Claims and Dilemmas: 25 years after Duraiappah (The Island)

From the Information Bulletin No. 24 of University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) - September, 2000

27th July 2000 was the 25th anniversary of the murder of Jaffna’s mayor and former MP, Alferd Duraiappah. He may not have represented any great principle or ideal in politics. But he had one great virtue, he was a killer neither in private life nor in politics. He did not aspire to lead the Tamil people, nor did he care to project himself outside the Jaffna electorate. Inside the electorate his politics was simple. He tried to make everyone feel that he was their family member. He even tried to befriend those who regarded him an enemy and attended their functions uninvited. He knew everyone by name, and he could often be seen in a Muslim tailor’s shop near the Jaffna Court where he practised, half-seated on a table, chatting to ordinary people, waving at passersby and inquiring after their affairs. It suited him to have government patronage to pass on and so he aligned himself with the SLFP.

He posed a challenge to the nationalist TULF (Federal Party) in the prestigious Jaffna electorate and nowhere else. It irked the nationalists that this man who was oblivious to nationalist claims and dealt only with jobs, transfers, market buildings, a stadium, public lavatories and lamp posts could be popular with the people. Nationalist sentiment was often secondary and did not always translate into votes. He catered to people who wanted life to go on and the people had that choice by right.

The nebulous and even vicious campaign against Duraiappah as a traitor was articulated by the TULF and there is strong circumstantial evidence of TULF instigation and acquiescence in the murder. One of the assassins became the leader of the LTTE, and the murder marked its stormy eruption. The incipient Tiger Movement were once known as the ‘boys’ of TULF leaders. Today the horse has all but changed places with the rider, and where do the Tamil people stand after 25 years of this?

Many have been killed, and many children are being offered no brighter future than to carry a gun. Then we have the tragedies of widows, orphans, the maimed, those broken in mind and the social evils of illicit liquor and prostitution. A particular irony is that throughout this crisis people have been quitting this country and establishing themselves abroad to pursue what Duraiappah offered in politics - to carry on the normal business of life - and having made that choice, also then became extreme nationalists. What they saw as impractical at home became abroad, an obsession. There were indeed also many others who went into the liberation struggle with high ideals, became disillusioned and confused and went abroad to live under conditions of alienation. There is heavy pressure on them to drop their ideals and join the mainstream so as to keep their sanity.

The present tragedy of the people of Thenmaratchy should be another eye opener. Many years of war did not do much damage to the area. Most of the people were self-sufficient farmers having their own plot of land, mango, coconut and jak trees, and rice fields. Today they are refugees, a number of them are dead or maimed, and whenever they return home there will be the nightmare of mine fields.

Most of these people rejected Tamil nationalist aspirations as represented by the LTTE, turned their backs on its call to move to the Vanni, and took varying degrees of risk in moving to the army controlled area. Rather than a pro-Army or anti-LTTE choice, it was a choice for the normal business of life to go on. By the same token they would like the Army to throw the LTTE out so that they could go back to their mango trees, jak trees and plantain groves and live without undue interference.

The LTTE’s claims have been voiced so loud and received so uncritically that the LTTE would be very slow in coming to terms with the unenviable position in which it has placed itself and the Tamil people. The ordinary LTTE cadre who angrily accused people fleeing towards army lines of begging food from the enemy, did not understand that even in the Vanni they would have lived on government food. The point is that if they are left alone, the people need not beg form anyone.

Even more serious are the consequences of the event for the ‘Thimpu Principles’ the LTTE ideologues insist upon. The key demand therein for the recognition of the Tamils as a nation is based upon their perceived oppression by the ‘Sinhalese Nation’. It had a certain political validity in 1985. But to insist upon it today, the LTTE should at least have been careful not to create a situation where a large section of the Tamil people look to the ‘Sinhalese’ Army to keep them away from their would-be liberators. This absurdity is the ultimate consequence of a chain of events resulting from the political murder of Alfred Duraiappah, and Prabhakaran has lived to demonstrate that logic.

The TULF has never accepted responsibility for what it procreated, but several of its members, starting with Amirthalingam, have been killed over the years while trying to make amends. It is overwhelmingly clear today that what the Tamil people want is a political settlement for the business of life to go on in conditions of dignity.

Ideally the Tamils would like a federal solution. But within the constraints of the situation there is a political process going on, and the Tamil representatives have a duty to contribute to it positively. There is greater virtue in contributing to create healthy traditions under which power would be exercised, than to isolate themselves on a maximalist position. The latter course would leave them appealing to the Tamil electorate on a chauvinistic platform and it is the last thing the Tamil people need.

The event also poses problems for governments, peace groups, NGOs and academics who evaluate phenomena and help to make policy. In the Chavakacheri electorate at the last presidential election, the PA polled 3392 and the UNP 7490. This was widely interpreted as overwhelming support for the LTTE, and such interpretations have uncritically featured in evaluating the claims of the LTTE. When such claims are used to disrupt and destroy the lives of local communities, they should be looked at much more critically.

The fact remains that although 7490 persons around Chavakacheri cast a pro-LTTE vote, when it came to choosing between the LTTE and the Army for their immediate survival, the people demonstrated their will very clearly by voting with their feet. Only about 1000 went with the LTTE and again it was often a choice forced on them by circumstances. This aspect has received very little publicity.

In the heat of the crisis where people were trapped amidst shelling, no international agency could intervene successfully. They were able to provide relief only after the people had extricated themselves. In spite of the gravity of the situation, the demand for intervention from the local publicity organisations was non-existent. Individuals, who wanted their relatives brought out of danger rather than being forced to go to the Vanni, could not get public attention. By contrast when 600 civilians around Pallai in the south-east of the peninsula, came within the army-controlled area last April, several organisations in Jaffna, including some university students, accused the Army of using them as human shields and called for intervention to get them out. The UNHCR representative visited the area and contradicted the claim about civilian shields. This is the peculiar nature of the situation. The rest of Jaffna too may face the plight of the people in Thenmaratchy in the coming months. Facing future crises requires a worldwide response and it means frankly facing up to the nature of the LTTE and the viability of its claims.

The humanitarian law is inadequate to evaluate what is going on and may even distract from the key issues. The LTTE shelled civilian areas and then moved into these areas and fought the Army. The Army in turn shelled these areas. Both parties have acted contrary to the Geneva Conventions in not providing for the civilian population so as to protect them from the fighting; and also in destroying Chavakacheri town (Articles 13 (Protection of the civilian population), 16 (Protection of cultural objects and places of worship), and 17 (Prohibition of forced movement of civilians) of Protocol II). But after so many years of war, this becomes almost a side issue.

In order to come to terms with what is going on, one needs political criteria. The LTTE claims and enforces what amounts to property rights over the Tamil people, their lives and what belongs to them. Its right to kill dissent has not been seriously questioned. It believes in its right to spurn negotiations, invade the habitations of the people, take over their children, turn them into destitutes even as their fields converted to minefields, and blast them back to the Middle Ages. This right claimed by the LTTE is the key issue.

The LTTE spokesman Anton Balasingham says it from London that they would take Jaffna, as though Jaffna were their property having nothing to do with its people. It is this aspect that makes political negotiations an anathema to them. Rather than challenge these presumptions the tendency among peace groups has been to accommodate them. The people of Jaffna have in April 1996 and today in Thenmaratchy, eloquently demonstrated that these claims of the LTTE do not have their consent. This is not a force making its bizarre claims from the interior jungles of Cambodia or form the mountain fastness of Afganisthan, but is asserting them from every major Western capital, from the very citadels of the Rule of Law. Not to check it would be a grave affront to cilivilised norms. These claims too have their origin in the usurpation of the right to Alfred Duraiappah’s life 25 years ago.