“We took some Tea as a symbol” - Sri Lanka Guardian

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Monday, June 29, 2009

“We took some Tea as a symbol”

By Mark Stephen Meadows

Excerpts taken from the book,“Tea With Terrorist”

The Day That Started With A Bang

(June 29, Colombo, Sri lanka Guardian) Monday, October 22, 1984, 05:04am.
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 city woke up to a nightmare.

A corner of a church was lifted from the ground and sagged back onto the street, instantly burying a Tamil man underneath the rubble. Cement shards and pieces of glass rained down for almost a full minute afterward. The explosion, heard over ten kilometers away, wasn't as much of a surprise as if it had happened in, say, Oklahoma City, but, since the country was in the teeth of a civil war, security forces were sent to the location along with medical personnel and a bomb squad. They expected that some 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. Phone lines 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 into itself, and four more lives stopped. 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 wound 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 train car 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; the fabric of emergency rescue teams and defense forces was being torn apart where it wasn’t already stretched thin; people were beginning to flee the city, and the SLBC, from the 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.

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’s 25-year civil war as a result of something between “Freedom Fighting” and “Terrorism.”
But the origins of the civil war, and the ultimate cause, are not unique to Sri Lanka and can be found in any country around the globe.

The PLO-Trained Munitions Consultant from London

My driver had just let me out of the taxi and I was standing in front of the Hindu kovil in Colombo’s Central District, Number Two. It was 9:59 AM, sharp. I was to meet with Shankar Rajee at 10:00. I'd gotten in contact through a long chain of phone calls and letters that began with other journalists that had interviewed him before which led to someone that knew someone that claimed to know Rajee. It had taken weeks to track him down as he had spent most of his years in hiding.

Since Shankar Rajee was one of (if not The) responsible parties of the Colombo bombings of Oct 22, 1984 I wanted to ask him why he did it. I wanted to understand the context of what had happened and how he had justified it. In the immediate perspective I wanted to meet people that had worked with the Tamil Tigers and in the larger perspective I wanted to understand what motivates a terrorist. After all, one way to understand and solve the problem of terrorism was by talking with a terrorist.

Rajee, a Tamil born in Sri Lanka, was known for training with the PLO, for exporting suicide bombing to the Middle East, and for being the primary munitions trainer for the Tamil Tigers. He had lived his life high on the CIA’s Most Wanted List. Rajee was the “terrorist” specimen I’d been searching for.

At 10:01 a doughy guy in a light blue buttoned shirt waddled up to me and asked, in a perfect English accent, “Are you Mark?”

He blinked at me through his spectacles.

Deciding it was Rajee's driver I confirmed and told him I was waiting to speak with Mr. Rajee. He reached out, politely shook my hand, and said, “That would be me.”

I'd expected a hardened war criminal, some sort of Tamil version of a John Wayne. A jungle-dweller and a fighter. But Rajee was soft spoken, articulate, and slow moving. He carefully considered his words. He had chubby hands and used them to wipe his chin often. He had polished shoes and reading glasses. His fingernails were clean. I realized, as I looked at this small, well-bellied balding man in front of me that this was not the “terrorist” specimen I’d been searching for.

Rajee’s militant organization, 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 their native soil to take arms against the Sri Lankan government in the civil war. That was three decades ago.

The Diapers and Riots

We sat down in a quiet office and a man brought us juice and milk crackers. Parakeets sang in a cage outside. The sun angled easily in through the bamboo and glass slats in the south wall.

Shankar’s early days were mostly spent with Sinhalese family and friends. As he grew up he spoke Sinhalese, and lived in a Sinhalese neighborhood in Colombo. His parents had been born near Jaffna, in a town named Urumpirai, in the north end of the island, so while they had family up there they rarely visited, save for the occasional funeral or wedding.

“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 six 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. “

In 1958 riots broke out in Colombo, near Rajee's neighborhood and he, being nine years old, soon learned that his father’s shotgun was the only protection the family really had in a city he had never considered dangerous. For three days and nights the house was pelted with rocks, the windows broken, and Rajee remembers hearing people yelling threats and kicking the walls of the house. He and his brothers and sisters had been told to stay in the bedroom.

After three days his family moved in with a Muslim neighbor.

“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. 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 last few months had accumulated, all the newspapers we had read.”

They spent the following two weeks in a refugee camp outside of Colombo. Rajee, being the oldest of his brothers and sisters, was responsible for standing in the food line for the family. He remembered mostly wearing just his shorts since the rest of his clothes had been left behind. His parents, meanwhile, were standing in a different line waiting for government permissions to be shipped up to Jaffna.

After two weeks the Sri Lanakan government shipped everyone off to northern Sri Lanka. The families were put into buses and the buses were put onto boats. But the boat ride was slow-going since they only moved at night, afraid of being attacked by Sinhalese.

After four days the boat arrived in the north of the island.

“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. Our relations 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, with our immediate relatives, until we settled down in our village some time later.”

Shankar Rajee, Colombo

Academics and Kitchen Munitions

Two years later the Sri Lankan government made the oppression official. A politician named Solomon Banderanaike, in a bid to claim the office of Prime Minister, offered to make Sinhalese Sri Lanka’s official language, effectively barring Tamil from being spoken. Banderanaike passed the act in under 24 hours and after he was shot by a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka's first political assassination his wife, Sirimavo Banderanaike quickly resuscitated her husband’s political party and on December 31, 1960, passed more such laws further outlawing Tamil languages and customs.

This legislation told over a million taxpayers – Tamils – that they were illiterate and unwelcome. The north of Sri Lanka, however, was the exception to the ruling - it was the reservation where exceptions were made and rules were overlooked. As a result other features that governments generally take care of, such as electricity and roads, were overlooked as well.

Shankar Rajee, since all of his training had been in Sinhalese, found the schools a shock. Since his early training had been in Sinhalese a Tamil school was a frustrating transition for him and he was inserted into the school at a lower grade. The problems continued until in 1966 his family decided to move back to Colombo. Shankar wouldn’t have it and, as a teenager, he determined his political future.

“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.

“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. This took me to London... because, you see, they speak English there.”

Shankar chuckled a bit and wiped his chin again. The fact that he decided to move to England to rely on the English language - an artifact of English imperialism - to escape repression in his home land seemed a bizarre twist of history. The political power vacuums of his home had created an explosive local climate. So he moved to London where he worked on his diploma in agricultural engineering and took his supplemental degree in automobile engineering.

“I wanted to continue in economics, systems analysis, and agriculture. But this was not to be. I joined up with left-oriented political groups; 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. “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 that EROS really came into being. My leader at that time was instrumental in bringing this about. He's popularly known as Ratna. His full name is Eliyathamby Ratnasabapathy. He used to travel to Sri Lanka often and had a very good rapport with the finance minister, and many Sinhalese to the political left. The idea of the study group was to compare our problem 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. 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 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 election 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.

“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 batch went.

“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. 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.

Rajee laughed a bit and continued, “First we got visas in London from the Lebanese embassy as Bangladeshi journalists. 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 to the Beirut 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 ... 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 Bangladeshi journalists from London were carrying so much Sri Lankan tea into Beirut!”

Red Cross and Black Tea

Rajee laughed again as if a revolution were a weekend outing. He seemed from a different world, as if he were some kind of big cherub with a message of death from Kali herself.

“So there we were. 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 Beecka Valley. I forget the village.. 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.

“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. 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, with the materials in the kitchen, how would you go about making 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.”

I asked him if there was any discussion of psychological impact on the victims (or “targets” as they’re often called). I asked him about cultural symbols and their implications. He told me that there was none. It was all pragmatic because the “enemies” were different for each of the groups that were there. For the Palestinians it was the Israelis. For him it was the Sinhalese. For Afghanis it was the Russians and for the Angolans it was anyone they could find - Portuguese, French and, largely, other Angolan nationalists.

The training camp was an allegiance of the non-aligned. Their backgrounds and battles were as different as opposite sides of the globe, but the economic and educational facilities of the PLO served as a kind of bipolar magnet, creating a new orbit from which they all would soon fly back home.

The courses ranged from kitchen appliances to grenade construction to anti-aircraft guns to blow-pipes. They were honored with a visit by Arafat (who handed out candy), they were taught how to shoot a gun, they spent some time on the front lines and then, abruptly, the class ended.

“We went back to London. There we were with all the confidence and all the knowledge. And we took... “

He laughed again and pulled the back of his hand across his mouth again.
“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. That it was a souvenir. And they said …”

He didn’t seem able to complete his story. He was laughing too much.

“.. they said, ‘If you share some of this with us we'll let you go.’ And so when we had spare ones, the exploding types, the heat-generating types, for example we had a lot of them…. they started picking through them and sorting them out and moving some to one side of the table and looking at us they asked us ‘Are you going to give this to somebody?’

“It was a very interesting time. As I look at it now I think it was crazy, but at the time it made sense.”

The conversation turned to October 22, in 1984, the day that he set the bombs in Colombo. It seemed a symbolic act to me, to set bombs in a pattern that was so clearly calculated, in this star-shaped pattern, and so intentional. He told me that he was technically in charge of the “incident” and went on to explain how he and his second in command were in constant communication with the government but met with no response – there was no willingness to engage in dialogue. Rajee wanted the government to negotiate, or at least wanted a seat at the tabel, and these requests were turned down multiple times.

“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.”

They agreed to take the conflict “to the doors of the government” - their story had become page nine news and they were out to change that condition. The job would be about attracting attention.

“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 … 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 in Thimpu. 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."

“How did you determine the locations?” I asked him.

“First, 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.”

The civic structure was weakened, and over the years things did get worse until 2007 and 2008 when the Sri Lankan Army discovered that two propeller-driven aircraft were being outfitted for bombing runs on Colombo. Submarines were found, and as its residents died of starvation the Tamil Tigers continued to stockpile larger weaponry. Soon the Sri Lankan government sent the army on an unrestrained invasion into the Tamil-held north of the country, abandoning the decade of strained negotiations.

Black Tea and Red Cross

In the final month of the war, the typical day for Vellupilai Prabhakaran, the Leader of the Tamil Tigers, began with a cup of tea at 5am and a debriefing about the battlefront at 6.30. Prabhakaran had high blood pressure and diabetes from nearly thirty years of battle and forty years of being chased by the Sri Lankan Army, so he took his tea without milk or sugar.

In a 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Prabhakaran said, "I started the movement with the firm resolve that I will never be caught alive by the enemy,” and it would seem that Prabhakaran was the master of his own end.

On the morning of May 17, 2009, the Sri Lankan Army's 53rd division continued their assault into Putumattalan, a small town on Sri Lanka's north-east shore. Over 115,000 people had fled the area where the last of the Tamil Tiger leaders were corralled. Some had said Prabhakaran had fled via submarine, others said he had slipped out disguised as a Muslim.

Prabhakaran, however, knew that an ambulance could be used for purposes other than medical and so after his morning tea and debrief, he boarded a painted van that was brought for him and two of his deputies and, just as Rajee had done two decades earlier in Beirut, tried to flee the war theater in Red Cross camouflage. It didn't work; Prabhakaran and two of his deputies were killed and Prabhakaran's corpse was paraded on national television 48 hours later.

It was the end of three decades of civil war in which over 100,000 people have lost their lives and nearly a million have been displaced.

The Sri Lankan government claimed a successful end to the war and the government will again call for national unity. But the stories like Rajee's will be remembered, the lessons the Tamils learned in this thirty-year struggle will be recorded, and it is now up to the government of Sri Lanka to determine if the racial and ethnic divides will continue as they have for the past three thousand years.

End note: One year after we spoke, Shankar Rajee, also known as Nesadurai Thirunesan, passed away of a heart attack at the age of 55. His son carries on peaceful dialogues with the Sri Lankan government.

Mark Stephen Meadows is an American Writer, Artist, and Sailor. He is the author of several books, including “Tea With Terrorist.”

Photograph: Mark Stephen Meadows
-Sri Lanka Guardian

1 comment:

Ram Muni said...

It is an interesting article.

The Tamils of the time were granted privileges for working with the colonial powers to the detriment of the Sinhala. Some 40% of civil servants were Tamils at the time of independence. Their demand for 50% representation in parliament for the 12% of the total population for services rendered to the colonial power were, however not granted, but the seeds of rebellion had already been planted. The loss of privileges
was “discrimination”. Hence, the demand for exclusive land rights for a third of the island was the homeland fantasy called Eelam, forgetting that the last battle in Jaffna against the Portugese was commanded by Adigar Atapattu, a Sinhala, before the area was lost to the colonial powers.

The irony is lost on the writer that the Tamil demand has always been for the restoration of their lost privileges, hence the treasonous love for the colonial power and the vitriolic hatred of the Sinhala.