By D.B.S. JEYARAJ
“Suthanthirapparavaigal” (Birds of Freedom) was the popular name by which the Women’s political division of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was known in the past. Last week , saw a former woman political commissar of the LTTE tasting freedom after three years of detention and one year of rehabilitation. 41 year old Subramaniam Sivakamy alias “Col” Thamilini became a Suthanthirapparavai or free bird on June 26, 2013.
It was exactly a year ago that Thamilini was transferred from the Colombo Remand Prison (CRP) in Welikada to the Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centre (PARC) at Poonthottam in Vavuniya. She was transferred there on June 26 2012 on an order to that effect issued by then Colombo Chief Magistrate Rashmi Singappuli on June 22nd.The transfer was then perceived as the forerunner of Thamilini’s eventual release after undergoing a period of rehabilitation at Poonthottam PARC which functions as a co-operative training centre.
While undergoing rehabilitation at Poonthottam, Thamilini completed a basic course in computers and also obtained training in bridal dressing. According to the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, Brig.Dharshana Hettiarachchi, Thamilini was formally released on June 26 2013 and handed over to her mother Ms. Sinnamma Subramaniam. She lost her father many years ago.
Apart from her mother, Thamilini’s sister and nieces also came to Poonthottam in Vavuniya to welcome her to freedom. The family members happily accompanied her to their home in Kilinochchi. The inmates at Poonthottam organised a simple farewell ceremony for her. A visibly emotional Thamilini, spoke briefly thanking all the authorities who helped her to freedom through rehabilitation. She said she had learnt a bitter lesson and would never ever join an extremist organisation again. All that she wanted was to stay with her mother and family and then hopefully marry and lead a normal life, said Thamilini with voice quivering and eyes tearing.
With elections to the Northern Provincial Council being anticipated in September this year there has been much speculation in the media that Thamilini was released at this time so that she could be included in the United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA) list of candidates. LTTE and pro -LTTE Diaspora media abroad have launched a vicious attack against her on these grounds.
" The more important crucial issue is that of the future. Obtaining Freedom is great but what happens next? An unfolding human tragedy in the Northern and Eastern Provinces is the pathetic plight of former Tigers "
Whether Subramaniam Sivakamy alias Thamilini would contest elections under the betel or any other symbol is not known at this point of time but the allegation that she was released due to the election is totally wrong. As stated earlier she has completed her period of rehabilitation. It is entirely a coincidence that a Northern Provincial poll is around the corner. There is however a distinct possibility that some party or the other could offer electoral nomination to Thamilini. It is rather doubtful that she would accept. There is an ancient saying about the wind not leaving the tree alone. Even if Thamilini wants to remain aloof, “politics” is not likely to leave her alone.
Currently Thamilini is only interested in spending time with her mother at their home in Kilinochchi. She regrets the past and feels guilty about neglecting her family during her long stint with the Tigers. She now wants to make up for all those lost years by staying with her mother. Although this column and many sections of the media refer to her as Thamilini, the former Tiger leader does not want to be called by the nom de guerre bestowed upon her by the LTTE. In a clear bid to disown her Tiger past, she wants to be called only by her real name Sivakamy now.
While her desire in this matter deserves to be respected the reality is that the media is likely to refer to her as Thamilini for quite a while. It is possible that she would be Sivakamy to her family and close circle of relatives and friends but to the general public and the media she would be Thamilini. Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, Velayutham Dayanidhy and Selvarasah Pathmanathan are all former LTTE members who have now changed their Tiger stripes. Despite this transformation they are yet referred to widely as “Pillaiyan, Karuna, Daya master and KP” respectively. Even TNA Parliamentarians Adaikkalanathan and Premachandran are still called by their TELO and EPRLF nom de guerres Selvam and Suresh. So it would take time for Sivakamy to remove the Thamilini label.
The more important crucial issue is that of the future. Obtaining Freedom is great but what happens next? An unfolding human tragedy in the Northern and Eastern Provinces is the pathetic plight of former Tigers. Though rehabilitated and released most of these ex-LTTE cadres and leaders find it difficult to reintegrate into society. Economic opportunities are scarce. Families are reluctant to accept them. Dominant sections of the social fabric treat them as outcastes. Tamil politicians and Diaspora activists take no note of them.
This sorry state of affairs is more acute among the women. Former “Tigresses” and widows/spouses (mostly ex-LTTE) of Tiger male cadres are up against overwhelming odds. The LTTE’s proud boast that women’s emancipation and liberation was achieved under their rule rings hollow in the present environment. The artificially created “new” social values and structures have collapsed after the downfall of the LTTE. Life has somewhat regressed in these aspects. Women feel this impact greatly in the post-war scenario as they are weak and vulnerable in society. There is little support forthcoming in a society consisting of disempowered people and diminished lives. They are being callously exploited in many instances.
Mercifully for Thamilini her family has not discarded her. There is support from her mother and siblings. Ultimately it is one’s own family that would be forgiving and supportive. Unlike many others in a similar predicament, Subramaniam Sivakamy is blessed to have familial support.
When Selvarasah Pathmanathan alias “KP”offered her an administrative role in the “Bharathi Illam” girls orphanage run by his NERDO (North East Rehabilitation and Development Organisation) at Mulliyawalai, Thamilini thanked him profusely but declined. “I want to be with my mother for some time at least” she told KP tearfully.
Subramaniam Sivakamy’s predicament was the particular focus of this column last year when the former LTTE women’s political commissar was battling to gain freedom through a process of rehabilitation. Thamilini’s background and her long journey towards freedom through rehabilitation is another remarkable story illustrating the resilience and perseverance of the human spirit. It is indeed a tale worth recounting here drawing from previous writings.
Subramaniam Sivakamy alias Thamilini was born on April 23 1972 in Paranthan. Her family has its roots both in Jaffna peninsula and the Wanni. Apparently the family is connected to the last Wanni chieftain Kulasekaram Vairamuthu alias Pandarawanniyan (Wanni Bandara in Sinhala) who defied the British. Pandarawanniyan ruled the fiefdom of Panankamam and was defeated in battle at Katsilaimadhu. A former school principal from Jaffna is currently engaged in writing a historical novel titled “Sivakamy.” It is based on the story of Pandarawanniyan and Thamilini.
Thamilini’s family had later relocated to Paranthan situated between Kilinochchi and Elephant pass. Later the family moved to a house along Kanakapuram road in Udhayanagar, Kilinochhi. Other members of her family are her mother and two sisters both of whom are married. The mother and a sister live in Kilinochchi while the other sister lives in Norway. Another sister was also a member of the LTTE and died in battle at Paranthan during “Operation Sathjaya -2” in September 1998. Thamilini also has a younger brother who is married.
Sivakamy Subramaniam studied at the Paranthan Hindu college up to her GCE O’levels. She then joined Kilinochchi Madhya Maha Vidyalayam for her GCE A’levels. While following A’level classes she got attracted to the LTTE after listening to talks given in school by Tiger recruiters. She joined the LTTE formally on July 27, 1991 and underwent military training in two LTTE bases at Kilaly and Neervely in the Jaffna Peninsula. She was enrolled in the LTTE under the ID card number 1736. Sivakamy adopted the nom de guerre Thamilini. She was stationed at various parts of Valikamam region in the Peninsula. Later she was moved to the Kilinochchi and Kilaly areas.
Initially Thamilini was part of the LTTE fighting formations and participated in many skirmishes. Her first experience of a major battle was in September 1993 during “Operation Yarldevi” when the army advanced from Elephant pass and attempted to capture Kilaly. She was also involved in the LTTE’s amphibious attack on the Pooneryn and Nagathevanthurai camps codenamed “Operation Thavalai” (frog) in November 1993.
The LTTE seized a T-55 battle tank from the Army in Pooneryn. Thamilini was part of a contingent assigned “sapper” duties. They had to quickly create a route through jungle terrain to facilitate rapid transport of the T-55.
LTTE political adviser Anton Balasingham and wife Adele were impressed by Thamilini after a discussion and got her transferred to the political division. Thamilini was put in charge of a coir factory and a farm run by girls. She was also made an editorial board member of the LTTE women’s magazine called ”Suthanthirapparavaigal.” Greatly influenced by Adele Balasingham, Thamilini became an ardent feminist.
The women’s division was generally referred to as “Suthanthirapparavaigal” or “birds of freedom” in the early days. This was because of a journal published under that name by the division. The “Birds of freedom” members used to engage in house to house propaganda and discuss politics with the women of the house. They also helped collect funds for the LTTE. The “Suthanthirapparavaigal” also helped cook meals, render first aid and help nurse injured cadres.
Many of the “Freedom birds” also wanted to get arms training and become regular fighters. They were however put on a waiting list and kept in limbo. So they remained with the LTTE as part of the political wing and occupied themselves by cooking and transporting meals to male cadres manning sentry posts.
" The “Birds of freedom” members used to engage in house to house propaganda and discuss politics with the women of the house. They also helped collect funds for the LTTE. The “Suthanthirapparavaigal” also helped cook meals, render first aid and help nurse injured cadres "
There is a mistaken impression that it was Adele Balasingham who pioneered the “Freedom Birds” in Jaffna. That was not so. Adele came into the Jaffna scene in a big way only after 1990 when the LTTE was in control of the greater part of the north after the Indian army departure. Earlier she had some interaction with LTTE women cadres based in India. However Adele Balasingham in later years helped streamline and re-structure the women cadre units. The LTTE women fighters became an integral combat unit of the LTTE. Their earlier ancillary non-combatant duties diminished over the years. The fighting formations of female tigers were named Malathi and Sothiya regiments after pioneering LTTE woman fighters killed in action.
During the last days of the Tigers, Thamilini held the rank of colonel in the LTTE. When arrested she was the senior most woman cadre of the Tigers in custody. Thamilini as the chief of the LTTE women’s division political wing (mahalirani Arasiyat poruppaalar) was the female counterpart of Balasingham Mahendran alias Nadesan the male political commissar of the Tigers.
Thamilini along with Malathi division commander Kandiah Gnanapoorani alias Vidusha and Sothiya division commander Kalaichelvi Ponnuthurai alias Thurga formed the top trio of women cadres in the LTTE in its final phase. While Vidusha joined the LTTE in 1986 and Thurga in 1989,Thamilini did so in 1991.Both Vidusha and Thurga are dead.
After the successful “operation Riviresa” conducted by the Army in 1995-96 the LTTE was forced to relocate in full to the Wanni. Thamilini continued to work in the political division. But when the Army launched “operation Jayasikuru” in 1997-98 to retake the Wanni, Thamilini was compelled to join the fighting units. She was deployed in the Mankulam area and experienced much hardships. At one stage they had run out of cooked food and had to survive on fruits growing in the wild for days.
Thamilini made a good impression on Balasingham and Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan who was then the Political chief of the LTTE. This enabled her to rise rapidly from the ranks and eventually become women’s division political head in June 2000. Despite this Thamilini had to engage in combat again when the Army mounted “operation Agnikheela” in 2001 to recapture Elephant pass.
After the Oslo facilitated ceasefire of February 2002 the LTTE set up a permanent political secretariat in Kilinochchi. Thamilini being a doughty feminist fought for equality within the LTTE structures and gained some success. Earlier the women’s political division was treated as a component of the main political wing. Now Thamilini fought and gained functional autonomy. She also got “status symbols.” A double cab with back up vehicles and bodyguards!
The ceasefire period also helped Thamilini to broaden her horizons in more ways than one. She led a team of LTTE women cadres to Colombo to participate in seminars and discussions concerning women’s rights and issues. She was also part of LTTE delegations that toured Europe in 2003 and 2005. While in Europe Thamilini interacted with several Diaspora groups. She addressed many meetings and made a terrific impact on her audiences.
It was during this time that a romance of sorts flourished between Thamilini and a former member of the LTTE in a western country. Earlier when LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran was pairing LTTE men cadres with women cadres and marrying them off, Thamilini had declined marriage. But now during her sojourns abroad she came across this former LTTE member now settled in Europe. There was mutual attraction and some love at least was lost between them. The man too came over to the Wanni and spent some time in Kilinochchi but they did not get married then.
The ceasefire ended and war erupted and intensified. Slowly and steadily the Armed forces advanced and the LTTE retreated. Finally the Tigers were boxed into a narrow strip of the littoral in Karaithuraipatru AGA division of Mullaitivu district. The outcome became a foregone conclusion after the battle of Aanandapuram on April 4 -5th 2009 where the Tiger northern commander Theepan was killed.
The women commanders Vidusha and Thurga were also killed in this battle. Thamilini also participated in this battle and was feared dead but it later transpired that she had only been slightly injured. The deaths of her long standing comrades-at-arms, Vidusha and Thurga shattered Thamilini. She also realised that defeat was inevitable but continued to stay in beleaguered Puthumaathalan due to her loyalty to the movement.
With the end drawing close in mid-may 2009 the LTTE hierarchy was forced to let go of those who sought safety by going over to government controlled territory and surrendering to the armed forces. Thamilini, her mother and sister too did so on May 15th. Thamilini discarded her weapons, uniform, ID card and tell tale cyanide capsule and mingled with the large scale civilian influx along with her family members. They were all accepted as non-LTTE civilians and brought to Vavuniya on May 20th 2009.They were lodged in a welfare camp.
But the high-profile Thamilini was soon recognised by other inmates. The authorities were tipped off and Thamilini was arrested on May 27 2009. She was brought to Colombo for interrogation by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Police. She was also interrogated by operatives of national and military intelligence.
She was later produced in courts under the emergency regulations on June 17 2009 before then Colombo Chief Magistrate Nishantha Hapuarachchi. Officials submitted a preliminary dossier on her activities in the LTTE. Court was told that further interrogation had to be conducted. The Chief Magistrate ordered that she be produced in courts again on July 17 2009. Subsequently another two weeks time was allowed.
" Though Thamilini had engaged in combat there was no evidence that she had been involved in any instances of terrorism. She was also not implicated in any action perpetrated by the LTTE in Colombo or any of the Southern provinces "
A noteworthy feature of the Thamilini saga has been the praiseworthy interest and concern shown by the courts in ensuring that the LTTE women’s political head received a fair deal. Courts made it a point to ascertain that Thamilini was being treated well and that further detention for interrogation was really necessary.
Former Colombo Chief Magistrate Hapuarachchi utilised powers under emergency regulations to visit CID headquarters personally on August 5 2009 and examine the situation there before granting a further date.
Both he and Rashmi Singappuli who succeeded him as Colombo Chief Magistrate were giving only short periods of time to the law enforcement authorities to conclude their investigations thus curbing the tendency of protracted detention in Police custody.
After investigations concluded and Thamilini’s file went up to the Attorney-General’s Department, she was remanded. Courts continuously issued short dates thus making sure that Thamilini’s case was not put in limbo as in the cases of many others. She was produced more than a dozen times in courts. The AG’s department continued to procrastinate. The chief reason being the lack of definite intention on the part of the Defence establishment.
The Defence Ministry that was overseeing the investigations into detained ex-LTTE members was adopting twin principles in dealing with them. Each case was treated on its individual merits and scrutinised. They were then categorised as hard and soft. Those found to be “unrepentant”, those who had taken the “black Tiger” suicide oath and those found to be involved in incidents amounting to brutal terrorism were treated as hard. Others including those who had fought directly in battle were treated as soft.
The specific case of Thamilini posed a curious dilemma for the Defence authorities. Though Thamilini had engaged in combat there was no evidence that she had been involved in any instances of terrorism. She was also not implicated in any action perpetrated by the LTTE in Colombo or any of the Southern provinces. Moreover Thamilini had been a well -known head of the LTTE women’s division political wing and was regarded more as a political activist than military combatant in spite of her being the highest ranking Tigress or ex-Tigress in custody.
Against that backdrop there was no compulsion or necessity on the part of the Defence authorities to target Thamilini and penalise her. Despite her high-ranking seniority few in the Defence establishment wanted to charge her in courts and convict her to a long term of imprisonment. Had Thamilini been involved in a horrible civilian massacre, assassination of a senior political leader or explosive attacks causing innumerable deaths the situation may have been different. But her hands were clean in those respects and hence there was no overwhelming desire to prosecute and convict her.
There was however a hitch in releasing her from custody .The problem was not in Thamilini’s past but in what her future course of action would be. What would she do after her release? She had been a high ranking high profile leader of the LTTE. Would she be used by LTTE and pro-LTTE elements among the global Tamil Diaspora to engage in campaigns against the state? Would she go abroad and be utilised as an instrument of propaganda by vested interests abroad? Would the hardliners among Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka entice her into their ranks and raise levels of confrontational politics? The authorities agonised over Thamilini.
There was also another school of thought within some sections of the CID and TID that wanted Thamilini to be charged in courts and made an example of. Although there was no evidence of her being involved in sheer terrorism like massacring civilians, blowing up buildings and vehicles with people or assassinating political leaders there was the question of command responsibility as she was a high ranking senior leader. Besides to what extent was the LTTE political wing responsible for actions of the military wing?
Another aspect in this matter was that Thamilini as the woman political commissar of the LTTE had incurred the anger of some people affected by her. There were allegations that Thamilini had been very tough and unrelenting in conscripting young girls into the movement particularly during the final phase of the conflict. Officials probing allegations against Thamilini felt that valid charges could be filed against her in four instances.
" Many of these former Tigers now realise the precious nature of life and the necessity of living, however adverse the prevailing circumstances are "
Despite these counter views the overwhelming opinion in official circles was for Thamilini to be released. But the multi-crore question was how? There was an impasse!
This prolonged delay led to her lawyer Manjula Pathiraja pleading before court that the Police or AG’s department should be ordered to arrive at a decision without dragging on matters. In an impassioned address to court Pathiraja pointed out that Sivakamy had been deprived of the chance to lead a normal, free life in the years of her youth due to her involvement with the LTTE. Now she was being denied the chance of a normal life during the remaining years of her life because of imprisonment caused by protracted delay of the Attorney General’s department, emphasised Pathiraja.
Understanding the plight of Thamilini, Colombo Chief Magistrate Rashmi Singappuli took an enlightened view of the situation and ordered the Prosecution (in this instance the CID) to expedite proceedings and obtain a firm opinion from the AG’s dept. as to whether an indictment was going to be filed in the High court or not.
When the case was taken up again the CID informed courts that the AG’s dept had indicated it was not going to file an indictment in the High Court against Thamilini. Instead the Attorney-General’s dept had advised the Police that steps could be taken to provide rehabilitation for Thamilini if she was amenable. This in effect was a prelude to eventual release.
Chief Magistrate Rashmi Singappuli then told Thamilini’s lawyer Manjula Pathiraja to find out from his client whether she was prepared to undergo rehabilitation. Pathiraja met Thamilini in person and discussed the situation. Realising that obtaining rehabilitation was the passport to ultimate release she consented. Thereafter Pathiraja informed court that Thamilini was willing. The Chief Magistrate then ordered the transfer of Thamilini from Welikada to Poonthottam in Vavuniya to obtain rehabilitation. Now she has been released after one year of rehabilitation.
It is worth recalling here the circumstances under which Manjula Pathiraja had become Thamilini’s lawyer. Pathiraja was not Thamilini’s lawyer during the early days of incarceration. Inititially, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian from Jaffna, Appathurai Vinayagamurthy, was her lawyer. Vinayagamurthy was aligned to a Non-Governmental Organisation that looked after detenues requiring legal services.
Since Thamilini was a senior LTTE member her arrest and detention attracted much interest. The LTTE and pro-LTTE elements in the global Tamil Diaspora were enraged. They were angry that Thamilini had surrendered to the armed forces instead of consuming cyanide. A vicious allegation was spread that Thamilini was among a group of ex-LTTE cadres collaborating with the state to identify and ferret out other members of the LTTE avoiding detection and capture. This writer too has written about this in the past. This allegation however was proved untrue.
Against that backdrop, Thamilini’s lawyer of the time, Appathurai Vinayagamurthy suddenly lost “interest” in his client. He simply dropped the case and stopped representing her in court. The reasons for this are unclear but there is conjecture that Vinayagamurthy succumbed to intense pressure from extremist sections of the Diaspora who regarded Thamilini as a traitor.
" The LTTE and pro-LTTE elements in the global Tamil Diaspora were enraged. They were angry that Thamilini had surrendered to the armed forces instead of consuming cyanide "
Whatever the reasons may be, the abandoning of Thamilini by Vinayagamurthy left the latter lawyerless. It was in this situation that another lawyer Dusith Johndasan was retained by Thamilini’s sister in Norway. Johndasan was recommended by a friend from Mannar now living in Norway. Johndasan in turn brought the matter to the notice of fellow lawyer Manjula Pathiraja who agreed to watch Thamilini’s interests on compassionate grounds. Thereafter Pathiraja instructed by Johndasan appeared regularly for Thamilini. Pathiraja did not charge any fees for his services.
The story of Subramaniam Sivakamy alias Thamilini is illustrative of many young Tamil men and women from the North and East of the Island who joined the LTTE with idealistic fervour at an impressionable age. Their dream lies totally shattered while their lives are broken and battered. Many of those given the chance to do so are slowly picking up the pieces and trying to forge their lives afresh. Many of these former Tigers now realise the precious nature of life and the necessity of living, however adverse the prevailing circumstances are.
The Tiger and pro-Tiger Diaspora playing a destructive role have commenced targeting Thamilini after her release. These vituperative attacks are likely to increase in the coming days. The important thing however is that Thamilini is now a free woman.
This column hopes and wishes that Subramaniam Sivakamy would gain inner peace and happiness as she proceeds along the road to ultimate redemption.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org