Meeting Daya Master in Jaffna in 2013 — Padma Rao Sundarji

Padma Rao Sundarji, being Chapter 7 in her book Sri Lanka. The New Country, bearing the title “Jaffna: A Former Tiger is a TV Producer” …. while I have taken a few liberties with the formatting and also inserted my emphases for reader attention: Michael Roberts

10155718_10152329598339593_3887767725851885689_n (1)The morning after meeting Ravi Kumar, I sat on the balcony over coffee. As puttering motorbikes announced the arrival of couples for breakfast at the Green Grass’s outdoor restaurant, I mulled over a decision I had to make. During my two-years of ‘sick leave’ from the Sri Lanka story, foreign reporters based in Delhi, who had been in Sri Lanka (some of whom had been admonished and deported) but also some social workers and NGOs in Colombo, had told me that I should be careful and utterly fastidious in my choice of whom I speak to in the north and north east on my first trips to post-war Sri Lanka.

The army, they said, was everywhere. Jaffna was crawling with military intelligence. They tapped phones, they shadowed reporters, they were even capable of knocking on your door late at night to confiscate your tapes and laptop.

FORMER LTTE SPOKESMAN DAYA MASTER IN JAFFNA

I now hesitated to call an old acquaintance, the same with the crooked glasses held together on the one side with a rubber band. The same of the wiry frame and broken English, who had ‘welcomed’ us at the eerie, desolate outpost called Omanthai, the de facto border between the areas held by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army, during the ‘fragile peace’ way back in 2002.

Had he been a soldier of the Sri Lankan army, I would not have thought twice about picking up the phone. But Dayanidhi Velayutham, better known as Daya Master, was the former spokesperson and media coordinator of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—a school teacher, who had been pulled out of school by the Tigers and saddled with the task of handling the international media visiting at the time because he could speak some English.

Since that meeting at that tense, desolate outpost in 2002, I had spoken to Daya Master once from New Delhi several years later when the war had re-commenced. There had been numbers—mobile and landline—available to journalists. Nobody knew where these phones were located. They used the same code 0094 as Sri Lanka and ‘were somewhere in the north’. I had needed an input for some story I was working on. At the time, he had sounded faraway, distant and weak. He told me he had had a heart attack and was resting. He didn’t comment at length, but it was sufficient for the small situational update I had to write at the time.

After the war ended in May 2009, I learned that Daya Master and George Master[1] (another media handler for the LTTE) had both surrendered, been interrogated, rehabilitated and released. I learned that Daya Master, like at least 10,000 other former LTTE members, now lived in Jaffna and was a free man.

He had a house somewhere in Jaffna, had a daughter late in life and was now working with a local, pro-government Tamil news channel called Dan TV in Kokkuvil, a suburb of Jaffna town.

Since arriving in Sri Lanka, I had hardly seen and certainly not heard from the army, the police or the intelligence, other than when I sought them out myself.

But I still hesitated over calling Daya Master. Would he, if not I, be interrogated and harassed after meeting me?  Finally I decided to call, leaving it to him to choose whether he could meet me or not.

I could hear the chirpiness of a news and entertainment room in the background, as a lady informed me in excellent English that Daya Master was very much there, remembered me and would be pleased to meet me the next day at an appointed time.

A television channel in India had also wanted some soundbites since I was in Jaffna. Upon hearing that I was going to meet him, they added a request for a short, on-camera interview with him too.

Dan TV, as billboards all along the drive up the A-9 on the peninsula had made obvious, is the most widely watched television channel in the Jaffna peninsula.

Its office-studio in Kokkuvil was located on a quiet residential road, highly reminiscent of Chennai’s more conservative areas like Mambalam and Mylapore both of which I loved and remembered well from my visits to my grandparents’ place as a child.

It was a long, winding road from the Green Grass to Kokkuvil but our Chinese Cherry got there smoothly and easily. As across the peninsula, there were still some empty, pocked shells of houses to be seen, roofless buildings, overgrown with weeds. But everywhere, there was constant reconstruction, re-tarring, rebuilding. It was like witnessing a new city rise speedily from the rubble, at any time of day or night one traversed the peninsula.

Cars with Colombo license plates were crowding the roads outside stalls displaying Katta, the Jaffna dried fish delicacy. It seemed Colombo and the rest of Sri Lanka had been starved of it for thirty years. Business was brisk and booming.

Since I arrived before time at Dan TV studio, I took off my slippers—in true south Indian fashion and like everyone else does—in the verandah and waited for Daya Master.

The crew at Dan TV were mostly young, enthusiastic producers and reporters with wide smiles and gentle friendliness that marks Sri Lanka all over, be it north or south. I find it incredible that the same nation, the same two peoples, could be so incredibly courteous and gentle to all outsiders, and yet so distrustful of sections of their own people—indeed have hated each other for so many decades.

There was also a touching professional respect—that I surely didn’t deserve, as a mere foreign reporter—towards me. It stemmed from the fact that they had heard from Daya Master that I was a journalist from India and had covered the war in Sri Lanka for so long.

My knowledge and experience of their war surely doesn’t match theirs even by a fraction. And yet, there was a transnational, trans-border, professional respect which I find totally lacking in newsrooms in India, manned as they are nowadays mostly by arrogant, cocky, know-it-all reporters. But in this small and modest television studio in faraway Jaffna, it was on full and admirable display.

Daya Master arrived, riding pillion on the motorbike of a colleague. His frame was still wiry, but the end of war had seemingly had a reverse effect. He looked at least ten years younger and hopped off the motorbike lithely. “Welcome! Welcome!” he said, almost as though I was a long lost friend. We went into his small room to talk. I hesitated over switching on my tape recorder, but he read my thoughts and smiled. “I am a free man and can say what I like,” he assured me.

I asked him to tell me his entire story—the bits I had missed about how and when he joined the LTTE, since I had met him only as their spokesman in 2002.

“As you may have gathered, I was a former teacher and had nothing to do with the LTTE,except for living in the territory they held. One day and just weeks before you journalists arrived in 2002, word came to me ordering me to be the group’s spokesman to deal with the media and coordinate their arrival in the Wanni. I had no intention of taking up arms, so I was rather relieved not to be conscripted and agreed.”

So what made him surrender to the Sri Lankan army, a month before the war ended in May 2009?

See, by April that year, the LTTE had lost control. Yet, they wanted to persist with their notion of heroism. No Tamil was to surrender, they told us. At the same time, there was no chance of living in peace anywhere. All one could do was to either die, or try to escape. Many cadres committed suicide by swallowing cyanide.  So people—like I and my family—began taking their own decisions. It was risky, but during that last phase of war, I wore a sarong like an ordinary farmer and we escaped.”

There are so many reports of torture of captured Tamils by the Sri Lankan Army. He had been one of the visible faces of the LTTE. Was he tortured?

Daya Master sat up and spoke forcefully. “Madam, I spent three months in jail,” he told me. “A case was filed against me—as against all former LTTE men—and I was released on bail. I am telling you the truth when I say that up to this day, I have faced absolutely no harassment. If I did, I wouldn’t be here chatting with you. The authorities have treated me well.”

But the Tamils of Tamil Nadu, the Tamil Diaspora around the world, think you are a traitor, I told him. They believe you are lying and that you and others like KP are under tremendous pressure, I insisted. Three members of the DMK had pulled out of the central government in New Delhi just months ago, students were protesting in Tamil Nadu—all on your behalf, to end the ‘genocide’ of your people here, I pointed out to him.

Daya Master’s normally soft voice grew loud. He, like almost everyone I had met till now, railed against Tamil Nadu politicians. “I don’t know how much your government in Delhi heeds to their voice, but these self-immolations, attacks on Sinhala-Buddhist monks in Tamil Nadu and so on are going to achieve nothing.”

But what about all these thirty years? Surely, the Tamils of Tamil Nadu did something for the Sri Lankan Tamils beyond just political rhetoric?

“Absolutely nothing,” he said. “On the other hand, your central government in Delhi is carrying out a lot of development here. It is building houses and laying railway lines. It is clearing the Kankesanthurai harbour. To be fair to Tamil Nadu, maybe your Indian laws don’t permit states to directly invest overseas.  But they should at least stop fomenting trouble between us and the Sinhalese.”

A young reporter brought tea. There was easy camaraderie between him and Daya Master, not the sullen wariness I had seen cloud many Tamil faces, when they were asked about the LTTE, one that stemmed from years of suppression under the tyrannical organization.

I persisted about international opinion and outrage. What about the influential 9,50,000-strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora around the world? It was mobilizing the world to condemn the Sri Lankan government. What did Daya Master think of them?

About to sip his tea, his guffaw made him splutter and he set the cup down rather forcefully on the glass-sheeted desk. “Blah, blah, blah!” he said. “Look madam, they have no constructive plans to offer. I have friends and family settled in Europe. Through them, I know that influential Tamils are still coming around to collect money in the name of some vague ‘cause’.  Many of them have been returning to claim property used by the LTTE that ostensibly belonged to them earlier. But what are they using it for? For their own commercial gains, certainly not for rehabilitating refugees of the war.”

But they were obviously still influential enough overseas to push their host countries to introduce various resolutions in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)and other bodies around the world to condemn Sri Lanka. The US was going to introduce another resolution against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC. What would Sri Lanka do if it is passed by a majority?

Daya Master put down the biscuit he was nibbling, looking both thoughtful and slightly exasperated at my line of questioning. “For heaven’s sake Madam, please, you know better. There were thirty years of war here. Both sides committed crimes. But the past is past. It has been four years since the war ended. Of what use is a post-mortem, over and over again? I am pleased to hear you are travelling in the north and northeast several times this year. Please look around. Development is in full swing. Sure, I agree, more needs to be done. But give the government some time. How many countries in the world have emerged from such a long war and rebuilt within four years even half of what has been achieved here?”

But the ‘international community’ doesn’t buy that argument, I persisted.

Who is this international community, madam? Please tell me? I mean, what is their purpose and role in a small country so far away? They are going over the top and making far too much noise. Why don’t they restrict themselves to doing some developmental work here—as many overseas organizations are indeed doing—and leave our political future to us and our elected governments?”

Daya Master had to go for a short editorial meeting with the owner of Dan TV, a large gentleman, who was later to generously allow me to use his premises, his camera and his staff, for the interview for the Indian channel.

Daya Master disappeared for ten minutes. Meanwhile, I idly scoured my mobile phone in the interim for stern messages or smses or missed calls from the foreign ministry or military authorities, asking me to report my itinerary. Of course, they must know I am traipsing through Jaffna looking for former Tigers. There were none.

When he returned, he looked thoughtful, as though he were still mulling over our conversation. The LTTE war was utterly futile. More than two lakh people, including one lakh LTTE cadres, were killed. You are from the international media. Then please answer this question. Why is it that you people focus only and entirely on the Sri Lankan army, and not on the brutality of the LTTE? I know it intimately, I have witnessed it for decades and indeed was forced to be part of it. Please tell them in your reports to forget the past and concentrate on the future. For us in this country, that is the bottom line.”

But if that is the case and so many of the Sri Lankan Tamils have relatives overseas, why do those relatives still talk of Tamils as though they were a separate entity? Of an Eelam?  How did Daya Master himself feel? Was he a Tamil first? Or a Sri Lankan? Was the transition, if there was one, easy?

“But we are Tamils belonging to Sri Lanka,” cackled Daya Master, genuinely amused at my question.

But of course, you would say that, I said, intentionally. You must be under the watchful eye of someone out there…. I thought he would be offended. Instead, he only turned more vehement.

“Madam, I am telling you, there is no pressure on me to say this, or anything at all. I could have merely kept silent and not agreed to meet you. That would have been fine too. I have a new job here. My own chosen motive is to promote peace and reconciliation. That is why I am fortunate to be with this particular company, which sees it in the same way. We want to live as Tamils in Sri Lanka.”

But how? In what kind of a political constellation? There was still so much discord and dissonance. Elections were coming up for the first time in Jaffna. It was expected that the formerly LTTE-friendly TNA would win. If it did, it would press for the full implementation of the thirteenth amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, one which was co-authored by India under Rajiv Gandhi. It would ask for police and land powers to be handed over to the new provincial council. And it would ask the army to get out of the north and east. Colombo wouldn’t budge on any of those demands. Anger and mutual distrust would resurface all over again.

“Yes, I agree that a mutually acceptable system has to be found,” Daya Master said, opening another packet of cookies. For such a thin person, he ate an inordinately large number. “But we have an elected government—and with the right kind of Tamil political leadership—we will eventually do so. The main thing is that others should allow us to get on with it.”

Had he received any angry calls or threats from the Tamil diaspora? Or, offers to help Dan TV, which is still struggling to function out of its small bungalow in Kokkuvil, from the well-meaning among them?

He shook his head. “No threatening calls, but no constructive offers either. They see us as a pro-government channel, so they don’t want to help us.”

I decide to broach a rather sensitive subject. Is there still a separatist feeling alive among the Tamils within Sri Lanka? Surely, not all of it is restricted to the Tamil diaspora…

“I am a small man. I can’t give you statistical evidence on the entire Tamil population in the country. But among my circle of friends and acquaintances, I can confidently say that the majority feels like I do. There are certain sections within the TNA—local Jaffna factions—who sometimes try to foment trouble. As for Tamil Colombo politicians like Karuna and Douglas, they only show up before elections. After that, they return to Colombo and forget all about their promises.”

Talk of Karuna brings me to my final question. I am curious about the remaining 12,000-odd LTTE cadres who were released to lead a free life. He must be knowing many of them. How are they? Is he in touch? If so, what do they talk about?

Daya Master falls silent. At last he speaks up. Softly, this time. “I am not in touch, Madam. You can understand why,” he looks at me pleadingly. “Nobody is watching me. But still, I don’t want to arouse even the slightest doubts or suspicion. So, I stay away from them. Of course, if we bump into each other, we nod and say hello. But I am not interested in any regular contact.”

“There is another thing. It is sad but interesting. If you remember, the LTTE liked to boast that it had done away with the caste system. In some ways, it had. But the former cadres of the LTTE, upon returning to the mainstream of Tamil society, are facing many problems, especially the women. They are being treated and shunned like outcastes. So, in a way, there is a rebirth of the caste system in Tamil society in the formerly LTTE-held areas. I hear that many of them are finding it very hard to handle.”

He falls silent briefly, but listens with interest, when I tell him about my meeting the former LTTE woman cadres in Killinochchi. “Would you have ever imagined, that you would one day be meeting girls who once wore the same LTTE fatigues you had encountered in the Wanni in 2002, now in SLA uniform? Hopefully, society will begin to accept them too.”[2]

I later go back to the Dan Studio, to conduct a small interview with Daya Master on camera. I find the crew standing around respectfully, waiting for direction, instructions from me. I feel the hilarity of this. Here I am, a journalist from a big city and here are all these boys and girls, who have worked under the most difficult and dangerous circumstances through a long, bloody war. Now they are waiting to draw on my experience, while I am curious about theirs. Since there is only one camera which would have to be repositioned over and over again to shoot cutaways, I tell them to do a straight interview in one single frame. It is just a couple of minutes that the TV channel in India wants.

Daya Master reappears. He had gone to put on some makeup, a pink shirt and a bright, red tie.

“One must look good,” he says laughing, when I look at him in amusement. As the camera is about to roll, I suddenly stop them. They had earlier asked me to okay the frame and I had done so absent-mindedly. It was a wide one. Now, I tell them to tighten it—up to our waists and no further. There is a round of laughter when they realize why I said so.

]After all, it won’t do to have a former Tiger-turned-peace-advocate-television reporter in a tie, shirt and—no shoes.

   ***   ***  END

[1] “Two Key Tamil Tigers surrender,” BBC News, 22 April 2009.

[2] Conversations with former LTTE spokesperson Daya Master, based on on-the-record tape transcript: “TN politicians creating problems for Lanka Tamils,” (interview) Hindustan Times, 21 March 2013.

Note that Chapter 8 in the book is entitled The Chief Minister Designate, a Judge and a Gentleman

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3 Comments

Filed under caste issues, democratic measures, economic processes, ethnicity, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, politIcal discourse, power politics, press freedom, reconciliation, rehabilitation, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil Tiger fighters, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, war crimes, war reportage

3 responses to “Meeting Daya Master in Jaffna in 2013 — Padma Rao Sundarji

  1. syed Iftekhar hussain

    Story of Daya Master reflects reality,and difference between Sri Lankan Tamil people and Tamil diaspora.

  2. Pingback: Addressing Sundarji’s New Sri Lanka … and Thoughts for the Now | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Pingback: A Pukka Sahib dabbling in Sri Lanka’s Landscape and Warring Past: John Gimlette | Thuppahi's Blog

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