Lessons Sinhalese and Tamils should learn From the life of Amirthalingam
I titled my biography of Appapillai Amirthalingam, former leader of opposition and leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), The Murder of a Moderate.
In the opening paragraphs of the preface I wrote:
Appapillai Amirthalingam, former leader of the moderate political party, Tamil United Liberation Front, was murdered first politically and then physically. The political slaying was by the Sinhala leadership and the physical by Tamil militants.
Both murders had common effect- elimination of Tamil moderates as a political factor. The Sinhala leadership executed the political killing by refusing to grant the just demands of the Tamil moderates. Tamil militants effected the physical elimination because they felt Tamil moderates were hindering the attainment the goal of Tamil Eelam, a separate Tamil state.
I was a ringside witness to this process. I was a reporter at the Daily News covering the politics, specializing on ethnic affairs. I was fortunate to have close contact with most of the Sinhala and Tamil actors in the ethnic conflict.
Amirthalingam entered politics as a youth leader. He was elected the first president of the Federal Party Youth Front when it was founded in 1951. Federal Party leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam made use of him to mobilize the youth. Since then he was the darling of the youths, their thalapatji (commander). Youths respected him. They listened to him. His fiery oratory swayed them.
Youth assertiveness that began to grow since 1961 following the Federal Party’s civil disobedience movement too failed to dislodge Amirthalingam from the pedestal. The Puli Padai, the first secret militant group formed in 1961 regarded him as one of its guides. It listened to him and refrained from any violent act.
His authority among the youths started to slide from 1969. In that year the political environment in Jaffna underwent change due to Education Minister I.M.R.A. Iriyagole’s announcement of his visit to Jaffna to take over three schools built by Harijans and run them as Sinhala Buddhist schools. The Federal Party, as usual, took up the matter with Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake.
Youths thought that their leaders were tame. They vowed to foil the visit. They conducted village level demonstrations. They formed core resistance groups in the villages and schools. The government banned demonstrations and deployed the police and the navy to guard the schools. The Federal Party persuaded the prime minister to cancel Iriyagole’s visit and prevented a police- youth clash.
The anti- Iritagola mobilization led to the birth of the youth organization called Eelath Thamil Ilaignar Iyakkam (Eela Tamil Youth Movement-ETYM). It was formed to takeg forward the battle to safeguard the Tamil people. It campaigned for unity among Tamil political parties. To campaign for unity it changed its name to Eela Liberation Front (ELF). Though short-lived it prepared the ground for the emergence of armed groups.
The first armed group known as Thangathurai group was formed in late 1969 and its members included Thangathurai, Kuttimani, Sivakumaran, Sri Sabaratnam and Pirapaharan. Of them Sivakumaran dropped out and formed his group, the Sivakumaran group.
The introduction of the media-wise standardization in 1970 by the Srimavo Bandaranaike government created the environment for violence in the Jaffna peninsula. On July 13, 1970 Sivakumaran placed a time bomb under Deputy Minister of Cultural Affairs Somaweera Chandrasiri who paid a visit to Urumpirai Hindu College and slipped away. The bomb exploded and the car was damaged.
The standardization gave birth to the student organization Thamil Manavar Peravai Tamil Students Forum), an organization of GCE Advanced Level students. It agitated against the government and pressurized the Federal Party to act with vigour.
The 1972 constitution strengthened youth assertiveness and weakened the role of the Federal Party. The constitution removed all the safeguards the Soulbury Constitution provided for the minority communities including Article 29(2) which prohibited parliament from enacting laws discriminatory to the minority communities. It enshrined into the constitution the unitary character of the state and the Sinhala Only Act and provided foremost place to Buddhism.
Youths criticized the Federal Party leaders severely at the special convention held in Jaffna on January 30, 1972 to consider the draft constitution. They told their leaders that Sinhala leaders would never give the Tamils their rights and not to go begging behind them. They called the draft constitution a ‘Charter of Slavery’ and urged the Convention to reject it. The special convention adopted a resolution which called the draft constitution a “Charter of Slavery”
The 1972 constitution thus altered the role of the youths and their leaders. The youths led and the leaders followed. It also led to the formation of the secret militant organization Tamil New Tigers by Pirapaharan. It also led to the formation of Thamil Ilaignar Peravai (Tamil Youth Front) in January 1973. All the future militant leaders- Pirapaharan (LTTE), Uma Maheswaran (PLOTE), Sri Sabaratnam (TELO) and Pathmanabha (EPRLF)- participated in the inaugural meeting. They decided to function as an independent pressure group.
The role of the youths were further strengthened in 1974 January by the police shooting at the Fourth International Tamil Research Conference held in Jaffna. The shooting and the defence of the police action by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike hurt Tamil pride.
Sivakumaran and Pirapaharan vowed to kill the two persons whom they identified as responsible for the shooting: ASP Chandrasekara and Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappa. Sivakumaran attempted to kill Chandrasekara but failed. Sivakumaran died on June 5, 1974 when he tried to rob the Kopay Branch of the People’s Bank by biting the cyanide capsule he carried with him when the police chased him.
Jaffna gave Sivakumaran one of the most emotional funeral. Several youths took a collective pledge at the funeral pyre to sacrifice their lives for freedom. Amirthalingam who delivered the funeral oration on behalf of the Tamil United Front said,
Thamby Sivakumaran had made the supreme sacrifice for the sake of the Tamil people. His is a heroic act. Though I differ with him in the violent method he advocated and practiced to achieve the objective of getting for the Tamil people their birthright, I bow my head to him for his commitment and dedication.
Jaffna police sent a secret report about Amirthalingam’s speech to Sirimavo Bandaranaike. It said he called a criminal a hero and was instigated youths to violence. The prime minister unleashed a virulent attach on Amirthalingam not realizing that his role had changed. He was trying to manage the youth, From commander his role had changed to manager.
It was by playing that role he managed to retain his influence and control over the youths. He was instrumental in transforming the Tamil United Front into Tamil United Liberation Front following the adoption of the Vaddukoddai Resolution which altered the objective of the Tamil people from federalism to separatism on May 14, 1976.
Amirthalingam proposed the resolution for the conversion of the party into a liberation movement and the youths who were present in large number gave a full-throated response “You are our commander.” They carried Amirthalingam in their shoulders chanting, “You are our commander.”
The TULF asked the Tamil people in the 1977 parliamentary election mandate to put the Vaddukoddai Resolution into operation. It said the members who win would constitute themselves into a Constituent Assembly to draw and implement a constitution for the separate state of Tamil Eelam. Youths worked hard for the TULF. They told the voters that a vote for the TULF was a vote for Tamil Eelam.
The Tamil people of the north and east voted almost en masse for separation. TULF won 17 seats, all the 14 seats in the Northern Province and three more in the Eastern Province. With the Pottuvil election, which was held later, TULF strength in parliament rose to 18. It was a massive victory for the TULF and for Amirthalingam, who had assumed the leadership of the TULF after the death of Chelvanayakam and had moved to Kankesanthurai, Chelvanayakam’s electorate. It was a resounding victory for him. He polled 31,155votes.
From 1977 August Amirthalingam went against the youths and accepted the post of the Leader of the Opposition. TULF MPs took oath as members and Amirthalingam seconded the name of Anandatissa de Alwis as Speaker.
Amirthalingam’s decision to work with Jayewardene was based on the understanding the TULF had worked out at a secret meeting he, M. Sivasithamparam and S. Kathirvetpillai had with Jayewardene at S. Thondaman’s flat in June 1977, a month before July 1977 parliamentary election. At that meeting Jayewardene, M.D. Banda and Esmond Wickremesinghe undertook to find solutions to the problems Tamils faced. They identified the following problems which were incorporated in the UNP election manifesto: use of Tamil language, ending Sinhalese colonization of Tamil areas, employment, university admission and t citizenship for Tamils of Indian origin.
Amirthalingam ignored youth opposition and placed his trust on Jayewardene. The TULF attended the ceremonial opening of parliament breaking its 20-year boycott, a boycott which it adhered since the enactment of the Sinhala Only Act. Youths revolted including TULF Youth Front. They joined the militant groups and wrote on the streets and walls:
Keddathu Thamil Eelam
Kidaiththau Ethir Kadchi Thalaivar Patavi
Its meaning: We asked for Thamil Eelam but got the Opposition Leader post.” They also issued leaflets accusing the TULF of betraying the trust Tamil people had placed in it. One of the leaflets headlined: What happened to the National Assembly of Thamil Eelam?” asked the TULF hierarchy to implement the mandate the people had given it.
Jayewardene was not satisfied with Amirthalingm. He did not fit into the role Jayewardene wanted him had planned for him. He refused to be pliant. He refused to play the role of a showpiece. He voted against the disfranchisement of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. He went round the world canvassing for Tamil rights.
From August 1977 Jayewardene took measures to weaken Amirthalingam. He started complaining to Indira Gandhi and world leaders about the 1977 August riots. The riots shooked the Tamils. Jayewardene was belligerent. He blamed the TULF and Amirthalingam for the riots. He said the Sinhala people had reacted because Tamil leaders talked about a separate state. He told parliament:
If you want to fight, let there be a fight; if it is peace, let there be peace; that is what they will say. It is not what I am saying. The people of Sri Lanka say that.
That challenge drew the militants into the picture. They reacted with anger. They issued a leaflet in which they declared their readiness for a fight. If Jayewardene wants to fight, the militants are prepared for it, the leaflet said.
Jayewardene had taken the fight to the militants and had weakened Amirthalingam’s hold on them. From then Jayewardene’s strategy was to create a gap between the militants and Amirthalingam. The Sansoni Commission hearing was used for the purpose of showing Amirthalingam as a traitor to the Sinhala people. The passage of no confidence motion against him when the manner of killing him was openly discussed turned him a hated person.
Yet Amirthalingam cooperated with Jayewardene and accepted the District Development Council scheme and tried to work it. TULF contested the DDC election held on June 5 and demonstrated to the world his influence among the people. The TULF won a massive victory polling 263,369 votes against UNP’s 23,302 votes. It won all the ten seats of the Jaffna DDC. It appointed an experienced administrator Subramaniyam Nadaraja as the chairman of the council. He resigned, frustrated, because the promised powers were not devolved and provision for funds were not made.
Since 1981 Jayewardene forced Amirthalingam to distance himself from the militants. Amirthalingam thus lost his influence and control over them. Till then all the militant leaders including Pirapaharan met him regularly and listened to his advice and toned down their operations.
The loss of his influence was reflected in the 1983 local government elections . Voters kept away. In Jaffna Municipal Council 86 percent of the voters obeyed the militants and boycotted the election. The allegiance of the people had thus shifted to the militants.
The 1983 riots strengthened the militant groups. Intelligence agencies had estimated that the total number of cadres with the five militant groups – LTTE, PLOTE. TELO, EROS and EPRLF- was below 200 before the riots. LTTE had only 33 cadres.
The hurt pride of the Tamil youths and Indian arms training swelled the number of cadres to about 30,000, according to a survey carried out by the Indian intelligence services. But Indira Gandhi gave Amirthalingam and the TULF the role of negotiating with Jayewardene. With Indira Gandhi’s death and the assumption of prime ministership by Rajiv Gandhi TULF lost that role too.
Rajiv Gandhi made it one of the six groups that participated in the Thimpu talks. At Thimpu Amirthalingam was told to toe the militant line or else - Amirthalingam was killed four year later.