Rebel with a cause:An Interview with Dayan Jayatilleka
by Rathindra Kuruwita
Q: First of all, tell me something about your childhood? What was it like being the son of Mervyn de Silva?
A: Well, I suppose, the best answer is to give you some observations from other people. Governor of the Western Province, SLFP elder statesman and veteran trade unionist Alavi Moulana was kind enough to give me a lift, on the way back into town from the airport, when we returned from Vietnam, having accompanied President Rajapaksa on the first ever State visit by a Sri Lankan leader to Vietnam. Governor Moulana, a dear friend of Mervyn’s, has known me from my boyhood.
He said that, “No one who was privy to the conversations between my father and me, could say we were father and son”. I asked him why, what did the conversations sound like? He said, “Frank; they were very frank”. A few weeks ago, I was at dinner with another respected SLFP elder, of enlightened views on the ethnic issue, Mangala Moonesinghe, and he told both our hostess and my wife that he has observed my intellectual evolution from the time I was in short pants and that “As a boy, Dayan held his own in conversations with both his parents, Mervyn and Lakshmi, which was a challenging thing, since they were strong personalities”.
Thaththa came from a conservative family, with an upright and sternly authoritarian father --who studied at Trinity College, Kandy-- but he had himself rebelled against that. His knowledge of Western literature had opened up his mind, and he left the limited world outlook of his family far behind. Mervyn was a very confident parent, and therefore, did not insist on traditional forms of deference or silence. He would challenge you with a question, or you could initiate a discussion, and as long as you could make your point logically and knowledgeably, it didn’t matter how young you were.
He was a combination of liberal mindedness, high intellectual standards and firmness. If he said no, it was no, but he said no very rarely, so one took it quite seriously when he did. If you didn’t measure up of course, that was that, he would ignore you, but fortunately, I never failed to measure up intellectually, though I may have disappointed him in other ways, as he himself had disappointed his father on occasions. Mervyn could be quite remote, and not a little distant, even from family members, but had no hesitation in confiding in me and even sounding me out; including me in any discussion within family or in public, in society, among friends and associates.
He had no time for obsequious traditionalist practices. Amma, on the other hand, never believed in bothering to argue with her son, and always complained to her sisters-in-law that my father “treats this fellow like an equal; tosses him the same novels he’s read, once he’s finished”. Amma was modern, but authoritarian, as befits a teacher at St Bridget’s Convent. I recall former President Chandrika telling me that, as her teacher, Amma was “firm but fair”.
Q: How were your school days at St. Joseph’s? Were you into sports and other extra curricular activities?
A: I could have gone to Royal, where my father went, and cleared the top prizes (his name is engraved on those concrete tablets there), or to S Thomas’s, which my uncles attended, but Amma decided to send me to St Joseph’s, so I couldn’t bask in anyone’s reflected glory. I had no old boys of St Joseph’s in my family. I had to make my own way, which was a good thing I suppose. My mother sent me there to learn discipline, but what I mainly got out of the school was the study of the Gospels and a deep impression about Jesus Christ, a great existential rebel.
So it was just the opposite of what the school tried to teach us I suppose. Sports, no, frankly for two reasons: sports practices were difficult to attend, because my father used to keep the oddest hours, and my domestic life was rather unorthodox; the second reason was that I preferred to read a book. Extracurricular activities, yes: Debating, the Literary Union, writing for the school magazine, music, art.
Q: Who were the other peers that you remember from your school days?
A: Well I recall many, such as the current Chairman of Levers, Amal Cabraal, son of Dr Shelton Cabraal. Most of them wound up in the corporate sector, while others migrated to the USA or Australia, where they are quite successful. Nihal Gunasekara is a doctor in New York, who won an award for an innovation in heart surgery. Anil Wijewickrema is a Maths Prof in Tokyo.
Q: You got your first Degree from the University of Peradeniya. How was Peradeniya in the ’70s, and how was it like to be there at the butt end of its glory days?
A: As a boy, I usually spent my holidays at Peradeniya, because my father’s sister, Lalitha (my Punchi nanda) was married to Prof P.E.E. Fernando, (‘Ebert maama’) a scholar of archeology and Sinhala, and a leftist, who later became the Vice Chancellor. In the 1960s, it made a deep impression on me. As a boy of about 12, I wanted to wind up an academic at Peradeniya, teaching Philosophy. The choice of subject was because I had just discovered Marxist philosophy through the British Communist Maurice Cornforth’s two slim volumes which I had found on Ebert maama’s bookshelves. On a visit to London in the 1960s, my parents had been invited for high tea by Thaththa’s old VC Sir Ivor Jennings, who, at the time was VC at Cambridge. On that occasion, they had entered my name in some register.
Later, after my A Levels, my parents took me to Harvard and tried to persuade me to agree to enter, I refused all these options and insisted on Peradeniya. Mind you, I had been selected for Law Faculty, topping the batch, which wasn’t easy due to standardisation, but I opted for Political Science at Peradeniya instead. The place wasn’t what I remembered. Between them, the SLFP and UNP administrations, they had wrecked a fine university. The iconic librarian, Ian Goonetilleke was hounded out. In my first year, Weerasooriya, one of our intake, was shot dead by the police. One-and-a-half decades later, in response to JVP killings, almost a dozen severed heads decorated the Alwis pond.
Q: Mohan Samaranayake was one of your peers at Peradiniya, and, if I’m not mistaken, you both specialised in the same subject, Political Science?
A: He was several years my senior, and we didn’t know each other on campus.
Q: Were you involved in radical politics even at University?
A: Most certainly. My involvement started earlier than that. When I was first picked up and taken to the Intelligence Services Division headquarters at Longdon Place for questioning, I was an A level student at Aquinas. At Peradeniya, I was a member of two overlapping, but distinct radical organizations, one off-campus and one on-campus. The off-campus one was founded by the late Dr Newton Gunasinghe, a brilliant Marxist social scientist, and Jayaratne Maliyagoda, a Kandy trade union leader, and called the ‘Lanka Samaja Adhyayana Kavaya’ (Lanka Social Studies Circle). The one on campus was simply called the ‘Samaja Adhyayana Kavaya’, an umbrella organisation of radical student activists ranging from an array of Maoists to underground JVP activists, some of whom, like Shantha Bandara, became Politbureau members during their second insurrection.
Q: You are from the upper middle class of Sri Lanka, the son of one of the most famous journalists in the country. So, how and why did you join Vikalpa Kandayama?
A: My father would have arched an eyebrow and asked sardonically, “what do you mean ‘one of’?” Anyway, I didn’t join the Vikalpa Kandayama; I was one of its founders. Partly, it was a logical progression: I was a precocious member of the Vietnam generation, had been travelling in Europe with my parents during the student uprisings of May 68, which Mervyn wrote about in the Ceylon Observer, and had been studying Marxist writings before I hit my teens.
Partly, it was the situation at the time: the 1980s. Under JR Jayewardene’s administration, we had witnessed and experienced the abduction of university students, who were beaten up at Sirikotha, the use of cycle chains to thrash striking workers, the sacking of 60,000 workers, for demanding a modest wage increase, the attempt to rig the Jaffna DDC elections, the setting on fire of the Jaffna Public library, the false arrest of Vijaya Kumaratunga, on charges of leading a Naxalite plot, the closing off of the peaceful parliamentary path of change by scrapping the general election and substituting for it a coercive Referendum, the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983, the murder of Tamil political prisoners, which went unpunished, the shooting of two unarmed university students -- one before my eyes, outside their Havelock Road hostel. All of this constituted a challenge to the conscience of some of us.
We felt something had to be done. In the meanwhile, K. Pathmanabha, the leader of the most authentically revolutionary Marxist organisation among the young Tamil militants, had met me, together with Suresh Premachandran in 1978, when I was still an undergrad at Peradeniya. He met me again in 1981, after he had left the EROS/GUES and just founded the EPRLF. Pathmanabha and I had been discussing the need for a joint North-South revolutionary project, transcending ethnic schisms. His term for it was “total revolution”. After July ’83, this seemed all the more necessary, since both the LTTE and JVP were polarising people along North–South lines.
Kethesh Loganathan, a Georgetown and Sussex alumni, son of my father’s friend the famous banker C Loganathan, who authored the Loganthan Plan, also joined the EPRLF at this time. The final factor was the global one, where it seemed that there was a high tide of revolution, after the victory in Vietnam in 1975 and Nicaragua in 1979. That too impelled or tempted us to seek to join the tide of international revolutionary struggles. This was our chance, we felt. What we did not recognize was that this New Cold war was to be the final flush of global socialism as we knew it; the last rise before the fall.
Q: You were also a minister under Varadaraja Perumal for a brief period in the late 1980s. Can you recount your experiences and why you left the fold?
A: Mahinda Samarasinghe, who was in the Western Provincial Council, and I in the NEPC, were the two youngest provincial ministers at the time. I was the only one to resign, in that first experiment. Perumal was the wrong guy to have been made chief minister, and I had said so to Pathmanabha as well as the Indians, but I failed to prevent it. The rest is history. He pushed Colombo too hard and too fast. Too many innocent civilians were also being killed in the North. I took oaths in late 1988, but had resigned by February or March 1989, in well under six months, and more than a year before the UDI and the final fall of the North East Provincial Council -- during which time I was supporting President Premadasa to contain it. I stayed away from the NEPC as much as I could. I took only the first month’s salary, didn’t take any of the three vehicles (including a BMW and a Pajero) I was entitled to, or sell the permits!
Q: The 1990s saw you supporting President Premadasa, and in this decade, the SLFP. Isn’t that a radical shift from the political ideology you adhered to in the 1980s?
A: Not at all. Somewhere in 1980 or ’81, the Lanka Guardian carried an article by me, which supported Premadasa in the fight he then had with Upali Wijewardene. In 1984 or 1985, Qadri Ismail, a Vikalpa member, submitted to the Lanka Guardian, a film review which contained a strong and unfair criticism of Prime Minister Premadasa. I was editing the magazine, while my father was overseas, and I binned the review. Both Wijeweera and I, always had a soft spot for Premadasa!
I became a socialist because, as a boy, I wanted to overcome the social injustice I saw around me. Premadasa was, socially, the most progressive reformist leader the country has had. As a socialist, a leftist, what was I to do, except support him, especially, when all his enemies were far more reactionary than he? His foes were the UNP elite, which had been responsible for all the ills that drove us to rebellion in the ’80s. They were supported by the SLFP old guard, against which I had rebelled in my teens while at Aquinas. He was also besieged by the ultra left JVP, which had murdered the most enlightened progressive politician we ever had --Vijaya Kumaratunga—and by the Tigers, which killed the most radical Leftist Tamils such as Pathmanabha. What else should I have done?
If I had any authentic commitment to social change and the uplif of the poor; if I had not forgotten the well springs of my radical Left convictions, I should have supported Premadasa, which is precisely what I did. Millions of poor people found their lives improved by his programmes of housing, Janasaviya, free school uniforms and the 200 garments factories. What I ask those so-called Leftists who criticise me is, how come, if you were really on the left, if you were really for social progress, didn’t you extend even critical support to Premadasa, who was our Salvador Allende, and whose socio economic project antedated and anticipated much of what is happening under progressive regimes in Latin America today?
Q: You are also a lecturer at the University of Colombo. What are the main differences today as when you were a student?
A: Students read less voraciously and there is less debate on ideas. In my day, you couldn’t see a student in the canteen who wasn’t carrying a book on political theory and debating it with his or her peers at a table over a cup of tea.
Q: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro, how did that come about?
A: As a kid, JVP leaders, especially Wijeweera, was something of a hero, after the 1971 insurrection. Decades later, when we were both underground, he wrote a book on the Eelam problem, which had more consecutive pages against me, than against Prabhakaran! The Southern left, from mainstream to radical, had more individuals brutally murdered by the JVP, than in a century of Colonial oppression and local capitalist rule! In the North, the so-called Liberation Tigers slaughtered fellow liberationists, including by burning some of them alive in the streets of Jaffna. Internationally, the victorious surge of world socialism, after Vietnam, was thwarted by phenomena such as the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia.
Thus I focused on the phenomenon of barbarism within the socialist, anti-capitalist or anti-systemic space. I also examined where I had derived my own ethical criteria and values about the use of violence from. I was for the use of violent resistance and rebellion, when there were no other alternatives, but strongly rejected the use of violence against non-combatants and innocents, and firmly believed that revolutionaries, liberation fighters and resistance fighters must occupy the moral high ground in contrast to the State or the enemy they were fighting. I quickly figured out that my ideas derived from the example of Fidel and Che Guevara, so I thought I would research the subject deeply and write a book on it, to prove that violence can be used in a manner very different from Pol Pot, Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, the JVP and LTTE, and that, such ethical use of violence also leads to success and sustainability.
Q: You are also a friend of Régis Debray?
A: No. But we do have dear friends in common, such as Prof Jean Ziegler of the University of Paris.
Q: Tell me something oft your diplomatic career?
A: It was clearly a success. A new article in the New York Times, which calls for war crimes inquiry on Sri Lanka, mentions our victory in Geneva in May, saying “In late May, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution celebrating Sri Lanka’s victory over the Tamils and blocked discussion on an European-drafted text raising concerns about the conditions endured by war survivors housed in Sri Lankan camps”. (Sri Lanka May Need Gaza-Style Rights Inquiry: UN, New York Times, October 23, 2009). The Economist (London) of August 6 attributed the victory to me, by name, saying: “Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Geneva, who warded off the threatened UN war-crimes probe in May…” What I did in Geneva is put into practice what I have always thought should be Sri Lanka’s international policy-- Those ideas and that line paid off. Even the Richard Goldstone report on Gaza got only 25 votes, but we managed to secure 29 for Sri Lanka at the special session.
Q: What do you think of the state of Left wing politics in Sri Lanka, and is there room for radical Left wing politics?
A: There is such room, but there is no such formation. What we need is a Left which is on the same wavelength as the Left in the rest of South Asia and Latin America--but we don’t have and never had such a Left. I suppose, we never will have one. As my friend, the late Dr Newton Gunasinghe used to say, “The failure of Sri Lanka’s Marxist movement is the failure to evolve an equivalent of the CPI-M (the Communist Party of India-Marxist”. Everywhere else in the world, the Left is the most determinedly modernist and modernising force, but not so in Sri Lanka. Everywhere else, the Left is both patriotic and also supportive of autonomy and equal rights for minority nationalities. Not so in Sri Lanka: Various segments of the Left are either unpatriotic and enlightened on the ethnic question, or patriotic and unenlightened on the ethnic question! Perhaps it’s a cultural thing.
Q: Your views on ‘terrorism’ has changed significantly, from the time you wrote “Jaffna: Individual terrorism or guerilla war”? in 1982. Did that happen with becoming mature or did you just get too old?
A: Not at all. On that subject, my core views remain essentially the same, and inform my book on Fidel’s Ethics of Violence. I had written that piece in the Lanka Guardian, though it was republished, unknown to me, in Tamil. I had barely turned 25 at the time, and I wrote that from upstate New York, while I was a doctoral student on a Fulbright scholarship, from which I later dropped out and returned, once JR Jayewardene decided to have his infamous referendum, instead of a parliamentary election. Given the global historical circumstances of the time—this was three years after the victory of the Nicaraguan revolution, and with strongly ongoing Salvadoran and Guatemalan revolutions—and the Sri Lankan circumstances of JRJ’s harsh, arrogant authoritarianism and State terrorism, I welcomed the armed challenge and resistance by youth in any part of the country, including the North.
At that distance, I didn’t know whether these acts were by the Marxist EPRLF, with which I had contacts before I left for my doctorate—there was no internet then. I was operating within the revolutionary Marxist or radical left paradigm, and within that framework, I could not but support any challenge against the System, as Lenin had pointed out in his writings on Ireland, after the 1916 Easter uprising. I continue to uphold the right of violent, even armed resistance, when all other avenues are closed off. To resort to armed actions in such a situation is not terrorism, whether we like it or not, except when such violence is directed at unarmed civilians. Whatever the cause, the conditions and circumstances, the intentional or witting targeting of civilians is terrorism.
This is upheld by the UN convention against terrorism. For instance, I support the right of the Hezbollah and the Hamas to resist Zionist State terrorism, but I oppose and condemn their use of terrorism against Jewish civilian targets. At that time, no innocent, uninvolved civilians had been killed by any Tamil armed organisations, including the Tigers. That was to happen in late 1984, in Naiyaru and Kokilai, and months later in 1985, in Anuradhapura. The Vikalpa Kandayama critiqued that, and its communiqué was published in the EPRLF”s official paper Eelam Spokesman. The Tigers had killed the PLOT’s Sundaram at the time, in January of that year, but I didn’t know of his existence or the killing, because, as I said, I was in upstate New York and this was the pre-internet era!
Q: Finally what are your future plans?
A: No plans, but an aspiration: I’d like to write another scholarly book or two. Actually, I have enough ideas for three.