Currently living in exile in France, the Sri Lankan Tamil writer Shobasakthi was once part of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and has been away from his homeland since 1990. He has written several short stories, essays and two novels, Gorilla and Traitor, in Tamil—the last of which is out now in an English translation. Most of Shobasakthi’s work features blood, spilled on either side of the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka, as its leitmotif. Edited excerpts from a phone conversation with the writer:
Do you think Tamils and Sinhalese will ever live in harmony in Sri Lanka?
No. They won’t stay in harmony. Nothing will happen until the Tamils get political rights like the Sinhalese and are treated as equals. Until the Lankan government finds a political solution for the rightful aspirations of Tamils, peace won’t have a chance.
Is the antipathy towards Tamils a relatively recent phenomenon?
From most accounts, it’s a 20th century phenomenon. And it dates from exactly the time when Sri Lanka won independence, in 1948. The Sinhalese political parties have systematically cast Tamils aside since. In 1956, Sinhala was made the official language of the country—so many Tamils in government service lost their jobs. Then there was the attempt to make Buddhism the official religion of Sri Lanka. Matters really became worse in the 1970s, when larger sections of the Tamil population realized that they will have to take up armed struggle.
Did the idea of non-violence ever have a place in the ideology of the Tamil forces?
No. More than Mahatma Gandhi, we in the 1970s were under the influence of Marxism, Maoism, Trotskyism and Che Guevara. The numerous Tamil movements of the 1970s in Sri Lanka were orientated in Leftist and radical Leftist terms. Non-violence was never part of our thinking.
What did you make of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran as a leader?
Leader! He was a warlord. He was hell-bent on killing and mayhem in order to push through the idea of Tamil Eelam (a separate Tamil state) and totally intolerant towards any criticism of his methods inside the LTTE. His understanding of politics was zero. He only understood violence.
Was LTTE the only way Tamils could assert themselves in Sri Lanka?
LTTE eliminated all other political options for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The Tamil members in the Dalit Party and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka didn’t last very long. LTTE did not spare them. So these developments left the cornered Tamil population with no other choice but to support LTTE, even if they weren’t convinced of its ideals. There were also very many cases of young Tamil men forcibly enlisted into the LTTE. These would be boys of 16 or 17, snatched away from their homes. They would be given only two weeks’ training and sent to fight. Many almost immediately lost their lives. Due to this, there’s tremendous rage against the LTTE among Tamils too.
Do you think India could have done more for the Tamils in Sri Lanka? Do the Tamils there nurse a disappointment on that score?
One hundred per cent Tamils of Sri Lanka feel let down by India.
After LTTE’s destruction, what’s the future of Tamils in Sri Lanka? Do you buy into President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assurances?
He has not said anything about granting Tamils political rights. By that I mean representation in the government. Recognition of Tamil as another official language. Jobs, security, etc. Nothing, he has said nothing so far.
We hear reports of radical Tamil forces regrouping now. What do you think will happen?
There’s no chance of a movement like the one that existed will ever come back. Also, Tamils won’t want something like that to happen again. We will have Tamil political movements, surely, but they will be without arms now.
What made you become a child soldier?
Let me correct that a bit. Child soldiers are usually forced against their will to become soldiers. That was not the case with me. In 1983, I willingly chose to become part of the LTTE. I was angry at what I saw. It was the year of the infamous Welikade Prison Massacre when 53 Tamils were slain in a jail riot by the Sinhalese. I was in class X then, a chinna payyan (small boy), but I knew I had to fight for Eelam.
What have you been doing in France?
I worked in the lobby of a hotel, as a waiter in a restaurant, as a dishwasher, cook, room boy, construction worker.
What are you doing now?
I’m without a job, but getting French government payouts for unemployed people through their social welfare scheme. Between 1993 and 1997 I was part of the Communist Party in France.
How has writing helped you?
Since school I was interested in drama, writing, etc. I studied literature during the time I worked here in France. It has been the only way I have known to channelize my anger.
Can you go back to Sri Lanka?
If I do, I will be put in jail and beaten up. My own writings are used to brand me as a traitor. The situation is as bad, if not worse, for Sinhalese journalists and writers too, not just me.
Traitor by Shobasakthi, translated by Anushiya Ramaswamy, Penguin, Rs399.