Douglas Devananda, a veteran of the Tamil armed struggle is well known to all Sri Lankans as the politician who has survived the most number of LTTE assasination attempts. In this interview, he speaks to C.A.Chandraprema on the liberation of Pooneryn, the conflict between Karuna and Pillaiyan in the east, and the question of rehabilitating Tamil youth who had taken up arms against the state, and had never known what normal life was like.
Q: Since you are a politician from the North, I should start by asking you what you think of the recapture of Pooneryn?
A: The word to use would be ‘liberated’, not captured. When the Chandrika Kumaratunga government tried to take the A9 road. I told the President that the A32 road is the easiest one, and where the possibility of success was greatest. I gave her four or five reasons. It is easy to take, and easy to hold and through that we could offer protection to the Elephant Pass camp. Besides, by capturing the A32 route, we cold stop the LTTE smuggling goods and provisions from India. And that by using the A32 route as a base, we could slowly advance eastwards. She agreed with what I said. Later some madman prevailed on her to try to take the A9 road, and we saw what happened. So the taking of the A 32 route was a good move.
Q: They wanted to take Killinochchi, not Pooneryn. What’s the delay in taking Killinochchi?
A: The security forces are doing their best. But the taking of the A 32 route and Pooneryn is the correct move as I myself advised President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Q: We can see a situation where the LTTE is restricted to the East of the A9 road. Despite the fact that the area under their control has become smaller, they still have the capacity to launch air-strikes. Those days a lot of people thought the LTTE runways were located somewhere in the Mannar district, and that they used to come to Colombo through Puttlam along the coast.....
A: Well the LTTE still has the capacity to launch air-strikes. If you kick a dog in an open space, it will run away. But it you chase it into a corner and then kick it, it will fight back. Some people don’t give up because of adversity. Take me for example. Of those who were with me from the beginning many have been killed, and some have gone away due to the persistent threat to their lives. But I am managing by myself.
When I was in the EPRLF it was we who manufactured mortars with some defects but later the LTTE also began to manufacture motors. Earlier the performance of the armed forces had its shortcomings. But now they two have developed new ways such as deep penetration teams. President Rajapakse is giving a good leadership politically. Had the security forces been given this leadership earlier, they too would have done wonders. Another thing is that Tamil opinion is divided. Earlier, the thinking was on one side. That too is a key consideration in this game. Now people are not with the LTTE. They are silent only because they fear for their lives.
Q: In the East, the TMVP cadres seem to be having a problem of rehabilitation, which people like yourself, PLOTE and the EPRLF didn’t have....
A: My party has now came into the political mainstream. Because of my leadership, they are OK, They don’t need rehabilitation, because they are in the political process and can fit into normal life. This is all a question of leadership. Just today some journalists asked me whether the government was concentrating on military operations to the detriment of a political solution. I said no. The political process has started. In the Eastern Province, the government has held an election, people have elected their representatives. Some raised questions about that election, but I don’t agree with such complaints. During 1988/89, if we did not accept the presidential and parliamentary elections, there would be no democracy in the country today. So we have to start somewhere. If you wait until the perfect conditions for election are met, nothing is going to happen. Now it is up to the leadership of the area. If someone says the government is not giving them powers. I won’t accept that. There is a saying in Tamil that the barber will be able to cut your hair properly only if you sit properly. So it is all a question of leadership.
Q: people like yourself and the leaders of EROS, EPRLF, PLOTE had some political thinking in them. Even though you too wielded weapons, you were politically aware. But in the LTTE, it was a different set up. Karuna was obeying Prabhakaran’s orders. Pillaiyan was obeying Karuna’s orders. So how can you expect them to have the same political capacity? Don’t you think the onus is on the government to look after their cadres?
A: The government is trying their best. There is a saying in Tamil which says that milk will flow only if the child cries. So it is the leadership of the area that has to come foward. Not the government.
Q: Now PLOTE, EPRLF and TELO never had this rehabilitation problem. It is because the Indians looked after that aspect?
A: Other organisations had political thinking, which the LTTE didn’t have. Also, among the cadres loyal to Pillaiyan or Karuna, there are new recruits. Not all of them are original LTTErs. This is also one of the complicating factors. Even when the EPDP had problems with the EPRLF, we didn’t kill each other. When EPRLF broke away from EROS, we didn’t kill each other. There is a problem in the east because both the Karuna and Pillaiyan fictions are lax with regard to their cadres. If the Pillaiyan faction imposes strict controls, they caders will join the Karuna faction. If the Karuna faction is strict they will join the Pillaiyan faction.
Q: You have some experience because you too have cadres under you. How can the Eastern situation be salvaged? Karuna and Pillaiyan are fighting, the cadres are not happy. Some of them have gone back to the LTTE. What in your view can be done to save the day?
A: I’m trying to talk to them and see how I can liaise with both leaders and bring about some sort of a solution.
Q: What about the cadres of the TMVP? Some day, you will have a similar problem in the North as well, once the LTTE is gone.
A: I can handle that. I have complete confidence in myself. That is why I went to the Kalutara detention centre to talk to LTTE detainees. If Prabhakaran brings his cadres, and we both address them, I can with one speech, win over half of them to my side. Even when I went to the Kalutara detention centre, I was able to convince many of them. At present, I am one of the senior men in the Tamil struggle. I can convince them. I can guide them. I put in a cabinet paper some time ago, to rehabilitate surrendees and captured LTTE cadres. I told the President to give me one year’s time, and we will set up a rehabilitation camp and guide them. In Israel, I was told that arrested Palestinians were given more facilities inside the prison. They were given TVs, and books and so on. My personal experience of a Sri Lankan prison is exactly the opposite. In 1983 I was attacked by the Sinhala prisoners and in 1997 I was attacked by the Tamil detainees.
Q: People are now talking about the future of the TMVP cadres in the East. Some are to be absorbed into the security forces. What is going to happen to the rest?
A: What I say is that there has to be leadership. If the leadership is OK, this problem can be solved overnight. Even in the South, you get incidents where one or two soldiers may get into trouble. But in this case, the problem exists throughout the organisation. There’s no control. If something goes wrong in my organisation, I will not say that it happened without my knowledge. I will take responsibility.
Q: What in your view will persuade these cadres to leave this lifestyle and to do something else?
A: When I went to meet the LTTE detainees in Kalutara, I openly cursed Prabhakaran and told them that they were here because of Prabhakaran. I gave glucose and water to the hunger strikers. I was attacked only in the sixth ward, after going through the first five wards where they broke the hunger strike after I spoke to them.
Q: Earlier you had a situation where the government was not in control of the Tamil areas. Now the government is controlling the East and a good part of Jaffna and even the Vanni. Does this mean that the anti-government feeling among the Tamil population has gone down drastically?
A: The Tamil-Sinhala antagonism has diminished within the Tamil population and within the Sinhala population also. Before the Indo-Lanka peace accord there were ethnic riots but now you don’t get any of that.
Q: If the government captures Killinochchi, will the Tamil people feel that they have lost?
A: Again, capture is the wrong word. The government is going to liberate Killinochchi and the people want that. It is in the people’s interest that the Vanni be liberated. People need democracy. If democracy comes, overnight, they will be able to solve several issues. Once the leadership of the LTTE is gone, the government will be able to concentrate on the outstanding political issues. I think the government will be fair. Implementing the provincial councils system fully will be a good start. In the second stage, the concurrent list in the provincial councils law can be abolished and its contents allocated to either the Central Government or the Provincial Government as seen fit. I will be satisfied with that. I think, the Sinhala community, the Tamil community and the country will be satisfied with that.
Q: What is going to happen to the Tamil nationalism that you were caught up in as a young man? Are these feelings no longer present within the Tamil younger generation?
A: When I was young, I did not look at things in a racial way: I looked at things from a humanitarian point of view. In 2001, when I was the minister of rehabilitation, about 400 young students came to me in a procession and demanded that standardization for university admission be introduced. They wanted more students to get into the universities and for that they wanted the cut off marks reduced as the educational levels in Jaffna had gone down because of the war. So I told them, that 28 years ago, on the very same street, we as young students, went in procession against standardization. We wanted university admissions to be entirely on merit. That was the beginning of the whole Tamil armed struggle. So I told these students, this is what Prabhakaran has done to our community. Jaffna was now one of the backward districts educationally. Later, I spoke to President Chandrika Kumaratunga at got an arrangement put into place. But 28 years earlier, we as young students went in procession down the some street against standalization and even burnt an effigy of Badurdeen Mohamed the then Minister of Education.. So to answer your question about Tamil nationalism, you know that there are two kinds of cholesterol, good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. The bad cholesterol can destroy us, but humans need the good cholesterol. Prabhakaran’s Tamil nationalism is like the bad cholesterol. My Tamil nationalism is like the good cholesterol.