The curious case of J. S. Tissainayagam

Photo by Pradeep Dilrukshana

Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam was sentenced by a Sri Lankan court today (August 31, 2009) to 20 years rigorous imprisonment.

Tissainayagam's arrest in March of 2008 drew criticism from human rights activist and journalist from around the globe. In 2008, Sri Lanka's first Buddhist Monk to become a parliamentarian, Ven Samitha Thera, even urged the government to release Tissainayagam, or charge him, when he was detained for almost 3 months with no charges laid against him.

The government's case against Tissainayagam is founded on allegations that he accepted Tamil Tiger (LTTE) funding to publish propaganda and hate speech, which some consider to be the Tamil minority view.

Jonathan Kay of the National Post in Canada once wrote of the Tamil Tigers use of the media to portray Neelan Tiruchelvam (Tamil) as a traitor prior to his assassination.

Jonathan Kay
He was a moderate, in other words — the Tamils’ answer to Yitzhak Rabin or Nelson Mandela. And that’s why he was assassinated: The Tigers despise any Tamil who does not share their commitment to war and terrorism. Tiger propaganda — including the terrorist group’s own “poet laureate” — spent years vilifying Tiruchelvam as a traitor prior to his assassination. Muzhakkam, a Tiger-controlled newspaper here in Canada joined in the campaign.

The act serves as a grim metaphor for the war itself. Much as many Tamil-Canadians claim that the Sri Lankan government is engineering a “genocide,” the greatest threat to the country’s Tamils has been their professed protectors.
Pardon my ignorance, but I don't recall one terror movement which could compare to the sophisticated organisation that the Tamil Tigers had become. I don't recall the Al Qaeda, or Hamas funding media outlets to further their campaign as "freedom fighters". The Tamil Tigers did.

Tissainayagam's defence argued that any statement he made under custody was made under duress. So I assume that it would not have been used against him in court. Yet, his lawyer could not defend his client over accusations of accepting money from the Tamil Tigers to publish pro Tiger propaganda.

The United States has now criticized Sri Lanka for upholding it's laws.

"We were disappointed to learn of the verdict and the severity of the sentence," State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood said after a court handed down the sentence against J.S. Tissainayagam.

"We continue to be concerned about the state of media freedom in Sri Lanka. Journalists remain under threat and consequently continue to practice self-censorship," he added.

"We will continue to follow Tissainayagam?s case closely as it proceeds through the appeals process," Wood said in an email exchange with AFP.

"We urge the Government of Sri Lanka to do everything it can to ensure Tissainayagam's health and safety in prison," he added.
It must be said that the judge handed him the minimum sentence under the anti-terrorism law.

Reuters also reported that the law which prohibits ethnically divisive language has been used in the past in places like Rwanda.

A main component of the Prevention of Terrorism Act is its proscription of ethnically divisive language, which critics say President Mahinda Rajapaksa's administration has used to clamp down on critical reporting.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame came under similar criticism for his government's application of laws that bar ethnically inflammatory language, instituted after its 1994 genocide.
The genocide in Rwanda was sparked by the use of media channels to promote hate. It was radio broadcasts and publications that fuelled hate in Rwanda.

Allen Thompson (author of The Media and the Rwanda Genocide)
..the news media played a crucial role in the 1994 Rwanda genocide: local media fuelled the killings, while the international media either ignored or seriously misconstrued what was happening. This book, which is the result of a symposium hosted by the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, explores both sides of that media equation. Published through the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and from their description: "The book examines how local radio and print media were used as a tool of hate, encouraging neighbours to turn against each other.
Tissainayagam was not detained and charged for just criticising the government offensive against the Tigers. Tissainayagam, for a journalist, strangely equated a group of cold blooded killers (LTTE), who were considered by 32 nations as terrorist, as a suitable representatives for all Tamils on the island. He considered a power sharing agreement with a terrorist group as acceptable. He portrayed Lakshman Kadirgamar as a traitor worthy of his eventual fate. The same view shared by the Tamil Tigers.

Tissainayagam was charged with taking money from the Tigers to publish what a court of law considered hate speech. Those who naively fight for media rights should also support upholding the law, and justice being served.

Canada has made no attempt to help, or secure the release of the pro-Taliban, Pro-Jihad Canadian journalist Beverly Giesbrecht (a.k.a. Khadija Abdul Qahaar), who was kidnapped and held for ransom in Afghanistan. That's probably because she sides with their terrorist. Mellissa Fung, another Canadian journalist kidnapped in Afghanistan, was released after only a month. Canada secured her release after weeks of negotiations, and subsequently arranged for a prisoner exchange with the kidnappers. No such luck for Beverly. How many news agencies reported on the wellbeing of a pro Taliban, pro Al Qaeda journalist? Not many.

How many of you would protest the arrest of a pro-Nazi journalist?

Below is Tissainayagam's "tribute" to Lakshman Kadirgamar a month after his assassination. Lakshman was an Oxford educated, moderate, Tamil politician serving as Sri Lanka's foreign minister. He was gunned down and portrayed as a traitor among Tamils. Only because Kadirgamar was an educated Tamil who worked hard to work his way up Sri Lanka's Sinhalese dominated parliament. He did not pick up a gun and take a nation into war. As long As Kadirgamar lived, the Tigers couldn't claim they were fighting for equal rights. The educated, moderate, and peace loving Tamils in Sri Lanka were successful, and it was no thanks to a terrorist group.

I am not in favour of Sri Lanka's response to critiscm from the media. And I don't support silencing the media either. I am presenting a view, backed with facts, that many may not be aware of.

De Constructing Lakshman Kadirgamar.

“the best foreign minister the country ever had.”
J. S. Tissainayagam

Northeastern Monthly - September 1, 2005

“The LTTE has wreaked havoc so many times and now killed the best foreign minister this country ever had. It was he who changed the international opinion of this Island, which was hitherto referred to as a land of barbarians.”

These are the words of Venerable Ellawela Medananda thero of the Jathinka Hela Urumaya (JHU) spoken during the debate on August 18 to extend the state of emergency. What was it that prompted this Buddhist monk, well known for his virulent anti-Tamil positions disguised as patriotic utterances, to say these words about late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was popularly regarded as a Tamil?

Even a cursory glance at the rhetoric that has been emanating from the south following the assassination of Kadirgamar shows how he had become a construct, which anti-Tamil forces could exploit for their own purposes. At the time of his death he symbolised the Sri Lankan state as the extreme sections of the Sinhalese community envisaged it. As such, the construct was very carefully built, including what Sinhala nationalism wanted to project and rejecting what it wished excluded.

This construct was used by Sinhala nationalists in the south as a weapon to undermine the Tamil struggle to win their rights and establish their identity in this country. It helped the Sinhala ruling class both against the LTTE’s war for a separate state, as well as to block demands by the liberal sections of the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities, to reform the existing state structure and make it more inclusive and pluralistic.

The construct had a number of elements that were interwoven with each element complementing and helping to reinforce the other. These elements were articulated either singly or in a bundle to create the impression that the nationalist sections of the Sinhala ruling class and their constituencies required, both during Kadirgamar’s political life, as well as at his death.

The most important element that went into this construct was that he was known as a Tamil. By making him the foreign minister, he became a Tamil who represented the Sri Lankan state in its relations with other states in the comity of nations. His position as a Tamil representing the Sri Lankan state in its dealings with the international community, at a time when others in the Tamil community were fighting for self-determination alleging Sri Lanka was discriminating against that community, went a long way in undermining the rebel cause. Kadirgamar’s high profile position as foreign minister (the United States used / uses General Colin Powell / Dr. Condoleeza Rice, both blacks, for the same reason) was therefore strategic.

Having made Kadirgamar an important minister in PA/UPFA cabinet, southern politicians angled their rhetoric cleverly to show that he was beyond parochialism and small mindedness. By doing this they automatically portrayed Tamils fighting for self-determination because their ethnic identity was inadequately reflected in the composition of the Sri Lankan state, as narrow-minded and intolerant, and thereby a lesser breed. This strategy also fed neatly into the well-know stereotype of Tamils favouring their own kind – the ‘nammada aal’ phenomenon.

How Sri Lanka’s ruling class manipulated this for its own ends is best seen from a statement made by that great upholder of liberality and tolerance – JVP’s Wimal Weerawansa. “The late foreign minister was a leader of rare calibre. He was a person who thought beyond his community to project a Sri Lankan identity,” said Weerawansa, at the joint party leaders meeting after Kadirgamar’s assassination.

But while portraying him as a staunch defender of the Sri Lankan state, the south has also tried to show him as a greater lover of the Tamils. Deputy Defence Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake said, “He was a genuine friend of the Tamils…” Kadirgamar’s ‘love’ for the Tamils is described differently in a curious piece appearing in a Sunday newspaper soon after his death, where the author claims that when Jaffna was under siege by the LTTE in 2000, it was Kadirgamar who ‘saved’ the city. Less said about such views the better!

The second element of the carefully cultivated construct was Kadirgamar’s Buddhist leanings. The most vocal exposition of this was his request at the United Nations that Vesak be made an international holiday. The publicity given to this was enormous. Even if that was a brief that Kadirgamar undertook for the country, his very public profession of at least the ritual aspects of Buddhism was obvious from his meeting the mayanayakes and other members of the Buddhist hierarchy on personal matters, and offering flowers when was sworn in as foreign minister.

Kadirgamar was laid to rest according to Buddhist rites, a ceremony that the south gave as much publicity to as it could. As of now, nobody is aware as to whether he wanted to be buried according to Buddhist rites or not and the claims his family has raised about his Christian roots further muddies the question. However, it does not gainsay the fact the south used Kadirgamar’s public participation in Buddhist rituals as liberally as it exploited his Tamilness for its own cynical purposes.

The third element in the construct contains two parts: he was an ‘educated’ man, and was associated with many icons of excellence both internationally and nationally. His formidable achievements in studies and sports as well as his career at Trinity College, Kandy, the universities of Peradeniya and Oxford, training in the law both at the Law College, Colombo and the Inns of Court in England, and a distinguished professional career were listed by the media in great detail.

What is interesting in Kadirgamar’s signal personal achievements is that they were attained outside the northeast of Sri Lanka. In the hands of the southern nationalists these went to reinforce the image of a man who had been trained and equipped to achieve what he did, not in the Tamil-majority northeast, but in the Sinhala-dominated south and of course, overseas. It put Kadirgmar firmly as part of Sri Lanka’s bourgeoisie and thereby in a different social class from the leadership of the LTTE and the vast majority of its supporters.

The importance the south paid to Kadirgamar as an elite product of Sri Lankan society is best seen in the newspapers, which ran his list of achievements and the encomiums he received from the high and mighty, juxtaposed to scathing editorials against his killers. It was as if the Tamils were unable to appreciate his greatness and had, like the base Indian, thrown the pearl away.

Finally, the construct represented him as a man who valiantly strove to preserve the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of his country by pursuing a relentless war against LTTE ‘terrorism.’ The venerable thero quoted above and others called him Sri Lanka’s “best foreign minister” because he helped to ban the LTTE in the U.S and elsewhere and while the Sri Lankan military pursued a bloody ‘war for peace’ against the Tamils, defended the Sri Lankan state at international fora and with world leaders.

In the address to the nation following her foreign minister’s death, President Chandrika Kumaratunga said, “Minister Kadirgamar spoke against terrorism and convinced the international community that terrorism is not a freedom struggle. He was instrumental in getting the international community to recognise the LTTE for what it is.”

These elements form the main pillars that went into the construction of Kadirgamar’s public image. The image-building was assiduously pursued by the Sinhala and English media as well as Sinhala politicians and opinion-makers so that Kadirgamar appeared to personify the Sri Lankan state to make it appear that he and the state were one in the war against the LTTE.

But how far does this construct, which is a product of the south, seem relevant to the Tamils? For them, Kadirgamar’s aloofness from their fears and hopes meant he was far removed from the concerns of their community. It was made worse by his actions to strengthen the Sri Lankan state, which the Tamils regard as a Sinhala-dominated entity. The result was a deliberate and systematic undermining of the Tamil struggle for equality and justice.

We have to understand that Kadirgamar’s career with the government spanning almost a decade should have convinced him that a solution to the conflict would necessarily depend on how power is configured between the stake-holding ethnic and religious communities on the island. As a government minister he would have been engaging in the conflict (or conflict resolution as his southern admirers see it) having conceptualised how he would like to see power distributed among those stakeholders.

There are basically three ways in which this could be done: 1) Sri Lanka could split into two sovereign entities, one governed by the Sri Lankan state and the other by the LTTE, 2) There could be a sharing of power between the southern political forces and the LTTE and 3) Sri Lanka could be governed by Colombo as the sole repository of power.

To this writer it is fairly clear which of these three options Kadirgamar chose – the last. One can understand his hesitation to work towards the fulfilment of the first option. After all, there are other Tamils too who think in the same way. But there are a number of Tamils who have pursued the second option. For instance, Tamils admire late Minister S. Thondaman, who despite being a leader who represented the Upcountry Tamils and functioning entirely within the Sri Lankan system, worked towards creating structures for a political resolution of the ethnic war, which included authorship of the Thondaman Proposals in the early 1990s, which for that time were very progressive.

But Kadirgamar forsook the second option for the third. His admirers however say he worked for the second option albeit silently. How such a thing is tenable is quite puzzling.

What Sri Lankans with even a modicum of intelligence have come to acknowledge today is that the Tamils have cause to be disgruntled with the Sri Lankan state and Sinhala hegemony. The peace process is transforming that disgruntlement expressed through arms, to bargaining through dialogue.

Where does Kadirgamar stand in this process? While being at the forefront of violence during the ‘war for peace’ (1995-2001) and deliberately lying about military excesses, he stridently opposed every move that was made to share power with the Tigers from the CFA to the ISGA proposals, and most recently the P-TOMS.

What is more, he was at the forefront of moves to rearm the state to pursue the military option against the LTTE by advocating closer military ties with India and undermining the CFA by encouraging the Karuna group and the likes of Douglas Devananda, whose EPDP works closely with the army.

Kadirgamar’s actions against the Tamils and moderate, accommodative politics do not stop there. Little before his death he was known to have been conspiring with the JVP (the party whose democratic credentials he once openly defended in Britain) on how the more racist sections of the SLFP, hand in hand with the JVP, could wrest power from the moderate elements in that party.

So from the actions of Kadirgamar one could deduce that he would have favoured the third option, and worked towards a Sri Lanka governed by the Sinhala elite, with an utterly debilitated Tamil leadership of mostly the anti-LTTE parties thrown scraps as part of the deal for peace.

Therefore Kadirgmar was not a tortured soul uncomfortable with Sinhala hegemony as well as Tiger militarism and wracked by shades of intellectual doubt as to where he belonged. He pitched his camp firmly among the forces interested in debilitating the self-respect and power-base of Tamils, hoping perhaps that eventually a rump Tamil leadership could come to some sort of accommodation with the Sinhalese. This is why after his death the Venerable Ellawela Medananda thero can call him “the best foreign minister the country ever had.”

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