Kethesh: From Tamil Militancy To Tamil Democracy

Friday, August 21st, 2009 by Ahilan Kadirgamar
Reprinted from lines magazine August 2006; this post is part of our commemoration of Kethesh’s life and legacy on the third anniversary of his death.

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Kethesh Loganathan, friend, activist, mentor, political analyst and former militant was also one of those few who came out of that generation of politicized Lankan Tamils that were able to make the transition into democratic politics. One of his major pre-occupations was to challenge the culture of political killings and political violence, which was decimating Tamil politics and any possibility of Tamil democracy. It is therefore all the more tragic that one of those few in our community that understood and attempted to challenge the culture of political killings and political violence himself became the victim of a cowardly movement and a cowardly leader, that targets unarmed dissenters. The assassination of Kethesh so committed to transforming a politics of militarism to democratic politics, is also an unpardonable attack on Tamil democracy.

There are many perspectives as to why the prevalent culture of political killings is disastrous for any community and the definition of political killings itself can be contentious, see for example my editorial in lines two years ago in the November 2004 issue, titled ‘Defining Political Killings’ or the more recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Execution. And while Kethesh would have agreed with all these perspectives, particularly in terms of its assault on dissent and democratization, Kethesh also had a unique perspective, which came out of his depth of experience having participated in the Tamil militant movement, namely EPRLF. His last dozen years of work in civil society and the last few months in the government, were indeed based on his previous twelve years of experience as a militant. He knew intimately the culture of political violence that decimated a generation of politicized and committed youth, willing to come forward for the struggles for justice. Kethesh had great sympathy for those men and women who had taken up arms and were often trapped into a culture of violence. He struggled to think of a process by which former militants could enter the political mainstream through self-criticism and broader societal acceptance. It was this shared experience of a militant past and the torment of seeing others who were trapped in a politics of violence, which he himself had left behind, that pre-occupied Kethesh during the first year of the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002. It was this concern for those active with former militant groups and even those in the ranks of the LTTE, that made him think about how the LTTE’s military structures can be transformed into political and administrative structures, and how the former armed groups including his own EPRLF can be transformed into democratic political parties. He recognized that this not only involved self-criticism and political will among the armed militants but also an openness and acceptance by state and society, as well as those activists and groups in the Tamil community that can facilitate such a transformation.

The acceptance of the former militants by the broader Tamil society was critical, but it was a product of a tension that Kethesh was very much aware. In a May 2003 interview with lines, Kethesh had the following to say:

“One area of difference was on the relations between the people and the organization. The LTTE consciously relegated the people to the state of mute “observers” who would contribute resources and manpower as and when their “saviours” sought it. The more left-oriented organizations like the PLOTE and EPRLF held the notions of “People’s War” and “mass-based” armed struggle. Both were in a way extreme positions which either led to militarism and nihilism, as in the case of the LTTE, or “revolutionary romanticism”, as in the case of EPRLF and PLOTE. Ultimately, myopic organizational interests was the winner – and the people the losers.”

Such a problem that may have emerged due to the approach of the militants to society was now both a problem for those armed groups as well as society. Three decades of armed militancy had destroyed the very fabric of Tamil society, and democracy was sacrificed for militarism and “myopic organizational interests.” A peace process should have addressed this issue in parallel with all the other issues, but to Kethesh’s disappointment, such matters were sidelined. And by early 2003, a year after the CFA, the LTTE initiated a major campaign of political killings, which more or less closed the door for any effort towards bringing the former militants into democratic politics. While political killings is the modus operandi of the LTTE, the state, society and international community, did not seem too concerned about such killings until the murder of the Foreign Minister two and a half years later.

Kethesh for his part, when he saw that the political space for transforming Tamil militants into Tamil democrats was shutting down, put all his energy into preserving society. He opposed forced recruitment and political killings, which he knew if unchecked will consume all of society in the North and East. Today, when we mourn Kethesh, his worst fears have come true. Daily, there is an increasing count of killings by State-backed forces and the LTTE. We hear of continuing child and youth recruitment by the LTTE and the Karuna faction. The LTTE and the State are bent on sacrificing the people of the North and East, by forced training and by recruiting home guards. Any residual space for democratization in Tamil society is being eclipsed by a militarization by all sides, and from Kethesh we know that the people will be the losers. And militarization and repression will not be limited to the North and East, for we know from the two decades of war and the last few years of “peace” that political violence and militarization will spread like cancer to the entire country.

In mourning Kethesh and honoring his life, we must oppose all political killings and the culture of political violence. We must put forward dissent over militarism and military expediency. That will be the first step towards reclaiming the space for democracy and a people centered politics.