28 September, 2020

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Clearing The Debris Of Communal Strife From Our Education

By Rajan Hoole and Kopalasingam Sritharan

Revisiting Tamil Self Determination – Part VI

The article by Laksiri Fernando the series started with, speaks of the importance of public awareness and education in reconciliation. But is our educational establishment anywhere near equal to this task?

1. Rajani Portrait

Dr. Rajani Thiranagama

Unfortunately the higher education institutions lost their vitality in creating spaces for new ideas and social activism. They failed at leading the country towards social justice and ethnic peace. The first thing about education is respect for the nation’s young as architects of our future at their formative age and for the value of their time. Once, as in the case of the Jaffna Youth Congress, left politics inspired confidence and hope for social change in the youth. But the failure of socialist experiments in the USSR and China and those of the traditional left parities in Sri Lanka, led to emergence of youth movements with simplistic slogans. Their use of terror to supposedly advance social revolution, inevitably, caused violent upheavals across the country.

Fernando returns to the theme of education in his commendation of Harper Lee’s classic ‘To kill a mockingbird’ with a quotation from the book “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Its hero was a man who took the responsibility of saving the life of a black man ‘at the risk of his professional standing (defined primarily by the white society) and personal safety under mob threats and protest.’

Jaffna University and the Politics of Memory

Dr. Rajani Thiranagama wrote in March 1989 (UTHR(J) Report No.2):

“On another but complementary direction we started a process of self-criticism through dialogue and discussion and tried to re-examine our past and look into the future – not directed by fear, but by fundamental principles of justice to the people. Thus we were critical of local militant groups, both with regard to their terror and murder as well as the actions that create conditions resulting in wanton, purposeless sacrifice of ordinary people.

When practically the entire community succumbed to the terror of Tamil militant movements, the task of creating space for dissent, debate, and critical reasoning was paramount for all those who worked with her at that critical juncture. Many students and staff were inspired by her work and slowly began to question the oppressive politics whose foundations lay in fear-mongering and the use of threat and violence. The LTTE murdered Rajani before her task was complete. Its leaders feared her. More importantly, they feared the conscious awakening that she spearheaded. In killing Rajani the LTTE hoped to stifle any threat to its hegemony. What is now relevant to understand is how it was possible for the LTTE to take root in the Tamil community and drag it through a bloody, calamitous war. The rot was such that the Tamils were blind and passive to their own destruction. In the previous sections we traced the origins of the narrow nationalist political discourse and the ethnicisation of Lanka’s political landscape. These developments created a conducive environment for the rise of the LTTE. Even after its demise, we are confronted with attempts by those espousing various shades of political opinion throughout the country, left and right, to bury attempts at a serious re-evaluation of the past. It is a sad fact that the University of Jaffna continues to suppress the memory of Rajani Thiranagama. In doing so, the authorities continue to prevent the University from becoming a vibrant community that values justice, truth, and human rights and boldly faces up to challenges, both old and new. This cripples the community at large.

Why at this time of healing should the memory of a woman who lived by her professions, and gave her life to the same end, be anathema in the very university she served? The observance of the 25th anniversary of Rajani’s death (21st September 2014) was marred by the university authorities working in tandem with the military (renowned for their misguided actions) in an attempt to stop the proceedings.

In 2011, the new dispensation announced itself at a university exhibition for which schools were invited. A University poster about Jaffna’s heritage described Arumuga Navalar as the leader of the Tamil renaissance and credited him with defending Hinduism against Christian missionaries; it proclaimed Ramanathan as Navalar’s heir in the political arena, and implicitly set out the criteria for exclusion demanded by the power politics of the new bosses. Such is the paucity of discussion that Donoughmore reforms which were mainly about universal adult franchise are referred to in teaching and research as ‘degradation of the minorities’. Hardly ever mentioned in the University and elite circles are Arunachalam, Ramanathan’s brother and champion of the oppressed; or the contribution of the Youth Congress and the Cooperative Movement towards secular egalitarianism and social justice, without which the ‘maximum devolution’ now favoured by the elite as the panacea for Tamil ills, threatens to become mafia-style exclusion.

The war, while eliminating or driving out the North’s socially concerned, gave opportunity for its reactionary segment to take over the reins of society. The essential element of this tendency’s power is patronage, in turn from the British, the new rulers in Colombo, the LTTE, the EPDP and whoever followed. Once in that position they cannot but fear anyone with a social conscience.

The health of Jaffna University is critical to the future of a region, which has over the last eighty years played, for better or for worse, a notable role in the Island’s history. The demand for swaraj (self-rule) by Jaffna’s Youth Congress in 1930 shook the nation’s complacency and prompted it to think about the meaning and responsibilities of independence. Jaffna was also the home of the ideal of secularism; the vision of whose Cooperative Movement flowered in the founding of quality schools and hospitals for those badly in need. The region’s gain would be Lanka’s gain as also would be its loss. It cannot be left an open sore.

Discrimination and Exclusion in Education

Even after many years of varied struggles against caste oppression its ugly face still continues to dominate, adversely affect and humiliate many individuals and large segments of our society. There are countless instances of discrimination against educated individuals who are from the oppressed castes.

Miss. Malar Sinniah, the oppressed caste principal of Kopay Training College was removed by the Government, without due process in March 2010, after a campaign directed by high caste interests and aided by the Northern provincial administration. Thanges Paramsothy from an oppressed caste background obtained a first in Sociology from the University of Peradeniya. He had published a paper, “Casteless or Caste-blind: Dynamics of concealed caste discrimination, social exclusion and protest…” in 2009 following research work with the UN. The Vice Chancellor, a Sociologist, contradicted Paramsothy’s research conclusions about the prevalence of caste oppression during a job interview. No one was appointed that time. Paramsothy is now completing his PhD in Britain and his subsequent experience in applications to the University suggest that he is marked for exclusion – particularly because he challenged comfortable and popular myths of denial.

These cases are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Jaffna University has the potential to become first rate if it is prepared to take an open and generous attitude towards ably-qualified and experienced well-wishers locally and abroad who would readily serve the University if they are made to feel wanted. But when the place is dominated by those who treat dross as gold and gold as dross, as it suits them, people are turned off. When the politics of the place is narrow and repressive there can be no room for sustained excellence.

High officials from Colombo come to the North regularly, exchange pleasantries with local high ups whose power play wastes the region’s potential and announce donations for projects. The Colombo higher–ups have no interest (autonomy is a good excuse) in following up how things develop, whether academic norms are strictly followed, especially in matters such as recruitment of staff. That is the lazy way of doing a job.

One may be unrealistic to expect more from the Government, but then what of the marked indifference of our Tamil political leaders, who command considerable influence at this point, to the diminishing quality of our education? They would do well to remember past leaders who made great contributions to our education.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam was a man with a large heart, devoid of any sectarianism, and was happy to encourage and see the downtrodden and oppressed advance through education. He wrote in his Census of 1901, “The Paraias of Tamil-land occupy a similar position in India to the Rodiyas of Ceylon. Yet, under the influence of education, thanks chiefly to Christian Missionary zeal, an appreciable number of them have raised themselves to honourable positions in life and earned the respect of castes who previously oppressed and trod on them.”

Both Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Sir Waitialingam Duraisamy made an enormous contribution to education through building and managing Hindu Board schools. At a more subaltern level, leaders of the Youth Congress and C. Ragunathan and V. Veerasingam, among others in the Cooperative Movement, opened up educational opportunities to the poorer sections.

Self-determination sans Self-reflection and Self-correction

The reason why the Tamils demanded devolution was because, as the result of communal politics, the polity in the South had exacerbated corruption and injustice in the name of Sinhalese supremacy. But we have seen that without the resolve for internal correction to give justice a primary place, the corruption and ethical laxity in the central and devolved units could join forces and close the door to justice for the oppressed altogether. By their marked failure of oversight the managers of our education and higher education evade difficult decisions that would demand a greater commitment.

At the same time, when we talk of self-determination and devolution without acknowledging what it demands from us, it becomes selfishness and self-indulgence. This is reflected in the obligatory two minutes silence at the beginning of every meeting for victims of the war we cared little for: we show no remorse for the role we played in their suffering. Our apathy coupled with our failure to hold our proclaimed liberators to account are at least as responsible as the Sri Lankan state for the carnage of the final war. We rot amidst meaningless rituals in complete indifference to our failings as a community.

We will not progress as a nation unless easy and quick recourse to justice is available in our systems to correct injustice as and when it occurs, especially when it is eminently transparent where justice and right lie. The powerful remain complacent because they know that justice delayed is justice denied.

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Latest comments

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    The reason why the Tamils demanded devolution was because, as the result of communal politics, the polity in the South had exacerbated corruption and injustice in the name of Sinhalese supremacy.

    Well, the very first time Tamils asked for Tamil Eelam was when Ramanathan just did not have the confidence to contest for a seat in Colombo!

    That was the very first communal act isn’t it? The very first communal party in Ceylon was formed as a result of this action. So communalism and racism emerged for the first time with the Tamils isn’t it?

    The election was mandated by the British the rules were theirs. If Ramanathan wants Tamil Eelam its only because he is against the rules set by British isn’t it? So what cocomeme bullshit is this one?

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      Dear Vibhushana,

      What happened in the past is very important, but of greater moment is what we must do today is focus on NOW eliminating communal strife from our land. It is going to be extremely challenging for us to ensure that we discuss only what is significant to that task, and not all of politics.

      Regarding your very important comment, don’t you think that it would help us all if you were to go BACK to one of the earlier articles and place your comment in a relevant place?

      These articles have been outstanding (but this I found a little disappointing – more on that elsewhere). You can be sure that all serious readers will come back to these article – and the comments, provided that all of us who respond do so intelligently and well.

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    Rajan Hoole and Kopalasingam Sritharan

    RE: Clearing The Debris Of Communal Strife From Our Education

    1. “The article by Laksiri Fernando the series started with, speaks of the importance of public awareness and education in reconciliation. But is our educational establishment anywhere near equal to this task?”

    This is an extremely relevant and critical question. How to educate the populace?

    Are the Sinhala Buddhists claiming that Buddha was Sinhala, a twisting of Mahawansa, because he “visited” Island three times, and not Tamil?

    2. “Unfortunately the higher education institutions lost their vitality in creating spaces for new ideas and social activism.”

    What did Professor Ediriweera Sarathchadra do? Maname was fine, but he came up with the Play Drama, Sinhabahu, that threw fuel to the Sinhala Buddhist Racism against the Tamil People, based on the lies and imaginations of Mahawansa. It was all downhill, and we got a 30-year Separatist War. In fact after, the War, Mahinda Rajapaksa had a guy dressed up like Sinhabahu present himself. a reignition of Mahawansa Myths.

    3. “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Its hero was a man who took the responsibility of saving the life of a black man ‘at the risk of his professional standing (defined primarily by the white society) and personal safety under mob threats and protest.’

    But how many Sinhala Leaders and intellectuals did that, person’s conscience, on behalf of the Tamil Citizen and his rights as a citizen?

    It was clear to the Tamil Youth, that they need an armed struggle to get their just rights. Towards that they they had to get rid of the Old Vellahala
    Guards.

    4. “We will not progress as a nation unless easy and quick recourse to justice is available in our systems to correct injustice as and when it occurs, especially when it is eminently transparent where justice and right lie. The powerful remain complacent because they know that justice delayed is justice denied.”

    Yes.

    When will the next war start, if there is no justice?

  • 4
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    Rajan Hoole and Kopalasingam Sritharan

    RE: Clearing The Debris Of Communal Strife From Our Education

    “Many students and staff were inspired by her work and slowly began to question the oppressive politics whose foundations lay in fear-mongering and the use of threat and violence. The LTTE murdered Rajani before her task was complete. Its leaders feared her. More importantly, they feared the conscious awakening that she spearheaded. In killing Rajani the LTTE hoped to stifle any threat to its hegemony. What is now relevant to understand is how it was possible for the LTTE to take root in the Tamil community and drag it through a bloody, calamitous war. “

    Let us revisit History, over the Past 2,000 years or so and and how it is relevant to the above statement.

    Why is that the Sinhala “Buddhist” Superior to the Tamil? Why is the Jew Superior to the others? Why is the Christian superior to the Others? Why is the White Superior to the Black or Brown?

    Why is Jesus white? – Muhammad Ali Asks.

    The most genuine human being and the most intelligent athlete ever to walk this earth.

    The general public always wanted to focus on this Mans boxing career, choosing not to shine the real light on his brilliance outside of the ring. Now we know as a people, millions of us for hundreds of years have asked these same questions, “why is EVERYTHING WHITE?”,is it racist to ask this question?, no, but it is pure ignorance NOT to ask it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtxfTEyJZg4

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    Rajan Hoole and Kopalasingam Sritharan

    RE: Clearing The Debris Of Communal Strife From Our Education

    Read Below. An eye opener! What can Sri Lankans learn?

    How Pakistan treats its scientists

    http://tribune.com.pk/story/71953/how-pakistan-treats-its-scientists/

    Pakistan’s only Nobel Laureate, Dr Abdul Salam, was a physicist whose work helped us understand the cosmological forces that keep our material space in order. Sadly, he was ostracised because his faith did not meet the merits of this ‘land of the pure.’ What a tragedy it was for Pakistan that the man who wanted to set up a research centre in his homeland and wore a traditional sherwani and turban to the Nobel Prize ceremony, as a mark of pride in his culture, was rejected by his own people simply because he was an ‘Ahmadi.’ Even so, Dr Salam insisted on being buried in Pakistan where, sadly, fanatics defaced even his grave with epithets.

    Last week, I had the opportunity to interview a promising young physicist of Pakistani origin who, too, has abandoned her land of birth to seek a life of intellectual freedom elsewhere. Dr Nergis Mavalvala is a tenured professor of physics at MIT and was recently awarded the MacArthur Fellowship — one of the highest honours in American scholarship comprising an individual prize of half a million dollars. She is the third Pakistani American to receive this honour — historian Ayesha Jalal and artist Shahzia Sikander being the other two.

    Born to a Parsi family in Karachi, Dr Mavalvala fondly remembers her schooling at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Karachi, where a Sri Lankan refugee science teacher named Ranjit Bulathsinghala was among her inspirations for pursuing a career in science. Proceeding to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she went on to do her higher studies at MIT and Caltech and is now one of the leading researchers in identifying gravitational waves that can have profound implications for our understanding of the universe. Raising her two-year-old son with her Indian American partner, she is a role model of multicultural multitasking!

    Dr Mavalvala’s story shows us how science can transcend cultural barriers at multiple levels and lead to a flourishing career. Many in Pakistan continue to malign America but her story also reflects why the United States ends up being a home for so many of us who don’t want to be subjected to the tyranny of cultural exclusion. Yes, there are many problems in America, including incipient racism, but when it comes to practicing excellence in science, the country is unsurpassed in its commitment. Even with the rise of Christian fundamentalists who condemn the study of evolutionary biology and cosmology, the US department of education and university accreditation committees have resisted meddling in the curriculum by ideological zealots.

    When I asked Dr Mavalvala if she would consider returning to Pakistan, she hesitated for a moment but then responded with genuine humility about the remote possibility if the opportunity arose during a sabbatical year. Let’s hope that Pakistan will welcome expatriates such as Dr Mavalvala to spend whatever time they can spare to help advance our science curriculum in higher education. Such scholars are not after some grand pay packages during sabbatical but rather an independent and facilitative higher education establishment which supports their work. Unfortunately, higher education has been acutely politicised in Pakistan and well-intentioned efforts are frequently undermined by petty bickering and turf wars which must cease. Scholars can disagree about the structure of reforms but to attract talent we will need to first address the question of academic and scientific independence which should never be impeded by theological forces.

    Muslim scientists in the golden age of Iberian science were able to flourish because of such independence and their willingness to engage across religions. That tradition has been sadly lost to the dogmatic edicts of the pulpit. Scientists are afraid to speak their mind for the fear of students telling them that they are blasphemous or being labelled by the establishment as heretics or conspirators. To be a truly powerful nation, we need science at the grass-roots and not just the kind that can help us build bombs of every assortment.

    Published in The Express Tribune, November 4th, 2010.

  • 6
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    We have too much information, not enough analysis in the world today, and we are swamped with bits of disconnected happenings. What the first five articles by Dr Rajan Hoole did was to select what was most significant and show us where mistakes were made.

    He handled it brilliantly. He was objective throughout and did not give us some “pro-Tamil” version that was unacceptable. Basically, over the years, we have found that he is a person whom we can trust to tell the truth, to the extent that he knows it. Obviously, there is much that he doesn’t know. It is up to us to discuss only what is significant, and is relevant to the topic under discussion.

    Obviously, what he knows best is what happens in Jaffna. I know that there are many unsatisfactory things happening in Jaffna. About six months ago, a friend of mine, a very distinguished academic went up to Jaffna to discuss Hoole’s latest book, “The Palmyrah Fallen”. They were locked out of the University.

    Just last week, another friend, a less famous man, Prabha of Nuwara-Eliya, went up, on three others, to discuss another book that they had written, and to talk about the problems facing Hill-Country Tamils. They left Colombo on Sunday, the 17th night, and their bus got to Jaffna at 2.00 a.m. on Monday. Their efforts to educate the people of Jaffna on the problems facing them had turned in to a nightmare owing to the actions of the lady Vice-Chancellor. Later in the evening they had managed to contact Dr Hoole and he had helped – immensely.

    This is an ongoing problem, but very relevant to the subject that we are discussing here. Unlike what was discussed earlier, there is no consensus on what is happening now. What we must ensure is that we are objective in what we say, and try to understand all facets of the situation and the issues.

    • 4
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      Sinhala-man,

      Thanks for your comnent, Jaffna, once upon a time, the intellectual capital of Jaffna has many nasty problems. Dr.Rajan Hooke has referred to them in very intellectual terms. The worst Jaffna has been subject to in the years leading to the war and the years of the war, was the stripping of its intellect and culture in stages. The void has been filled, as to be expected by the mediocre and insecure. Mediocrity breeds mediocrity. This the tragedy of Haffna and the north, in almost all institutions and fields.unfortunately, idonotbsee any signs of this being reversed, yet.

      Dr.RN

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        Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

        “The void has been filled, as to be expected by the mediocre and insecure. Mediocrity breeds mediocrity. This the tragedy of Haffna and the north, in almost all institutions and fields.unfortunately, idonotbsee any signs of this being reversed, yet.”

        The Results, even though not-scientific and statistically valid, lends some support for your statement.

        Onion Prices and Tamil IQ Distributions

        https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-story-of-two-graphs-drawn-by-a-tamil-man/onioniqdistributions/

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    ” —contribution of the Youth Congress and the Cooperative Movement towards secular egalitarianism and social justice, without which the ‘maximum devolution’ now favoured by the elite as the panacea for Tamil ills, threatens to become mafia-style exclusion.”

    A profound and penetrating observation.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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    ” We will not progress as a nation unless easy and quick recourse to justice is available in our systems to correct injustice as and when it occurs, especially when it is eminently transparent where justice and right lie. The powerful remain complacent because they know that justice delayed is justice denied.”

    A absolutely correct conclusion that needs no elaboration. The whole article in effect is an exercise in soul searching.

    I did not know the background of Thanges Paramsothy. It is sad the the University of Jafnna has thought fit to exclude this young man, with a social conscience. The reference to the Northern Provincial Council in reference to the Principal of the Kopay Teacher Training College, reveals another aspect of its failure and insensitivity to the needs of all the people in the north.

    The likes of Mahindapala, Amarasiri, Izeth Hussain and Vibhushana, will pounce to feed on this attempt to look within the Tamil Community and the Jaffna University, as part of a much needed exercise in soul searching, to buttress their agenda. I consciously avoid using adjectives to describe this agenda, at this point in time.

    Dr.RN

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      Looks like some so called tamil “intellectuals”are frustrated because they did not get the position ( jobs/power) they wanted and digging up mud to vent their frustration. Finding fault with everything and everyone other than themselves. This attitude will not get them or the tamils anywhere other than the same muddle pool. Wake up and face the reality and try to work for the betterment of the society. STOP BEING SELF-CENTRED and self-conceited.

  • 2
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    Strong stuff. More of the same, please.

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    Everyone needs to do much self-reflection and soul searching in SL. They should do this despite what they might find, and how racists will react to those findings.

    We have all contributed in big or small ways to the conflict, and we all need to be party to solving it.

  • 3
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    “But the failure of socialist experiments in the USSR and China and those of the traditional left parities in Sri Lanka, led to emergence of youth movements with simplistic slogans.”

    There was disappointment in W. Europe (especially France) about Communist Parties. That led to the Paris Spring 1968 (” the revolution that never was”). But its impact on Left thinking in the West was significant. The failures referred to were in the 1980’s.
    The JVP emerged in 1965-66, when the Chinese Cultural Revolution inspired many. Their slogans were not really simplistic, but cynically anti working class and anti Hill Country Tamil.
    I wonder what youth movements with simplistic slogans that the authors have in mind. I am surprised by this apparent slip, as Sritharan was with the revolutionary left into the 1980’s.
    The only post-1980 ‘left groups’ to emerge in Sri Lanka were Tamil nationalists who liked a left label to attract militant Tamil youth.

    • 1
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      Dear “sekera”,

      These six articles by Dr Rajan Hoole, and the discussions arising from them, are of great significance to our country. I had forecast that readers would keep coming back to these blogs, thereby turning this set of articles in to a meaningful forum for charting the course our country should take.

      Unfortunately, your two valid and powerful comments have had the effect of being “discussion blockers”. Only the indefatigable Amarasiri has commented on this article during the last 50 or more hours. This is unfortunate.

      We spent 150 years “under” the British. The result is that a sizabvle number of Sri Lankans (actually, one might even say “almost all” Sri Lankans) are familiar with the English language, and with intellectual activity in the English-speaking world.

      You’ve challenged us with events during the Paris Spring of 1968, when we were no more than adolescents. One of the few Sri Lankans who knows about all that may be Chandrika B.K.!

      It would be good if you could return to this discussion and get it going again. I think that you owe it to 22 million Sri Lankans!

  • 3
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    Very true that Rajini was extraordinarily courageous.

    But many who now denounce the LTTE on hindsight (I do not mean the authors) joined or supported the LTTE knowing well the road that Tamil militancy took.
    I agree with much of the criticism. But very few of the critics have the courage to admit their respective roles vis-a-vis the LTTE. Is not this lack of self-criticism part of the rot that made Tamils “blind and passive to their own destruction”?
    To this day no Tamil leader has apologized to the Muslims for what was done to them in 1990. When Sumatran suggested that they should 20 years after the event, he met with disapproval. What I witness instead is anti-Muslim venom.

    It is amid this Tamil nationalist mindset that I think that “In the Shadow of a sharp Sword” by the LTTE women’s front leader Thamilini– who died some months ago –stands out.
    It is an autobiographical narrative of the LTTE’s campaign between 1992 and 2009. She does not denounce anyone but only narrates her experience. The book gives much deeper insight into the workings of the LTTE than seemingly scholarly works do.
    It deserves a good Sinhala translation and hopefully English too.

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