Neelan Tiruchelvam, Killed By A Suicide Bomber, Bridged Sri Lanka’s Differences Pranay Gupte
NEWSWEEK (Aug 9, 2000)
Updated: 12:16 PM ET Jan 10, 2008
There’s a small restaurant just off the main beach road in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, whose curries are so violent that local residents seldom venture to recommend it to their foreign friends. But that used to be Neelan Tiruchelvam’s hangout. The Harvard-educated lawyer and mediator often told NEWSWEEK that the fiery spices made his cerebral and digestive juices flow. There was, of course, more to that restaurant than merely the menu. Tiruchelvam would often meet with leaders of the minority Tamil community–to which he belonged himself–to hear their complaints about prejudicial treatment at the hands of Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese rulers. And Sinhalese politicians would visit him there to vent frustration about Tamil insistence on educational and employment quotas. It wasn’t uncommon to find both Tamils and Sinhalese sharing “hoppers”–a native delicacy–with Tiruchelvam. There was tacit understanding with local authorities that even the most fearsome Tamil or Sinhalese agitator could sit with Tiruchelvam without inviting arrest.
It was in that very restaurant that Tiruchelvam helped draft several peace plans–one as recently as a week ago–to help end a civil war that has claimed more than 50,000 lives in the last decade. And it was not far from that restaurant that the 55-year-old Neelan Tiruchelvam was murdered last week by a suicide bomber, allegedly from a Tamil terrorist group. His death most likely scuttled a peace plan that President Chandrika Kumaratunga–a Sinhalese and daughter of two former prime ministers who helped exacerbate the Tamil-Sinhalese crisis–was expected to unveil soon. Tiruchelvam’s death wiped out the last of a remarkable generation of Sri Lankan political visionaries, both Sinhalese and Tamils, felled by assassins in the last few years. Among the victims: Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa; Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Atulathmudali, both of whom served in various cabinets over the years and worked with Tiruchelvam to bring peace to the island nation of 18 million.
Tiruchelvam was hardly naive about militants. He understood why ethnic communities take up arms in pursuit of autonomy–not simply to assert control over resources but also to reinforce cultural identity. He may have been soft-spoken and cheerful, but there was a steeliness he brought to the negotiating table. During his negotiations,
Tiruchelvam went beyond the political dimensions of domestic issues. He believed that in Sri Lanka and other poor countries policymakers had to pay close attention to sustainable development and transparency–concepts that he was emphasizing well before they came to be adopted as credos by the mandarins of international organizations. He once told NEWSWEEK: “The inequitable distribution of power and resources [is]… bound to result in more violence, chaos and disintegration.” He wanted donor countries to adjust “the levers of aid” to influence policies that supported human rights–a position not always popular in the developing world.
Tiruchelvam didn’t much worry about espousing unpopular positions. He worried about issues such as good governance. He felt strongly that Sri Lanka’s Tamils needed not just more places at university or more slots in bureaucracies; they needed to feel part of the country’s cultural ethos. But the Sinhalese weren’t about to accommodate the Tamils, who sought and found kinship with the Tamils of the southern state of Tamil Nadu in neighboring India. The Indian government of the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, sent troops in the mid-1980s to keep the peace between Tamils and Sinhalese–an ill-conceived mission that ended in failure and later cost Gandhi his life when a Tamil suicide bomber killed him in 1991.
Rajiv Gandhi’s death affected Tiruchelvam deeply, not only because both men were roughly the same age but because they also shared the same sensibilities. They believed that both India and Sri Lanka needed to accelerate economic growth in order to fare better in a world that was
increasingly characterized by globalization and interdependence. Regardless of the disparity in their respective nations’ size–India, with a billion people, Sri Lanka with a population equivalent to that of India’s largest city, Mumbai (Bombay)–both Gandhi and Tiruchelvam believed that in multicultural societies the true test of good governance was the skillful management of ethnic diversity.
“Ethnic conflict has proved to be one of the most disintegrative forces in the developmental process of Third World societies,” Tiruchelvam said (long after the phrase became unfashionable, he continued to use “Third World”). “Until not so long ago, liberal, socialist and Marxist theoreticians assumed that conflicts involving ethnicity were a phenomenon of premodern society and that such conflicts would progressively fade away. Clearly, that hasn’t happened because competition for scarce economic resources has heightened conflicts between ethnic groups.”
Neelan Tiruchelvam was mourned last week by scores of friends in his own country and all over the world, where his lectures on ethnicity and economic development often attracted standing-room-only audiences. But perhaps he unwittingly wrote his own epitaph during a conversation with a NEWSWEEK columnist not long ago: “The struggle to create and strengthen a plural society must ultimately be sustained by the enduring belief that racial equality and justice are worth fighting for–and that these values will triumph over bigotry and oppression.”