The trails of the Tigers

Print edition : August 14, 1999

Two factors point significantly to the LTTE's involvement in Neelan Tiruchelvam's murder. First, the human bomb has become its trademark; secondly, it has been consistently hostile to him.

"ANY man's death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind," wrote the metaphysical poet John Donne. The ongoing ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka continues to extract a heavy human toll. In my personal capacity as a Sri Lankan Tamil and in my profession al capacity as a journalist writing on the ethnic strife, I have lost count of the number of people related or known to me who have encountered violent deaths. But no man's death as a result of the war in northern Sri Lanka has diminished me as that of N eelan Tiruchelvam on July 29.

Neelakandan Tiruchelvam, well-known as Neelan or Dr. Neelan, strove ceaselessly to achieve a peaceful solution to the Tamils issue. He dedicated himself to that cause with a sense of purpose, although he could have easily pursued a lucrative academic or professional career as a lawyer in Sri Lanka or abroad. He chose to remain in Colombo through very trying circumstances and pursue his vision of a lasting political settlement where all communities, including that of his own, the Sri Lankan Tamils, coexi sted with justice, dignity and peace.

In that context, his death is an irreparable loss to the country in particular and humanity in general.

I had a close personal relationship with Neelan. He was my friend, philosopher and guide. He was greatly instrumental in moulding my career. It was Neelan Tiruchelvam who facilitated my initial journalistic links with The Hindu and Frontline. Although I have been living abroad for the past decade, I have been in constant touch with him. I was perhaps one of the last persons to speak to him on that fateful day. I spoke with him until 8.40 p.m. He was killed at 9.15 a.m. I shall miss him sor ely.

Neelan Tiruchelvam and wife Sithie Tiruchelvam with President Chandrika Kumaratunga at Queen's House, the President's official residence, in early 1999.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

FOR reasons best known to themselves, colleagues from Neelan Tiruch- elvam's party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), have pointedly refrained from naming the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as the perpetrator of the crime. The LTTE in it s customary fashion has neither claimed credit nor denied responsibility. Yet two factors point significantly to the involvement of the Tigers in the murder. First, the human bomb has become the trademark of an LTTE-type assassination. The second and mor e important factor is the consistent hostility displayed by the LTTE towards Neelan Tiruchelvam. Tiger-controlled media organs in Sri Lanka and abroad have been attacking him for nearly four years now. Tamil politicians and newspapers in Colombo, seeking to curry favour with the Tigers, too have followed suit. As for LTTE propaganda, Neelan Tiruchelvam has been the most reviled Tamil politician and the pet object of hate. The LTTE's poet laureate, Puthuvai Rathinadurai, writing under the pseudonym Viyaa san, has constantly referred to him as a throgi (traitor), who clings to President Chandrika Kumaratunga's munthanai (free end of the saree) and who must be destroyed.

The LTTE had been preparing the ground for the assassination. This is the method it has usually adopted: first it would denigrate Tamil politicians thereby creating a hostile climate and building up mass ill-feeling towards them, and then strike. Now, th e LTTE-controlled media have started its second phase of the campaign. While the "official" LTTE has remained silent, its minions in the media have resumed their attack on Neelan Tiruchelvam, describing him as a traitor. The Tiger mouthpiece in Canada, < I>Muzhakkam (Thunder), for instance, has published a diatribe, which accuses Neelan Tiruchelvam, among other things, of intending to "implement the devolution package during his visiting professorship tenure scheduled for this autumn/fall."

The LTTE and its supporters have been critical of the constitutional reforms proposals, known generally as the devolution package, which seek to find a solution to the decades-old ethnic strife. It was the legal, constitutional and political expertise of Neelan Tiruchelvam that contributed to the formulation of the package. While Sinhala hardliners accuse him of promoting separatism by trying to push through the devolution package, the LTTE and its cohorts accuse him of betraying Tamil interests. These contrasting allegations made by the hawks on both sides are proof enough that Neelan Tiruchelvam was on the right track in seeking a negotiated settlement that would provide maximum devolution. The criticism of Neelan Tiruchelvam by Tamil separatists and the silence of the "official" LTTE show clearly who was behind the assassination.

Ironically, the Sinhala sections, which had earlier maintained that the package was detrimental to their interests, now state that the LTTE killed Neelan Tiruchelvam because he was trying to promote a package that was harmful to the interests of the Tami ls. It is not difficult to discern that beneath the veneer of professed sympathy, the Sinhala sections want devolution denied and a hard line adopted against the LTTE. It would be doubly ironical to abort the devolution exercise on the pretext of the dea th of a person, whose political passion was to see it through.

VARIOUS theories are afloat about the motive and timing of the killing. While the most common one is that it is a signal to the proponents of devolution to abandon the process, others believe that it is part of an overall assault on TULF itself. Another view is that the Tigers feared that Neelan Tiruchelvam would indulge in international propaganda against them during his tenure at the Harvard University and so launched a pre-emptive strike. There is also the personality factor. While there is no defini te answer to the question of why now, some reflection on the possibilities, nevertheless, throw more light on the question.

In the first place, Neelan Tiruchelvam was under LTTE threat ever since the original set of devolution proposals were released in August 1995. The state provided some security. Given the relative "ease" with which the lone assassin carried out his assign ment at the Rosemead Place-Kynsey Road intersection in Colombo on July 29, the question that arises is why it was delayed.

While accepting the fact that the LTTE requires a certain amount of time for reconnaissance and planning, it is improbable that it needed four years to demolish what was essentially a soft target. There are four probable reasons for this delay. It may ha ve been that the cadres assigned this task were probably not able to accomplish it owing to unforeseen circumstances. For instance, members of that specific assassination cell or those providing logistical support may have been arrested unintentionally b y the authorities or may have had to shift duties. These complications may have hindered an early execution of the plan.

The second reason could perhaps have been Neelan Tiruchelvam's extensive travel schedule. As one of the world's leading intellectuals and constitutional experts, he was in constant demand. His general itinerary was flitting from country to country to att end seminars, deliver lectures, participate in workshops and so on. On several occasions he would return to Colombo on one day and undertake another trip the following day. Such frequent travel meant irregular periods of stay in Colombo. His infrequent a nd unpredictable movements may have thwarted the plans of his potential assassins.

Neelan Tiruchelvam himself believed that the LTTE would not deploy a suicide bomber but only use a gunman/woman to kill him. He felt that human bombs were meant only for important and high-profile targets such as Rajiv Gandhi and R. Premadasa. It was per haps a manifestation of his modesty that he considered himself a target of lesser importance. But when the LTTE used suicide killers to target Chief Inspector of Police Mohammed Nilabdeen in an abortive bid in Mount Lavinia and another to kill Eelam Peop le's Revolutionary Liberation Front's (EPRLF) para-military leader Razeek in Batticaloa, it became clear that the Tigers had reached a desperate situation wherein relatively unimportant victims too had become their targets. In that sense, it was inevitab le that Neelan Tiruchelvam too would be targeted by a suicide killer.

Fourthly, it is possible that Neelan Tiruchelvam was way down on the LTTE's hit list. Although angry with TULF and Neelan Tiruchelvam, the Tigers may have felt that there was no need for immediate action against them. A case in point is the LTTE killer s quad that launched an assassination bid on Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda in 1995. If an attack of such intensity had been conducted against Neelan Tiruchelvam or any other TULF leader in Colombo, there were minimal chanc es of their surviving. But the Tigers did not do so. Later the LTTE was to target TULF leaders such as member of Parliament from Trincomalee Thangathurai and Jaffna Mayor Sarojini Yogeswaran. But these were under different circumstances and times. Thanga thurai was killed because of domestic compulsions of the LTTE contingent. It can therefore be presumed that while Neelan Tiruchelvam was not on top of the LTTE hit list, the Tigers subsequently revised their priorities. This may have been owing to either the perception of an increased threat from Neelan Tiruchelvam or a general change of strategy where a wider range of targets became prioritised.

Whatever the conjecture, it is obvious now that the Tigers are targeting TULF leaders. This assessment arises not from the wisdom of hindsight alone. It appears that the Tigers revised their strategy because of TULF's changed perceptions. They seem resol ved to wipe out TULF as a viable political entity. They will do this through methods of co-option, expulsion, exclusion and, finally, elimination. This decision to strike at the TULF leadership appears to have been made a few months ago. This is in a sen se an indirect compliment to TULF. It is also an indicator of the LTTE's political insecurity and paranoia regarding the true feelings of the Tamil people.

IN 1994, the LTTE preferred TULF to the other ex-militant groups. After the elections, the three members of Parliament of the party from Batticaloa district, Pararajasingham, Selvarajah and Thurairajasingham, were allowed a certain amount of functional a utonomy. But their public pronouncements, particularly those of Pararajasingham, were explicitly partial towards the LTTE. Pararajasingham has been utilised by the LTTE extensively for propaganda abroad.

Nevertheless, the LTTE became increasingly irritated by TULF. It found that TULF's role in formulating the devolution package and its issue-based support to the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime bestowed upon the Government greater acceptance and credibility. It also found that despite the insistence of the Tigers that only they be regarded as the sole representative of the Tamil people, it was TULF that enjoyed global approval. Neelan Tiruchelvam himself contributed greatly towards enhancing TULF's image am ong foreign diplomats, journalists, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). What the LTTE did not realise was that by its own actions it was being alienated from the international community. This refusal to examine and reappraise its faults resulted i n the cultivation of a bitter hatred towards TULF.

These feelings were exacerbated by the realisation that despite sustained criticism against it, TULF continued to retain a considerable amount of goodwill among the Tamil people. Owing to the prevailing environment, this opinion could not be expressed pu blicly. But when an opportunity presented itself, the people demonstrated their support for TULF as in the case of the Jaffna local authority elections last year. To its great annoyance, the LTTE realised that if and when elections were held, TULF was ce rtain to perform well. A reputed pro-Tiger analyst even predicted that TULF would gain more than seven seats in the peninsula. This, coupled with the seats won in Wanni and the East, meant a possible tally of 15. Given the existing political conditions, such a tally would have enabled TULF to attain greater prominence nationally and internationally.

Therefore, the Tigers appear to have decided to strike really hard at TULF. The objective was to make it cease as a functional entity. This approach was paralleled by a similar hardline approach against other Tamil groups. Several stalwarts of the People 's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and the EPDP too have been killed. In deference to a final appeal by the LTTE, several junior members of these groups have broken ranks and joined the Tiger s. Also, many of these groups are riddled with internal divisions. There have also been many inter-group clashes. They have also indulged in several human rights violations against the Tamil people. Their stock among the Tamils is at an all-time low, and in the eyes of the Tigers they pose no political threat.

But TULF, with its slogan of "unarmed democracy", is a different prospect. So the LTTE is determined to do two things. One is to create conditions in the North-East that would make it difficult for members of TULF to contest there. Secondly, render the p arty defunct or at least dysfunctional. On the other hand, the Tigers may promote pro-Tiger independent groups to contest in that area. For this to happen, TULF has to go. And this is what is happening now.

The MPs from Batticaloa district have been asked to refrain from attending public functions and are also barred from meeting people. When the TULF MPs remonstrated by wondering how they could prevent voters from coming and seeing them," the Tigers said: "In that case we will come along with the people and meet you in the way you deserve to be met." The Tigers also issued a notice that the public should keep away from TULF because they may suffer harm. The MPs of Batticaloa are in Colombo now. The LTTE a lso issued an ultimatum that all TULF branches in Amparai district should be dissolved and that announcements to the effect be made in the newspapers before August 10.

THE killing of Neelan Tiruchelvam appears to be a part of the LTTE's general onslaught against its rivals. It adopted a hard line in the case of three senior TULF leaders. In June, Sri Lankan investigators apprehended an LTTE member from whom information was extracted about the presence of a 10-member LTTE suicide squad in Colombo for specific purposes. Among the targets were TULF MPs R. Sambandan and Neelan Tiruchelvam, and former MP and current senior vice-president V. Anandasangary. On July 2, the In ternal Intelligence Department of the National Intelligence Bureau issued a specific warning to the Defence Ministry about the threat to the trio. On July 13, the threat was conveyed by Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva to Sambandan.

Neelan Tiruchelvam himself was away in Bellaggio, Italy on a Rockefeller fellowship between June 18 and July 18 when this information surfaced. He was informed of this upon his return on July 19. Since his life has been under threat for quite some time, he was not unduly perturbed. In any case, he was scheduled to be in the United States from late August until December for the Harvard University lecture on "Ethnicity, Constitutionalism and Human Rights".

Besides, whenever I cautioned him about his safety he had a fatalistic expectation about death. "No one can prevent it when it happens, we just have to go on doing what we have to do," he told me once. He also seemed to have a premonition about how he wa s going to die. "There are countless vehicles in Colombo now. There is a traffic jam at every junction. All security measures become a mockery if my car is held up. None of the police assigned for my safety will be able to do anything." How tragically pr ophetic were those words. The lone assassin slipped easily between vehicles held up at the traffic snarl at Rosemead Place and blew himself up.

THE killing of Neelan Tiruchelvam at this juncture was perhaps part of an overall campaign to terrorise TULF into political oblivion. The Tigers surely did not expedite their murderous intention merely because Chandrika Kumaratunga announced that she wou ld submit the constitutional reforms proposals in Parliament in August. With due respect to her, I would say that the LTTE does not attach much credibility to her or Professor G.L. Peiris, the Constitutional Affairs Minister, in this respect. Such deadli nes have come and gone. It is therefore more likely that the assassination was another step in the anti-TULF campaign. At the same time, the ripple effect of the killing would certainly affect Tamil attitudes towards the devolution package. It is also an open secret that TULF's presence in Colombo relied heavily on the resources of Neelan Tiruchelvam. He donated his entire parliamentary allowances and perks to the party. Thus his death is certainly a death blow to the party's office.

There are a few other possible factors that may have reinforced the LTTE's intention to eliminate Neelan Tiruchelvam. His assignment at Harvard University may have been irrationally misinterpreted as an exercise in propaganda against the LTTE. In May 199 0, Batticaloa MP Sam Thambimuttu and his wife Kala were gunned down outside the Canadian High Commission. It was feared by the LTTE that Thambimuttu intended to travel to the West, with the "ulterior" motive of carrying out anti-LTTE propaganda. The LTTE may have erroneously thought that Neelan Tiruchelvam too had a similar purpose.

There is also the possibility that the LTTE may have thought that Neelan Tiruchelvam was quitting politics for good and embarking upon an academic career in the U.S. In that case, the LTTE had to demonstrate that no one could defy the LTTE. So the TULF l eader had to be killed before he left for the U.S.

There is also another little known factor that may have contributed to the Tiger antipathy. Neelan Tiruchelvam is one of the few Tamils who dared to spurn a "request" by the LTTE that he should support and work for it. Although the LTTE attempts to port ray Neelan Tiruchelvam as some sort of a traitor with whom it would never have any interaction, there was a time when it solicited his services. It was politely rebuffed.

This overture came during the spring of 1988 when Neelan Tiruchelvam was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University. Visvanathan Ruthirakumaran, the current international legal advisor of the LTTE, was then a tertiary student at the Harvard Law School. Ru dra, as he is known, is the son of the former TULF mayor of Jaffna, Rajah Visvanathan. It was Neelan Tiruchelvam who enabled Ruthirakumaran to obtain a place at the Law School. What Neelan did not know then was that Rudra had links with the LTTE.

One fine day in 1988, Ruthirakumaran took a pleasant-faced man in his late thirties to drop in on Neelan Tiruchelvam at Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was during this meeting that Neelan Tiruchelvam discovered that the "friend" was none other than Rev. Fr. Thomas Amalathas, the New York-based head of the LTTE outfit. (Thomas Amalathas is no longer the LTTE chief in the U.S. He has also renounced his priesthood and is now married to a Romanian woman, who is a doctor by profession.) Amalathas was a prominen t player on the LTTE stage. He requested Neelan Tiruchelvam to support and directly help the LTTE in propaganda and international legal work. Such requests made by the LTTE to Tamils are equivalent to those described in mafia jargon as an "offer made tha t he could not refuse". Neelan Tiruchelvam refused, of course gracefully. To Neelan Tiruchelvam, an ardent believer in non-violence, democracy and constitutionalism, the LTTE and all that it stood for was anathema. There was absolutely no way that he wou ld have ever consented to be coopted by the Tigers. He told me then that he would have never met Amalthas had Ruthirakumaran not sprung a surprise on him. But Neelan Tiruchelvam did not reprimand Rudra. Ruthirakumaran and Amalthas confirmed to me that Ne elan Tiruchelvam turned down the LTTE offer.

The Tigers have also used statements and pronouncements made by Neelan Tiruchelvam with regard to the ethnic crisis when it suited them. It was Neelan Tiruchelvam who kept the TULF flag flying in Colombo between 1983 and 1989. Almost every foreign journa list interviewed him. Neelan Tiruchelvam would in his cautious, gentle manner make profound observations that vividly highlighted the Tamils' plight in Lanka. His international credibility was so great that almost every comment made by him received wide publicity and had a great impact. The Tigers then would quote and cite these in their own propaganda endeavours.

This situation, however, changed in the 1990s. Neelan Tiruchelvam was virtually blacked out in the LTTE media. His endeavours in and outside Parliament to alleviate the sufferings of the Tamils were deliberately ignored. Instead he was always portrayed i n a negative light and depicted as a "demon" collaborating with the Government against the Tamils.

Although he knew that the Tigers targeted him, he did not criticise them. He never speaks harshly to anyone, not even to his worst enemy. In the case of the LTTE, Neelan Tiruchelvam had tremendous sympathy for its cadres although he was totally against i ts overall objective and methods. He was of the opinion that these youth were sacrificing their lives needlessly for an impractical and unattainable goal.

One instance of his magnanimity and integrity was when he told the Canadian national daily The Globe and Mail that the LTTE chief in Canada, Suresh Manickavasagam, was likely to be "interrogated aggressively" if deported. This remark by him was of great value to Suresh Manickavasagam's lawyers in obtaining an injunction against the deportation order. Although his detractors accuse him of collaborating, Neelan Tiruchelvam always fought for the Tamils' rights. He was uncompromising and fearlessly i ndependent in that. Only his approach was not that of a rabble-rouser or a cheap showman. His was the quiet, behind-the-scenes approach of a democratic hue.

The brightest star in the Tamil political firmament is no more. The Tamil people will take some time to realise that the assassination of Neelan Tiruchelvam is not only a personal loss to his family, friends, party and admirers, but an overwhelming trage dy that encompasses the community as a whole.

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