Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Was the Death of Thamil Chelvam a Feast or a Funeral to the South?

Last week Thamil Chelvam’s death was celebrated in the South by lighting firecrackers. About one and a half decade ago, the SLFP supporters in the South did the same on the tragic death of President Premadasa.

Then, the assassins of President Premadasa were from the same stock of the person assassinated now. Yet, the common perception of the South at that time amounted to a sort of implicit gratitude towards the perpetrators of the crime, for they did, in the Southern psyche, an invaluable favor in eliminating an alleged despot, on behalf of the South. In that sense, the LTTE was considered a savior in disguise. Today, when that savior was assassinated by an armed force under the command of another person sitting on the same chair as Mr. Premadasa occupied in the past, same partisans in the South celebrated as before with much fanfare. In relation to these two assassinations, how that former Messiah became a traitor to be done away with at present is mind boggling, to say the least. Perhaps, it was due to the change of the person in Southern command, or due to a series of sins allegedly committed by the former Messiah in-between then and now. Many would like to adopt the latter attitude against which I don’t have much grumbling.

Never being a UNPer myself, I have written at that time condemning the lighting of crackers in celebrating Mr. Premadasa’s death. Likewise, I condemn today with disgust the present fanfare on the death of Mr. Thamil Chelvam’s too. It is not because I have any special soft corner for any of them, but because of my firm belief that publicly rejoicing a death, even of an enemy is an uncivilized act unfitting in a largely Buddhist society. After the mortal dual between the prince Dutugamunu and the king Elara which culminated in the death of the latter, Dutugamunu enacted an edict prohibiting any person, even a king, of passing in front of the burial site of Elara, on horseback, where after, everyone had to dismount his horse in honor of the fallen king. How a people, who as a ritual, day and night professes to be glorifying the historical role played by Dutugamunu can forget that sublime principle of honoring the dead, established not only in words but also in deeds by their great King?

In war, either you have to kill or get killed. That is the supreme and everlasting truth in the war, whether it is in Sri Lanka or in Iraq. Even as a person who admits that violence in general has in some way contributed to the historical progress of the world on national as well as on international scale, and that it would under certain circumstances, may be under much restricted circumstances than in the ancient times, play the same role in the future as well, I firmly stand for peace, because on one hand, the modern civilization has opened up ample room for the man to be more humane and more civilized. On the other, at the expense of daring to be uncivilized and inhuman, the price to be paid in the future would be exorbitant as never before. And again, just like the weapons of violence, the instruments of peace too can be sharpened today than ever before. In contrast, the modern technology of human destruction has developed on a scale that would be capable of annihilating from the earth the whole human race within a matter of few hours, if not in a few minutes. Yet, non-violence is not, as some would like us to believe, an absolute virtue but a clear and concrete realization of modern complex social relations. In that sense, war is nothing but a cruel reality aggravated in proportion to the diminishing level of that understanding.

That is my mundane vision of Thamil Chelvam’s death. But what will be the potential political repercussions of his assassination? Here, our attention should be drawn to the last Presidential Election. That Prabhakaran badly wanted to replace Ranil Wickramasinghe with Mahinda Rajapakse is now common knowledge. It was that feat that Prabhakaran achieved by obstructing more than seven hundred thousand people in the North from voting at the last Presidential election, which otherwise would have most probably resulted in the victory of Ranil Wickremasinghe. For that immense service, whether Mahinda Rajapakse’s camp bribed the LTTE and if so, how much was paid and whether with that money LTTE bought aircraft or not is irrelevant here. Even if there was a huge money transaction occurred between the two parties as alleged by some sections of the present Opposition, that sum must have been accepted by the LTTE not as a first prize but as an extra bonus. Their main objective of defeating Ranil Wickramasinghe at that time was political, that is to say, to get rid of the rigid commitments they were hard pressed to honor, and to claim to an ideological upper hand in terms of national aspirations on the International arena by bringing into power a hardcore Sinhala Buddhist nationalist leader in the South. In that scenario they heavily counted on potential anti-Tamil sentiments nourishing in the South, pressurized by that, the Government initiating some limited military offensives against the LTTE in which large scale displacements of Tamil civilians with a serious situation of human rights violations by the armed forces reaching a record high. That would transform the government into a pariah state where it would be at the receiving end of International rebuff. Finally, on the strength of this critical situation, LTTE may have hoped that they could convince the International opinion as to their legitimate claim to have their own state.

But Prabhakaran’s calculations were not that accurate. It is true, as he expected, the civilian displacements were widespread, government got the beating from Human Rights organizations and even the UNO suggested to station a permanent International Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Sri Lanka in a situation of increasing incidence of abductions, disappearances and killings. These are victories for the LTTE on a political front. But the problem lies in some of his other expectations being frustrated than he previously thought. Instead of a limited military offensive the Government went for a full-scale onslaught, as a result of which LTTE lost the East. Not stopping at that, the Government turned its military offensive towards the Northern Theater as well. Therefore, the political gains claimed by the LTTE vis-à-vis the Government by way of publicizing innumerable hardships the Tamil people had to undergo and indiscriminate aerial bombings that killed innocent civilians including women and children in the North East were not enough to compensate for the losses he incurred in the battle field. On top of all this now came the death of his political wing leader and his trusted politician, Thamil Chelvam. This is why Pottu Amman, the Intelligence Head of the movement, criticizes and blames the International community for not doing enough for their cause, in his condolence speech at Thamil Chelvan’s funeral.

Since the person, who held all communication with the outside world and coordinated with other peace-loving local bodies aimed at reaching a negotiated political settlement has been murdered, future space for a peaceful solution is now severely curtailed. Anyway, making better of this assassination, Prabhakaran may gain some plus points internationally by accusing the government of irresponsibly opting for a military solution, which may not in any case amount to much, but the fact that the Government has manifestly acquired the wherewithal and ground intelligence to accurately target any leader of stature in the LTTE at their own timing is a serious threat that a guerrilla leader can not simply ignore.

Therefore, I surmise, that the misplaced opinion he held some two years back as to the proper Southern leader to be made into the President at the Center will have to be drastically changed from the day Thamil Chelvam died. This is not because the person lost was an invaluable leader but because the alarming tendency of the way he was lost.

No doubt, the demise of Thamil Chelvam will be a boost at least for the time being to the military mindset of the common man nurtured for the last couple of years in the South under President Rajapakse. But taking this incident, either as a turning point in a potential military victory or as a proof that there is a military solution to the ethnic problem is nothing but a dangerous self-deception.

It is the premonitory feeling of a terrible danger inherent in this self-deception that makes me sadder about the South taking this death as an occasion to celebrate, instead of, as an occasion to mourn.

Gamini Viyangoda