Opinion and Editorial

When’ll the mad killings end in Sri Lanka?

Ameen Izzadeen (Dateline Colombo)
Filed on April 8, 2008

IN THE aftermath of the lucky escape of the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a bomb blast at a Brighton hotel in October 1984, the Provisional Irish Republican army issued a bold statement. “You were lucky this time. But remember, we only have to be lucky once.”

Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, the latest victim of the Tamil Tiger terror, was lucky on January 8, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which is using acts of terror as a means to achieve its separate state for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, exploded a roadside bomb targeting a ministerial convoy. The minister who was killed in that blast was DM Dassanayake, who played little or no role in the fight against terrorism. Intelligence analysts said the actual target was Fernandopulle, who had been in the frontline of the government’s political battle against the LTTE. It was he who had been defending the government in parliament as chief whip, since Mahinda Rajapaksa became president in 2005. A day prior to his death at a sports ground in Weliweriya in his Gampaha district constituency, Fernandopulle told a public rally at Kadawatha, also in his constituency, that even the ardent LTTE supporter from the rebel-held area could come to Colombo and chastise the government. “But leave alone the Sinhalese, could any Tamil living in the Tiger-controlled area say anything against the LTTE in public and live a day more?” he asked.

The killing of Fernandopulle and 14 others, including Sri Lanka’s national athletics coach Lakshman de Alwis and KA Karunaratne, a gold-medal-winning marathon champion, not only underscores the IRA dictum that terrorists have to be lucky only once but also serves as a chilling reminder of the Tigers’ ability to gather information on VIP movements.

As news about the massacre at the marathon meet was being discussed at a lunch I attended on Sunday in Matara, 170 km south of Colombo, the questions that were being thrown across the table were: “When will all this senseless killing end? How many Sri Lankans should die before we achieve peace? Aren’t we all victims of blind and narrow nationalism politicised by the so-called leaders on both sides of Sri Lanka’s ethnic divide? Is there a military solution to this war?”

There is no military solution to this war. The international community says it loud. Peace activists in Sri Lanka say it softly, lest they be branded as pro-Tiger or traitor by the government backed by ultra-nationalist political and media groups.

Fernandopulle was a smart politician. It was no secret to many in the know that he was grooming himself to be the next prime minister. But would he have made it one day, had he been alive? There were impediments.

My two daughters once asked me, “Dada, can you be the president of this country?” My answer was: “Well, technically and constitutionally, yes. But, practically, it is a near impossible task for a Muslim to become the president of this country.”

“Why?” they ask.

“Well, first, I don’t want to be in politics because it corrupts, no matter how clean you are or how sublime your intentions are. Secondly, we Sri Lankans are yet to liberate ourselves from the yoke of parochial nationalism to allow a person from a minority community to become the leader of the country.”

An astute politician he had been throughout, Fernandopulle knew that in Sri Lankan politics, to be a prime minister or president, it was important to cater to the Sinhala-Buddhist opinion, just like former prime minister SWRD Bandaranaike did. Anglican Bandaranaike’s conversion to Buddhism was seen by many of his opponents as a move linked to his aspiration to become the prime minister, a position he held from 1956 to 1959 until he was gunned down by a Buddhist monk.

So, there is little surprise when Fernandopulle, a Catholic and non-Sinhalese, became a trustee of a Buddhist temple in his area and even took part in Buddhist ceremonies at the cost of earning the displeasure of some Catholic clergy.

Last month, I heard him speaking to the BBC’s Tamil service in Tamil. I was surprised to know that he could speak very good Tamil, because I had never heard him speaking in Tamil in any public ceremony. Was there an attempt on his part to hide his Tamil identity?

Fernandopulles, like Rodrigopulles, Candappas and Cassichetties, are Tamils. But they have another ethnic identity. They are Colombo Chetties who speak or used to speak Tamil.

A trading community, they came to Sri Lanka from South India decades before the Portuguese occupied Sri Lanka’s maritime provinces. Originally, they were Hindus, but during the Portuguese era, they became Catholics. During the British period, they shone as a highly educated and rich community, with many Colombo Chetties becoming doctors and holding top posts in the colonial civil service.

Today, the older generation still speaks Tamil, but the young ones have adopted English or Sinhalese as their mother tongue. They are not endogamous. They marry men and women from both the Sinhala and Tamil communities.

One need not be a behaviourist or sociologist to understand why in Sri Lanka Colombo Chetties try to cover the Tamilness of their identity. In a country riven by ethnic politics, the Colombo Chetties, a minority within a minority, feel they are a vulnerable lot.

But they also shine as an example to show that for the sake of peace and harmony, ethnic identities make little sense.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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