Arrest of Ex – Eastern Chief Minister Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyaan has Potential to Open can of Worms for all Stake Holders


N Sathiya Moorthy

Independent of prevailing perceptions, arrest of former Eastern Province Tamil Chief Minister, Sivanesanthurai Chandrakanthan alias ‘Pillayan’ in connection with the Christmas Day church killing of TNA parliamentarian Jospeh Pararajasingham in 2005, has the potential to cut both ways. While it is reassuring that the new Government has begun to act on the promise to the international community on ‘accountability’ and ‘war crimes’, this particular arrest as a starting-point has the potential to open a can of worms for all stake-holders.

Commenting on Pillayan’s arrest, TNA’s spokesperson, M. A. Sumanthiran, MP, has been reported to have said that he would not be surprised if two other former Tamil militants-turned-ministers, namely, Douglas Devananda and Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan alias ‘Col Karuna’, too were arrested (possibly for other ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability issues’ alleged to have been committed by them). Whether or not his anticipation comes true, arrests of the kind has the potential to kick up dust all round in which ‘accountability issues’ could be soaked and choked.

Pillayan was an LTTE renegade under Karuna when Pararajasingham was killed, near-point-blank. His arrest followed the information reportedly provided by two others held in connection with the murder in recent weeks. Whether Sumanthiran indicated that Karuna too might have been involved in the murder is unclear, but there is nothing to suggest that Devananda could have been involved, even remotely.

Of course, Devananda has scores of charges of ‘para-military killing’ by his cadres, particularly of LTTE men, their sympathisers and supporters, against him – during the war-years, the Norwegian-facilitated ceasefire and afterwards. He operated in the North. Karuna and Pillayan were LTTE commanders in the East, before quitting post-haste, fearing annihilation if they obeyed Prabhakaran’s orders and met him in his Vanni den.

Between them, Devananda found political solace from his days as a militant early on. The other two, independent of Devananda and working together, followed suit, much later. Between the two, Pillayan developed political ambitions independent of Karuna, his master until then, ahead of the 2008 Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) poll, and became Chief Minister. Karuna became a Minister in the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Centre. Yet, selective charges of the kind against them had continued.

Though unconvincing, successive Governments at the Centre, including those earlier in which incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister, had projected Devananda’s induction and continuance as minister as how a militant could be mainstreamed and given positions of responsibility – and discharged with sincerity. President Rajapaksa later on would show up Karuna and Pillayan as the products of his Government’s sincerity in mainstreaming and also politically rehabilitating even ex-LTTE cadres/leaders.

All of them might have had a point, as the Karuna group, for instance, was known to have been tasked by the LTTE in the killing of 600 policemen at one go, and yet he could become a minister with the hope and expectations of doing good to his ‘victimised’ Tamil people. But in the context of the Pillayan arrest, questions arise about the fate of the 12,000 ex-LTTE cadres, who too were rehabilitated at the end of the war, and who are now said to be leading a peaceful, private life.

After all, they all were given guarantees not only of anonymity, where some might have sought the same. By implication and otherwise, they were also given to understand, at least at the time, that they would not be proceeded against for ‘war crimes’ and what now has become ‘accountability issues’ in the eyes of the international community, the victimised communities – including Sinhalas – the Sri Lankan State and the international community, to boot.

Ironically, could the Sri Lankan State too project itself a victim of ‘war crimes’ of the LTTE kind? If survivors – be they those that had surrendered and rehabilitated, or those who are located overseas – could be linked to the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, assassination-attempt on President Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumaratunga and a host of parliamentarians, ex-Army officers like Maj-Gen. Janaka Perera and a host of others, would they be brought to book?

More importantly, would the international community, the ‘victimised’ Tamil community and TNA, and also the Sri Lankan State display the same kind of enthusiasm that they all now seem to have viz their demands and processes, starting with the UNHRC, for investigations into allegations of war-crimes against the Sri Lankan armed forces.

If yes, how are they all going to strike a balance, in terms of numbers, victims’ profile and those that are going to be held accountable? Or, where would the bug stop?

As TNA’s Sumanthiran has pointed out, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), discredited at the time and accepted selectively afterward, had levelled specific charges against Devananda and Karuna. Though some dust got kicked up at the time, it is anybody’s guess why President Rajapaksa at least did not ask them both to step aside from ministerial office and initiate criminal investigations against them – more specifically on those pertaining to the post-war period.

Among those named by the LLRC Report, Devananda protested loudly, and at the same time offered to face investigations. Yet, on the larger canvas of war-crimes and accountability issues, how would the actions, if proven, of his para-military, if any, be treated. Devananda’s EPDP was a registered political party and he was a democratically-elected Minister of the Government. Granting that he also headed a parallel para-military that killed and maimed (fellow Tamils, according claims and charges) throughout his long ministerial career, two specific questions arise:

One, the war having been fought between the Government forces and the LTTE for most parts, and more so during the period mentioned in the UN/UNHRC probes and resolution on ‘accountability’ count (2002-post-war), would any act of violence /killing indulged in by other individuals or groups (whatever the motive, method and justification) qualify to be classified as ‘war crime’? Or, could it only have been a case of murder(s) of whatever kind, punishable as such under the existing law(s) of the land, including those pertaining to possession of illegal weapons?

The second query pertains to the LTTE-aborted second round of Geneva peace-talks of 2006, when President Rajapaksa was in power. The LTTE stayed away, arguing that the Government had not kept its commitment to disarm the ‘para-militaries’, given in the first round. If the Norwegian-facilitated first-round agreement has any legal validity, it could well flow that the ‘para-militaries’ (which were not named, and may still have referred to the EPDP and the Karuna faction), were not a part of the ‘war’, but were outsiders, harassing the general population in the vicinity of the war.

Sumanthiran’s observations, correct and justified as they are, could put the Government in a political spot, and with that the international community, too: If the LLRC could be part-believed, why not trust it to have done a decent job of the rest of its mandate, too? After all, the US-led UNHRC resolution in 2012 and 2013 had sought only the implementation of the LLRC resolution, and there was nothing any more substantial about an ‘international investigation’ at the time.

The question thus arises if the failure of the Sri Lankan Government (whoever was in power) to implement/enforce the LLRC recommendations, wholly or partially – as claimed by the Rajapaksa time at various points – entail the replacement of the domestic mechanisms with an international investigations, going back in time, space and act? In quasi-legal terms, which alone could be applicable, if at all, to the LLRC’s set-up, setting up and circumstances, can the same crime be investigated by different agencies, other than those authorised under the law, namely, the police, at different points in time?

Other larger issues can be as ethnically sensitive as they could become political. In the persona of Pillayan, Karuna and Devananda, the ‘accountability’ investigations have in its net, ex-Tamil militants, including two one-time LTTE commanders, who are also generally in the good books of the larger Tamil community, nearer home and afar. Of course, this does not mean that the ‘victimised’ communities would be satisfied with it, but it should not also end up being seen as hitting two birds with a single sling-shot.

Any broad and deep investigations against the likes of Pillayan now, and the likes of Karuna and/or Devananada, maybe subsequently, could also have legal and constitutional consequences for others, as also the Sri Lankan State. If what they had committed were ‘war crimes’, where should the political culpability for the ‘constitutional cover’ that they might have had end?

Devananda was a Minister under Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa. Karuna and Pillayan too were in office when President Rajapaksa was around. They all also held constitutional positions. How should any future investigations, either under the existing law or a future one under the UNHRC resolution, treat them, in terms of crimes and war-crimes?

It may be a grey area, at least as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, and it’s in situations like this that ‘international legal expertise’ may be of help. Whether that should mean involving international investigators and judges directly in such matters is another question altogether. There, for instance, Parliament and the Supreme Court may (have to) take a call, too, independent of whatever commitments that the Government of the day might have given to the international community.

There is also the unasked question, and unmentioned answers. In their heads, through their transition-time from militancy to mainstreaming, and through their years in elected office(s), the likes of these three carry memories and secrets that could well be embarrassing to the Sri Lankan State at times, and their political godfathers of different times, in the person of Presidents, Prime Ministers and the rest. The media at the time, and afterwards, too, had attributed the ‘Karuna rebellion’ to the PM’s Wickremesinghe’s handling of the inevitable internal feud in the LTTE at the time.

What price thus the ‘Karuna rebellion’, or what price the ‘Devananda loyalty’, for instance, are the kind of questions that the nation has been asking itself since then – but with no answers. The question is also about what crime/war-crime investigations could do to the persona named, and others like them, but to their political godfathers, the Government of the day and the Sri Lankan State, otherwise?

More of political culpability than personal accountability, it could well be – more so, if the Sri Lankan systems, starting with the Legislature and the Judiciary began displaying minds and views of their own. That’s when the international community would get once again frustrated with Sri Lanka, this time over a government leadership that they have favoured in letter and spirit (going by the UN and UNHRC documents). That would also be when the Tamils would end up crying foul (and not always for any fault of theirs), and about the ‘Great Sinhala Conspiracy’, when none may really exist.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi)