Was I a Stranger in My Homeland?
By Malavi Sivakanesan
Malavi Sivakanesan was eight years old in 2003 when her father, a Tamil dentist living in exile in Norway, went back to his homeland in Sri Lanka to set up a mobile dental clinic.
He not only carried out dental work himself, but also trained local people to continue after he left.
At the time, there was a ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The LTTE, formed in response to decades of discrimination and violent repression against Tamils, had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland (Tamil Eelam) in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka.
The ceasefire was signed in 2002.
At that time the LTTE controlled large parts of the north and east, and was the de facto government of these areas. The dental clinic was based at a hospital in the LTTE-controlled area.
Malavi’s father travelled widely, carrying out dental work and giving talks to school children about caring for their teeth. He returned to Tamil Eelam several times in subsequent years, until the renewed war made this impossible.
Malavi accompanied her father and other family members on two visits (in 2003 and 2004). A large part of the book deals with her recollections of these visits.
The book shows that the LTTE, as well as being a formidable fighting force, also ran a civil administration providing a range of services to the population in areas they controlled.
They ran transport, banking and other services, including child care for children of poor parents. They established homes for orphans and people with disabilities. Malavi visited a home for orphaned girls, and was impressed by the quality of care.
The book tells of Malavi’s experiences with the LTTE members she met. She says they were “the most respectful, kind and caring human beings ever”.
She also says they were very dedicated to work and study, and that many were gifted and able to learn new skills, such as dentistry, quickly.
Normally the LTTE is portrayed in the media as a terrorist group. It is good to be informed about the LTTE’s role in providing services to people in the areas they controlled.
But it is necessary to be aware of the limitations of the book. It is based on a child’s impressions from two visits to Tamil Eelam, not on a thorough study of the history of the struggle. It misses all the complexities of the conflict.
Whereas most of those who write about the LTTE tend to demonise them, this book tends to idealise them.
Malavi portrays life in the LTTE zone as it appeared to a young child visiting from Norway. She describes honestly what she saw.
She met LTTE members who were working for the benefit of their community. But what she saw was not the whole picture.
Malavi visited the LTTE zone in a time of relative peace, in an area where the LTTE had strong support. In this context, the LTTE could rule in a benevolent manner.
At other times and in other situations, the LTTE were capable of being extremely ruthless. To some extent, their ruthlessness was the inevitable result of fighting a ruthless enemy, the Sri Lankan government.
It was the violence of the government that led to the LTTE taking up arms in the first place.
But not all of the LTTE’s actions could be justified. To take just one example: in May 1985, in reprisal for the murder of 70 Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan army at Valvettiturai, a few LTTE members went to the Sinhalese town of Anuradhapura and gunned down 150 people.
The desire for revenge is an understandable human emotion. But such actions hindered the difficult, but necessary, task of winning the Sinhalese masses to support self-determination for the Tamils.
They also alienated potential supporters around the world, and made it easy for governments to demonise the LTTE as terrorists, while ignoring the state terrorism of the Sri Lankan government.
Malavi’s attitude to the late LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran is uncritical, indeed reverential. She met him on a few occasions and concluded, on the basis of her own experience, that “our leader respected everyone, irrespective of their age, personality or status”.
She says he “was the uniting factor amongst the Tamils” and “commanded the respect and admiration of all the Tamils”.
Speaking of her visit to the home for orphaned girls, she says: “It was obvious that this orphanage was functioning well. I felt so proud of our leader, Mr Prabhakaran, who was responsible for all this”.
Prabhakaran was clearly an inspirational figure. No doubt he provided leadership in the sphere of social welfare policy (including the running of orphanages), as well as in military affairs. Still, the amount of praise for one individual seems excessive.
Most Tamils probably admired him, but certainly not all. He could be ruthless towards those Tamils who opposed him.
In my view, Malavi’s idealisation of the LTTE and Prabhakaran weakens the book. Many readers are likely to be put off by the adulation of an individual.
The story of life under the de facto government of the LTTE, including their provision of services to the people, needs to be told. But the story would be told better without idealisation.