Time to let Tissanayagam go
Posted on January 7th, 2010

H. L. D. Mahindapala

The good news is that J.S. Tissanayagam, the journalist jailed for 20 years rigorous imprisonment, can be released on bail. The better news will be if the government pardons him and gives him the “put-put” fare to go home. I think he has paid enough for whatever he is supposed to have done. He too must have had enough time to ponder over what he has done. If he goes back to resume his pro-Prabhakaran politics he will confirm all the allegations made against him. He could prove his innocence convincingly, if he is inclined to do so, by accepting the new realities of post-Prabhakaran politics and return to non-violent politics of the mainstream. He could prove his commitment to a new path only out of jail and not inside it.

Tissanayagam and the government have reached a stage where it is beneficial for both to disengage from each other. There is nothing much to gain by keeping him behind bars. Not after the ending of the war in which he is said to have been involved on the wrong side. The government could have argued against his release if the war was still on. Now that there is no threat of Tissanayagam engaging in any deals with the Tigers after their defeat he should be allowed to go and find his vocation, hopefully, in the democratic mainstream.

Nor can he forge new links — financial and political, as alleged — with the LTTE per se, though he has the option of being an agent of Tigers in the diaspora. If he decides to go down this track he will be repeating his past mistakes of chasing futile mirages that eventually led the Tamils into bloody Nandikadal. Like all the other Tamils who took to violence he has to question and answer honestly whether the divisive and violent politics of the Jaffna Tamils have a better future than the politics of peaceful co-existence with all communities.

He may have been the dissident idealist who believed that Prabhakaran’s Evil-laam was a better alternative that the mainstream politics of the nation. But if he looked around to assess the new realities he would have come across enough evidence by now to know that Prabhakaran was totally incapable of providing the alternative desired by the Jaffna Tamils. This is where Tissanayagam went wrong: he knowingly and willingly supported the most evil regime in Sri Lanka that could not neither deliver the Eelam nor survive perpetually in a state of war holding the Tamil people hostage and dragging them daily into an unending cycle of disasters.

The Tamil people were chained and imprisoned in the personality cult of Prabhakaran. It provided no room for either Prabhakaran or the Tamils to maneuver out of the hole into which they pushed by the Vadukoddai Resolution. Prabhakaran is the child born out of Vadukoddai violence. Eventually, it was the Vadukoddai violence which forced him to “tactically withdraw”, as he kept saying, to the banks of Nandikadal. There were no redeeming features in that violence. He did not achieve anything with his futile violence. Those who followed him believed in him as the man who could establish Eelam. They glorified his mythical personality cult. Bereft of the illusions he created his followers have nothing to glorify now.

Nothing is left today for the Tamils who followed him except wallow in the hollow victories of his ruthless violence. He was elevated to be the sole representative of the legislature, the judiciary and the executive. What is left of it for the Tamils now? Even when he was living there was no law, no order, no administration, or, for that matter, war outside his personality cult. He liquidated any dissident that was a potential threat to him. Eliminating dissent was the primary goal of his cult. His stock went up among the Tamils each time he eliminated another dissident or opponent “”…” something that the democratic south would never tolerate, at least not for 33 years. His failed violence decimated the best of Tamil leaders and his followers are left in the limbo of another mythical trans-national government that exists, like Eelam, in the favorite location of his followers: NOWHERE. Prabhakaran is the Tamil god that let down the Tamil people. He failed miserably. Only a mentally retarded herd would accept, justify, glorify and even deify his bestial violence.

Intellectuals “”…” and journalists are considered to be intellectuals “”…” who fail to grasp the differences in the systemic realities of (1) the peninsular political culture of the north ruled by ethnic extremists and the open democratic spaces of the more liberal (though not perfect) south and (2) the one-man oppressive rule of the north and the pluralistic norms of the south, do a disservice both to themselves and the people whom they are supposed to serve. For instance, with the best will in the world Tissanayagam will not have arguments to defend Prabhakaran’s regime which shot his own people when they were running away from Evil-lam to find safety in the land deplored by him and condemned by his idol Prabhakaran? Tissanayagam was very vociferous in condemning any shortages of food or medicine to the Tamils in the Vanni, which, according to Tamil propagandists was governed by an independent state, without raising questions about the failure of “the independent state” of Prabhakaran to provide his own people an aspirin or the next meal even after his treasury was filled annually with 200 “”…” 300 million dollars collected from the diaspora. Is that idealism or perverse blindness?

His experience with the NGOs too should have opened his eyes. His adventure with MARGA “”…” one of the oldest NGOs that never failed to preach about transparency, accountability and good governance to others –.didn’t last long. When Godfrey Goonetilleke, the high priest of political correctness, sacked him for dissenting with the MARGA administration he should have known that those who preach are not necessarily those who practice their own principles. It should have been an objective lesson from him not to trust the so-called moralists who claim to know everything about good governance.

When he jumped from MARGA to the other extreme of one-man rule in Vanni he may have discovered that there was little difference in the fall-in-line-or-else type of administrations in Colombo and Vanni. Anybody was free in MARGA and Prabhakaran’s Evil-lam as long as they didn’t rock the boat. When it comes to meeting challenges and threats all institutions embrace Prabhakaranism of one shade or another.

His next move to run the North Eastern Monthly, funded by the pro-Tiger Norwegians, too was not easy. There he crossed the line and went over to the fascist camp which is the very antithesis of free media. With this rash act he decided to walk on fire to prove that he is immune to the heat. But he ended up with burnt soles.

In other words, he found himself as the odd man out wherever he went. He was rejected by the NGO mafia. He would certainly have been a misfit in Prabhakaran’s Evil-lam. And he found himself as a confused man swimming upstream when the mainstream currents were flowing down. He, in short, went beyond the limits, as charged in the courts. For that he had to face the consequences, rightly or wrongly. Even his defence went awry when his lawyers did not handle his case as it ought to have been done, according to reports.

This sequence of events had its upside: Tissanayagam turned into a show case for free media cited even by President Obama. The downside of this was when he became the mascot of the bogus “free media” movement of NGOs where high-living crooks like Sunanda Deshapriya of the Centre for Policy Alternative were playing out the money allotted for the protection of journalists. As far as I know, the “Free Media Movement”, starting from the nineties, was riddled with corrupt, self-seeking careerists who were bent on serving their political masters more than the journalists. There is, indeed, something rotten in the state of journalism too. But that’s another saga that deserves another chapter.

Overall, it looks as if Tissanayagam is a dreamy-eyed adventurer who has fallen among NGO wheeler-dealers, unrepentant tyrants and bogus do-gooders of all shades, from Prabhakaran to Sununda Deshapriya. It seems that some of his wounds are self-inflicted and in some instances he has been sinned against more than sinning. He, indeed, qualifies as a suitable candidate for the current massive program of the government to rehabilitate those who went astray. Among them are some of the top Tiger leaders. It is not known how many of them will be put on trial. But it is certain that the majority will be released to resume their normal lives.

So in the new environment of peace, reconciliation and rehabilitation releasing Tissanayagam, who was, perhaps, a bit more than an ideological fellow-traveller of a ruthless fascist regime, is in order. Tissanayagam’s crime was not in dissenting but in aligning himself with the very forces that were the antithesis of free media. He can’t have it both ways. He can’t pretend that he is for free media and then back the most cruel and oppressive enemies of free media.

Apart from his personal plight, his case deserves some scrutiny because it encapsulates the big issues of “free media” that were raised at all levels. At the core of it was the issue of the degree and extent of freedom allowed for the media in times of war and peace. Invariably, peace time liberties give way to war time necessities. A nation under threat automatically tends to limit the boundaries of freedom in every sphere. It can range from limitations placed on consumer goods “”…” Britain was living primarily on baked beans during the World War II and hardly anything else “”…” to freedom of speech, information, publications, association, wire-tappings, body searches, holding citizens incommunicado, etc. In short, all the democratic freedoms available in normal times are curtailed for the greater good of restoring peace and normalcy.

For instance Sir, Oswald Mosley and his wife were imprisoned during World War II because they were leading the pro-Nazi fascist movement in UK. Also hordes of Germans and Japanese domiciled in America, Australia, UK etc., were rounded up and herded into prison camps for no other reason than being Germans and Japanese. In contrast, the freedom given to those allied with the Tamil Tigers by the Government of Sri Lanka was far greater than those either in the Allied nations or in Prabhakaran’s Tamil Evil-lam.

Unlike Sir Oswald, a member of the House of Commons, the TNA MPs, who were the known proxies of the Tamil Tigers, were not only paid by the “Sinhala governments” they condemned, both at home and abroad, but also given state protection by the Sinhala police to act freely in pushing the agenda of the Tamil Tigers. It can be argued that the so-called “failed state” of Sri Lanka displayed a degree of democratic tolerance to those allied with the enemies of the state far in excess of what was permitted by the iconic democracies in West when they were fighting their wars. This point can be illustrated by counting the number of front men of Al Quaida in US Congress or in the House of Commons?

There were, of course, threats to the individual journalists which no one can condone. But these threats did not come from the state alone. The Sinhala terrorists in the JVP and the Tamil terrorists in the LTTE took the opportunity to target journalists who were opposed to them. The sacrifices and the courage of the journalists who stood up to all the forces that went all out to silence them “”…” from the state to the terrorists “”…” should be remembered and honoured.

Journalists in the state and private sector media have faced identical threats from diverse sources, though the primary focus has been on the threats from the state. The failure to silence them is a promising sign of the vibrancy of the democratic grassroots that refuse to roll over and die. In the battles between the state and the private sector media there is no doubt that the latter has made tactical withdrawals under hostile attacks. Nevertheless, it has never failed to bounce back with each available opportunity. The resilience of the media is a tribute to the journalists who had shown exemplary courage to meet the challenges from powerful magnates, the underworld, the opposition and the state.

To be continued

One Response to “Time to let Tissanayagam go”

  1. Raj Says:

    I cannot agree with you more Mr Mahindapala. Forgiveness is a divine quality. Isn’t it? Mr Tissanayagam may even be an asset like Minister Karuna.

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