Santhia, a former high-ranking member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, died in a Jakarta hospital in October last year. She was only 42. Almost a decade earlier, she fled Sri Lanka, via Tamil Nadu, India, with her young son. She tried to reach Australia, but was stranded in Indonesia.
Sponsored by the Tamil Refugee Council, Red Flag editor Ben Hillier travelled to Sri Lanka and Indonesia to piece together her story, which is bound to the decades-long national liberation struggle of the Tamils.
Along the Pannai causeway linking Jaffna peninsula with Mandaitivu and Kayts islands, egrets, black-headed ibises and Eurasian wigeons bathe in the shallows of the Palk Strait, which stretches to Tamil Nadu, India. “They have no passport or visa”, the translator says. “But they have more freedom than we do.” Santhia spent part of her childhood around here, in the surrounds of the sky blue St Mary’s church, one of three Catholic congregations on Kayts. The scars of war remain in abandoned and overgrown houses, some just skeletons of their former homeliness.
In nearby Jaffna town, shells hang from a beam on Pakkiyawathy’s veranda. They are supposed to bring good fortune. As with hundreds of thousands of others, her life was disrupted by the war. When the Sri Lankan military attacked and retook Jaffna in 1995 after five years of Tiger rule, she fled occupied Kayts, heading south-east to Kilinochchi. Pakkiyawathy later returned to Jaffna, but after a few years again moved east, finding herself in Mullaitivu in 2008-09, where the genocidal slaughter reached its apogee.
Today, she is settled in a pink abode with a Calicut tile roof, a stone’s throw from one of the city’s many Hindu temples. In the front room, a portrait of Santhia sits on a neat, polished wood cabinet. Pakkiyawathy is Santhia’s aunt, but was given the baby to raise – a gift and a responsibility. She speaks with love of a child who always shared her food and was a good student and a teacher to her friends.
Was she rebellious? Stubborn? No. “When she was a teenager, she was still a child, always smiling and laughing”, her cousin says. Yet the military’s intrusions took their toll. Santhia was still in high school when she joined the Tigers, undergoing months of training in a rudimentary camp.
The LTTE was a logical outgrowth of several political developments.
First were the chauvinist policies of successive Sri Lankan governments. From the moment of independence from British rule in 1948, they constructed a state privileging the Sinhalese-Buddhist ethnic majority.
Second was a pathetic Tamil parliamentary opposition in Colombo – beggars for a slice of the island’s pie, who offered only crumbs to their constituents. Their lobbying for equal rights, federalism or autonomy could not stall the increasing scope of national oppression, the extreme form of which was codified in the country’s 1972 constitution. It repealed minority protections, made it a duty of the state to “foster Buddhism” and ominously changed the country’s name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. As the late international relations scholar Fred Halliday wrote a year earlier:
“Sri Lanka means ‘Holy Ceylon’ and designates precisely the messianic chauvinism that is inseparable from Buddhism in the island. For religiosity and racism cannot be dissociated in Ceylon: the local brand of Theravada Buddhism claims, much like Judaism, that the Sinhalese are a ‘chosen people’ and that Ceylon is their sacred island, divinely elected to its unique historical and spiritual destiny by Buddha himself. This wretched mystification naturally excludes the Tamils and other minorities from any equal role in national life.”
Third was the large southern Marxist parties’ failure to take the Tamil national question seriously or, worse, their capitulation to or embrace of Sinhalese chauvinism. The exploited and impoverished Sinhalese in the south of the island should have been natural allies of the Tamil population. But their leaders never mobilised them in solidarity with their oppressed brothers and sisters.
From the early 1970s, northern radicals could count not one reliable political partner on the island. So they turned to armed struggle, determined to establish a state of their own – Tamil Eelam – in which they would rule themselves.
Unemployed and landless Sinhalese were roused to religious fervour by demagogic monks – paupers used as settler battalions in colonisation schemes designed to alter the demography of Tamil majority areas. The aim was to reduce Tamil political representation, to take over fertile areas, undermining the economic position of Tamil fishers and farmers, and to interrupt the contiguity of Tamil homelands to counter the geographic case for a separate state of Eelam.
Sinhalese mobs were also mobilised in pogroms claiming thousands of lives and properties. The 1983 Black July binge of violence, rape and plunder stands out, forcing hundreds of thousands of southern Tamils to flee.
LTTE training camps now expanded, a restive and disorganised population requiring little convincing of the separatist argument. After almost four decades of Sinhalese and state political and physical violence, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, became the ascendant political force in the north and east. Tiger guerrillas were hegemonic among the armed factions and challenged the Sri Lankan military in battle after battle.
The young Tigers matured, founding a de facto state with an administrative centre in Kilinochchi town and a military stronghold in Mullaitivu district. Guerrilla action remained a feature of the struggle, but they now were a semi-conventional military with a commando unit – the Black Tigers, which Santhia would later lead.
“She went to school in the morning, came home, ate her favourite meal, then left the house and joined them”, Pakkiyawathy says with pride. The warm hospitality characteristic of this part of the world – creamy soda on a silver tray, invitations to eat – is served with absences difficult to digest. Her eyes, fastened to the questions, are dams holding back a deluge. Yet they swell. They breach. Rivers of anguish now flow. Scarcely a week separated word of a surrogate daughter’s passing from news of her own father’s death.
Near a small village to the south, Adampan in Mannar district, female Tiger guerrillas first engaged the Sri Lankan military in 1986. The Women’s Front of the Liberation Tigers was established three years earlier. Young women had demanded their right to self-defence against military atrocities and the anti-Tamil pogroms.
Trained in the jungles of southern India, the combatants at Adampan, led by regional commander lieutenant colonel Victor and fighting alongside their male comrades, ravaged an army search and destroy mission. It was a pivotal moment, leading to a women’s training camp being founded in Jaffna the following year.
Vetrichelvi, also a Tiger and a friend of Santhia, recounts the turmoil. In 1987-90, the Indian Army – misnamed the Indian Peace Keeping Force – occupied Tamil Eelam to help the Sri Lankan government quell the separatist movement. She faced constant displacement. “I moved schools 11 times in three years because of the local war. Twice we shifted to India”, she says.
Vetrichelvi joined the LTTE in 1991, a couple of years before Santhia. She too was in high school. “We joined the LTTE because we wanted to bring the war to an end”, she says. “We wanted to get our liberation in a short time. Such a terrible country we lived in. The security forces were terrible to us. We didn’t know when they would come, when they would attack. Often we couldn’t sleep. We were going to suffer anyway, so why not fight?”
The LTTE women’s wing was controversial. Tamil society was, and remains, conservative, women’s roles generally fastened to family life. The entrance of women into the guerrilla struggle generated both resistance and debate. But, analogous to the situation faced by leaders of industrial economies, an advanced guard recognised that expansion requires the mobilisation of “the other half” of the population. Social barriers were broken as a matter of necessity. Perhaps one-third of all LTTE soldiers were women by the turn of the century.
“Early Tamil literature is full of episodes which glorify the selfless, sacrificing mothers and wives encouraging bravery and heroism in their sons and husbands”, Adelle Ann, an Australian nurse who played a leading role in the Tigers, wrote in 1993. “But there is a studied silence on women in combat. The Women’s Military Unit of Liberation Tigers has changed all that; they have altered the trajectory of Tamil history and introduced a radical new dimension into the history of Tamil women.”
Integration into a hierarchical military was hardly liberation. Life was regimented within a command structure under Prabhakaran’s unchallenged authority. There was no Tiger democracy. In the West, Ann was criticised for promoting a nationalist feminism reinforcing “existing patterns of gender construction”. Some criticisms were valid. But women former soldiers speak of the confidence gained through the struggle, fighting side by side with their male comrades and winning their respect. They made tangible gains through brute force, rather than by retreating to safe territory. Under the circumstances, this was no small feat.
Vetrichelvi’s story embodies the contradictions. Her brother, also a Tiger and concerned for her safety, didn’t want Vetrichelvi in the military wing of the organisation. So she joined the army band as a drummer. Two years later, her right arm was blown off below the elbow – a misfire during weapons training in Mullaitivu. She willed herself a journalist and writer, taking duties in the Tiger’s propaganda radio unit, Voice of the Tigers, as an announcer and producer before joining the board of censors for LTTE TV. Though a non-combatant, each role challenged existing sensibilities.
Today, Vetrichelvi is back in the Adampan area, in the family home next to a vast paddy field. Short, bespectacled and full of cheer, she is a survivor, talking nonchalantly of overcoming life’s obstacles as a matter of course, everything an exercise in adaptation. The exceptional here is normal. She is famous for penning a trilogy of books: about the Tigers, the final days of the war and life in an internment camp, which was her lot for a year after war’s end, before undergoing a “rehabilitation program”.
Like others, she remains under surveillance; the Criminal Investigation Department will be informed of today’s visit. Unlike others, these days she doesn’t worry about being bundled into one of their white vans and taken for interrogation or worse. She had numerous run-ins with them because of her books. Her high profile is a deterrent to mistreatment.
“Santhia was one of my best friends”, she says, relating background to her comrade’s upbringing before stopping abruptly, determined to prevent clouds of grief from blocking her sunny disposition. Sensing that the emotional storm has passed, she continues. “She was like a mother to the women soldiers.” Despite the gains, traditional labels are hard to shake.