While Tamil Tiger nationalists are waging a bloody struggle in Sri Lanka, a Marblehead, Massachusetts man is trying to rehabilitate the militants' stateside image.
By Ellen Barry
MARCH 2, 1998: A month ago, almost precisely halfway around the world, three Tamil Tiger nationalists loaded a truck with explosives, climbed in, and blew themselves up in front of Sri Lanka's holiest Buddhist temple, the Temple of the Tooth. The report, when it came, was loud enough to affect the status of Tamils everywhere -- not only in Colombo, where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were declared illegal, but in London, where the Tamils have headquartered their international network. In Washington, which classified the Tigers as terrorists six months ago, the State Department's position against them hardened.
And in a walkup apartment in housing for the elderly in Marblehead, 63-year-old Ramalingam Shanmugalingam saw his mission -- stateside advocacy for the rights of Tamil nationalists -- get a little harder.
He sits there the following afternoon in a room smelling of incense and lined with miniature tractors, the accumulated calling cards of 30 years manufacturing and selling heavy machinery. Sun is slanting through the window onto a bowl of oranges. Shanmugalingam -- who has learned enough about PR during 18 years in America to shorten his name to "Shan" -- is making a pitch.
"Say you have a problem in the family," he says. "The husband is an abusive husband. What do you do? Do you go and massage yourself, go back, and say, 'Start beating me'? Some people do that. We did that. The only way is divorce. That is the sensible thing to do."
The husband in his metaphor is the government of Sri Lanka, a small island, population 18 million, off the south coast of India. The wife is the minority Tamil population, which makes up about 18 percent of the population, and which is fighting for an autonomous homeland along the north and east coasts of the island. This exceptionally bloody "domestic dispute" has been going on for 14 years and, according to State Department reports, has claimed 50,000 lives.
Americans were receptive to Tamil grievances until recent years, when the militant Tigers pulled out of a cease-fire with Sri Lankan government forces and the international community picked sides in this vicious, ambiguous war. Last year the State Department added the Tigers to its list of illegal terrorist organizations, which means the government can deny their supporters visas and prosecute anyone who donates money to them. But Tamils like Shanmugalingam -- who believe there is no alternative to secession -- say there is no one but the Tigers representing their cause. In the eyes of outsiders, they fall automatically into the category of terrorists. As a result, no one will even listen to Shanmugalingam's case anymore.
Shanmugalingam, who left his country in 1972 and arrived in the US in 1980, says he has devoted his retirement to informing American citizens about the Tamil cause. It's hard not to feel for him -- until, in precisely the same tone he uses to tally his American-born grandchildren, he starts talking about "the boys." "The boys" are the Tamil Tigers. Although Shanmugalingam has no official link to the Tigers, he talks about them as if he knows them personally.
"These fellows have created some ingenious, you know, inventions. They were making cars run on coconut oil," he says. "There are so many things they are doing. And I think their success is mostly [due to] the suicide situation. You know, every Tiger wears a cyanide capsule around his neck. All of them. That is one of the hallmarks of the Tiger movement."
"I worship them," he says in a later interview. "I tell you, I call them gods."
To Shanmugalingam, the Tigers are not terrorists at all, but a legitimate national military force. Right now, this is not a popular point of view. Amnesty International's 1997 country report on Sri Lanka -- which condemns government forces for torture, killing, and detention -- also accuses the LTTE of "grave human rights abuses, including deliberate and arbitrary killings of Sinhalese [Sri Lanka's ethnic majority] . . . civilians, summary executions of Tamil people considered to be 'traitors,' and torture and ill-treatment of prisoners and of children who were sometimes forced to join the armed group."
Shanmugalingam says all these accusations are lies told in the service of the Sri Lankan government. He says it at length. Angrily.
"What you read in the paper is actually a scenario prepared by public relations people" working in the US for the Sri Lankans, he says. "There is a powerful PR machine working. And I am sorry to say these things, but here money will do anything."
Does he think he has a chance of changing the way Americans think about the Tamil cause?
"It depends on you," he tells me. "You are an expert at putting the story together. This is my story. I am not a writer. I can't do it convincingly. That is why I ask you. The various media should give us a chance. I still believe in America. Otherwise I wouldn't be here."
In this apartment, sweet-smelling and clean, it's hard to envision the kind of drawn-out, chaotic, bloody ground war that has produced such contradictory accounts of the truth. But Shanmugalingam -- who says his ambition is to be "the Gerry Adams" of the Tiger movement -- sends me home with a videotape labeled "Military Offensive Against Tamils Living in Sri Lanka." The footage consists of people who have been blown apart.
Shanmugalingam has some reason to believe that public opinion is elastic. Until a few years ago, people who paid attention to human-rights issues were quite sympathetic to the Tamil cause. After the British withdrew from the island in 1947, the Tamils were subjected to increasingly assimilationist policies; they lost access to government jobs, according to accounts of the conflict by humanitarian organizations, and Shanmugalingam says they were required to attend Sinhalese-language school. All along, the Sri Lankan government has maintained that the country is a "multiethnic, multicultural nation," not unlike Yugoslavia. But, as in Yugoslavia, those principles sometimes collapsed into appalling ethnic violence; in 1983, vicious anti-Tamil race riots broke out in Colombo, killing 400.
Outsiders saw the Tamils as underdogs; in 1979, Shanmugalingam remembers, governor Ed King declared May 22 Eelam Tamils Day in Massachusetts (Eelam is the term for the Tamil homeland). Throughout the early '90s, word occasionally trickled out of Sri Lanka, through tourists, that the Sinhalese-dominated government had bombed Tamil Hindu temples, killing scores of worshipers.
But the Tamil Tigers have alienated observers in this country. The group -- which took its name as a counter to the Sri Lankans' lion symbol -- had started its militant campaign for a separate state in the late '70s, and ratcheted up its activities after the 1983 riots. The Tigers have condemned moderate Tamils as traitors and have sometimes attacked them; they are commonly held responsible for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and many members of the Sri Lankan parliament. International bodies report numerous Tiger attacks on Sinhalese villages. Since the Tigers pulled out of the cease-fire, the international community has been more and more willing to agree with the Sri Lankan government's characterization of them as vicious criminals.
The Tigers are "a pretty ruthless armed opposition group that we have condemned," says Patricia Goffman, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "There's no question that throughout the war they have committed abuses of humanitarian law, including massacres of civilians. They're known for torture."
"One really has to distinguish between [the Tigers] and the Tamil people," she adds. "It's hard to gauge how much support the Tigers have now. They certainly rule by terror in the places they control."
And -- according to their critics -- sometimes overseas, too. In Toronto, feuds between pro-Tiger Tamils and Tamils critical of the Tigers have become public and violent, according to press reports. David Jeyaraj, who published accounts of extortion and intimidation by Tiger representatives, told the New York-based magazine Masala that gangs in the pay of the pro-Tiger World Tamil Movement had attacked him one night as he emerged from a movie theater, breaking both his legs. (Shanmugalingam denies that this event had anything to do with the Tigers.) Although it's not politic to express direct support for the Tigers in the West these days, speaking against them carries its own dangers.
It is understandable, then, that Shanmugalingam doesn't claim to speak for the Tigers -- but neither is he willing to criticize them in any way. Certainly he worships the Tigers as warriors. He boasts about their "beautiful selection process," in which candidates are required to spend six months pasting up pro-Tiger posters at night, knowing that if they get caught they will be detained or killed. He sends me, by e-mail, a five-stanza poem he has written in their honor. But Shanmugalingam also realizes that Americans are more comfortable if there is a degree of separation between the rebel force and its international spokespeople. He uses, as an example, Golda Meir's role as a negotiator for the Zionist cause, or Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing.
"I am not a terrorist," Shanmugalingam says. "If I am in Sri Lanka, yes, I will be a freedom fighter. I am not. . . . They will not accept me [because of physical fitness requirements]. I would not really be any use to them except perhaps by way of [disseminating] propaganda. We want the American public to understand this is an independence war."
Shanmugalingam has gotten some coaching from a pro. Michael Goldman, the state's most prominent Democratic political consultant, became interested in the Tamil cause when Shanmugalingam was working as a service manager at a car dealership and serviced Goldman's car. Goldman sees direct parallels between the Tamil struggle and the battle for an Israeli state, and has given Shanmugalingam advice on how to approach the press -- namely, by explicitly distancing himself from the Tigers.
"I have no idea of the specific actions of the Tigers," says Goldman, who consulted with Shanmugalingam pro bono. "But if the Tamils have a problem, it's that they have failed [to distinguish a political wing]. The Israelis had their Irgun and their Hagana. One could use other examples. The Civil Rights movement in America had its Martin Luther Kings and its Malcolm Xes."
It's true that there is, at present, no official mouthpiece for the Tamil nationalist cause in America; according to Sri Lankan embassy spokesman Prasad Kariyawasam, anyone espousing a separate Tamil state would automatically be considered a Tiger.
"The Tamils feel very distressed," says A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of New Brunswick, in Canada, who is a Tamil himself and has written extensively on Tamil nationalism. The proscription of the Tigers "drives them into an extreme position" by shutting them out of the international arena, he adds.
As a result, the Tamils are more and more dependent on the Tigers, who represent their only shot at an international voice. "We don't have a Nelson Mandela or a Nehru or a Gandhi, who is charismatic enough to lead them," Wilson says. And, he says, if a strong non-Tiger Tamil leader did turn up, the Tigers would likely find some way to eliminate him.
As for Shanmugalingam, he long ago gave up on nonviolent tactics. In 1958, as a 24-year-old graduate of engineering school, he notched his thumb and took a blood vow with three of his friends to fight for Tamil independence. When the government required all Tamils to display a Sinhalese character on their license plates, Shanmugalingam refused. Though he took part in pacifist Gandhian sit-ins in his 20s, he now dismisses those endeavors as humiliating and useless.
Shanmugalingam steadfastly denies that the Tigers are ruthless killers -- he says they've killed, at most, 200 civilians in the 14-year war, a claim that Amnesty International's Joshua Rubenstein calls "absolutely ridiculous" (Amnesty estimates number in the "tens of thousands"). And he is at pains to justify what violence he does acknowledge, including the assassination of political opposition figures. "It is a civil war," he says. "What else can you do? You have a foreign army occupying your land."
Although Shanmugalingam admits that eight civilians were killed in the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth, he says the blame lies partially with the Sri Lankan government, which "should have been more careful . . . they underestimate the fervor of the Tamils." He says the Tigers were targeting a podium outside the temple where the government planned to hold a ceremony the next day, and the destruction of the temple was "sort of an associated development. The Sinhala government was doing a diabolic flaunting of their lies and deceit by staging a 50-year independence [ceremony] to show the outside world that everything is hunky-dory in Sri Lanka, which it is not."
Even though he is half a world away from the violence, Shanmugalingam's political views are of international interest to both sides in this struggle. As foreign governments reached a consensus over the past five years that the Tigers were not legitimate negotiating partners, the role of overseas Tamils -- people like Shanmugalingam -- became central. In Canada, where a reported 100,000 Tamils have been granted refugee status since the 1983 riots, the Sri Lankan government has fingered emigrant Tamils as the source of abundant funding for the Tiger rebels -- Canadian Tamil refugees send home as much as $1 million Canadian a month, Canadian police sources told a Maclean's reporter in 1996. Prasad Kariyawasam, of the Sri Lankan embassy, gives the total amount of refugee funding as $2 million per month worldwide, and asserts that the Tigers could not continue fighting were it not for the support of the diaspora. Tamil community spokesmen in Toronto dismissed the claims as propaganda, as does Shanmugalingam. As far as he is concerned, he has nothing to contribute to the cause except the testimony he is offering to the press.
Of course, Shanmugalingam doesn't have to send his own children into battle -- unlike other branches of his family, and every other family that does not have the opportunity to leave the country. Shanmugalingam relates the story of his niece, who briefly joined the Tigers at 19, until her parents, particularly her mother, "pleaded with the leadership" to release the girl from service. This Shanmugalingam found extremely disappointing. He tells the story with some contempt.
"You see, some women are not brave -- they don't think in those terms," he says of his brother's wife. "I'm sorry to say this. I was very proud of my niece. In fact, I wrote a letter to my brother, and said . . . [that] I was sorry I was not there to sacrifice one of my children."
At present, Shanmugalingam's children are far from any kind of war. His son is an executive supervisor for UPS in San Diego; his older daughter is married to an engineer; his younger daughter works for a nonprofit research organization. All of his children are "very, very sympathetic" to the Tamil cause, he says.
I ask: "Can't they go back?"
He says: "They would, but there is no need."
I ask: "They don't need more people fighting?"
He says: "They need, they need. But the thing is, these children are grown up. They're married. They are sort of settled. It's not for me to ask."
He doesn't sympathize with this line of questioning. He left the country, despite his political fervor, for the sake of his family. In 1964, he points out, he had refused an offer to leave Sri Lanka because he was reluctant to remove himself from the independence struggle.
I ask: "But then you changed your mind?"
He says: "Because then the children were growing up."
I ask: "And you wanted to save your children?"
He says: "I wanted to save my children."
Ellen Barry can be reached at email@example.com.
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