“Amirthalingam was called a traitor and killed. Neelan Thiruchelvam was called a traitor and killed. Over 30 years we have lost all these people. And after
killing them, what have we achieved? So now you call Sumanthiran a traitor and kill me also. Tell me, what are we going to do after that?” – TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran addressing a public meeting in Vavuniya in October 2016
When the LTTE resolved to kill Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam 18 years ago, its weapon of choice was a suicide bomber, drawn from its elite karum puligal or Black Tiger cadre.
The unit was revered within the separatist group, accorded the highest honours the Tigers could bestow in life and in death. LTTE Leader Prabhakaran’s genius lay in his ability to inspire a culture of martyrdom in his guerrilla fighters. All Tiger combatants wore a capsule of deadly cyanide around their necks, choosing death over capture by Government troops. But the call of the Black Tiger was even greater. In the Tiger ethos, there was no greater sacrifice than the embrace of death to further the cause of Tamil freedom.
Once they were entrusted a mission, Black Tigers were granted the honour of an audience with Prabhakaran. During this morbid last supper, the Tiger Supremo would hail the courage of his suicide cadres, and march young Tamil men and women – burning with self-sacrificial fervor – out to meet a gruesome death.
The suicide cadre was picked for the LTTE’s most significant attacks – Black Tigers led attacks against two Sri Lankan Presidents, an Indian Prime Minister, several ministers, top military targets and devastating onslaughts on the country’s infrastructure.
The Tigers, who glorified death and brutality, stood for everything that Neelan Thiruchelvam stood against. The sanctity of human life was everything to the moderate Tamil legislator, a man of such intellect and legal skill that the space his death left in contemporary politics and the realm of the law has never been filled. He was counted among a shrinking group of Tamil moderates who did not believe in the Tiger way, who remained convinced that violence would only perpetuate ethnic strife; that war was a cruel and ultimately self-defeating path to winning Tamil rights.
Thiruchelvam put his faith in negotiation and constitutionalism as a means to achieve political autonomy. He believed extensive power sharing – rather than separate statehood – would offer Tamil people a chance to finally guide their own political destiny.
For this crime, the LTTE marked Neelan Thiruchelvam out for a traitor’s death.
Thiruchelvam was, for all intents and purposes, a ‘soft target’. He travelled by car with his driver and his bodyguard. There were no commandos or decoy vehicles in convoy accompanying him that could have complicated an assassin’s plan. A single escort jeep carrying three policemen travelled behind the MP’s vehicle. But it was not a pistol gang member the LTTE sent to murder the TULF Vice President. The Tamil moderate idea posed such a potent and existential threat to the Tigers, that they picked a Black Tiger to carry out the assassination of the unarmed Tamil politician on 29 July 1999.
Together with Prof. G.L. Pieris, Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam was the co-architect of the 1995 ‘Union of Regions’ devolution package. It was hailed as one of the best power-sharing deals the Tamils could have ever hoped for, but pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil polity opposed the package and denounced Thiruchelvam as a traitor. He was killed when Sri Lanka was on the cusp of achieving a negotiated political settlement to the ethnic question, testament to how badly the Tigers wanted the process to fail. Exactly one year after the TULF politician’s death, a watered down version of the union of regions package formed the basis of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s draft constitution bill that was presented to Parliament in August 2000. The bill was defeated by the opposition UNP, signalling the end of another round of efforts to achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict.
One by one, the Tigers eliminated moderate Tamil leaders, until they silenced the living into submission and claimed the mantle of ‘sole representative’ of the Tamil people.
Now, 18 years later, Sri Lanka is once more in the throes of an exercise in constitutionalism in a bid to resolve nearly 70 years of ethnic strife. The fresh attempt comes eight years after the war ended and two years after Sri Lankans overthrew an authoritarian, ultra-Sinhala nationalist regime and replaced it with a Government promising constitutional reform and reconciliation.
Nationalists on both sides of the ethnic divide are mobilising support against the effort to achieve a political solution. Sinhalese nationalists make hysteric claims that the new constitution will divide the country. Tamil hardliners have found new traitors to condemn.
For some years now, the campaign to denounce TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran as a ‘traitor’ to the Tamil cause has been gathering steam in the Northern Province and sections of the pro-LTTE Diaspora. Since he entered Parliament through the TNA national list in 2010, Sumanthiran has become one of Sri Lanka’s most recognisable Tamil representatives, increasingly viewed by nationalist elements in the North and the Tamil Diaspora as being the “pet” of diplomats and the new Government the TNA helped to bring to power. The perception is fuelled by hardline sections of Sumanthiran’s own party, including Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, who appears to be relishing his role as the de facto leader of a kind of ‘alt-right’ in Tamil politics. These factions are strongly supported by Tamil separatists and pro-LTTE groups operating overseas.
Lately, Tamil nationalist rallies and rhetoric are again inflaming nationalist passions in the north. Some Northern politicians believe the agitation will afford Tamil representatives leverage in the constitutional negotiations in Colombo.
Amirthalingam and other Tamil moderates learned at their peril that nationalist passions, once unleashed, cannot be controlled. But in spite of recent history, this is a lesson supposedly moderate Tamil leaders like Wigneswaran seem slow to learn. Tamil political observers have long warned that the recent stirring of nationalist emotion coupled with the ‘traitorisation’ of Tamil moderates could manifest in dangerous life or death games.
The TID’s recently uncovered alleged assassination plot may be the first such manifestation.
On 12 December 2016 and 13 January 2016, Tamil National Alliance Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran reportedly escaped attempts on his life by accidents of fate. The Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) is now in possession of information that a group of ex-LTTE cadres were planning to assassinate the TNA Jaffna District MP while he was travelling in the Northern Province.
Sumanthiran routinely travels to his constituency to attend events and talk to people in the war-affected region. On 12 December last year, the TNA MP inadvertently confused his would-be assassins when he used different vehicles to attend a cultural event in Mathurankerni, TID investigations have reportedly discovered. Sumanthiran was warned about a security threat just before Christmas last year, and advised to refrain from travelling to Jaffna.
But the most serious warning came on 14 January, when the Prime Minister sent a special emissary to the TNA MP’s Colombo residence to warn him that he had narrowly escaped an assassination attempt the previous day. He was to travel to Jaffna on 13 January, but cancelled his trip at the last minute. TID investigations have found that the second assassination attempt had been planned for 13 January, when Sumanthiran’s vehicle was expected to travel on the Soranpatru-Thaalayady road to Maruthankerni where the MP was to attend a public meeting.
The TID had briefed the Prime Minister about the details of the plot which appeared to corroborate intelligence reports the Government had already received in December 2016 suggesting that Sumanthiran faced serious security risks when he travelled in the Northern Province.
Switching into high gear, the Government tipped Sumanthiran off about the threat and took steps to beef up the Tamil MP’s security. The TID arrested four former LTTE cadres on the night of 14 January and a fifth suspect earlier this week, in connection with the alleged assassination plot.
A claymore mine, detonators and large stocks of Kerala marijuana were also recovered from the suspects’ homes. The TID is currently trying to determine whether the plan to assassinate the TNA MP remains in place despite the arrest of the suspects allegedly involved in the first two foiled attempts.
For many reasons, the alleged assassination plot raises several questions.
The discovery of Kerala marijuana in the suspects’ possession tie into the plot, the investigations have found. The Thalayadi beach in Maruthankerni is a major smuggling hub in the Northern Province for narcotics shipments from Kerala. The narcotics connection indicates that the suspects circulate in the Maruthankerni area where the suspected assassination attempts were to take place.
Ongoing investigations also appear to point to a credible link between LTTE operatives active overseas, specifically in Malaysia, and the suspects arrested in connection with the alleged assassination plot.
Malaysia was part of the Tigers’ arms smuggling route during the war and remains a hotbed of LTTE activity. Active LTTE networks in the country have led to strong collaboration between the Sri Lankan and Malaysian intelligence communities. This collaboration has led to the arrests of key LTTE members in Malaysia, including the Tigers’ chief weapons procurer Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP) and deputy leader of the LTTE’s ‘Nediyavan faction’ Nanthagopan, who were deported to Colombo by the Malaysian authorities.
Sri Lankan state intelligence counts several Government informants among the LTTE operatives active in Malaysia. High levels of LTTE activity in Malaysia may also have prompted the Government to send the controversial former Director of Military Intelligence, Suresh Salley to Kuala Lumpur as the Sri Lankan High Commission’s defence attaché.
According to security experts with knowledge of the inner workings of the security establishment, ex-LTTE cadres rehabilitated by the military are released and allowed to return home only on a long leash. Rehabilitated ex-cadres are subject to constant surveillance and many are compelled to turn informants for state and military intelligence units.
In March 2016, when a suicide jacket and explosives were discovered in Chavakachcheri in the Jaffna District, police said the three ex-LTTE cadres arrested in connection with the ammunition were known to be military informants, working with Military Intelligence at the time. The revelation led to serious concerns about the tentacles of the deep state, and questions about whether sections of the military, still loyal to the former regime, were involved in trying to raise fears about a LTTE revival that would strongly benefit Government opponents led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is credited with having destroyed the LTTE once in 2009.
This link continues to give security sector experts pause, as they contemplate the new threats manifesting in light of the alleged plot to assassinate Sumanthiran. With regard to the investigation into the five suspects allegedly involved in the plot to eliminate the TNA MP, security analysts who spoke to Daily FT confidentially, noted that it would be nearly impossible for the drug trade to flourish in parts of the Northern Province, like Thalayaddi beach, without collusion from sections of the military in the area.
But while these questions remain, the experts said LTTE networks overseas continue to have access to extensive financial resources and links with operatives in the Northern Province.
The Rajapaksa Government released some 12,000 rehabilitated LTTE cadres after the end of the war. In many cases, their reintegration into Northern Tamil society and civilian life has proved challenging. Many ex-cadres suffer from disillusionment about the futility of their struggle to win Tamil freedom, Tamil politicians claim. This despair is compounded by livelihood struggles and the isolation they encounter within their own community. These frustrations make ex-cadres highly vulnerable to cash enticements and promises of safe passage outside the country, which LTTE operatives overseas could offer in exchange, security analysts explain.
Ex-Tiger cadres may also view Sumanthiran as being worthy of violent treatment, because the moderate TNA MP has refused to glorify the Tigers on political stages and continues to criticise the LTTE for crimes committed in the name of the Tamil people. This approach, while lauded by moderate sections of the Tamil polity, could be antagonising hardline elements and ex-militants who may feel their sacrifices for the Tamil struggle were being belittled.
The answers lie somewhere between these two theories security analysts believe. The prospect of a LTTE revival and the elimination of Sumanthiran from the political equation could serve the agendas of both Sinhalese and Tamil hardliners, that for different reasons want ethnic tensions in the island to simmer, Tamil frustrations to peak and a long-term solution to remain elusive.
Hardline sections of the Tamil polity are increasingly jittery about moves in Colombo to draft a new constitution that aims to address Tamil aspirations for a degree of political autonomy in the Northern and Eastern provinces.
A new constitution is still a doubtful prospect as legislators struggle to break a deadlock in the negotiations and the Government fights shy of seeking a people’s mandate for the new proposals. But there is no doubt that Sri Lanka is closer than it has ever been in recent history to a breakthrough on a political settlement. If the negotiations are fruitful and legislators reach consensus on a power sharing deal acceptable to the TNA, the constitutional proposals will be put before the Tamil people at a referendum, and almost certainly endorsed.
While the LTTE was crushed militarily in 2009, the Tamil separatist idea has lived on past the end of the war, fuelled mostly by the failure of the Sri Lankan Government to deliver on a credible permanent political solution to the ethnic conflict. A resounding Tamil endorsement of constitutional power sharing arrangements will be the death of the separatist idea, and deprive Tamil radicals overseas of their raison d’être. A final solution therefore must be scuttled at all costs.
A sustained effort to eliminate – by political or other means – a Tamil moderate like Sumanthiran who plays a key role in the constitutional negotiations, is straight out of the extremists’ playbook. Violence in the North will force the Government to adopt oppressive security measures and restore the Prevention of Terrorism Act to full force, suspend its commitment to upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms while cracking down on terror threats, and strike fear into the hearts of the Tamil populace. The only beneficiaries of the recurring nightmare will be hardliners on both sides of the ethnic divide.
Tamils who persist in believing that the ‘Sinhalese’ state cannot guarantee a minority community equality and freedom, will find their claims justified. The south will start looking for strongman heroes like Mahinda Rajapaksa, to face off against a looming Tamil insurgency and another cycle of violence.
Same old story
So 18 years since Thiruchelvam’s death, nothing has changed. The LTTE may be crushed, but the spirit of its obstinacy lives on. And Tamil moderates, employing reason and negotiating skills to settle a 70-year dispute, remain the single largest threat to the Tamil separatist idea.
On Tuesday, 31 January 2017, Neelan Thiruchelvam would have been 73 years old.
2016-2017 marks the first time the Sri Lankan Government has engaged in devolution negotiations without a gun to its head since the beginning of the Tamil militancy in the late 1970s. It is the first time Tamil representatives have engaged in the process without fear of reprisals from the LTTE.
The window of opportunity to achieve a reasonable solution, acceptable to all communities, has never been better. The Tamil community could have used a negotiator of Dr. Thiruchelvam’s skill at the table in this round.
But in spite of the LTTE’s best efforts, the Tamil moderate idea survived. When it comes to hammering out a deal on the table that will determine the future of their people, Sampanthan and Sumanthiran remain forces to be reckoned with.
The frustration of the Tamil community about being constantly short-changed on a durable political settlement is palpable and easy to understand. But while hardliners will romanticize notions of Tamil nationalism on Eluga Tamil stages, in the final analysis all the impassioned sloganeering will achieve little. Quiet negotiations, unglamourous and difficult though they may be, are far more likely to deliver. The Tamil moderates have always known this; the extremists refuse to learn.
By turning on each other in the past, Tamils have been their own worst enemy. The community cannot afford any more losses. Sri Lanka cannot afford any more lost opportunities. The country is still paying for the sins of its past. A fresh spate of violence could doom the country, and all of its people, to misery and strife for generations to come.