Abnormalities, Incongruities and Other Causes for Caution in Thamalini Jeyakumaran’s “Oru Kooravilin Nizhalil”.

In 2016, when retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne released a book titled The Road to Nandhikadal it promised the Sinhala South which was still charged with the zealotry of militarist Sinhala Buddhist fanaticism the “ultimate truth” – or the “truth of truths” – related to the defeat of the LTTE. By this time, Mahinda Rajapaksha had lost his Presidency following the Presidential Election victory of Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, and Sarath Fonseka – one time supreme command within the military – had long since parted ways with the Rajapaksha triumvirate. The latter had contested and lost the Presidential Election of 2010, had served a jail term that is believed to have been instigated out of spite, and had re-socialized to embark on a career in parliamentary politics, being rewarded with a ministerial position to suit. In a changing game of power in which these former warlords cannot be immune forever – or, rather, where immunity is relative to other larger stakes on the political map – perhaps, it is not all that unobvious for the retired militant to force the pen, and to woo converted audiences to prolong their collective hysteria and delusion.

It is against this larger backdrop where ex-service personnel have been offered an enviable space as scribes that former female leader of the LTTE’s Politicial Wing Subramaniyam Sivakaami (Thamalini) writes a supposed autobiography titled Oru Kooravilin Nizhalil. Sivakaami’s autobiography was released to much public hype and was initially seen as a text that prompts reconciliation. However, the post-2009 historical moment Sivakaami was placed in and the individual circumstances of her own life (she had been diagnosed with cancer and she died soon after) are far from reconciliation to a woman who, for some reason we cannot explain, was the sole survivor of a military frontline and was placed in the custody of her enemy – for her to write a book in which an extremely unconvincing attack on the LTTE leadership is meted out in the closing chapters.

cover_page_97589Some of the names that are involved in the production process of Sivakaami’s supposed autobiography includes her husband Jeyakumaran – whose role in his marriage to Sivakaami and his function in getting this book published following Sivakaami’s death have been questioned by elements whom he, in interviews, has dismissed as “pro-LTTE diaspora” – and long-time peace activist and artiste Dharmasiri Bandaranayake. The translation of the book from Tamil to Sinhala was done by Saminadhan Wimal. As one walks the tight-rope in search of “truth” and “fact” in the post-war universe books such as Sivakaami’s (alike that of the Kamal Gunaratne type) must be done with an alert and open mind, as they can never escape being a part of someone else’s project, while they cannot be the products of altruism or selflessness. Hiatuses, incongruities and abnormalities locatable within the narratives themselves give us sufficient reason to be wary in canonizing these as “autobiographical work” without exercising critical reflection that may warn our better judgment.

Oru Kooravilin Nizhalil can be loosely divided into two parts of which the first is a record of the period from 1990 to 2006, which is a well thought out, evenly structured section with close reflections of and references to the early years of the author’s combatant life. This section develops through the 1990s, and contextualizes the reader with the Wanni situation leading up to the ceasefire in 2002. In the latter half of the book Sivakaami’s focus is on the political and military destiny of the LTTE from 2006 to 2009 and the post-war aftermath, in which she includes records of her time spent in detention under government custody. Unlike the first half of the book, the post-2009 sections are often jarred, hurried and glossed over, while her tone is unmistakably passive in comparison to some of the more assertive early sections. In this concluding section, not a single comment or opinion is tabled to even remotely implicate the government militia in criminality, as has been the universal charge.

This dissonance between the first half and the concluding chapters is crucial as the Sivakaami we initially meet is analytical and reflective of mind, as she carefully and intelligently maps the rise of the LTTE, its core ideology and its social mechanism. Notable in these early chapters is her reverence of the LTTE leadership and its political structures, in spite of fleeting moments of skepticism. There is very little evidence in the section leading up to the time the failure of the ceasefire of 2002 (in 2006) that she has any grave reservations of the LTTE’s conduct, or of Prabhakaran’s leadership. If at all, her criticisms of the leadership remain mild and do not tally with the intensity of attack of the same in the chapters that focus on the closing stages of the war.

thamilini_210105_445The chapters dealing with the post-2006 period suggest uncertainty and ambivalence in the writer even though, on the whole, her response to the failed peace efforts of 2002-2006, too, is not without equivocation. Even though it is not supported by the political convictions Sivakaami seems to hold up to 2006 her reaction to the resumption of war seems to be one of resentment, which, from a post-2009 Southern standpoint, can be suggested to be the fashionable reaction to have. Her criticism of the LTTE leadership is palpable only in the sections that relate to the ‘final phases’ of battle, commencing from about October 2008. Even here, Thamalini (the writer) projects her (supposed) disenchantment and anxiety mostly through the words and sentiments of other colleagues, such as the senior female cadre Vithusha who is supposed to have been killed in battle in May 2009. In relating to what she sees and experiences during her detention, the treatment she receives in military hands, her supposed ‘rehabilitation’ and release to civil society, Sivakaami’s narrative contrasts with the ‘truths’ that had been suggested by the likes of Gordon Weiss, Frances Harrison, Samanth Subramanian, Rohini Mohan, Beate Arnestad and Channel 4.

Sivakaami’s references to the run up to May 18th, 2009 make minimum note of the heavy arms and high impact weaponry that were said to have been indiscriminately aired into the ‘No Fire Zone’ (Subramanian 244, 246-247, 252-253, 256-257; Hoole 209-250), or of the summary executions carried out on Tamil persons by the Lankan military (Subramanian 262). However, Sivakaami makes note of how the LTTE top command had ordered people to be shot, where they attempted to flee the final ‘No Fire Zone’. Do the absences of information of a particular kind insinuate that a phenomenon or a series of events confirmed by a pool of other sources are fabrications? Or, is this the text the cadre of a defeated militia may produce while writing under the blade of a sharp sword?

Crucial in understanding Sivakaami’s narrative are the silences she maintains and the deletions of what has otherwise been confirmed and verified through multiple sources. In Sivakaami’s writing, absence is presence, and at the very best, her deletions and silences warns us that the text must not be read in linear form. Our challenge should be to comparatively read what is absent in Sivakaami by juxtaposing her with the larger discourse of narratives that repeatedly, as a pattern, suggests to us a certain form of criminality. It would have been abnormal and incredible if Sivakaami was to confess of torture, rape, extra-judicial massacre and forced disappearances. Such biographies are not written by a prisoner of war on benevolent stationary provided by her aggressor.

Had Sivakaami, in her post-combat years, undergone a re-assessment of her earlier political convictions, I suggest, the approach to her formative cadre years should reflect that change, as the writing of the book itself happens post-2009. This is not the case in Sivakaami’s narrative as she locates with much feeling and nostalgia her younger years in combat, while the text is rich with minute detail, sentiment and – one might even say – literary merit, with patient and memorable reflections on nature, sunrises, landscapes, birds’ calls etc. that foreground a carefully developed story line. The later incongruous chapters, in contrast, become halfhearted confessions which betray, if not a separate authorship altogether, an unwilling and uncomfortable one.

An almost negligible and innocuous passing reference relates to Isai Priya (whose rape and murder by the Lankan militia was publicized by Channel 4 in 2013) who, Sivakaami claims, was alive and in good health on the 16th of May. This detail is significant in a context where the Ministry of Defense had earlier claimed that Isai Priya had perished in combat. Her subsequent rape and murder was denied and dismissed by various stooges of the state as a staged fabrication. Sivakaami’s evidence is a powerful shred in a situation where she cannot offer much more.

Isai Priya in the ‘Commemorating Month’ Of November.

The military crushing of the LTTE by the state forces of Sri Lanka came to a climax in May 2009 in extremely controversial circumstances. The execution of surrendering and captive prisoners of war, the torture, rape and killing of women held in military custody and forced disappearances of persons added to an already extending list of controversial conduct by the government during the closing months of the war (January to May 2009) which included indiscriminate shelling by the troops and the barring of food supplies, medical expertise and medicines to the combat zone. In May 18th 2009, the then-President declared the LTTE completely defeated. However, even in the post-war aftermath people who were now apparently under the ‘protective custody’ of the military continued to disappear. Allegations of women being raped singly and in groups emerged from the cordoned off ‘rehabilitation camps’ first, as rumour; and then with corroboration.

60919_L_sri-lankaWhile in the South the government took more efforts than necessary to celebrate the war victory and encourage the building of numerous memorials in post-war North commemoration of the dead was made taboo. In fact, the state troops took measures to bulldoze all signs and semiotics of the LTTE’s presence from the Northern landscape. Statues and commemorative constructs were proclaimed illegal and pulled down. The LTTE’s Maarveer memorial burial sites were bulldozed and replaced by the setting up of army camps on those lands. Until the November of 2008, the LTTE considered the 26th of November as a day of remembrance – a day where their slain and self-sacrificing cadre were commemorated. Whether one believed in the LTTE or not, this provided an opportunity for the family members of the dead – of those who may have died for different reasons – to commemorate their personal loss and to come to terms with their grief. In post-war years this opportunity is lost to the North.

One of the grave mistakes made by the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhala-majority South was the denial and shirking of responsibility that the final phases of the war was a tragedy and a mistake. What the government-sanctioned military unleashed on the North in May 2009 and the months that postdate the war victory is the experiment they ruthlessly used on the Sinhala-South in 1989 and 1990 in the crushing of the JVP. The tripartite modus operandi used under Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne back then was to ‘search, interrogate and destroy’. The same strategy has been blindly used modifying it to suit battlefield conditions with scant regard for the overseeing eyes of the global community and other independent observers. The short-sighted, introvert policy of those who authenticated the events that have since 2009 left the Sri Lankan government having to live the life of the cat who defecated on a rock could not have viewed beyond their own tribal instincts. Even to this day, the arrogance of denial and the audacity not to claim responsibility for the loss of over 40,000 lives that could have been minimized continues to baffle me.

Among the hitherto unknown and undocumented number of persons killed or violated in custody, a name and a face that caught the global spotlight was that of Isai Priya alias Shoba. Isai Priya’s unenviable position in the global headlines however was as a mutilated corpse who shows signs of being tortured, raped and summarily executed. Coincidentally, hers was a name that was known to the world for her dead body to be identified. These women who were sexually abused and killed in cold blood have all faced the same fate – there is no gradation or exception in them. The perpetrators of these crimes – with or without evidence – are the military and their overseers who were present in these sites at that time. However, the first reaction of the military was one of denial. In spite of leaked footage from the battle zone – footage which were later used by media such as Channel 4 in documenting the atrocities which they charged as crimes against humanity – the Sri Lankan military and members of the then-government have insisted these footage were fabrications. Then MP, Rajiva Wijesinha even suggested that summary executions of prisoners of war, as caught on VGA cameras, were ‘staged’ and ‘theatrical’.

Footage on Isai Priya first discloses how she is being ‘rescued’ from the edge of what appears to be a lagoon by the Sri Lankan military. At this point, she is half-clad and appears to be in visible shock. An army solider walks in her direction with a plain white cloth and helps her to cover her top half. Then, she is walked inland from the lagoon and voices from the background shout that it is ‘Prabha’s daughter’, to which Isai Priya faintly replies ‘I am not her’. By the reference ‘Prabha’s daughter’ it can be insinuated that the military thought Isai Priya to be Dwaraka, the daughter of LTTE leader Prabhakaran. In subsequent footage, Isai Priya is seen dead with her hands tied to the back, the lower part of her garment removed. The white cloth which was initially given to her is seen smeared with blood. In a third sequence of footage Isai Priya appears shot at close range and with a gash across her face. Beside her, there are other female bodies in varying stages of nakedness and bearing signs of gross abuse.

Earlier, the Defence Ministry website had publicized a Lt. Colonel Isai Priya who was killed in the final stages of battle in May, 2009. Whether this is a genuine error or a wilful attempt to mislead the world (while taking refuge in the shell of denial) is best known to the authors of this update. When the footage of Isai Priya first surfaces it is 2012 – almost three years after the death. To the average Southerner in Sri Lanka, the little biographical information available on Isai Priya is courtesy of sources such as Wikipedia and other depositories. She is said to have been born in Delft Island in 1982, making her 27 at the point of her death. Her family had been displaced in 1995 during the Operation Riviresa under the Chandrika Kumaratunga government. She had had her education at Vembadi Girls’ School and been active in the LTTE’s media division as a news anchor and announcer. She had been married to an LTTE cadre in 2007 and her infant child is believed to have died closer to the end of the war.

isaipriya1In Thamalini Jeyakumaran’s Oru Koorvailin Nizhalil there is a reference to Isai Priya and her husband that helps us narrow down the point of the husband’s death to a day. In her supposed autobiography, Thamalini gives us the date of May 18th as her moment of surrender. Even as she prepares herself to leave the ‘LTTE end’ of battle and join a posse of people who were about to ‘cross over’, she meets Isai Priya’s husband from whom she asks after Isai Priya. He replies saying that she was somewhere in the vicinity. If Thamalini’s narration is to be believed then even on the 18th of May both Isai Priya’s husband and the infant child were well and alive. It can be assumed that the leaked footage featured in the Channel 4 film is probably no more than 48 hours following this exchange Thamalini records. In 2014, South Indian filmmaker K. Ganeshan directs a movie titled Porkalathil Oru Poo which is based on Isai Priya’s life. The film was banned in India.

In November 2017, eight years and a half years after the Sri Lankan’s military’s victory over the LTTE, there is much still left to reflect on in terms of addressing the emotions and the insecurities of the ordinary people. Even as this is written, the extremist and extremely ignorant communities in the South – being brain-massaged by militarist zealots, opportunistic politicians and leftover relics of the military – still deny that the North was wronged, and still insist that the North and East should not be given powers to determine their own destinies. These are people who have no dignity or respect for others, who have no knack to learn from mistakes – and from such people we cannot expect much. Between 2013 and now, some positives have been set in place in the North – such as the setting up of the Northern Provincial Council – but, there is much infrastructural and cultural development for which the central government has to meaningfully pave the way. Lands and property that have been taken away from the people under various pretexts over the past 30-odd years have to be returned. The military presence has to be reduced and the normalcy of a civil society expediently restored. More so – the North should be given the ethical and spiritual right to mourn, commemorate and to come to terms with their grief. In an ideal world, all the bulldozed memorial graves and the pulled down monuments have to be restored. But, if the government has misgivings of going to that extent they should at least provide suitable alternatives for the community. On top of all – and this might be the hardest, yet, for the majoritarian-Sinhala South – the responsibility and the acknowledgement of the ‘final assault’ has to be accepted and its guilt has to be publicly documented. Until that is done, there will be no reconciliation.