8 August, 2022


The Tamil Leadership After The 1977 Elections

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

1979 – 83: The Mounting Repression – Part III

Amirthalingam had many flaws as a politician. A non-violent struggle to which he was verbally committed would have meant building up a mass-movement. The Federal Party (the TULF’s predecessor) had developed as a mass-movement in the latter 1950s, but this was on the wane in the 60s for reasons including the nationalisation of schools, which made many school teachers government servants overnight. Moreover, a feasible goal for non-violent action would have been step-by- step reform, such as the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957. A goal such as a separate state that was bound to heighten emotions on both sides was not an appropriate goal for non-violent action.

Thus by default of not building a mass movement and having to face electoral competition, the TULF was led to stir chauvinistic emotions, brand its opponents traitors and directly or indirectly rely on the militant youth. But its real programme was reform. Its dealings with the militant youth form a dark and dishonourable chapter. When it came to the demand for UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) in early 1982, Amirthalingam knew that it would unnerve the Government and that the Tamil people were in no position to bear the consequences. Yet, the absence of political movement on the part of the Government to resolve the problem placed the TULF in a difficult position. In the meantime, the militant youth were coming into their own.

Prabhakaran 4ColombotelegraphPerhaps, Jayewardene’s nervousness after the questionable 1982 Referendum (see below) and the actions resulting from this did not let him see that he and Amirthalingam either stood together or fell together. By 1983, any political solution that Amirthalingam could win from Jayewardene was bound to be opposed as inadequate by the militant sections. But Amirthalingam alone among the Tamil leaders of that time, had the self-confidence of a leader and the fighting qualities to take on the militants when he had a solid basis for doing so.

The PTA and its Effects

Another episode of which we will have more to say later is the passing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in July 1979 and the order given by President Jayewardene to Brigadier Tissa (Bull) Weeratunge, the Army’s Chief of Staff and his relative. Weeratunge was also a brother-in-law of Jayewardene’s new IGP, Ana Seneviratne, who like Weeratunge, but before him, proved his suitability for the top job, through services of a questionable nature in Jaffna. The order from Jayewardene gave Weeratunge six months, until 31st December 1979, “to eliminate, in accordance with the laws of the land, the menace of terrorism in all its forms from the Island and more specifically from the Jaffna District.” The order placed at Weeratunge’s disposal ‘all the resources of the State’.

For the most part suspected militant supporters, many of whom surrendered in response to public notices, were beaten and tortured. Even Eelaventhan, then a TULF activist, was taken in but was not tortured. There were a few, not more than half a dozen, extra- judicial killings. For the first time the Army had been let loose in this manner in a Tamil area. It caused serious misgivings among many army officers. A good army requires discipline and full trust in the ability and authority of those above. No soldier should be allowed, leave alone under orders, flagrantly to violate the law. For

Weeratunge’s ‘success’ he was promoted to Army Commander upon Denis Perera’s retirement, overlooking Brigadier Justus Rodrigo, who was recommended by his retiring chief as the most suitable.

This was the first time when political authority had intervened to this extent in the normal working of the Army and interfered with its system of promotions. It was an inducement to those who wanted quick promotions to play political commissars, as had already happened in the Police, by agreeing to do favours for those in authority however unlawful and inimical to the interests of the Army. Thus according to many within the Army, indiscipline and lack of cohesion go back to the Jaffna operation of 1979. This was perhaps the main cause of the Army’s inaction, if not connivance, during the state- instigated violence of 1983.

We may observe here that Jayewardene’s practices here were not entirely original. Mrs. Bandaranaike had used the Army in Jaffna in 1961 to break up violently the satyagraha for Tamil rights. Jayewardene’s tampering with the Law and Judiciary too had its roots in the practices of Justice Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike and his secretary Nihal Jayawickrema in the previous government

In his book The Agony of Sri Lanka, T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka has this to say about the 1979 operation: “In a few months it was more than evident that the strategy worked. There were no more murders by the Tigers and even the incidents caused by them decreased sharply…. In 1980 the situation was just as stable…

This is an example of how misleading it could be to interpret cause and effect by only taking into account events over a small spread of time. A viable operation would have involved a political solution, an amnesty and low key intelligence gathering over a long period. To send a few battalions to Jaffna and knock people about for six months was an entirely misconceived operation – especially when the militants were no more than a few dozen in number. It was more a provocation. What really happened is quite different.

Within the LTTE itself a number of issues were coming to a head. One was the internal killing of Patkunam and Michael on Prabhakaran’s initiative. Moreover, the militant groups then were not such closed organisations. There were friendships and discussion between organisations. Those on the Left, who were more familiar with liberation struggles elsewhere, were critical of the LTTE’s totalitarian structure, reliance on terror by a few individuals, and having no mass base or mass participation. Once there was a concentration of troops in Jaffna, the LTTE central committee met and there was strong criticism by senior members of various aspects of Prabhakaran’s leadership. There was a demand to democratise and to form a viable mass-based organisation that could withstand military pressure. It was proposed to bring in civilians who were not being hunted by the security forces. Also criticised was Prabhakaran’s personal deference and loyalty to Amirthalingam. It was also proposed to have a rear base in India giving those who were wanted by the security forces more flexibility.

Prabhakaran first agreed to these changes under pressure. However, the differences between members broke the LTTE. Many became inactive. Prabhakaran with a few others joined the Kuttimani-Thangathurai group (TELO) for a time. Sundaram, an arch-critic of Prabhakaran, particularly over the latter’s loyalty to the TULF, later started a group which emerged as the PLOT(E).

After a hiatus, Prabhakaran sprang back in early 1982 with the murder of Sundaram on his orders by an assassin. His order had been ‘Put off the Main Switch’. Sundaram, a provenly able political and military man, was because of his ability, regarded by Prabhakaran as the biggest personal threat. A new culture of internal terror had been created where the killing of Tamil by Tamil was to attain grim proportions. From here onwards, Prabhakaran emerged as the phenomenon he is today, with no mentors, no loyalties and suspecting all and sundry.

We may thus say that the Jaffna operation of 1979 was an event in the ethnic conflict of considerable significance. Yet, no material damage was caused to the militant movement. Hardly any active militant figure of significance was apprehended. Some of those detained and released became active militants afterwards. But the consequences of the operation were wholly unintended and unforeseen by the planners. As far as the South was concerned, it ended with a few officers getting preferment over others. In a situation of this complexity, every action is bound to have several unforeseen effects. There was neither the capability nor the interest in the state apparatus or civil society in the South to monitor the effects and press for corrective measures and reform in time. Perhaps if a political solution to satisfy Tamil aspirations had been given full effect during 1980 while there was division within the militant movement, there would have been little support for the new and more resilient militant formations, which emerged from mid-1981.

Behind all these developments lay the unresolved problems of the Tamils. This called for a determined political solution. But after flashes of wisdom the authoritarian reflex of the Southern establishment took over. A little more knocking heads, it seemed to them, would do the trick. This was a key element in the violence of August 1977 and July 1983. There were a number of other issues too coming to a boil at the same time. Without perhaps being very conscious of it, an anti-Tamil crusade proved a useful distraction to sweep several other questions under the carpet for the time being. We run through some of these.

*To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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Latest comments

  • 2

    It aches my heart to read those insulting words about the greatest Tamil of all times, the late leader and our leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. As a Tamil himself, Mr Hoole should respect for our leader, who is also his leader.
    Why is he slandering the honor of heroic eelam fighters. Tamils from Toronto to Eelam worship our thalaivar as the true god of Tamils. There is only leader for Tamils that is Thalaivar Prabakaran. RIP the great leader.
    Some Tamils have been led ashtray and acting like wildasses since the tragic demise of our leader and the brief relapse in our heroic freedom struglles . for we majority of Tamils, that reminds the loss of the Thalaivar . Tamils should live by the advise of our late leader, only leader.

  • 1

    Much of this is in hindsight.
    Virtually without exception, except for a minority comprising the Tamil Left and supporters of UNP & SLFP among Tamils, all Tamils with even the slightest Tamil nationalistic streak were for Tamil Eelam.
    Several Tamil intellectuals who were unknown to be particularly political until after 1977 jumped the LTTE bandwagon. They endorsed what the LTTE did for several years. Others were even slower to learn, as they were not affected personally.
    There were also various Tamil left ‘revolutionaries’ who flirted with separatism and more than burned their finger.

    The criticism of the LTTE by Tamil nationalists is welcome, but it should be accompanied by a good degree of honest self-criticism.

  • 2

    TULF has golden opportunity to show Sinhalese that they are part and parcel of Sri Lanka. .Amirthalingam became leader of Opposition and used its privileges to internationalized their Tamil separatist idealism instead of concentrating on social, economics issues that were burning general public under JRJ. Sambandan is doing same. Brain washing Tamil youth toward yet another civil war. with these politician I think another dirty war is inevitable.

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