The Editor-in-Chief of the Indian Express wrote this article of that paper on August 1, 1999.
COLOMBO (JULY 31 1999)
I came here yesterday to speak at a conference hosted by Neelan Thiruchelvam's centre. I ended up attending his funeral instead.As his body, wrecked by an LTTE suicide bomber, was consigned to the flames amid chants of om namah shivai memories of several conversations with a man who, for us itinerant hacks, diplomats, expats and human rights activists was for so long the first citizen of Colombo over so many years, raced past my mind. Till one froze. Numbingly.
It was a typical Thiruchelvam household evening. There were several of us, foreign journalists and scholars from Neelan's International Centre for Ethnic Studies. Someone talked of how difficult it must be to be a middleground politician in Sri Lanka, particularly if you happened to come from Jaffna. Neelan, always the optimist, said it wasn't such a problem, some risk was always to be accepted in public life.
In Sri Lanka, I said, that risk was a bit more than usual. I mentioned my first Sri Lanka notebook, of March 1984 vintage.It contained names of 28 personalities interviewed in Madras and Colombo. More than half of these were already deadassassinatedin June, 1991. ``Keep that notebook,'' Neelan said, ``and watch the survivors.'' Then he asked if his name figured there, with the smile that, in the words of one Ruwanthie De Chickera, one of his students who spoke at the funeral today, always suggested he was hiding a secret from you.
Actually, it didn't. But as I go over it now, eight years after I last ``visited'' the Sri Lanka story, following Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, only seven of the first 28 survive.
Thereby lies the story of a tragic nation, blighted by politics of terror and murder, unseen and unheard in the history of democracies.
The LTTE, though not the only specialist in the politics of murder in Sri Lanka, is primarily responsible for this. At least for most of the names scored out on my first notebook. Among the first of these was a balding, genial, scholarly, and very depressed exile in what was thencalled Madras, TULF member of parliament V. Yogeswaran. This was January 1984 and I met him with his wife Sarojini. ``Sri Lanka, actually has no future. At best it will be the Lebanon of South Asia,'' he told me, words made famous subsequently as the publication I worked for then used these in its advertisement campaign: ``Read today, quoted tomorrow.''
Yet Yogeswaran and Sarojini chose to give peace another chance. They returned to Sri Lanka. In 1989, Premadasa had just begun talking to the LTTE, the IPKF was on its way out and the Tamil moderates, among them Yogeswaran and TULF chief Amrithalingam were active again. The LTTE shot them both as they sat sipping tea at home. The third TULF MP, Sivasithambaram, survived, with a bullet in the neck. Two good men were gone from my first notebook. Sarojini, however, was not one to give up. She believed in peace, and in the need of Tamil politicians to return to the north to lead their hapless people. She went back, was elected mayor of Jaffna in January 1998,lived in a small house without security. Till LTTE gunmen walked in one morning and snuffed the life out of the other Yogeswaran.
Other names were also quietly disappearing meanwhile. Sri Sabaratnam, nick-named Tall Sri, for his slim, lanky frame, and the head of Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) who was my nightmare in Madras for ordering endless cups of coffee in my hotel room and finishing my entire per diem in a couple of hours, had been killed, along with 300 of his supporters in one LTTE massacre. Uma Maheswaran, the founder and head of People Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) was killed too, supposedly in internecine warfare. At least for this one you couldn't blame the LTTE. Nor for the death of Kittu, the one-legged propaganda chief of the LTTE, who was later entombed in the gun-running ship sunk by Indian Navy.
Padmanabha and Yogasankari, MP of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) were among a dozen massacred by the LTTE in Madras a year before theRajiv assassination. Sam Thambimuthu, the EPRLF MP from Batticaloa and ever so gracious a host at his MP's hostel apartment in Colombo, was shot in 1990. That pretty much accounts for most of the Tamil names on that first Sri Lanka notebook.
The Sinhalas didn't do much better. Most prominent in that unfortunate list was Lalith Athulathmuthali, then National Security Minister, the most articulate Sri Lankan spokesman, and a friend for many years, always proffering a bottle of cognac and quotable quotes, though he accused me of using the most unflattering of his photographs in my magazine. When I last met him, in June 1991, you could call him very fortunate, or very unfortunate depending on how you looked at things. A bomb aimed at Jayawardene in the national assembly missed him and landed in Lalith's lap who, battered and wrecked, survived. A medical marvel of sorts with shrapnel lodged all over his body. Now he was a completely broken man. Gone was the old arrogance and bravado. A defeated man, strugglingto live along. ``You want to know who killed Rajiv?'' he asked me.
``This b...killed Vijaya Kumaratunge. This b...killed Ranjan Wijetunge (Lalith's successor in the security ministry). This b...also got Rajiv killed. I survived the first time but he will finally get me killed. He will get Gamini (Dissanayeke) killed. And you, my friend, do not ask too many questions here. In fact, the sooner you return to India the better,'' he said, ominously.
The man had obviously lost his marbles, I thought. The b...he was referring to was his own President, Premadasa.
In April 1993, a gunman got Lalith, an assassination Premadasa's police blamed on the LTTE, picked up a young Tamil suspect who, it was said, died while trying to escape. A commission later pointed the finger at Premadasa. Just eight days later, Premadasa, too, joined the man he hated so much as a Tamil human bomb blew him up at a May Day rally. Gamini, the new claimant for Jayewardene's legacy, survived another year and was then, almost inevitably,shot and bombed by the LTTE at an election meeting.
I must underline that the LTTE is not solely responsible for this devastation on my first Sri Lanka notebook. Lalith was probably killed by Premadasa's vigilantes. Vijaya Kumaratunge, Chandrika's filmstar and peacenik husband, who was described as the Amitabh Bachchan of Sri Lanka and whom every visiting Indian hack approached for that one conciliatory Sinhala quote, was done in by the ultra-left JVP that saw him as a threat, particularly as the left moderates loved him.
To understand the real meaning of Neelan's courage and contribution, you have to appreciate this universe of hate, death and hopelessness, where public men lived such short lives before an assassin, whether from the LTTE, JVP or one of the assortment of vigilantes, Green Tigers, Yellow Scorpions, what-have-you snuffed it out.
But Neelan was an optimist. He could have easily settled abroad. He could have quietly withdrawn from public life and confined himself to the legal, academic andhuman rights work he loved so much. He knew all the risks, yet made no compromises. No, he did not figure in my first Sri Lanka notebook, but in each one after that. And out of all the names that have disappeared from those years of reporting Sri Lanka, his is the one that I, and anyone else who knew him, will miss the most.