Malaysiakini : COMMENT | In the pre-computer era
of the Eighties, the newsroom was never a quiet place to work. The
clatter of typewriters -- the Olivettis, the Remingtons and the
Underwoods usually drowned the voices of those who spoke in whispers.
Elsewhere, a slew of neatly-cut newsprint carbon papers were strewn on
tables and desks.
Add to this was the din from three teleprinter machines from
Associated Press, Reuters and United Press International which would be
providing feed on what was happening around the world, 24 hours a day.When the editor-in-chief,a stern man of few words steps out of his
glass-panelled room, it usually means trouble. He headed to the
sub-editors’ desk and demanded: “Who’s the sub who let this through?” A
fairly new journalist’s hand went up.
“You don’t refer to them as ‘PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation)
terrorists.’ They are freedom fighters,” the young sub was told. The
message was clear. “Whenever you get wire copies, make the changes
immediately,” he was told. Three days later, the editor came out of his office waving a piece of
paper. It was a letter from the Sri Lankan High Commissioner who had
objected to members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) being
stated as “freedom fighters.”
The same young sub who was the “culprit” stood up and held his
ground. “If PLO people can be referred to as freedom fighters, why not
the Tigers be accorded the same status? he asked. He was told: “This is the government’s stand and we follow it.” These
two different references to groups fighting for the same cause was to
be later included in the newspaper’s stylebook – a loose collection of
pages which are updated whenever a crisis occurs.
These days in Penang, the LTTE or the Tamil Tigers of Tamil Ealam
have become fodder for some who seek their five minutes of fame or want
to be noticed by party stalwarts and warlords. It’s the same mob
(photographs portray the same people) who make it part of their SOP to
hold demonstrations after Friday prayers.
Their target this time was Penang Deputy Chief Minister II P Ramasamy
on his alleged links with the LTTE. To the uninitiated, the former
university professor is held in high esteem by the Tamil diaspora and
peacekeepers as a middle-of-the-road ideologue. He had taken part in the
Norway-brokered peace talks before the Tigers were decimated in 2009.
My two years in 'Tamil Eelam'
How do I know this? I spent two years in Tiger country or what the
Tamils perceived as “Tamil Eelam.” For several weeks at a time, I would
be there to ensure the aid is distributed to the needy. Even resin to
make fibre glass boats and fishing nets were donated. These were part of
“get them back on their feet” programme.
I was not there for indoctrination or guerrilla training but coordinating rehabilitation efforts undertaken by theSun after the tsunami hit the north and east of that island. Their hospitality was exceptional. After spending the first night in a
war veteran’s rehabilitation centre, photographer Raj Kumar Soman and I
were moved into their “luxurious” guest house – Tank View – where we
had a selection of dishes for breakfast. I was to relate this to the former Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary (and
later High Commissioner to Malaysia) Nanda Goodage to which he quipped:
“The Tigers are tops when it comes to dealing with foreign media. They
want your sympathy.”
So, what is this brouhaha over Ramasamy? Didn’t he do what Baling MP Azeez Rahim (photo)
did for the Palestinian people? Unlike Azeez, who was flushed with
money and flaunted it publicly, Ramasamy made his little mark at a
series of peace talks.
During the post-tsunami period, there were no less than 60 aid
agencies in the LTTE-held areas. In the course of our rehabilitation
work, we were taken to the Tiger’s naval base, to their TV and Radio
Station, where I was interviewed. I met the entire echelon of the
Tigers, except the supremo, V Prabakharan, who was as elusive as ever.
I was taken to the Warrior’s Cemetery where rows of Tamils killed in
combat had been buried; did my banking in a bank where there were no
guards. (“The people know that we look after their money and they won’t
dare rob or steal.”)
I had contact with the Tiger cadres on a daily basis, sometimes as
our guide as we visited the stricken areas. I had to work with them,
especially on logistics and aid which we had brought. Let it be
reiterated that never at any time was there an effort to indoctrinate,
brain-wash or programme me in their belief that power lies in the barrel
of the gun. But one thing struck me and is still etched in my memory: there was
integrity at all levels. One afternoon, I was standing by the lorry and
counting the boxes of food and supplies which had come from Malaysia, a
Tiger cadre said: “Don’t worry Annan. No one will touch your boxes. If
anyone touches one box, we will put a bullet in his head.”
Fighting for self-rule
After the whole exercise, I took two bottles of water from what we
had brought as I was thirsty. A minute later, the same cadre was
standing beside me asking me sign for the two bottles.
Yes, the Tigers, like the Palestinian people, were fighting for
self-rule and they resorted to violence when talks fizzled out. We don’t
decry Azeez and his Putra Umno merry men who charted a ship to defy the
embargo imposed by Israel.
I was back there in December 2014, on the 10th anniversary of the
tsunami. North and East Sri Lanka has changed. Our favourite watering
holes had been flattened and in its place, new brick buildings.
The hospital in Puthukudiruppu on the coast was a row of
palm-thatched buildings when we presented a portable x-ray machine.
Today, there are three rows of buildings and two ambulances parked in
the drive way.
There are no signs of the Tigers or the remnants. There seems to be
little left of the Tigers. The bullet-ridden holes in some old brick
buildings are standing monuments of a civil war which took over 100,000
lives. What remains as a tourist attraction is huge water tower, laying
flat, which was blown up as the Sri Lankan army advanced.
Ten years had been a long time. Elections have been held and Jaffna
in the north elected a retired judge as its mayor. Now, 18 years later,
there are no signs of the Tigers. There have been occasional clashes
among the three main races – Malays, Singhalese and Tamils. Each time,
they die off with a whimper, thanks to the Sri Lankan Army. Malaysia has participated in peace-keeping missions in areas of
conflict and no one utters a word on our alliances and allegiances. The
moment you act in an individual or NGO capacity, the mob mentality is
ready to lynch you.
Many of us believe in the peaceful settlement of armed conflicts. To
lump all of us together with those who resort to violence is
meaningless. The so-called do-gooders who assembled after Friday prayers would be
better off fighting an urgent cause at home – child marriages.
R NADESWARAN has taken part in many non-journalistic missions and has
enjoyed recording some of them. Comments: email@example.com