[Editors note: A response to this article by Dr. Jayatilleka can be read here.]

“If the LTTE were not here, we would all be fucked” – D. Sivaram1

The discourse on Sri Lankan ethnic crisis has always been distracted by sideshows of political antics from both sides of the ethnic divide.  The recent Oxford Union ‘fiasco’ is one among them. People use the narratives – The triumphalist Tamil diaspora, the defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa and the West’s conspiracy against Sri Lanka – appropriate for their ‘ideological’ positions; being confined to an intellectual and cognitive comfort zone is preferred than confronting the reality which is full of cacophony.

Few years ago, we saw the drama about Maniraasakulam LTTE base in Trincomalee – Then UNF government, president Chandrika Kumaratunga, LTTE, SLMM, politicians, monks, NGOs and media, especially the Sunday Times – every section of the society took part in that orgy of filibustering. The Sunday Times almost declared war on Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) for its procedure of saving pictures in a particular way in its computer system.2 In 2006, the army took just six days to clear the area surrounding the Maniraasakulam.3 But the frenzy in 2003 helped the Weerawansas and Amarasekaras to vilify the international peace interlocutors and the peace process in the eyes of an average Sinhalese citizen.

The national hobby of digressing was at the heart of Sri Lankan conflict resolution failure. The post independent Sri Lankan history is littered with many such stories. Many of the readers may think that the LTTE was master of this distracting ritual but the reality is that the LTTE knew very well that whole Southern establishment itself is prone to this kind of knee jerk reaction, hence used it cleverly to avoid difficult situations. I would say the truth is far more cynical – the Southern establishment itself was eagerly waiting for this kind of LTTE antics to avoid facing the explosive task of radically restructuring the state in any successful peace negotiations. This ‘harmonious symbiosis of digression’ collapsed when the present regime decided to use the LTTE’s Mavilaaru sluice gate blockade as a ruse to finish off the LTTE.

Now the whole Sri Lankan politics is entering into an unknown phase with full of uncertainties, the one and only certainty is that there is no peace in Sri Lanka.

The purpose of this article is to revisit some of Dayan’s and Sivaram’s writings to highlight the inability of Sinhalese dominated state to reform (thorough constitutional and legal mechanisms) in order to accommodate the Tamil speaking peoples within the Sri Lankan system of governance with equality.

Ever since the British relinquished power in Sri Lanka, the norm of the politics has always been the ‘escalation’ of rhetoric from both sides, to put it in cold war strategic parlance. In contrast to the cold war super powers, in Sri Lanka we escalated up to the ‘nuclear option’ – armed conflict. The analogy of ‘nuclear option’ may not suit the Sri Lankan state, which is well resourced and backed by the majority population – Sinhalese – but it was certainly for Tamils.

In the words of Sivathamby, a veteran scholar with the background of Marxist politics “the ethnic conflict did not descend on Sri Lanka like the SARS virus”.4 Sinhalese historian K M De Silva describes the evolution of the Tamil political struggle: “separatist agitation went through several stages and phases, beginning with peaceful political pressure, moving on to civil obedience, and then to violence and that violence itself graduated from sporadic acts to more systematic attacks directed against state property and police and security forces until, in the early 1980s, it assumed the form of a dangerous threat to the integrity of the post colonial Sri Lankan state”.5

The central argument is Prabhaharan and the LTTE was the manifestation of Tamils’ survival instinct for their physical existence – ‘nuclear option’ – and their political defiance, the revival of Tamil martial culture. The Sinhala nation never wanted to face this truth rather it preferred to talk about LTTE atrocities and digress from answering the question – why did the Tamils choose the ‘nuclear option’?

For this we need to understand the Tamil diaspora phenomenon. During early 90s when the LTTE formalized its international network, there was considerable resistance – from a section of educated Tamil nationalists in English speaking countries – to the LTTE’s effort to homogenize the diaspora political landscape and its demand for unconditional loyalty. On the other hand LTTE was able to establish a firm control over nearly all of the Tamil diaspora population in non-English speaking European countries. Because they belong to largely non-professional class Tamils and therefore they were readily subdued. With time non-professional class Tamils overwhelmed in English speaking countries as well. Still there is a strong institutional resistance to the LTTE network’s hegemony. Here it needs to be emphasized that these institutions did not want to work under the LTTE diktat but never opposed the LTTE and its cause – Tamil nationalism – politically.

The present day Tamil diaspora’s political mobilization is based on a combination of factors, bitter memories of state discrimination and numerous state sponsored pogroms, Tamil nationalism, LTTE controlled manipulative amateurish media, guilty of being away from the country and the irrational mob mentality. It is a ‘vocal minority’ that is running the show in a grandiose scale. It has a particular shade of opinion in respect to the ethnic crisis, believes there is a systematic genocide of Tamils happening in Sri Lanka, unwillingness for a political negotiation with the Sinhalese, separate Tamil homeland is the only solution, a tendency to portray a ‘fairytale Tamil nationalism’ without any self criticism.

So what happened to the ‘silent majority’? Again the Sinhala nation does not want to ask this question. The silent majority of Tamil diaspora is well aware about the irrational and often ill-informed mob behavior of a section of diaspora, which is more prominent in media coverage. The ‘silent majority’ consists of political moderates – in this article I would call them sensible Tamils – anti-LTTE activists and the politically inactive, in any society we can see a politically inactive section.

The sensible section of the Tamil diaspora has a particular reason for not challenging the ‘vocal minority’ despite the fact that latter’s irrational and unrealistic political demands. It is simply because, the sensible section of the Tamil diaspora does not have any reliable alternative political process which can bring about a political settlement to the Tamils with dignity and self-respect.

The issue here is even the sensible Tamils have redline in relation to the final political settlement and historically the Sinhala nation has been far below this redline, hence the emergence of Prabhaharan and the LTTE within the Tamil society.

The decimation of Tamil moderates

A brief glance on the transformation of Post independence Tamil politics will amply explains how the Tamil moderates who cooperated with the successive governments were made politically redundant by the frustrated Tamil voters. With the emergence of militancy, Tamil moderates were physically removed from this world, only qualitative difference from the Tamil politics of 1950s and 1960s. The point here is that the cooperation offered by the Tamil moderates was taken for granted by the Sinahala politicians and they repeatedly reneged from their pledges to the Tamil moderate leaders. This is the real story behind the decimation of Tamil moderates. It is the Sinhala nation and its politicians let down the Tamil moderates. The Sinhala nation’s refusal to understand and accept moderate Tamils’ minimum demand, redline – in Sivaram’s words, lack of ‘political space’6 – that pushed the Tamils towards the LTTE. It is worth reading Sivaram’s view on LTTE and Prabhaharan “this problem has nothing to do with the LTTE. It started long before there was an LTTE, in the 1950s, when Pirapakaran was a fucking kid. So don’t obfuscate the real problem – the Sri Lankan Tamil problem (emphasis added)”.7

The self-brutalization of Tamil society and Tamil psyche was result of a conscious and rational process of collective decision-making process during late 1960s and early 1970s. It is true that ‘Prabhaharan phenomenon’ eclipsed the Tamil emancipation project by mid 1980s. The very reality of Prabhaharan and LTTE were successful in mobilizing substantial section of the Tamils is the most important lesson, that the Sinhala nation can learn from this armed insurgency. The lesson is that LTTE drew its legitimacy and energy not directly from Tamils rather indirectly from intransigence of Sinhala polity. In Tamils’ view, LTTE was a necessary evil to fight a more existential threat – the Sinhala dominated Sri Lankan state.

People like Dayan Jayatilleka often repeat in their writings about the loss of people like Neelan and Ketheesh; the harsh reality was that the Tamils never mourned their death universally, in a similar scale of mourning Raviraj or Joseph Pararajasingam. We always had a minority of strongly committed anti-LTTE activists and invariably they mourned the death of people killed by the LTTE, but they never represented the main body of Tamil political thought. The moral and philosophical interpretation of Tamil political discourse on the dichotomy of ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’ may be negative but this problem is not unique to Tamils alone. What is unique about the Tamil political behavior is the extreme extent of self-brutalization and the denial of self-criticism. Because Tamils looked at those personalities like Neelan and Ketheesh enmeshed in the grand nexus of Sri Lankan state’s counter insurgency (CI) apparatus. This is true in the case of Douglas Devananda, Karuna, Pillaiyan et al.

It is important to note that Tamils never supported a political entity that was viewed as an appendage of Colombo administration and they will not support such entities in future elections as well. Despite the two decades of government backed extensive welfare programmes, EPDP could not top the polls in successive general elections in Jaffna district, including the last one.

This line of conceptualization was primarily influenced by Sivaram’s writings and the legitimacy gained by the Sivaram’s CI theory within the Tamil political space was primarily due to Sivaram’s own political transformation. Sivaram begun his political activism with a progressive leftist political orientation, he thought the Tamils can work with progressive section of the Sinhala polity to reach a dignified political settlement. Eventually when he realized that this would not happen within the Sinhala polity he was compelled to transform his politics. One must remember that even though he hoped that LTTE’s military strength would help Tamils to negotiate with the state; but he never surrendered his loyalty to the LTTE. Professor Sivathamby is another disillusioned ‘old marxist’ who hesitantly started to speak of his bitterness since late 1990s.8

The destructive role played by the LTTE and prabhaharan to the Tamil emancipation project was immense and most sensible Tamils are aware about this fact, but the LTTE factor should not be allowed to divert the attention from the focal point – the crisis of state.

Reading Dayan Jayatilleka

In order to understand the dynamics of the LTTE and the Sinhala polity, we have to revisit some of Dayan’s writings. Irrespective of his politics, his critical engagement with the Sri Lankan political process, his willingness to debate and write tirelessly, his accomplishment as a political scientist and his long span of political activism makes him a unique a personality within the Sri Lankan intelligentsia. On the other hand revisiting his writings don’t mean the objective is to convince or confront Dayan. With his wide-ranging experience from militant political activism to a diplomat in Geneva, he knows how to gloss over sensitive topics. This particular worrying trend is more visible in his recent writings.

The following excerpts from Dayan’s writings will show the harsh reality of political skullduggery and realpolitik in dealing with the national question. These excerpts are largely self-explanatory with added emphasis. This is an attempt to highlight, how Dayan’s perception of LTTE threat to the state and even his willingness to consider federalism changed with time. The ‘Devolve or Die’ article did not hide his nervousness due to heightened LTTE threat. With the progress in battlefront, he became more relaxed and eventually advised the Tamils to reduce the selling price so the Sinhalese can afford the political negotiation.

Imagine9 29.09.2004

“There are three reasons for the latitude granted the Tigers by the international community: … The Sri Lankan state has an unresolved nationalities question: it appears an unreformed ancient regime, non-secular and unitary, providing no substantive autonomy for the Tamil people of the North and East”.

“There is nothing we can do about the Tamil Diaspora, but there is something we can do to it, to defuse its appeal and efficacy. Let’s follow John Lennon’s advice: Imagine. Imagine if tomorrow we had a federal system designed by a well-publicized team of South African and Indian experts. The large and powerful Tamil Diaspora would be left without an argument, a leg to stand on. The Pongu Thamil would have to reject a federal or quasi-federal solution on the grounds that it is insufficient. It would, in short, have to drop its mask and stand for what it truly believes: a separate state”.

“Every one of these texts I just mentioned is an intervention, simultaneously and inextricably anti-Tiger and critical of Sinhala extremism and immobility on reform. That is a perfectly rational, balanced, scientific, modern and pluralist outlook”.

Shame10 27.09.2004

“Today for the first time, the two major parties, or their leaderships, have endorsed the F word: federalism. Neither can effect that change without the other, while in tandem they could swiftly reform the state and Sri Lanka would vastly enhance its international standing and support, even take-off”.

“Meanwhile, the Tiger think tank, chaired by SP Tamilselvan, met in Geneva…to sharpen the use of its ISGA as a weapon. While it is obscene that the Swiss permitted the Tigers, in the middle of a killing spree against a parliamentary party, to convene in their country, we must also confront an unhappy truth. The Tigers have a document that the entire world knows about, containing the minimum it is purportedly willing to accept. True enough, it is qualitatively beyond the bounds of the acceptable by any state: but it exists”.

By stark contrast, not a single Southern party, SLFP, UNP or JVP, has come up with a similar or comparable document, setting out the minimum it is willing to grant, not necessarily to the Tigers – and if to the Tigers under what conditions- but to the Tamil people, or the North and East, or just the North, or even the anti-Tiger Tamils such as the EPDP! And we wonder why the world entertains the Tigers!”

Chandrika’s Choices11 15.09.2004

“There is a powerful case not only for the reform but also the total replacement of the Constitution. That is for one reason alone: the forging of a new equation between the ethno-national communities on the island. That new equation cannot but transcend the limits and limitations of the unitary state. Ideally it must stop short of a loose or full federalism…But a fully federal system, though fraught with risk, is not too high a price to pay for undercutting the LTTE’s cause and paving the way for ethnic reconciliation…What we need is a Constitution that contains a sufficient degree of autonomy that it can act as a magnet on the Tamil consciousness, so powerful that even the Tigers are in a dilemma about rejecting it”

Sun God Turning 5012 14.10.2004

“The good news is that there is an overarching policy consensus. The bad news is that it will never be put into bipartisan practice. President Kumaratunga and the Leader of the Opposition agree that an/the ISGA must fall within the Oslo framework of a federal, united Sri Lanka. In politics as in martial arts it is important to get your stance correct”.

“This is quite the correct negotiating stance for the Sri Lankan state. However, if the two biggest parties, the government and the alternative government, agree on a federal framework, why not simply cooperate in so transforming the state? If a federal system is set up, any ISGA will have to fit into that or the Tigers will have to reject it, thereby exposing to the world that they seek to go beyond federalism and the Oslo accords. The exercise doesn’t have to rely on either the LTTE or the JVP”.

Devolve or Die13 09.07.2006

“It is very much in our interests to have India play the role of domestic mediator, helping to forge a democratic consensus on the devolution of power. The harsh reality is that no domestic player can bring the UNP and SLFP together, and such a convergence is necessary for any drastic transformation of the Constitutional architecture (emphasis added). India, supported by the USA, may succeed in bringing the UNP and the ethnic minority parties on board”

The Fine Art of Filibustering

“The APC and the Advisory Committee should not waste time reinventing the wheel. A dozen detailed proposals for devolution ‘home grown’ and otherwise – exist and should be recovered for expeditious reassessment”.

“The problem with a purely home-grown solution, arrived at, mind, after meditating on the planet’s every exercise in devolution, is two fold: (a) we just don’t have the time, because neither Prabhakaran nor the international community will give it to us, and (b) somehow, devolution does not seem to grow readily at home! The soil needs some imported seeds and fertilizer (emphasis added)”.

“Delhi for its part, should obtain agreement from Colombo on a compressed time frame which will preclude the filibustering that killed G Parthasarathy’s pioneering effort in 1984”.

Blake won’t flake

“The last of the three positive contemporary developments that constitute a triangular window of opportunity, was the June 15th confirmation by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee of Robert O. Blake as the new ambassador to Sri Lanka”.

The Killing of Kethesh Loganathan14 13.08.2006

“In other words the LTTE’s conditions of existence are not supplied by the LTTE itself but by others (emphasis added), including those who claim to oppose separatism and terrorism. There are two types of people and policies which furnish the Tigers with their mode of existence; policies of appeasement in the name of engagement, conflict management and resolution, and policies which obstruct power sharing, self rule, the very recognition of the existence of an Ethnic Question, and thereby the most constructive relations with our strong neighbor, India”.

Mahinda: Mass Line, Middle Path & Mistakes15 22.11.2006

“None of this means that Mahinda has not made any mistakes. His main mistake was not to go for a snap general election and thereby change the party’s composition, in the wake of his victory at the local government elections. His second and continuing mistake is not pushing the APC/APRC process on devolution to an internationally satisfactory conclusion (emphasis added)”.

Winning the War, Winning the Peace16 30.07.2008

“To win the war, our successful military track has to be paralleled by a political one which proceeds with the same purposiveness and at the same speed. If our neighbors and the world think that a military victory for the Sri Lankan state is tantamount to a Sinhala /Sinhala Buddhist victory over the Tamils/minorities, we may be denied that victory by external economic and coercive pressure, as we once were twenty years ago. A moderate, rational political program containing a progressive vision for Sri Lanka’s post-war future is a necessary component for bringing this war to a successful close; for winning this war (emphasis added)”.

Tamils Must sell Something Sinhalese will be willing to Buy at Affordable Price17 04.02.2009

“What is needed is a mutual realization on the part of both major communities. The Sinhalese must know the limits of the victory achieved, while the Tamils must recognize the extent of the defeat sustained. There must be no illusions on either side. The state – sustained by the majority– has beaten the hard power of the Tamil separatist or ultranationalist cause. It has not yet beaten the soft power of Tamil separatism, which is global in scope and scale. One MIA may make up for thousands of Tigers KIA”.

“The Tamils have to sell the Sinhalese something they would be willing to buy at a price they would be willing to pay. The military defeat of the LTTE is not only the defeat of Tamil separatism, it also leaves no space for the older, underlying project of Tamil nationalism, namely that of Federalism. The inability of the old Federalism to stand up to armed separatism, indeed the continuum of Tamil federalism and separatism (Vadukkodai, the TULF), means that there is no life for the federalist project after the failure of the Tigers. It has to be recognized that not only has Tamil separatism failed, so have almost six decades of Tamil federalism”.

The Murder of Sivaram18 29.05.2005

“Are we qualitatively different from the LTTE? The fascist enemy cannot be fought by imitating him. He can be fought only by maintain a moral and ethical superiority, as exemplified in an open, pluralistic society”

“Sivaram challenged us with his writing. He was an uppity Tamil: confident, aware of Sinhala society and political trends, knowledgeable of international affairs. He held up a mirror before us. He was the Other in our midst”.

Perhaps Dayan may be right, when it comes to how to deal with the LTTE. That issue had been effectively dealt 19 months ago. Still we see that Gunadasa Amarasekaras and Weerawansas writing the post war manifesto of Sri Lanka and not the Liyanage Amarakeerthis as forecasted by Dayan.19 Even a cursory look at Dayan’s writings will show that the present regime – he is defending at all costs – does not share any of those values espoused by Dayan. One would like to know what was Dayan’s effort for the past 19 months to implement his antidote for Sri Lankan problem, which he has been writing all these times. Mahinda Rajapaksa is not even ready to give a sketch about the political settlement he intended to propose. It is the profound mismatch between his writings and the present day Sri Lankan politics, made me to revisit Dayan’s writings.

Dayan’s prescription for the crisis of Tamil moderate leadership has always been Douglas Devananda, Karuna and Pillaiyan; in contrary to Dayan’s expectation, Robert Blake did flake13 in the end, thanks to WikiLeaks we can see the qualities of those gentlemen recommended by Dayan.20 The Tamils don’t deserve Douglas, Karuna and Pillaiyan as their leaders as much as they don’t deserve the leadership of Prabhaharan and the LTTE.

For the Tamil psyche, Sivaram’s words mentioned at the beginning of this article have become prophetic with never ending extra judicial killings, disappearances and the dehumanizing experiences of IDP life despite the end of war 19 months ago. The Tamil diaspora extracts its political momentum directly from this post-war impasse.

The crux of the matter is, so far the Sinhala nation has failed to come out with a political settlement plan even agreeable to sensible Tamils, leave alone ‘extremists’ and ‘Tamil racists’.

Irrespective of the outcome of war, Tamils can’t go and won’t go below redline when it comes to the final political settlement, therefore it is imperative that the compromise should come from both sides of the divide.

I would like to end this long piece of writing with sayings from three persons and they didn’t belong to the LTTE.

“I am not induced by motives of pride, party or resentment to espouse the doctrine of separation and independence; I am clearly, positively and conscientiously persuaded that it is the true interest of this continent to be so; that every thing short of that is mere patchwork, that it can afford no lasting felicity – that it is leaving the sword to our children and shrinking back at a time, when, a little more, a little farther, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth”.

– Excerpts from Common Sense by Thomas Paine21, January 1776

“Every year the development of events in the South leads us to the irresistible conclusion that the hopes of union are receding further and further. If the leaders of the Sinhalese people persist in this attitude, I will say, when you will be advocating federalism, we will rather choose to have a division of this country even at the cost of several lives and, if it be necessary, even our lives. We will rather have a division of this country than surrender as a nation without self-respect and be eternal slaves in this country”.

– A. Amirthalingam22 in 1964

“But does Reason possess, or will the realities of the crisis ever provide it, a space among the Sinhalese, a Southern agency or constituency?

Did that prospect die when the JVP, long prefiguring the Tigers’ mutilation of Karuna’s brother Reggie, emptied a T-56 into Vijaya Kumaratunga’s face?

Can the State be reborn in the vortex of the crisis, as the incarnation of Reason?”

– Dayan Jayatilleka, Imagine9, 29.09.2004


  1. Whitaker, Mark (2007) Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka (London – Ann Arbor, MI, Pluto Press) p.217
  2. http://sundaytimes.lk/031012/news/5.htm & http://sundaytimes.lk/031019/news/9.htm
  3. http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20070712_06
  4. Sivathamby, K (2005) Being a Tamil and Sri Lankan (Colombo, Aivakam) p.213
  5. Silva, K M de (1998) Reaping the whirlwind: Ethnic Conflict, Ethnic Politics in Sri Lanka (Penguin Books India) p.151
  6. Whitaker, Mark (2007) Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka (London – Ann Arbor, MI, Pluto Press) p.203
  7. Whitaker, Mark (2007) Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka (London – Ann Arbor, MI, Pluto Press) p.216
  8. Sivathamby, K (2005) Being a Tamil and Sri Lankan (Colombo, Aivakam)
  9. http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2004/09/29/imagine
  10. http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2004/09/27/shame
  11. http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2004/09/15/chandrika’s-choices
  12. http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2004/10/14/sun-god-turning-50
  13. http://www.asiantribune.com/node/997
  14. http://www.asiantribune.com/index.php?q=node/1524
  15. http://www.asiantribune.com/node/3343
  16. http://groundviews.org/2008/07/30/winning-the-war-winning-the-peace/
  17. http://transcurrents.com/tc/2009/02/post_309.html
  18. http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2005/04/29/murder-sivaram
  19. http://groundviews.org/2009/03/25/ending-the-war-envisioning-the-peace/
  20. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/108763?CMP=twt_gu
  21. Paine, Thomas (1776) Common Sense – Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings (Oxford University Press, 2008) p.28
  22. Ceylon House of Representatives, Debates, vol 56, cols. 255-56 via: De Votta, Neil (2004) Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka (Stanford University Press) p.190