The story of a man who transformed his life to shelter and educate hundreds of kids affected during armed conflict and due to social disparity in Sri Lanka. He is widely known as KP. Selvarasa Pathmanathan is now a social activist and founded the North-East Rehabilitation and Development Organization
When the world’s one-time most wanted man is given the chance to speak, what does he say? When he is given the chance to walk freely, where does he go? When he is given time and freedom, what does he do?
His name is Selvarasa Pathmanathan, but most people refer to him as a terrorist. Known as KP, he was a driving force behind the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world, the LTTE. Where is KP today and what has he been doing during the last decade since the brutal conflict ended in 2009?
In the second week of April this year, I visited Kilinochchi in the Northern Province and sat with a man, who today weighs his words more than he ever did. His life depends on his work and words more than ever before.
He is a case study in searching for the true meaning of reconciliation. He has shown that reconciliation is not merely a game of rhetoric at international forums to gain personal desires but commitments toward helping society uplift livelihoods of ordinary men and women.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
by Nilantha Ilangamuwa
Q: Tell me about Sencholai?
Thank you for visiting me and for your organisation to give us some publicity. I have to thank the President for giving me this opportunity to start Sencholai. While I was in custody in Colombo, I made a request to the President, who was at the time the Defence Secretary; I told him I wanted to do something useful for the rest of my life, particularly for children and elders. He gave me permission and allowed me to visit Kilinochchi and to select a place and start a children’s home. It was in 2010.
We started Anbu Children’s Home in Mullaitivu then Bharathi Children’s Home in the same area. These lands were previously occupied by the Army and when we requested these lands they handed it back to us. Over 100 girls who were affected by the war were enrolled and we are successfully running the school. Most of them are without parents, others with single parents. They lived a very difficult post-conflict life. We wanted to support them through their education. At the beginning in Anbu we had 30, within six months we had over 100 children. And then we started Bharathi. There are over 100 girls there. We are very successfully running this orphanage. This one we opened in 2013.
When I was arrested I thought that they were going to deport me. When I landed here, I thought to myself that my life was over. When I heard of the Defence Secretary who is the President today, I conjured up the image that he was a very serious, stern and tough person. When I landed here I thought they would take me to the cemetery. I said bye to my family in my heart and thought to myself that this life had ended, that maybe in the next life I could meet them again.
They took me to the Defence Secretary’s house. When I entered I noticed in the entrance a statue of the Buddha. When I saw the light I got a feeling that I was safe. I was feeling very low at the time but when I saw this light, I felt a little energised. I sat down with the Defence Secretary and he came and shook hands with me. When he sat down and began to talk, I was thinking to myself, ‘What is going on? This cannot be happening to me. This is the opposite of what should be happening to me.’
He was seated so freely and talking casually, contrary to the picture people painted and propagated of him. I got the belief that I was safe. Within a minute, I went from hell to heaven. It is because of this experience that I know what it is like. We discussed both the past and the future. He gave many chances for the LTTE to come to a peaceful solution but they didn’t accept it, he told me. He asked me to forget the past and told me that they were not the kind of people who would take revenge. He told me I could live comfortably without any worries. We spoke for two hours that day.
From time to time he spoke to me and we also met. Within two to three days he let me speak to my family. I think it was the next day. My wife and daughter were worried but when I called them they were happy and he told me that my family could visit me anytime. Within one or two months my family arrived. I spoke the truth. The war had ended and we had to work for the betterment of the society and the country. A friend of mine told me that I was the only one from the LTTE to win him over. The politicians here have a different image of him. If I have a chance, I’d like to write about these stories.
Sencholai – when we took this land they had already named it Sencholai and we kept the name. Neither the President nor the other officials said anything. This is not for military purposes. There are 140 girls and 40 boys.
Q: After going through all that you went through, how do you introduce yourself?
I am a social worker, I am going to devote the rest of my life to society and children. My life should end with these children.
Q: Why did you choose to help children?
Elders have completed their life but these children are like flower buds. If they go to the wrong side, the wrong hand, their life will be over. But if you give them a good life and make them independent, they can live a better life. Even after the end of the war, society is messed up. The children are not safe, there’s poverty, the girls are leading an unsafe life devoid of parents to care for them. We are looking after 300 girls and they are happy. During the last Government I couldn’t do much but now I wish to continue the good work.
Q: What in your view is the biggest mistake you made?
I believed the politicians’ lies and I missed the life I could have lived. When I was a student I was studious but upon hearing these speeches by various politicians I went over to the other side.
Q: Tell me about your parents?
We lived a very difficult life but they wanted to send me a good school as well as university. I did my Bcom at Jaffna University. But at the end of the second year, I was hunted by the Military. I didn’t enjoy my life as much at university because I became involved in politics.
Q: When was your first visit to Colombo?
In the 1970s by train. Life was different here. People were happy and lived by their culture.
Q: Tell us about your teachers growing up?
I remember each of my teachers and both my principals. This college made me different. They were the real teachers. It was never difficult to learn from them, they even came home and taught us.
Q: Why did society deteriorate from what you saw when you were schooling?
Certain countries prospered and others were far behind. It was all about the management. Some welcomed the changes and here we took those changes in a different way. They spoiled our country.
Q: You mentioned that you were emotionally influenced by the politicians at your time. Tell us more?
Yes, there were several politicians who gave emotional speeches and we were students at the time. They not only misled me, they misled the entire younger generation.
Q: You are a case study of reconciliation, how do you view it?
Reconciliation is not an easy task. Many people do not follow it. Every day when the situation or occurrence comes to mind, I compare and analyse it myself. So even from 2009 until now I am with security personnel; sometimes I feel something but I analyse myself and find that they are right. There’s no need for me get nervous or worried. I make mistakes but this is a chance they gave me so I accept it. I can’t go back. I have to keep my dignity and also prevent others from going back.
Q: Tell us why you chose to teach political science and history?
Every person ought to know their history. Children now grow up with little or no proper knowledge of the country’s history. They need to know how so many visionaries built this country from the time it gained its independence; it is only if they know that they can help build the country in the same way.
Q: Do you think the current education system fails to teach this?
It’s all there in the syllabus but there is a lack of teachers. At certain times teachers need to teach particular subjects in-depth but fail to do so. We have struggled all these years because politicians ruled the game but if children are taught what political science is, they can decide what is right and wrong. If they know the country’s law, they won’t go against the law. But if they are not familiar with the law, they will break the law. When we were younger we broke the law because we felt if the leaders were doing it, we could do it too. Children should acclimatise with the law of the land.
Q: You mentioned you were reading up on biographies. What titles do you recommend?
Our country’s history, how the kings at the time sacrificed, how they kept the peace. They never compromised the sovereignty of the country for the sake of anything. You see where Japan is today; when the children learn of their country’s history, they are very proud of it. We also don’t have movies about the lives these kings led and wars they fought. We need to bring this to the younger generation.
Q: When you take your life, you have two eras, one is your involvement with violence and the other one is right after that. You are the best person to understand what reconciliation means and how we should reconcile with each other. Your views?
Humanity, who a human is, then you realise that Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, it is only a symbol, a mark of religion. We have to respect your religion as much as we respect others. If you understand it, you will find that there’s no difference among people regardless of their faith. Moreover, if children go to mixed schools, they know they co-exist. Even if we have a bitter experience in the past, we need to forget it and move on. What is the point of these differences, what makes one superior to the other? Nothing. If we had to go to France, we would end up speaking French, so why don’t we speak both languages here? It’s the politicians here who urged the villagers not to learn Sinhala, but their children are taught both languages in Colombo.
Q: If a kid comes up to you and says they had a dream and want to achieve it, what would you say to them?
I will try my best to see that they are able to achieve that dream. I would advise them not to look at the differences of each other, to respect elders and to be ambitious. Nowadays everyone talks about Geneva, but they don’t realise how much a Sinhalese mother weeps for her child. They don’t realise how many died. It happened on both sides, that is what a war is.
Q: Now that you are in your 60s, how do you see violence, do you realise that it is not a means to achieve anything?
Most certainly. The only way we can achieve is through negotiations. Violence can help win a war or two, but how many lives and generations are lost in between?
Q: Since you are well aware of this issue regarding Sri Lanka at the HRC in Geneva, what do you see as being misleading messages regarding Sri Lanka?
This will not damage our motherland. This is a tool being used by politicians to show these people that they are working on their behalf. They know very well that both parties made mistakes. It’s been 12 years since the end of the war, what’s the point of talking about the end of the war?*
Q: You mentioned that you were reading about Nelson Mandela and Lee Kuan Yew. What makes them your favourite leaders?
How they created their countries. Lee Kuan Yew is Singapore’s architect and it is the same for Nelson Mandela for South Africa. I always dream about our President in the same manner. I find him to be a visionary and serious about his aspirations.
Q: You mentioned you had both Sinhala and Muslim students here. Tell us about how you teach them here together?
Children are children, they are not taught nor do they see the differences among each other. When they come out to play, their differences disappear.
Q: You also mentioned that you’ve read a lot about the Dalai Lama and Buddhism, tell us more? What do you find fascinating?
I learned about how when you cause harm, you have to also pay the price for it. I always weigh my words and never like to hurt anyone by any means even through words. But it took me over 20 years to learn this. It will not come to you in one day.
Q: What is your dream?
I want to see a peaceful, economically developed country where these children have the life they dream of. I’d like to see our people go to Buddhist temples and vice versa. No more mafia, killings and trucks.
Q: What is your responsibility to achieve this?
My generation felt it the most because when we were growing up there was no war.
Q: How do you see the war?
A game played by a few politicians. Even Prabhakaran misled the youth. When we were young, we were radicalised.
Q: I’d like to know your view about Islamic extremism as we had a bad experience two years ago. How do you see it?
We need to look at this seriously. Because believers of Islam are calm and devout people. But someone, people from somewhere, imported terrorism. It is a mistake of the past Government. If our President had been there at that time, it would not have taken place.
Q: What is your message to the critics of this Government?
To be patient. Because for over a year the President has been trying to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. But he is also engaged with Tamil politicians. But I am confident that he will deliver on his promise. What I find amusing are the speeches by local Tamil politicians. We call some of them ‘puthisali madayan,’ which means ‘intelligent fool’. They want to keep people under their feet because it is only then that they can control these people.
Q: What is the alternative?
It should come naturally, a better, healthier political climate.
Q: Tell me about the Tamil diaspora? Do those living abroad play a responsible role or manipulate the locals here?
There are few who are still manipulating but most of them know the truth. In a few years those who are manipulating will give up.
Q: What do you see as being the role of the Tamil intellectuals?
They should accept the truth and the reality, then only can they play a role as an intellectual. If they are bent on their views of a separate state, it’s in the past and there’s no need to talk of it.
Q: When you pray, what do you pray for?
A happy and peaceful life for all.
Q: Who are your remarkable students?
This girl who is the manager here and another girl at the Jaffna and Batticaloa universities, they are remarkable individuals. They are all special to me. I want to start a school and I want thousands of students to come here and study.
Q: What is your advice to someone who believes that violence is a way to achieve their objective?
When you speak to a child, you advise them not to put their finger into the electrical socket or fire, Sometimes these people will touch and return because of their experience. With our experience, our country faced very heavy losses, damage, loss of lives, but at the end of the day nothing was achieved. So violence never achieves anything. We can’t go forward with violence.
I lost more than half my life to violence. In 2010, I realised my life had gone by. There’s no point in crying over it. Even my mother, sister and daughter lost their lives when they travelled by boat to India, I never saw them again. It’s my feeling of loss. All of this happened because politicians messed up.
We have now learned from the past. We need to forget about the past and whatever happened in the past. It is our country and we should live happily and support each other. Everyone suffered losses, not just one ethnicity.
(This interview was originally published in Lanka Courier, an independent and non-profit initiative started in January 2021.)