Former child soldier swaps camouflage for lounge suit
May 20th, 2008
by Namini Wijedasa
Ex-Tamil Tiger rebel turned chief minister desperately trying to shed his terrorist label
President Mahinda Rajapaksa last week made an ex-child soldier the powerful chief minister of Sri Lanka’s Eastern province, causing journalists to rummage wildly for some background on the little-known breakaway rebel.
Meanwhile, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, also known as Pillayan, swapped his flip-flops and camouflage uniform for leather shoes and a lounge suit before paying some well-publicized courtesy calls to the country’s most influential Buddhist monks. It was the sign of a man desperate to shed his terrorist label and assume one of a refined democrat.
A refined democrat, that is, with guns.
“Until the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) gets defeated in the Wanni and we have 100 per cent assurance of a perfect environment, we will retain our weapons,” said Ragu, Chandrakanthan’s personal secretary and political leader of his party, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) or Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers.
Talking on Chandrakanthan’s cellphone while returning with him to the east, Ragu said the Tamil-speaking ex-rebel had assigned him to answer reporters’ questions.
“The TMVP is against terrorism and the barbaric things the LTTE is doing,” he explained. “And when you raise a voice against them, you will get killed. That is our past experience. So we will keep our weapons for the time being, till these people are beaten in the north.”
Chandrakanthan was ceremonially sworn in before Rajapaksa on Friday evening, only hours after a suspected Tamil Tiger suicide bomber on a motorcycle exploded between two buses packed with riot police in the capital, Colombo. The vehicles were parked near an upmarket hotel where Chandrakanthan was staying, just metres from the venue of the oath-taking ceremony. Ten people were killed and more than 90 injured.
Born in 1975 in Valachchenai, in the Batticaloa district, Chandrakanthan joined the Tamil Tiger rebels as a 15-year-old high school dropout. Assuming the nom de guerre Pillayan, he took part in a massive 1997 attack that drove government forces out of Mullaitivu in the north-east. He also assisted in a 2001 operation to oust the military from the strategic northern Elephant Pass base. Nevertheless, his battlefield exploits were not so spectacular as to earn him recognition among Tiger leaders.
Three years later, Chandrakanthan joined the Tigers’ eastern military wing leader Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, also known as Karuna, when he broke away from the main organization. The defectors did not disarm and were never ordered by the government to do so.
It wasn’t until last year that Chandrakanthan was first seen in newspapers. Journalist Mihiri Fonseka recalls, “In that first photograph, he appeared carrying a T-56 firearm and a belt of magazines hung around his chest while a cellular phone was dangling across. He was seated close to Karuna looking almost like the shadow of his master.”
Eager to enter national politics, Karuna formed the TMVP and made Chandrakanthan his deputy. The dynamics of the Karuna-Chandrakanthan relationship soon changed, however, and a rift emerged.
A British court in February sentenced Karuna to nine months in jail for entering the U.K. on a Sri Lankan diplomatic passport that carried his photograph but a different name. He was released in May-early for good behaviour-and may be deported but is unlikely to regain leadership of the TMVP.
Chandrakanthan earned the government’s favour in Karuna’s absence by supporting the military’s year-long operation to chase the Tamil Tigers out of the Eastern province. The government later fashioned an alliance with the TMVP and they jointly contested provincial elections on May 10. Chandrakanthan polled the largest number of preferential votes in his district and became a contender for the chief minister’s position.
It was not an election observers were entirely happy with. The People’s Alliance for Free and Fair Elections said it wasn’t able to conclude that the vote was free and a fair. One reason cited was the fact an armed group, the TMVP, was contesting the polls.
Still, the election monitoring group welcomed the vote saying it was “one important step that opens the doors of democratic governance to the people in the east.”
But can Chandrakanthan-who, until 2004, was officially identified as a “Tiger terrorist”-change his stripes? He has minimal education, no political experience, is still armed and is alleged to have been involved in large numbers of recent killings and abductions.
“Why not?” asked parliamentarian Basil Rajapaksa, a brother of the president who is widely believed to be the government’s chief strategist. “Such transformations have happened in other parts of the world, such as Northern Ireland and Nepal. In Sri Lanka, too, this has occurred before. We have to draw these people into the democratic mainstream.”
Chandrakanthan, he said, had won by the ballot and not by the bullet. “He got the highest number of preference votes because people like him. New people (in politics) are good. They are fresh and unspoiled and can do some good.” [courtesy: The Toronto Star]
Namini Wijedasa is a freelance journalist in South Asia.
Entry Filed under: transCurrents