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Home> Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Shankar Rajee - Founder-member of EROS
TAMIL EELAM STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM
"Whatever may be said, whosoever may say it -
EROS founder member dead - V.S. Sambandan, Hindu, 11 January 2005
Shankar Rajee (55), a founder member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS) died here early this morning of a "sudden massive heart attack," his family and associates said.
Mr. Rajee complained of "severe chest pain" early this morning. "An ambulance was called for, but he passed away by the time medical help could reach him." A post-mortem is underway and the results are likely to be announced tomorrow.
Mr. Rajee was among the first Tamil militant leaders, along with Rathinasapapathy, the founder of EROS, to establish contact with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and a personal rapport with the late Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat. He quit his job as an engineer with Ford Motors in London to start the EROS and was in-charge of its military wing till 1987.
As one of the earliest militant groups formed in 1975, the EROS took the initiative in arranging training facilities for other militant groups.
The then chairman of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Uma Maheswaran, was among the first to be sent by the EROS for training to Palestine. Mr. Rajee was a representative of the EROS at the India-mediated peace talks in Thimpu 1985.
An articulate exponent of the Tamil cause, Mr. Rajee established a rapport with members of all militant groups, political sections and journalists. "His friendship cut across party lines and he sincerely tried to bring all Tamil parties to an understanding," Dharmalingam Sithadthan, President of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), said.
Suresh Premachandran, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP for Jaffna, said: "He relinquished the comfort of the western lifestyle, came to Sri Lanka and played a pioneering role in establishing Tamil resistance. He understood the Indian role in the Sri Lankan conflict and was close to the Indian establishment."
Terming his demise, a "personal loss" and "shocking," Mr. Premachandran, also a founder member of the EROS, said "he still had a lot to contribute to the Tamil cause and his demise will be a loss to the future political outcome as he was experience in both democratic and militant phases of the Tamil struggle."
The EROS split in 1979 and led to the formation of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), a party now led by Mr. Premachandran, a constituent of the LTTE-backed TNA.
Despite being the leader of the EROS, which won 13 seats in the Sri Lankan parliamentary election in 1989, Mr. Rajee did not opt for a parliamentary seat. The EROS split after the departure of the Indian Peacekeeping Force in 1990, with its leader, V. Balakumaran, joining the LTTE.
After the tsunami, Mr. Rajee "was thinking along the lines of reconstruction of rebuilding the livelihood of the affected people ," a close associate of Mr. Rajee said
Tribute: Shankar Rajee - M.R. Narayan Swamy 16 April 2005
Shankar Rajee, who died of a heart attack in Colombo on January 10, 2005, was one of the earliest entrants into Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka, one who closely witnessed the growth of the movement from its nascent days to the frightening proportions it has now assumed.
In the last years of his life, Shankar (real name Nesadurai Thirunesan) had bowed out of the Indian media scene and led a largely low key, though not quiet, life, hopping between Chennai, where his mother lived, and Colombo, where he was a consultant with the state-run Cashew Corporation.
He was also the leader of whatever was left of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS), the oldest of all the Tamil militant groups which came up in the 1970s in response to growing Sinhala chauvinism. Shankar, who was educated in Jaffna and London, was among the earliest Tamils who took military training from the Palestinian guerrillas in the Middle East, probably in the hope that their own communi!ty would some day produce a Yasser Arafat.
In the years I covered the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, I came into close contact with Shankar and he helped me gain valuable insight into the Tamil society. Our first meeting took place at the EROS office in a middle- class Chennai neighbourhood where I had gone to interview its other best-known leader, V. Balakumar. As the latter spoke to me, I saw Shankar seated by his side, studying a map of Jaffna and making a note or two.
EROS had a collective leadership in which Balakumar and Shankar were the first among equals. They had contrasting personalities. Balakumar was the quiet one, almost inaudible, at home in Tamil, while Shankar spoke Tamil and English with equal ease, was outgoing and felt comfortable dealing with Indian bureaucracy and diplomats. Shankar was designated the head of the EROS military unit and maintained liaison with revolutionary groups from around the world.
Like so many Sri Lankan Tamils of that era, Shankar was a Marxist during his student days. In London, he and like-minded students formed a student group and then, in 1975, set up EROS. It was a path-breaking development in Tamil history. Some EROS members enjoyed a warm relationship with the local PLO representative who helped them to fly to Lebanon and Syria to get military training from Arafat’s Fatah guerrilla group. Shankar valued this training although nothing much came out of it.
It was EROS that introduced LTTE, then a virtually unknown group, to the Palestinians but this produced friction between him and LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran. The row was over money, which Shankar paid up. But their relations never improved, and years later LTTE’s Anton Balasingham, probably reflecting Prabhakaran’s view, accused Shankar of being an Indian spy -a charge the latter vehemently denied.
Much before that, Shankar recalled meeting Prabhakaran sometime in 1957-76 in the Tamil Nadu town of Tiruchy. Shankar had flown into India from London carrying air gun pellets, batteries and film rolls. He had been told to deliver them to a man but was not given his identity.
It turned out to be Prabhakaran, a young and largely unknown entity who turned up at the small hotel across the Tiruchy bus stand where Shankar was putting up. When I reasearched for the LTTE chief’s biography (Inside an Elusive Mind, Konark, 2003) Shankar told me: “It was Prabhakaran who came to take the delivery. Honestly, I was not impressed with him. He did not seem happy with what I had brought. He obviously was expecting some other things. Just what, I do not know.”
Years later, before the souring of ties, Shankar had a more fruitful meeting, in an LTTE hideout in Sri Lanka’s north, with Prabhakaran, who by then had begun to acquire a stature in the militant ranks. Shankar had a vivid memory, and in 2001 could recall what really happened: “Prabhakaran was eager to know what training the Palestinians imparted. His eyes sparkled at the mention of M-16s, AK-47s and anti-articraft guns. But he was keener to hear about pistols and revolvers.”
But Prabhakaran was not a man of theory; he invited Shankar to display his shooting skills. The target was an empty Milk Maid can. From 20 feet away, Shankar took aim and grazed the can, toippling it. “Prabhakaran walked up to the fallen can, picked it up and put it back on the wall. He then returned to where the Fath-trained (Shankar) was standing and fired the gun, hitting it smack in the middle.” Shankar was naturally impressed.
Despite the Palestinian training, Shankar and his friends in EROS did not carry out any military action in Sri Lanka. There were also differencs within EROS, leading to a split and the birth of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). When Tamil militancy galloped from 1983, EROS was among the first groups to secure Indian military training. Shankar was also among the first to understand that New Delhi would never allow an independent Tamil Eelam to come up.
During the years leading up to the 1987 India-Sri Lanka peace agreement that sought to end Tamil separatism, Shankar, as the EROS military wing leader, masterminded some deadly bomb attacks in the island-nation that claimed many innocent lives. He also developed close ties with the Indian establishment but this was not enough to save him from a jail term in Chennai that may have contributed to his early death.
Shankar and Balakumar met the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, just before the latter flew to Colombo in July 1987 to sign the India-Sri Lanka accord. Prabhakaran, however, continued to mistrust him. Shankar and Balakumar met the LTTE chief at New Delhi’s Ashok Hotel at that time; but on a second occasion, Prabhakaran told Balakumar that he did not want to see Shankar.
Shankar had a keen understanding of the Sri Lankan Tamil society and of LTTE. When the Tigers took on the Indian Army, he prophesied to friends that Prabhakaran would never, ever give up his Eelam goal. He was proved right. In March 1990 the Indian troops came home and the now-powerful LTTE ordered EROS to disband or merge with the Tigers. Some disgusted EROS members drifted away from politics, others (Balakumar included) joined LTTE while small band led by Shankar kept the outfit’s flag flying for whatever it was worth.
Shankar was arrested in Chennai in 1997 on charges of smugggling foreign currency and was jailed. None of his contacts in the Indian establishment came to his rescue. He spent over a year in prison, where, his mother recalled later, he developed a good rapport with the other, mostly Indian, prisoners and became their leader. But despite the bitterness the detention caused, Shankar considered himself a friend of India. The imprisonment, however, affected his health, and he was never the same old self again.
Shankar never underestimated the LTTE or Prabhakaran, At the same time, he could not think of giving up his independent existence. Once the Sri Lankan military took control of Jaffna from LTTE in December 1995, Shankar visited the town to see a relative. The LTTE-which controlled a small part of Jaffna peninsula but had many eyes and ears in the region-came to know about the visit. The Tigers wanted to know if Shankar was merely calling on the relative or trying to resurrect EROS.
Shankar got the message and promptly left Jaffna. More than once he told me that Prabhakaran’s personality would never allow him to compromise with Colombo, Norway or no Norway. It is a viewpoint that many have come to share now. But in February 2002, when the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government signed a ceasefire, only a few like Shankar asserted, with confidence that comes with experience, that it would not lead to Prabhakaran embracing Colombo, never ever.
"The LTTE network is still effective but influence on and support from Tamil communities is less than it was," says Shankar Rajee, a former militant turned politician. "The younger generation who migrated from the war may still be supportive, but many older professionals are more influenced by international perspectives."
Shankar Rajee, 55, is a founder-member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS), one of the earliest militant groups. He had his initial training with the Palestinian movement and was a member of the executive committee of the EROS. Rajee, who was in charge of the EROS' military affairs until 1987, is involved in the current developments to resolve the Tamil national question.
On the distance travelled by Tamil militant nationalism:
There is no comparison between the initial stage and now. Earlier, an accumulation of various grievances culminated in a situation in which a majority Tamils felt there was a need for an inevitable separation of forces. This was between the early 1970s and 1983, which marked a big transformation owing to the involvement of India.
This went on till the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. I and the general Tamil leadership at that time believed, accepted and trusted the Indian leaders, particularly the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, to resolve the Tamil problem through the Agreement and a Provincial Council system. We felt India would be the guarantor for its fair implementation. This is where the transformation started taking place.
I have gone on record saying that I do not see a zero presence of the Indian Army in the island. I thought this would give the Tamils an experience in using federalism as a tool in resolving this issue. Of course, a big transformation took place when India announced that it was pulling out its troops. This was a decisive moment for Tamil national militants: to abandon guerrilla warfare - where terrorism also played a part, though not the only means - and join the democratic mainstream.
The Thimpu talks was perhaps the only time when the entire Tamil national movement was united in a single forum and we enunciated the Thimpu Principles. Subsequently, the LTTE was singled out to be the sole representative and brought to the Bangalore talks, which gave the early ideas to the LTTE that it could represent the Tamil community on its own. This is one of the big problems we face today - the LTTE trying to claim this status even through political assassinations and elimination of other groups and parties.
On the impact of the Karuna-led split in the LTTE:
There is not a great deal of difference between a Wanni Tiger and a Karuna Tiger. I am also worried and concerned about the forces which would try to weaken the Tamil national movement using the `K factor'.
Karuna's set of grievances of discrimination is a serious political problem and nothing new to Tamil nationalism. Even during the days of Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (Federal Party), these feelings of regional inequality existed. I regard it as a genuine concern of the people of the east. This would have to be addressed, discussed and democratic solutions found. It is not to be regarded as - as the LTTE says - `a one-man problem' or as one that can be solved by eliminating a few of Karuna's lieutenants or by driving him out of the eastern province. I doubt if the LTTE, in its present form, has the means to address this problem in a democratic manner.
On the path ahead for Tamil nationalism:
The Tamil national movement has to learn to accommodate democracy, pluralism, tolerance and values, which free nations cherish.
On the Oslo formulation and the LTTE's position:
It is something the LTTE seems to have accepted, but is trying to wriggle out from. A solution within the framework of federalism in any form, and genuine will on the part of the government to implement such a formula will have to be the way forward.
On the change in the Sinhala polity since the advent of Tamil militancy:
There has never been a spontaneous change on the part of the Sinhala nationalists. It has always been forced by various circumstances. Perhaps it is also imperative that we accept that Prabakaran never openly settles for anything less than Tamil Eelam. Hence any solution would have to be termed interim.
Most of Colombo, the capitol of Sri Lanka, was dark. Birds announced the dawn, and a few vehicles, headlights lit, began puttering through the streets.
In an ear-tearing roar the nightmare woke up the city. A corner of a church was lifted from the ground and sagged onto the street, instantly burying a passing Tamil man underneath the rubble. Cement shards and pieces of glass rained down for almost a full minute afterward. The explosion was heard over ten kilometers away. Since the country was in the teeth of a civil war this wasn't as much of a surprise as if it had happened in, say, Oklahoma City, but, just to be safe, security forces were sent to the location along with medical personnel and a bomb squad. They expected that mop-up would be necessary. Multiple ambulances were deployed, and the Sri Lankan Army was put on alert.
As soon as these teams pulled up to the front of the smoldering church another bomb ripped apart a bus station on the south end of the city. Phonelines started to jam, police and security forces were stationed at the edges of town, and the Sri Lankan Army picked up their weapons to head over to the bus station since this was now clearly not some accident. By the time this second emergency team arrived at the scene of the crime a third bomb was reported from the west end of town, where a television transmission station owned by the state-run SLBC had been blown apart into ribbons of twisted steel.
Only several minutes later an office building in the downtown business district of Colombo erupted. The roof fell in, the majority of the multi-level building slowly collapsed, and the four more people stopped their lives. In a suburb outside of town two people opened a box they found lying on the sidewalk. Seconds later their limbs were more than 10m away from an enormous smoking wou!nd in the middle of the road. Meanwhile, 5 km down the road, at Fort Railway Station, an unexploded bomb was found by the police. While the Sri Lankan Army was diffusing that one a second detonated nearby, injuring dozens of people. A traincar blew over like a matchbox in a sulfur breeze. Several minutes followed before a blast was reported near the ministry office.
It was too much; buildings were collapsing, people were dying, city workers and rescue teams were panicking and the civic fabric was being torn where it wasn’t stretched thin. There were no more emergency workers available and SLBC, from a remaining broadcast tower it had left, pleaded that people stay indoors, remain calm, and wait for authorities to unwire a city that had been turned into a bomb.
The work week in Sri Lanka had begun.
But it wasn't over; five more explosions were yet to come in the next two hours. And since that morning in 1984 more than 70,000 people have died unnatural deaths in Sri Lanka as a result of something between “Freedom Fighting” and “Terrorism.”
It’s difficult, sometimes, to tell the difference so I decided to go ask the guy that set the bombs. I wondered why he placed the bombs where he did, what he wanted to get from doing it. And I figured I’d ask him what he thought of the United States, while I was at it.
I was supposed to meet Shankar Rajee, in front of the kovil in Colombo, at 10:30. I took a 3-wheel taxi (a “tuk-tuk” as they’re called around here) and told my driver I’d be back in 90 minutes - wait for me here. Given Shankar’s pedigree I didn’t think we’d have long to talk.
Since Mr. Rajee was one of (if not The) responsible parties of the Colombo bombings of Oct 22, 1984 I wanted to ask him about how he did it and why. I wanted to understand the context of what had happened and how it was someone as well educated as he could tell themselves that it was a thing worth doing. I wanted to meet someone that had helped train the Tamil Tigers in their early days, and I wanted to meet a non-Palestinian militant trained by the PLO. He was the “terrorist” specimen I’d been searching for.
But not really. He was too smart. When I got to the temple a doughy guy in a white buttoned shirt glided up and started politely shaking my hand. I thought it might have been Rajee’s driver and stumbled over my first few words as I oriented that this small pudgy balding man in front of me had lived his life high on Most Wanted lists for a number of years.
He quickly loaded me into a different tuk-tuk. It didn’t seem suspicious. I wondered where we were going. Meeting Rajee, in fact, was a visual disappointment; I was expecting a hardened war criminal, some sort of Indian version of a Clint Eastwood of a man. But Rajee was soft spoken, and slow moving. He had chubby hands and he used them to wipe his chin often, as if he were drooling. He has a wife and children who he didn’t talk about. He is an extremely articulate man. When we met he spoke slowly and carefully considering his words before speaking.
EROS might be considered the unnatural coupling of London intellectuals and PLO-trained munitions consultants. In January of 1975 a group of Tamils living in London formed EROS and eventually set root in the native soils of Sri Lanka. EROS worked as a liaison between the PLO/PFLP and other Tamil militant organizations in Sri Lanka, and not always without friction and confusion. Not that there was a shortage of this sort of Palestinian-Tamil interaction. The Tamil Times reported in June of 1984 that there were almost 60 of Israel’s Mossad living in Sri Lanka, so the PLO was happy to lend a helping hand. The EROS has consistently remained a group that holds a high value on its ideals. They refrained from robbing banks, and suffered financially as a result. EROS has generally worked to glue together different factions of the Tamil militants, save for a few specific acts they undertook on their own.
These days Shankar continues to work for the Tamil cause, though with far fewer bombs.
MSM: Before we get started I have a trick question; What is a Tamil?
SR: A Tamil is basically identified as a language. Tamil which is supposed to be the mother of all Dravidian languages, dating back to several thousand years of recorded history. And the people who speak this language have particular traditions, cultures, way of life, heritage, and thinking. Note that the Kurds are the largest population of a people that do not have a homeland. The Tamils are second.
MSM: Okay, thanks. I’m sort of conducting a survey… Could we start with your personal background?
SR: Let's see... My parents were from a village called Umurpai, near Jaffna, and as most of the educated middle-class Tamils they lived and worked in Colombo and the south. I was born in Jaffna and my father was working in the south. My early days as a boy were mostly with Sinhalese family and Sinhalese friends and Sinhalese neighbors. This was in a place called Agalawatha in the Kaluthai district.
Then, lets see... My father was attached to the rubber research institute there. He was working as an analyst. We were living in Colombo, studying in Colombo, working in Colombo. Our holidays were spent with the Sinhalese and my Tamil grounding was very minimal at the time.. I could speak and write a little, but we did most things in Sinhalese... It was a lovely life, you know; we had a very happy family and I was the eldest of four of us. It was a normal middle-class life, really, my father had a vehicle, we were going out on holidays with friends; things like that.
Most of our holidays weren't in Jaffna unless it was a wedding or a funeral or something and my parents would go. The sort of holidays in which you take presents along.. You know.. So the family enjoyed the kind of local village atmosphere and friendship with people in Colombo. That was the mid-50s. Things were different then. 1958 was a watershed in my personal life. Suddenly this beautiful existence was brought to an abrupt end in June when the racial violence engulfed Colombo. We lived in a suburb called Kirulapone. It came under continuous attack for three days by people throwing stones and rattling sticks and threatening intentions and all that. And the only protection was my dad and his shotgun. And on the third day my mother wanted to move into her family's house in one of the far-off areas of the south.
MSM: And how old were you then?
SR: About nine years old.
MSM: So where did you move to then?
SR: That night, on the third night, we moved in with a neighbor...
MSM: Sinhalese or Tamil?
SR: Muslim... I don't remember his real name but we called him "uncle" and they came that night and threatened him as well. The next day we moved to a refugee camp that was set up near the college as our house was set on fire that night. And we lost all our possessions, you understand. My only worry at that time was that I had a big tricycle and I was day and night thinking about this tricycle and what could have happened to this. I begged my father to take me to the house the next day - I just wanted to retrieve my cycle, or see if it was still there or see what had happened to it. My mother wouldn't let us go. She said that the sight is so unbearable that I don't want you to see what happened to all our possessions. Apparently my bike was in the living room where all the newspapers from the l!ast few months had accumulated, all the newspapers we had read.
MSM: Bad place to leave the tricycle if the house is on fire.
SR: Yes, it was near the stairs, too. So there I was in the refugee camp for two weeks, with nothing except my shorts - trousers. Nothing on top, nothing on foot. Having to stand in the never-ending food line for my bread and dhal for breakfast lunch and dinner. As my brother and sisters were too small I had to stand in line for them also. I remember standing in the line on one leg as the sand was so hot. Switching from one foot to the other since it was basically unbearable due to the hot sand. Two weeks after that we were taken to the harbor for military escort and in between the boxes which were carried there were armored vehicles or military items and the place was under curfew when we were moved since they told us that land travel was considered dangerous.
MSM: Considered dangerous by the government? THEY were afraid to cart you around?
SR: Yes; Here we were as citizens of this beautiful island. We cannot move from one part of the country to another part. Had to be shipped by several shipping convoys and it took four days since they were not moving in the night, fearing danger. So off to Jaffna we went. The trip wasn't, I would say, enjoyable. It was just a cargo ship, temporarily set up for this and we were on the deck with milk and biscuits. This was the first time I saw my family in Jaffna. We didn't have a place to go. Of course there were temporary refugee camps set up in Jaffna, but our village was ...broke. But they couldn't bear to see us go to a refugee camp and they wanted us to go and live with them.
So for a while we were a burden, by then, with our immediate relatives, until we settled down in the village some time later. Even though things in the south seemed to be turning back around and some people were returning back I think that the experience and the pain and the trauma never allowed us to !think of returning back. And, well, by a special government order we were admitted into the schools in Jaffna without paper or documents and I remember as a student participating in the various protest marches and demonstrations organized by the political parties. I don't know whether these combinations of being a victim and the emerging realities ... By this time the linguistic issue [was] also at the forefront of our problem. But this gave me the outlook of being a ... Tamil nationalist. Since all of my earlier training, none of it having been in Tamil, but now in a Tamil school, I had to start at a lower grade. This continued to have an impact on my ability ... Well since I could not expound in proper grammatical form I did not feel, you know...
MSM: …like yourself.
SR: Right. So it was in '66 when the family decided I should move in with my father in Colombo. It was an okay life, but we thought it would be a good idea, since they were having a hard time getting along, that was when, my family moved to Colombo. The injustice and repressive measures of the state were slowly building. The student movement, the political activities were getting more and more prominent. Then came the final straw - when they brought out the Education Standardization (as it was known), for university admissions. This gave a clearly weighted advantage to the Sinhalese then to the Muslims, and last to the Tamils. I don't know the marks or percentage needed, so this took me to London... They spoke English there, too. [chuckles to his shoulder] I did my diploma in agricultural engineering and took my supplemental degree in automobile engineering and I wanted to continue in economics, systems analysis, and agriculture. But this was not to be.!
In the early '70s itself I was, uh, before that I was .. During this period when I was in Jaffna, my father was sent on a scholarship training to the Soviet Union. '63, '64, and '65. And he joined the tire corporation there, doing rubber research. And his correspondence with me during those days had a terrible impact on me.. About politics, life, and largely about the Soviet people.
I was terribly attracted to communism and Marxism in particular and so I started reading some material ... Okay, so then I went to London and it was with left-oriented political groups there especially with this trouble with the war in Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, and of course Palestine. There were several Palestinian students in London, and there were people from Africa there, and organizing and mobilizing and much of it was about the Palestinian cause. Obviously there was the student movement and these things that had happened in the north.
The draconian policies of the government, this was also a great deal of interest to us. The internationalism and imperialism, the enormous energy of the movements of the late 60s and early 70s inspired us. Bada-meinhoff, the French radicals, on one side, and they were all fighting against imperialism and neo-colonialism. It was at this time during our action in London….
My leader at that time was instrumental in bringing about. He's popularly known as Ratna. His full name is Elayathamby Ratnasabapathy. But he went by Ratna. MSM: With a name like that I can see why.. SR: He was the focal point and instrumental in getting this group together. He used to travel to Sri Lanka often and had a very good rapport with the finance minister, and many Sinhalese left. The idea was to study our problem in comparison with others at that time and to draw parallels between them. ‘Can we adopt these methods to our own situation,’ for example. We studied the problems in Mozambique, Angola, Palestine. And then we would discuss as a group what we had learned and how it applied to Sri Lanka. It was kind of a recruitment or … indoctrination process.
MSM: Was this Ratna's intent?
SR: Yes, and those that played a prominent role in the study group were aware of this.
MSM: So I suppose you had guest lecturers too, then?
SR: Yes, representatives would come and give a small speech and interact with people if there were questions after the talk. We also organized fund-raising and networking functions. So it was in that way, apart from the freedom struggle in Sri Lanka, that we came into contact with other more radical groups. And this led us, naturally, closer to the Palestinian group and in particular to their representative in London. So we had invited the PLO representative, the late Said Hammami, who came and spoke and through his continued interaction we established a very strong bond. During this time the second major riots of 1977 took place and personally after [unintelligible] everybody said that we have to do something about it. And here the moderate - at this time - Tamil party, the TULF, had also gone to this electio!n on the platform of a separate state. And received a massive mandate. Democratically it was clear this would not work. And some of us were watching how all of this was going on and we said "We don't think we can achieve anything by talking to these guys." So we decided that the only way was to arm ourselves.
Every group, anybody that would talk with them knew that the arms were the only way. This was the cry of any Tamil. Later we approached the PLO and they agreed to take 50 members who would be trained as instructors. With this understanding and with the civil war going on in Lebanon at that time the first ... Among the study circle we were a little nervous. Are we really going to find this out, are we serious, you know... So three of us decided to put ourselves through this training. And all the others were simply waiting to see if the three of us would come back. [chuckles] would we survive? Would we come back? Things like that.
The three of us went and comrade Ratna gave me the responsibility of leading the delegation. We went to Beirut. First we got visas in London from the Lebanese embassy as Bangladeshi journalists... [laughs] yes we were Bangladeshi journalists and we went straight to Beirut on a 747. There were maybe an equal number of passengers as crew - !not a lot of people wanted to go to Beirut, then. So we got down in Beirut to the airport. There was a time delay. The party that was to pick us up did not arrive at the airport so customs and immigration were not too sure why we were there. We spent some time talking .. There were some PLO lower rank people there but they couldn't really help us and ... But then, of course, we took some tea as a symbol, as a gesture, to the Palestinian people, picked by the Tamil people, this is our sweat and blood, this is the only thing we have to give to these people. So we had this with us and the guards were looking through our bags and wondering why we Bangladeshi journalists from London were carrying so much tea!?
MSM: We like tea! We work late!
SR: [laughing] While we were going out a group came and took us and there was an exchange of greetings and in no time bags were packed and we were whipped away in a Red Cross ambulance. And that was my first sight of war, when the ambulance, with sirens blowing, crossed roads, avoiding bodies, burnt cars, burnt armor, and .. Until we reached the so-called "Green Line" where apparently things were a little easier. This was in the camp. It was why we had a red-cross ambulance. Actually, I never knew that an ambulance could be used for any purpose other than medical. We were taken to the PLO office in the camp, assignments were given to us, and we handed over the tea and performed these pleasantries, and we were told we would be met by the officer.
So after a while we were driven by the military vehicles, without lights, along a mountainous track up over long hills in the night, and finally we reached a place in the Beeckay Valley. I forget the vil!lage.. It was six or seven kilometers from the Syrian border. Before we had even settled down the delegation came and we were interviewed by the military commander of that time, Abu Jihad. He briefed us and told us we would be put through a program and told us where we would stay. It happened to be in the stables of the brother of the king of Jordan. So there were lots of beautiful horses.. I love horses, these thoroughbred Arabian horses, and some little huts around .. Then we were moved after a couple of days to a camp in Damascus to a PLO camp called Hamooriya. Mostly for international training.. There were Nigerians, Germans, everyone. It all took place in English and Arabic and we were put in our group.
MSM: What did they teach you?
SR: Different classes did different things. Warfare tactics, weapons, device improvisation, explosives, special techniques such as letter-bombs and things like that. So the explosives training was so comprehensive, technically, that you would have various formulas and calculations to calculate the quantity of various explosives. For example, the design of detonation for a dead tree or a live tree; a tree of different sizes; a building with round pillars or square pillars; the thickness of the wall; the area to be detonated; the range of destruction. We had mathematical approaches for these different ways to calculate all of this... All these kinds of .. It was a thorough, comprehensive class. And we had small practical experiments dealing with various types of detonators and setting up explosives, trying them out, and all that.
Then was the other class. It was termed "Kitchen Explosives." You are in an urban area and how, wi!th the materials in the kitchen, how would you go about taking up an explosive. Then of course the device, the configuration mechanics, triggering devices, time delays, and lectures from other people that had done their own in the past.
MSM: Did they talk about psychological impact that these weapons had, or was it just pragmatic? SR: No. That was not the intention of this training. In terms of political, how you select targets, outcome, what type of criteria, that was not addressed. That was not the training. The other aspect was using these things safely, how to escape, protect yourself and your comrades. But there were other courses as well; machine guns, grenade construction, enemy weaponry, anti-aircraft guns, SAMs, blow-pipes, etc.
MSM: And who was "The Enemy?"
SR: Well for them it was the Israelis; For us, as far as guerrilla warfare, it was the Sri Lankan state. A funny story, one time while shooting at the range I got a five out of five shot and the group commander lifted my hand in the air and screamed “The Bangladeshi hit five out of five!” and the whole camp cheered. I thought “Wait, I’m not Bangladeshi!” I don’t know where all those guys were from. Some of us knew but most of us didn’t. There was another time when we were all told that someone important would be coming to visit and we were sent into a small room and told to face the wall, which we did. The person then walked behind us and quietly congratulated each one of us, but we couldn’t see who it was. Then, after he said something to you you were to put your hand behind you back with your palm up. He gave us each a sweet. I later found out it was Yassar Arafat. After he left, they told us that.
Then we went back to London. There we were with all the confidence and all the knowledge. And we took... [laughs] We took!... All the various types of weapons and ammunition back in our bags - a lot of ammunition from the camp - and things like automatic machine guns. And a lot of ammunition; the various types... The white-tipped ones, the red-tipped ones, the green-tipped ones. We had an ENORMOUS quantity of all of this in all our baggage and we went from Beirut to Paris and from Paris to London. And in Paris, at Charles De Gaulle, we were intercepted. And the customs guys asked us what we were doing with all this. And we said we found it on the streets. [laughs] That it was a souvenir.
And they said "If you share some of this with us we'll let you go." [laughs] And so when we had spare ones, the exploding types, the heat-generating types, for example we had a lot of them, we gave to them and we took the rest. And they let us go! !rWe were bringing these back to show our people. Then they started picking through them and sorting them out and moving some to one side of the table and [gestures with his eyebrows lifted and his palm up] "We don't mind" and they asked us "Are you going to give this to somebody?"
This was kind of a demonstration to our own people, to show them that this was available and all that. It was a very interesting time. As I look at it now I think it was crazy, but at the time it made sense. Of course after the training we were put in the frontlines [in Lebanon] for a fortnight to help with the battle. To help with operation duties and all that, to learn how to do this. I mean, we were right on the front line. And at this time there were some people that had been in communication with LTTE and we wanted to build a working relationship with them.
MSM: October 22, 1984. [referring to the bomb blasts in Colombo]… What happened?
SR: Prior to that incident.. Technically I was in charge of that incident. Activities were carried out with my second in command with whom I was in constant communication. We realized that the war was not brining out the desired effect. We wanted the government to negotiate and they were ignoring this call. Set up a dialogue between the parties. There was an agreement that the conflict should be taken to the door of the parliament. At this point our conflict had become page nine news. Things were going almost normally in the south.
We realized that we needed to make the ruling class and the bureaucrats feel the pressure and tension of the war. We needed to make them listen to our grievances. With this in mind we drew up an action plan. We suggested to the General Command, the GC, that it should be "S&S" - "Sabotage and Subversion" - to bring about a start to this with a bang, so to speak. [laug!hs] a lot of thought was given to selecting the targets. We selected the targets that would have minimum casualties. The team in Colombo (I was here in Colombo at a great risk) sanctioned locations in which over a span of three hours we would have different well-timed explosions. These would be symbolic explosions that would be designed to create enough panic ... And ..well… terror… to make the government realize that they were not as powerful as they thought.
I believe it was the continuation of this strategy that enabled India to persuade Colombo to return to the negotiating table. This was what, really started the talks. And from then the government began to listen. The bombs in Colombo had a cumulative effect. That "if you don't deal with us now then there will be a real problem."
MSM: How did you determine the locations?
SR: Preferably a location would be near a security or military installations. Two, it should be in the vicinity of a lot of public movement, just in the vicinity, but we did not want to affect the public. We wanted to create public attention. We hit commuter centers, for example, where there was a lot of movement. And then it should be spread out in such a pattern that while they were dealing with an explosion in south Colombo there was a bomb going off in north Colombo. They literally didn't have time to deal with it. By the fourth bomb they didn't have enough people to deal with it. I think this was the message: Things Are Going To Get Worse… We Cannot Be Ignored. The selection of targets minimized casualties, so it was clear that this was not an act of revenge. We wanted to highlight the weakness of the civic structure.
MSM: And what do you interpret the messages of September 11, 2001 to be? It was similar in its ability to draw public attention, but it was also different because that was intended to maximize casualties. What do you think Al Qaida was saying?
SR: This isn't a political message. It’s past that. It's a message of revenge. The only message is "We can also show our destructive capabilities. The Homeland is not safe." And I think that it was intended to show the pain and frustration of the Arab brethren who were going through with that act. They wanted to point out that the Americans are insulated that all of that matters is their 'American way of life' and their living standards. They are not paying attention to the pain in the rest of the world. For the Americans the ends justifies the means. They do not care. But they hypocritically hold a high ground - a moral high ground - and cause the deaths of thousands of people to sustain their quality of life. This will be the en!d of their [Americans'] way of life. It may mark the collapse of their regime and it's a target that they [Al Qaida] have had. That is the world they see. But now, with Iraq, this will take decades to rebuild.
MSM: When you were a student in London you talked about how you studied Angola and Palestine to learn how they dealt with their problems, looking for similar solutions. I'm approaching the problem in the same way, but I come from the imperialist side of the equation. So, as I said, I'm trying to learn what happened in Sri Lanka.. what [was it that] helped diffuse the anger of the Tamils and finally get back to the talks. With that in mind, what could Sri Lanka have done 50 years ago to avoid all of the problems here?
SR: There were signs and signals from the start. They should have stuck to what they said. Instead it was too little too late. There were three pacts that were signed but not really followed. The Bandaranayake- Chelvanyakam pact in 1957, Dudley-Chelvanayakam pact in 1965, and the District Government Councils in 1970. See, when you become a superpower the arrogance with which you exercise that power should be considered.