AFTER A LONG JOURNEY HOME: SOLITUDE IN JAFFNA AND THE SILENCE OF A CITY
[Editors note: Dr. Rajini Thiranagama (née Rajasingham), was a Tamil human rights activist and feminist murdered in 1989 by the LTTE. She was one of the founding members of the University Teachers for Human Rights, Jaffna, which during the war, published some of the most hard hitting critiques and exposes of Government as well as LTTE atrocities and human rights violations. Since 2009, Dayapala Thiranagama's insightful articles to Groundviews have been amongst the site's most read and shared].
This summer, after 23 long years, I drove to Jaffna from Galle with my eldest daughter. We travelled through the heart of Sri Lanka on the A9 road, passing Kandy, Matale, Dambulla and Kekirawa. We drove past areas where I had worked in 1986 as a member of the Vikalpa Kandayama (Alternative Group), laying down an underground political structure. At the time, I had left my academic job in the university to do fulltime political work and was confronted by two great dangers: increasing political repression from the UNP government on the one hand and the JVP’s second insurrection on the other. In my journey from the place of my birth, Galle, to Jaffna in the north, I retraced my own political journey in Sri Lanka to its conclusion, the grave of my wife Rajani.
Starting a family in Jaffna with Rajani, in the midst of the Tamil community was a life enriching experience. Having two young daughters added happiness and an extra stability for us. However, the apparent tranquillity in Jaffna could not be taken for granted. The subsequent years the situation began to change from bad to worse. We never expected that the life was going to be smooth but we never envisaged what was to follow. The war and its horrors that tore apart so many family lives made a lasting impact on the whole community. Returning to Jaffna again to painfully revisit the past was a difficult experience.
The Jaffna I returned to this year after long 23 years has been marked by war and atrocity, not just in its crumbling infrastructure and its bombed out buildings but also its social fabric. Our old neighbourhood has completely disappeared and the buildings that remain empty have walls marked by the bullets. New owners occupy some houses but my local friends have simply disappeared. The middle classes who were once so dominant in Jaffna society are no longer visible. It is as if two or three generations of people have simply gone missing. The city itself looks subdued and grim, showing the effects of decades of stagnation in comparison with the cities we were passing on the A9 from Kandy onwards. Even Killinochi appears to be developing faster, powered perhaps by behind the scenes political patronage, and could soon be outbidding Jaffna as a commercial centre.
Jaffna as a living city, a centre of economic, political and social activity was destroyed from within, and without, conquered repeatedly by those who claimed to be its liberators. The city I knew as Jaffna started losing its soul and its pluralistic character in that violent moment when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) forcibly evicted its Muslim population within 24 hours in October 1990. This tragedy for Jaffna and the Tamil people cannot solely be attributed to the LTTE’s political ruthlessness. It was an aggressive statement of intent about the LTTE’s vision of Tamil Eelam, the annexation of Tamil nationalism into the personal project of the LTTE and its leader, Prabhakharan. In an almost parallel development they expelled Muslims from Jaffna, destroyed all other militant groups, assassinated the Tamil political leaders in the Tamil Liberation United Front (TULF) as well as the members of Left parties, forcibly recruited children to carry out their political crimes and gunned down its vocal critics without any mercy.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the silent partner of the LTTE political criminality was fully behind this process. There was no one who was able to stand up for the rights of the Tamil community against the LTTE’s extreme political violence and political suppression that had been confounded by the despair and darkness of the Tamil community’s plight. Within the climate of fear that settled over Jaffna, the LTTE were able to intimidate many people into remaining silent, using the public executions of dissenters as a terrifying warning.
My daughter told me that during the late 1980s, people in Jaffna joked that when a knock came on the door at midnight, families would inquire carefully, “who is it?” only to be asked in return “who do you want it to be?”
After returning to Jaffna in Nallur for more than two decades, I feel ‘free’ but the happy family home I had known now resounds with silence. At each turning of this empty house now, I exist in an illusion of a few seconds trying hear Rajani’s voice until my body is enveloped with the renewed knowledge of her death. The family we had tried to create together with our young daughters was a place where ethnic, linguistic religious and cultural differences were acknowledged and respected, where our common and deep humanity could be expressed. The war the LTTE conducted for nearly three decades, in fact, was fought against such fundamental ideals, destroying a vision that belonged to the humanity of evolving social relationships. In the fate of its most tragic victims, Sri Lanka’s civil war ultimately became one fought between two contrasting ideas, between those who were willing to commit any kind of atrocity for their own goals and the other, which affirmed the sanctity of life. In the frontlines of this war, guerrillas and soldiers were confronted by students, children, housewives, doctors, teachers, ordinary men and women from all walks of life who were suddenly thrust into the front line of a battle they had never signed up for and which they could not escape even in their own homes or their minds.
In today’s Jaffna, keeping the city under political and military strangulation appears to be a key political objective. Even after three years of comprehensively defeating the LTTE, you suddenly bump into armed patrols from nowhere when you are going around, that shows who is in charge. This kind of tight grip on the city appears to serve twin military and political objectives: Firstly, the view of the UPFA government is that any military revival of the LTTE could be nipped in the bud. Secondly, the devolution of power to the Tami community could be postponed to satisfy the Sinhala Buddhist supremacist fears that it would pave the way for separation. We have reached a stage where such military and political fears could be reasonably dealt only with the implementation of the 13th Amendment without further delay. The Sinhalese leadership has never been able to understand in strategic terms that not all the Tamils are Tiger supporters or sympathetic to their demand for a separate state but yet, there are genuine grievances that need to be resolved. This failure has cost the country politically in the past and will be further damaged ethnic harmony leading to dangerous political polarization, if the current impasse continues. The hopelessness of the Tamil community is facing at present after the war shows when hundreds of people attempting to flee the country every day even with young children by impoverish fishing boats to Australia. The economic development is important but the issues arsing from national oppression will not be resolved only by economic development alone.
The best course of action is both the government and the TNA to return to the negotiating table and resume negotiation. If the TNA expects to make alliances with other political parties in the South and negotiate with them when they come to power that will be a non-starter. The possibility of the UPFA’s electoral defeat in the immediate future or at the next election is remote. Their electoral base remains stable. The UNP, the main opposition party is hopelessly divided and bickering at present and they look like a hopeless coalition that is trying survive rather than a united political party. Their electoral base is severally restricted due to numerous internal divisions. Other opposition parties, like the JVP and their splinter group, the FSP (Frontline Socialist Party) have lost their electoral base and are unable to make any influence in a regime change. Even if they have any political clout, it should be noted that they are the sworn enemies of the devolution of power to the Tamil community. Despite the UPFA’s government’s right abuses, the culture of impunity, corruption and authoritarian tendencies, any replication of an Arab spring type regime change would not be possible because the people still have faith in parliamentary elections for a change of government. At present, any such expectation emanates from incredible political naivety on the pat of the political opposition and their lack of ideas to forge a joint political programme. Therefore, the TNA’s best bet is to return to the negotiation table.
The TNA has a responsibility to renounce political violence as they had associated with the LTTE. When the LTTE began to use the brute force against their unarmed critics and murdered them, when they recruited child soldiers by force, and when they expelled Muslims from Jaffna in pursuit of ethnic cleansing within 24 hours, the TNA’s silence was unforgiveable. It is a profound political mistake on our part to let the TNA get away with this. This is very important to heal wounds within the Tamil community or to achieve internal reconciliation. This also would ensure that they would not support any kind of murderous violent politics in the community in the future. It would have been more significant, and politically worthwhile and brave for the TNA to make a public apology for all the political mistakes they have done rather than to show the national flag on the stage when they had the May Day rally in Jaffna with Rail Wickramasinghe, the UNP leader. But this is not forth coming.
After the war particularly during peacetime, the Sri Lanka needs leaders who are able rise above the tribal politics in both communities and resolve the issues because further polarizations of the community divide will not pave the way for the durable peace. Unfortunately, there are no such great leaders in the country today. Vijaya Kumaratunga would have been such a leader if he was alive today but the JVP assassinated him because of his support for the devolution of power to the Tamil community.
The Jaffna and its suburbs looks a city that has been conquered and its gloom is epitomised by the helplessness of the Tamil community. It has suffered from two conquering forces: the LTTE and the government armed forces. After three decades of the brutal war the Sinhala leadership has not shown any appetite for a political solution. It appears that the party, which defeated the Tamil Tigers, are not likely to be the party that will work to win the peace. Similarly, the TNA being a proxy to the Tamil Tigers, even after the defeat, have not shown their ability to work for compromises and throw away the ambiguous political rhetoric and the language of separation. Both parties should understand that their inflexibility and the sticking to the tribal loyalties would cost the both communities dearly. They have a primary responsibility to do whatever possible to stop repeating the horrors of personal tragedies that will cost the lives of innocent people. That requires a political solution that is acceptable to both communities as a positive start. The grandiose economic projects alone will not give a community their dignity and political rights.
I had undertaken this journey to visit Rajani’s grave for the first time. Engraved on the tombstone were the words chosen by her mother Mahila Ruppiam, a devout Christian: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. She outlived her daughter by nearly two decades and her ashes are now buried with her. I wondered, when I read those words, whether she had chosen those words as a rebuke to the LTTE and their fervent supporters who had denounced her daughter as a ‘traitor’ to the Tamil people, declared her as an outcast from Tamil Eelam and then brutally murdered her.
My personal experience of the war and the unbearable loss my family had to undergo is no way unique. The war has brought unspeakable horrors, destruction and death to hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children in both communities over three decades including the final days of the war. We will never know their stories particularly those innocent civilians who perished at Vellimullaivikkal. At least, I know where Rajani was buried. I had a home to return to. When we left Jaffna after a short stay those were the selfish thoughts that gave me some comfort.