21 May, 2024

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Reflections On The Life & Achievements Of Dr. N. Ethirveerasingam: An Exceptional Tamil Hailed From Sri Lanka

By Elias Jeyarajah

Dr. Elias Jeyarajah

The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) is deeply saddened by the passing of Dr. Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam, affectionately known to colleagues as Ethir, on 18 April 2024 in the USA. He was 89 years old. We express our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends and the many whose lives were enriched by his selfless actions.

Ethir was one of the exceptional individuals to hail from Jaffna, indeed Sri Lanka, in the last century. With his multi-faceted interests and accomplishments – whether in sports, academics, politics, or social services – he rose to the top making his mark against many odds while maintaining his down-to-earth nature, humbleness, and humanity. He identified with the sufferings of the Tamil people and contributed to their economic, social, and political wellbeing with an unwavering passion that set an exceptional precedent.

Dr. Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam

Despite his status as a permanent resident of the United States since the nineties, Ethir chose to live in the Vanni and serve the people in NorthEast Sri Lanka. He was a witness to the 1995 exodus of Tamils from the Jaffna peninsula to the Vanni. He left Sri Lanka during the final stages of the civil war as the events in the “no-fire zones” and the systematic destruction of the civilian institutions with which he worked affected him greatly. In 2009 immediately after the end of the war, along with other Tamil Americans, he founded the US Tamil Political Action Council (USTPAC) to advocate in the US for justice, peace, and a political solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka. Soon after, Ethir was chosen to be the founding President of the GTF when the organisation was launched in August 2009.

When the Tamil people lost all confidence and direction following the war’s end, Ethir rose and took on the challenge of guiding GTF through its formative stages. His overwhelming desire to be based in Sri Lanka to help with many projects close to his heart meant he could not lead GTF for too long, and he returned to the Vanni to continue his work. However, many in GTF and other Diaspora groups actively engaged with Ethir and sought his guidance on several issues affecting the Tamil people. He no doubt played an important role in shaping the thought process of the GTF that continues to guide us to date.

Ethir comes from a small village, Periyavillaan, in Jaffna. He self-taught the high jump and rose to the peak of that sport competing in the 1952 Helsinki and 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. He won the first Gold Medal in any sport for Ceylon at the 1956 Asian Games in Tokyo, followed by a Silver Medal at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. Ethir did not just win medals but also set a new Asian and Ceylon record (2.03 meters) – his record in Ceylon lasted until 1989.

His prowess in sports took him to the USA on an athletic scholarship in 1956, and later he earned a Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1971. Ethir’s academic career in Agriculture Education spanned a few decades, and he worked at Universities in Sierra Leone (which he helped to set up), Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, and also for UNESCO.

Ethir’s interest in the plight of the Tamil people was shaped by Sri Lanka’s troubled history and his commitment to restore the political rights of his people never wavered. He worked tirelessly for a negotiated end to the war and an honourable peace for nearly three decades (before and after the end of the war). His fame and the respect he enjoyed from all sides of the conflict gave him extraordinary access to key stakeholders in Sri Lanka and internationally. However, like countless others’ efforts, Ethir’s hard work, too, did not bring the desired transformation during his lifetime.

What is most remarkable about Ethir’s post-retirement life (after 1994) was his selfless work for the betterment of the society he hailed from. Ethir spent most of his time in the NorthEast of Sri Lanka (typically for 6 to 10 months every year) despite the difficulties and dangers he faced during those years. As an unpaid volunteer, he worked tirelessly on humanitarian, education, and sports-related projects to aid civilians impacted by the conflict. Working with the Northern Provincial Council, he helped to overhaul the education system, though the reforms were only partially adopted. This continued well into his late eighties until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The STEM education lessons he helped to create benefited immensely the NorthEast Tamil medium students during the COVID isolation periods. Also, the Education Management Information System (EMIS), which Ethir helped install previously, was later adopted throughout the country.  In 2023, at 88, he returned to Vanni one last time with his family to see his projects through and bid goodbye to his homeland.

Ethir’s generosity and helpfulness had no consideration for ethnicity, religion, or linguistic background. He travelled and coached throughout Sri Lanka, identified talented athletes, and helped them reach their full potential. Many of these athletes were of Sinhala origin and lived with Ethir’s family in the USA, whom he coached and assisted to their next level of development through US university programs.

The remarkable facts about Ethir that make one feel a sense of awe are – that he never relinquished Sri Lankan citizenship despite being eligible for US citizenship, and respectfully declined the offer of the honorific title ‘Deshabandu’ (1998), saying “I cannot in good conscience accept such a title when my people are suffering and the war is continuing.”

Two important characteristics that best define Ethir are exceptional achievements in all facets of life but none of that diluted his humble generous spirit; and though he in principle strongly identified with his long-suffering people, he loyally helped the people of all communities.

All who crossed paths with Ethir are truly fortunate and we at GTF are privileged to have associated with him in the early stages of our organisational development. His unique qualities and legacy will continue to guide us.

*Dr. Elias Jeyarajah is a US based Director of Global Tamil Forum, and the first President of USTPAC Advocacy organization @UstpacAdvocacy that Dr. Ethirveerasingam helped to found

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Latest comments

  • 3
    5

    When I got to know around 18 April, ’24 that Ethir had passed away I felt the loss. Over the years I have watched him clear many heights.

  • 5
    5

    Nice tribute to Ethir. Thank you Dr Elias Jeyarajah.

    May I ask why USTPAC is transitioning to USTAG? https://theustag.org/

    • 4
      5

      I forgot to ask what GTF is transitioning into?

      • 0
        2

        Is the article not an appreciation of Ethirveerasingam and not the GTF or any other?

  • 4
    1

    “Ethir spent most of his time in the NorthEast of Sri Lanka (typically for 6 to 10 months every year) despite the difficulties and dangers he faced during those years.”

    Anyone see the irony here? On the one hand, the Diaspora (maybe not the subject of the article) lobbied against “genocide” but they had no trouble visiting whenever they pleased.

  • 1
    1

    Thank you Dr. Jeyaraj. I do not think you touched on everything. I am curious to have some explation of TamilNet’s following piece from 2013:

    US-based former GTF President becomes advisor to SL colonial governor
    [TamilNet, Wednesday, 16 January 2013, 00:16 GMT]
    US-based Dr Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam, the first president of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), accepts an advisor position to G.A. Chandrasiri, Sri Lanka’s colonial governor and retired Major General of the war crimes accused SL military. The website of SL run Northern Provincial Council on Saturday indicated that Dr Ethirveerasingam is already functioning as Advisor on Education and Sports to the SL Governor.

    • 0
      0

      Yes, Jaffna Man. If Ethir had responded directly to this, I haven’t come across.

      • 0
        2

        Did anyone confront NE with the question?

    • 0
      0

      JM,

      My memory is that he was trying to help restart some sports-related activities in the North. TamilNet would give its slanted coverage. But I remember there was a schism within the GTF leadership, with some willing to be pragmatic and work with the GoSL to address the desperate situation of the people, while others maintained an ideological stand and opposed any coordination with the GoSL. The author provides a simplistic explanation of it.

      • 0
        2

        Agnos
        The problem with pragmatism is that people get selective about branding an act of pragmatism as opportunism, betrayal etc.
        Frankly, the GTF does not seem to carry much weight among Tamils resident in this country.

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