiger publicity campaigns in Canada, Australia, the U.K. and Europe use videotapes of enemy atrocities to raise big money. They show dead bodies, torture victims, and women describing the loss of loved ones. People see these and give money. The reports cause emotional suffering and create feelings of futility among expatriate Tamils. People leave Sri Lanka to escape suffering but the propaganda machines do not let them escape.

SPENCER: What happened to the University Teachers for Human Rights?

RAJMOHAN: They have been actively documenting and publishing human rights reports. Before The Broken Palmyra came out as a book, it was circulated as a manuscript, and it fell into the hands of the Indian army. The document threatened the Indian army by exposing their breach of the peacekeeping pledge by torture and rapes. They started harassing us.

The Tigers also became hostile. It's not an anti-Tiger book. It is about human rights-the day-to-day suffering of ordinary civilians.

SPENCER: Some of the Sri Lankans in Canada spread terrible tales about the UTHR people-stories that you say are lies. How do you explain that?

RAJMOHAN: In terms of nationalism and a culture of intolerance which originated within mainstream Tamil political parties, the Federal Party and the TULF. These parties claimed to be nonviolent. During elections in the 1970s they branded their opponents "traitors" to the nationalist cause. They did not speak up when the "boys" killed their political opponents. A culture of violence developed and the same "boys" went on to paint the TULF politicians as traitors and kill them.

Any criticism or opposition to the "boys" is seen as traitorous to the nationalist cause. Before they kill people, the Tigers try to dehumanize and discredit them in the minds of ordinary people. For this reason the UTHR were subjected to slander. Before the death of Rajani there was a smear campaign against her. Once victims are discredited, the population is made to fear talking with them. Originally, a sign was left beside each corpse, explaining why they had been killed. After a while, people assumed that if the "boys" killed someone, the killing was justified without an explanation.

SPENCER: Were there other groups besides the Tigers?

RAJMOHAN: Yes, among them EPRLF, PLOTE, EROS and TELO. They also stood for a separate state but with differing left-wing ideologies. Until 1987, almost all armed groups were able to work freely in Jaffna. Then the Tigers began to eliminate the other groups. They claimed to be responding to complaints that these groups were smuggling or stealing to support their parties. But the Tigers also had smuggling and extortion rackets. Really it was a power struggle. That was the end of democracy in the Tamil struggle for political rights. After two years Tigers had eliminated all opposition in areas under their control.

The separate state is the ultimate goal. Anyone who goes against that cause is eliminated. In the history of the conflict, Tamil leaders who initiated negotiation with the government were killed as "traitors," and later their killers were killed when they entered negotiations. All Tamil groups have had a honeymoon with the Indian or Sri Lankan government at one point or another.

SPENCER: You said that Rajani was killed.

RAJMOHAN: She wrote a section of The Broken Palmyra called "No More Tears, Sister." She was straight-forward, intelligent and outspoken about human rights violations. People had been warning her about the danger she was in. We sensed something was going to happen because the Tigers and army knew that The Broken Palmyra was about to be published. They tried to silence the UTHR by killing one of our members.

I was not there when Rajani was killed. She left the university after giving a lecture, and was followed by a man on a bicycle who sprayed bullets at her head. She was shot in front of my house. She had two young daughters. She was slandered before she died, which made the other authors determined to print the book and exonerate her. Many people sympathized with the UTHR after that, but some felt it was wrong to criticize the "boys" who were fighting the for the "larger cause." They did not realize that the most such a war could achieve would be to replace one military system with another.

Unfortunately, nationalism has an emotional power that often overrides the rights of ethnic minorities and free-thinking individuals. They say we must achieve freedom first and democracy will follow, but it doesn't happen that way. You cannot build freedom for people by silencing them. The "boys" don't want to get rid of their guns once they realize the gun gives power.

SPENCER: The UTHR went underground?

RAJMOHAN: Yes, it became too dangerous to live in Jaffna. The university subsequently fired us because we didn't come to work. There was no humanitarian understanding of our predicament.

Not only the staff members, but also students were killed after the death of Rajani. Rajani had worked with rape victims and had produced a play, An Old Wives' Tale, written by her sister, which talks about freedom and the military culture in Jaffna. Selvi, a student, played a major role and worked closely with Rajani. She was taken by the Tigers, after the Indian army left, and never returned home. She is a recipient of a PEN international award. Recently Anton Balasingam, political advisor of [Tiger leader] Prabaharan, acknowledged in an interview that she had been in Tiger custody. It is believed she is no longer alive.

Most of the Tigers' sympathizers saw the UTHR as an enemy of their cause, as damaging to their reputation. But I don't know what kind of reputation they want to defend after having killed so many people.

SPENCER: I have heard there is a lot of money given by Tamil refugees in Canada to pay for the Tigers' weapons, but that it is difficult for people to say this publicly.

RAJMOHAN: Yes, the Tigers rely on foreign currency for their buying power. There are about 100,000 Tamil refugees in Canada.

SPENCER: What is the experience of Tamil expatriates who speak openly about the Tigers?

RAJMOHAN: There tends to be sympathy for the Tigers among Tamil expatriates because many of them haven't been aware of the actions they were taking back home, how they have militarized the society and how they trained young kids to take on the armed struggle, and how they have violated the rights of Tamils in the north and east by setting up authoritarian rule over them.

In the late '80s people who spoke openly about the Tigers would be verbally harassed. Later Tigers entered positions in Canadian society which enabled them to advance their cause by working as immigration interpreters and organizers of community groups, NGOs, and specific cultural groups. A Toronto Star article in 1996 revealed that Tigers were caught working as double agents in the RCMP.

Soon the Tigers established themselves as the only voice of Sri Lankan Tamils. These people do not use the name "Tigers" openly but they talk about the Tamil homeland, "Eelam," and the "liberation" struggle, and their sympathies are obvious. The World Tamil Movement paper is a Tiger propaganda paper with pictures of armed heroes. It has manipulated the mood of expatriates in Canada and undermined political dialogue with its intolerance towards a diversity of views including concerns for human rights and democracy in the northeast.

The only paper that resisted the Tigers' grip was called Thayaham (Motherland). Its editor constantly received phone threats; his immigration process was delayed, some vending shops were threatened and the person who distributes the paper was assaulted. The editor of Senthamarai was also critical of some aspects of Tigers and was assaulted in Toronto. A small Tamil community library in Toronto that provides many alternative papers and serves as a forum for broad discussion was fire bombed in the 90s. The Tigers were building up their muscles in Toronto.

SPENCER: Do Tamil refugees in Toronto contribute to the war in Sri Lanka?

RAJMOHAN: Refugees have become part of the war system. Generally Tamil refugees feel guilty that they are having a comfortable life in Canada while their cousins back home are suffering. The Tigers tap the Tamil guilt for their fund-raising. On the other side, the Sri Lankan government gets funding for development, which allows it to budget for war. The war in turn creates more refugees who continue to sponsor the war machine.

The Tigers also have another way of raising foreign currency. Whenever someone here is sponsoring a person from a Tiger controlled area to immigrate to Canada, they have to get permission to leave the area. For that they have to pay a big sum of money. The sponsor in Toronto pays the Tigers to let this person go to the capital to get a visa. For example, I talked to someone who sponsored his mother in Vavuniya, but the Tigers wouldn't let her leave unless the family gave a large sum of money.

Also Tigers raise money by smuggling refugees out of Sri Lanka. Recently an overloaded boat carrying Tamil refugees to India capsized. Out of 150 people, 130 drowned. According to family members, each of these people had paid Tigers 10,000 rupees to board the boat. Smuggling operations take Tamil ref gees to many other countries, including Canada, at a high cost and danger to the refugees. Only months ago 90 Tamil refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in a similar smuggling attempt. People in the war zone are desperate to leave, and smuggling agencies take advantage of their vulnerability.

There is another class of refugees in Sri Lanka who don't have the money to purchase their passage out. These refugees face a desperate situation in the war zones. The war is perpetuated by Tamil expatriates contributing money to the Tigers and international aid donors contributing to the government. Such donations create new waves of refugees and destroy all hope of building peace. When waves of people emigrate from war zones, those who remain are made more miserable by expatriates choosing to support the war. Expatriates' money does not always go directly to Sri Lanka but may go to the arms market. Or electronic instruments like Walkie Talkies may be purchased abroad and sent. The drug trade is another source of hard currency for the Tigers.

Internationally, Tigers are have come to be viewed as a terrorist group because of their involvement in civilian massacres and bombings. They claim to be the only group representing the Tamil people. Not all Tamils are Tigers. However, when the Tigers' atrocities are associated with the Tamil people, the Tigers damage the international image of Tamils. The Tamil people have a right to protect their reputation and demand accountability from the Tigers-a right to know what the Tigers have been doing. Voicing concerns about Tiger actions does not imply that state terrorism is of lesser concern. The Sri Lankan Armed Forces have also committed massacres and atrocities against the Tamils and also against the Sinhalese people. In the late eighties approximately 50,000 Sinhalese either "disappeared" or were killed by the Armed Forces. So the cycle of refugees and war goes on.

As soon as one side lacks fire-power they will be forced to ask for peace. Recently what seemed to be a huge peacemaking effort was really an intense Tiger fund-raising campaign abroad. Tigers use the peace process as a time to regroup and fund-raise. In so doing, the Tigers have been destroying nonviolent alternatives. While recognizing the passion and commitment to the Tamil people of the young militant groups, we must question their violations and use of dead-end military logic.

SPENCER: You are suggesting that the Tamils must somehow get control of the Tigers. That seems an unlikely development when dealing with a heavily armed group.

RAJMOHAN: When you are living in Tiger controlled areas, you cannot ask for that openly. But abroad you are somewhat protected. You can refuse to support Tigers morally and financially and force them to find a creative solution for peace. The Canadian government has begun to take a stronger stand against terrorism and in favor of a negotiated peace in Sri Lanka. As for Tamil expatriates, progress depends on how free ordinary people are to express their opinions or form their own organizations without intimidation, slander, and threats.

SPENCER: Can we get Tamils and Sinhalese together in Toronto for conflict resolution?

RAJMOHAN: Expatriate Tamils themselves are divided on the means to peace. First Tamils must begin to talk among themselves and develop an openness to alternative options. We need an honest debate about how to build the kind of society we want for Tamils where the values of democracy and civil society are emphasized. That would allow many silenced Tamils to contribute creative suggestions toward peace-building. What we have experienced in this war over the past 20 years is the erosion of civil society and the emergence of a military culture. We can start to reverse this process. Most urgently we need to stop the flow of currency from abroad that gives arms-purchasing capacity to the warring parties. A healthy dialogue between Tamils and Sinhalese can then begin.

Backgound Notes By R. Rajmohan

The Tamil minority has been demanding equal civil rights since Sri Lanka became independent in 1948. Until the early 1970s, Tamils sought these rights through parliamentary means. During that period governments used police and military brutality as well as tacit support for mob violence to suppress Tamils.

The Tamil armed struggle began in the 1970s. Since then, the Tamil militants and the armed forces of Sri Lankan governments have been trapped in a cycle of military retaliation and escalating violence. It has been common for Tamils to point fingers at the atrocities committed by the armed forces and, likewise, for the government and its backers to point at the Tigers' atrocities against Sinhalese and Muslim civilians.

This cycle of violence has intensified over the past decade. The original injustice by the government towards Tamils has been eclipsed by the injustice and inhumanity of mass killings on all sides. Militarism has silenced ordinary people in all communities. Particularly in the war zones, militants and army commanders control the people, who do not have the power to determine their own future. Whether subjected to army occupation or Tiger control, militarized society defeats the original Tamil aspiration of civil and political rights and freedoms.

Constant retaliation has never allowed for internal criticism but has only fueled hatred. Now the way forward is to practice rigorous self-examination, questioning the military means of achieving justice. We will progress when each community is open to non-military means of building peace and stops putting the whole blame for perpetuating war on the other.

Many Sinhalese have already embarked on the peace-making process, beginning with their own internal criticism. There are Sinhalese who are now vocally critical of the government and in the last two elections Sinhalese civilians voted overwhelmingly for the government to carry out its peace mandate (though, unfortunately, it has been hampered in doing so). The good will now being demonstrated by ordinary Sinhalese, who are seeking peace, presents a new opportunity for Tamils.

What is needed most is a similar peace movement in the Tamil community, particularly among expatriates. In this interview I am critical of developments within the Tamil community since we became engulfed in violence. I hope it will inspire more discussion of the Tamils' responsibility for peace-building so that the healthy, democratic society we Tamils desire can come about in our lifetime.

As a Sri Lankan Tamil, I want to make my position clear: For 20 years the Sri Lankan armed forces (and for a time the Indian army) have inflicted enormous suffering on Tamils. To this day Tamil grievances have not been addressed and many Tamils continue to live with great physical insecurity and trauma. These violations have been well-documented and brought to international attention. Governments, as signatories of the Universal Charter of Human Rights, have at least some accountability to the international community because they must open their doors to international observers.

Militant organizations, on the other hand, are not accountable, either for their attacks on the "enemy" population, or for abuses against political opponents in their own community. For example, during the Tiger control of Jaffna, the Muslim minority was forced out and the political opponents of Tigers were eliminated. When the Indian army occupied Jaffna, 1987-89, other Tamil militant groups also hunted down their political opponents. On one occasion, I witnessed a public assassination of a Tiger sympathizer by another group. Many stories go untold either because there is less opportunity for international observers to witness them or because they seem to contradict the "larger cause" advanced by the Tigers.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1997

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1997, page 8. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here

Peace Magazine homepage