TOO MANY PEOPLE HAVE DIED
AN UNTIMELY DEATH
A COMMEMORATION OF
“How many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry
How many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died”
(Blowing in the Wind - Bob Dylan)
In many ways the anti- Tamil riots of 1977 more than in 1956-8 or even the much publicized one in 1983 marks a turning point in the contemporary history of Lanka.
There was the acute need to focus on human rights violations and those affected by violence. The post-1977 period saw the emergence of peoples’ Movements and Organizations, Citizens Committees and Human Rights groups and activists to meet these and other needs. In Colombo the Civil Rights Movement which had been founded in 1971, made a valuable contribution in documenting and disseminating information on human rights issues. The movement for Inter Racial Justice and Equality was formed in Colombo in 1979 and its Jaffna Branch in protest the violations of human rights. The Home for Human Rights in Jaffna took over the task of documenting the cases of those who had been detained, tortured or disappeared, and did an excellent job. In Jaffna the Organization for Non-Violent Struggle sought to educate and conscientise people on caste oppression. The short-lived Red Tamils Movement made an effort to give the whole Tamil movement a sense of direction. The Rural Labourers Union in the north provided non-formal adult education to workers and attempted to improve their conditions of work. In Colombo the Organization for Justice for Strikers with countrywide branches came into existence after the dismissal of thousands of workers who had gone on strike in 1980. The Vimukti-Dhamma Kendraya, an inter-religious group dedicated to the liberation movement both in the south and north, focused on political visioning along principles closer to the spirit of authentic Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. The movement in Defence of Democratic Rights, the Center for Society and Religion, the Social Scientists Association and numerous other groups emerged in Colombo focusing on political, economic and social issues, In the aftermath of three days of arson in Jaffna by the police including the destruction of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 the Jaffna Citizens’ Committee came into existence at Bishop’s House, Jaffna. The Citizens’ Committees became the model and pattern for numerous other committees that spontaneously sprang up in the north and east.
The emergence of peoples’ organizations in Lanka was not an isolated phenomenon. On a global scale the 70s marked the birth of numerous Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and a new partnership emerged of concerned groups in the First World interacting with peoples’ movements in the Third World.
It also provided hitherto unavailable opportunities for opportunities, for oppressed minorities to carry their grievances to the United Nations, to appeal to the conscience of the world and to mobilise international support and world public opinion in support of their cause.
The outstanding individual who emerged among the Tamil in the context of this changing situation was Kanthasamy. The cause as he perceived it was to uphold and human rights in the midst of failures is statesmanship, armed struggles and escalating brutalized violence. Even more important to him was to mobilise all the support possible within the country and abroad to help the poorest among the poor, the displaced, landless and homeless victims of anti Tamil pogroms. Equally important on his agenda were arbitrarily detained, the imprisoned, the tortured and the disappeared. He did not give up until he himself disappeared, a victim to the senseless violence that the country is now trapped in.
As mentioned elsewhere in this publication he came to prominence immediately after the 1977 riots with the appointment of the Sansoni Commission. He was largely responsible for the establishment of the Saturday Review, the Theepam Institute, the Home for Human Rights, the Tamil Refugees Rehabilitation Organization and several refugee rehabilitation schemes. He established the Tamil Information Center in London in 1983 and became the key link on behalf of the Tamils with the world’s Non-Governmental Organizations concerned with refugees and human rights. His credibility with these several organizations was high. This was due to several reasons such as his proved efficiency, his abilities as an administrator, his professional standing, hard work, perfect documentation, and his absolute trustworthiness in handling funds with full accountability to donors. He had the ability to identify appropriate persons who could handle the many projects he initiated. His ways were calm and humane, he never lost his sense of humour in spite of the adverse circumstances under which he had to work, and strikingly impressed to anyone who met him was his very simple lifestyle. These Qualities made him a man with whom it was a privilege to work. He was a member of MIRJE and the Civil Rights Movement. He related to any group, Sinhalese or Tamil, that worked for the objectives that he cherished. He initiated the Amnesty International group in Jaffna fully convinced that people in Jaffna must be concerned about the violations of human rights in other parts of the world. Above everything else he was not involved in the pursuit of power.
He was free from the power game which some others with whom he related many have been involved in. The struggle for power and influence among Tamil groups both armed and unarmed has done irretrievable damage to what was a just struggle and is today the major cause for the predicament in which the Tamils find themselves. He was self-effacing to a fault.
From 1977 to 1983 though much of his work had to be done in Colombo he visited Jaffna at least once and sometimes twice a week. He moved from project to project on a scooter attending to every detail of the work undertaken. He was the man behind the scene, helping, advising and securing funds for people who were prepared to take the risk and have a job done. But the general public of the northern and eastern provinces hardly knew who he was. His named received no publicity until his now much publicized disappearance. The circumstances under which he disappeared raises the whole question about the style of functioning of human rights and social workers in the kind of situation that now prevails in the whole island. Can and should such work be done by persons maintaining a low profiles without an adequate mass base? In the Latin American and South African context some of the well known human rights and social workers have had a strong mass base and maintained a high profiles. The base was readily available through church related organizations and in many cases the left movement and community organization.
For the kinds of projects undertaken under Kanthasamy’s initiative funds were readily forthcoming. But there were’nt enough volunteers willing to take the risk and give of their time. The sensational and demagogic politics pursued by Tamil leaders for over five decades had lulled the people’s sensitivities and had conditioned them to wallow in a quagmire of emotions. Now nourishment for their emotions were being provided by every shot that the militants fired. By 1983 the space available for peaceful activity had diminished. The initiative and control passed to those who were organized for armed struggle. The Tamil Eelamcry and the romanticisation or armed struggle dominated the scene. The blind worship of the gun relegated everything else to the background. Some Tamil expatriates living in the comfort and security of the First World, who do nothing to support the cause of oppressed races and nationalities in their own neighbourhood, irresponsibly fuelled this emotion.
It was easy to raise the romantic cry of Tamil Eelam from London, New York and subsequently Madras while others, mostly the poor and under-privileged, paid the cost for it in loss of life and suffering.
Kanthasamy did not indulge in the rhetoric of liberation. He was not interested in emotional politics and slogans. As far as he was concerned there was a job to be done and he did it.
When the Indo-Sri Lanka Pease Agreement was signed he seized the earliest opportunity to return to the country. He was right in doing so. After all what was the struggle about if it was not the welfare of the people living in the country. Kanthasamy was sensitive to and responded to the cry of pain and anguish raised by the people who were facing the bullets and brutal assaults in their own homes and villages. The struggle itself had been betrayed in more ways than once. He rightly sensed the mood of the Tamil people which was a yearning for peace and a return to normalcy. There were risks in volved in his return.
Kanthasamy’s answer was that there was work to be done and one must stand by the truth whatever happens. He was a man of action and of supreme courage. He had given up the security and comfort of a substantial legal practice and had given everything he had for what he believed was a just cause. Finally he gave his own life.
Kanthasamy’s has been the most internationally publicised case of disappearances and political killings by Tamil of other Tamils. It is therefore appropriate at this juncture to take up the whole issue of political killings and internecine conflict. Not because Tamils killings Tamils in the anyway different from Tamils killing Sinhalese and vice versa. It is because political killings among the Tamils and internecine conflict is the most serious problem, as far as the Tamils are concerned, that stands in the way of finding a solution to the national question.
This issue has plagued the Tamils since the first shots were fired in 1982 when a well known PLOTE activist Sundaram was killed allegedly by the Tigers. Within days revenge killings allegedly by PLOTE took place. Thereafter sporadic killings and kidnappings continued in Lanka and in Tamil Nadu.
In this internecine conflict many of those mercilessly slaughtered by rival Tamil organizations were boys in their early teens. Hundreds of ordinary Tamils citizens from all walks of life have been killed including teachers, farmers, workers, small shopkeepers, businessmen, students and social workers. Others have been intimidated, threatened, bullied and silenced. Some of the more publicized killings were those of politicians who chose to remain in Jaffna and of members of Citizen Committees.
In addition there have been killings of public servants, Government Agent and Assistant Government Agents who have kept the administration going under exceptionally difficult circumstances keeping the supply lines moving with essential goods including food, medicine and petrol.
These men stayed on at their posts to serve the people to the best of their ability under dangerous and trying conditions caught between Sri Lanka’s security forces on the one hand and several Tamil organizations engaged in brutal and bitter conflict among themselves on the other. Some of these men may have been forced to take a particular stand. Other may have done so of their own free will.
The emerging pattern which started early in the 1980s was to coerce if not to intimidate citizens groups, peoples organizations, administrators, businessmen and prominent individuals to act as front organizations or front men by rival armed groups. Eventually they became captives of the more powerful ones. The correct policy should have been for the armed organizations to establish fraternal relations with citizen’s committees, students organizations, trade unions, administrators, intellectuals and committed senior citizens and other individuals sympathetic to or involved in the struggle. Far from considering them rivals for power or puppet organizations to be used and manipulated they should have been allowed to function independently and pursue their respective aims with full freedom. With the Indo-Lanka accord all the armed organizations have returned to the north and east and have set in motion a process of revenge killings in which unarmed individuals who willingly or otherwise were identified with one group or other are being liquidated.
It is time that Human Rights Organizations fully documented the killings and disappearances that have occurred among ourselves as a people. It is a duty we owe to the memory of many innocent, decent people and their families. Above all it is a duty we owe to history to honour those who stayed on in the country and paid the supreme price. These lives have been taken by men brutalized by the nature of the conflict. It is a sordid story about which I as a Tamil feel deeply ashamed. It is an act of cowardice to walk in to the homes of unarmed civilians or to drag them out of cars and buses and shoot them in cold blood. This is exactly what the Sri Lankan forcers did and from which we as a people wished to be liberated.
In today’s political scenario there are no militants, no liberators, and most of all no traitors. There are only the armed and the unarmed, some of the armed terrorizing the unarmed. These assailants probably do not want political analysis and discussion. They do not want people to perform their duties or serve the people independent of their control or patronage. Intolerant of alternative viewpoints they are no better than Hitler’s Gestapo blindly following orders. Democratic and human rights cannot be won by groups that do not encourage their cadres to think and analyse politically.
The Tamils have struggled and suffered, not be replace one form of authoritarianism with another which is far more brutal and painful in which Tamil kills Tamil. There are limits to armed struggles. The use of the gun as a weapon of defence is just and fair. To use the gun against the unarmed to intimidate, threaten, bully, terrorise, kidnap and mercilessly kill is a dastardly act that calls for nothing but utter contempt and universal condemnation.
The crying need at the moment is to go back to the point where we started and regain what has been lost, the purpose and goal of the Tamil struggle. We have to identify who our real friends and allies are. We have above everything else got to unite and stop intimidating and slaughtering unarmed people be they Tamils, Muslims or Sinhalese. The Tamil struggle of a persecuted and oppressed people for democratic and human rights. It was a struggle that sought to enable the Tamil people to live with dignity, self- respect and human rights in the security of their own homeland pursuing their economic and social welfare. It is a struggle that should have placed high on its agenda the rights of the plantation workers, and the landless labourers of the oppressed castes in Jaffna. If even at this late stage this is realized, Kanthasamy’s loss and that of many thousands would not have been in vain.
PUBLISHED BY MAHESWARY VELAYUTHAM FOR THE KANTHASAMY COMMEMORATION COMMITTEE AT COLOMBO
Kumaran Press, Colombo.
19 JUNE 1989