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The revolutionary turned public intellectual

Dayan Jayatilleka
Picture by Naomi Gunasekara

Q: You are a prolific analyst on Sri Lankan affairs. Yet little is known about Dayan Jayatilleka the individual. Tell me about your origin, family and childhood.

A: My father was Mervyn de Silva, the journalist in whose name the pinnacle award of Sri Lankan journalism, the Mervyn de Silva Award for Excellence in Journalism, has been instituted. My mother, Lakshmi Sylvia Fernando, taught at St Bridget's Convent.

My parents were both modern and rebelled against their environment. My father was modern and liberal, my mother modern and conservative. My father was a Buddhist but not a practicing one. He described himself as an agnostic and I don't know anybody who remembers him at religious observances after his childhood.

My mother grew up a Buddhist. Her father, my Seeya from Panadura, was a staunch Buddhist lay preacher. But my mother, who was the eldest daughter, rebelled and became a Catholic. She was also one of the first of that generation of women in Sri Lanka to cut her hair short. And she used to drive. These were very modern sensibilities,

My parents belonged to the post-war independent generation of Sri Lankans who were urbanised, Westernised but also nationalistic in their own way. Nationalistic not in a parochial, cultural sense, but in the sense of modern Third World assertiveness.

I was an only child and I think that also goes a long way in having shaped my personality. Being an only child born to two strong personalities; now there are several ways to go when you are in the middle of strong parents.

You can either have your own individuality squashed or you uncritically line up with one or the other parent. Or you can run away. I did none of these things. I went the fourth way, which I think the only viable way to go, which is to develop one's own individuality and distinctive personality.

My father used to say if you have the right combination of both of us, that is Amma and himself, then you will be fine. But if you get the wrong combination, heaven help you. I still don't know which combination I have.

But as I said they were at the cutting-edge of Sri Lankan modernity, which I am afraid was a phenomenon that was not wide spread. So many of the things I took for granted while growing up, I find don't come that easy to society in general.

Q: To what extent do you think you were influenced by the work done by your father? After all, you did function as the editor of The Lanka Guardian for some time.

A: The Lanka Guardian has very little to do with the degree to which I was influenced by my father. My father treated me as part-friend, part-colleague and part-son. My mother used to complain that he was treating me as an equal.

So did the rest his family. But he was a very rational man. He drew me in from a very early age into his own interests and pursuits, which were international affairs and politics.

One of the earliest photographs of me, which appeared many decades later in the Sunday Times, shows the two of us at the Non-Aligned Conference in Cairo in 1964 seated at the poolside of our hotel reading. I would have been seven at the time.

My father never really tried to influence my ideas. He didn't believe in heavy-handed parenting. He set an example but I had to find my own way. I do think though that I would not have been who I am and what I am if not for my father.

He went very far in understanding the world from a Third-World perspective. He was an admirer of figures such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

I read my first article on Che Guevara in the pages of the Daily Observer and it was a full-page article written by my father on Che's Bolivian diaries, which had been published. What I did unwittingly, unconsciously, was to try to take it further.

He wrote about revolutions and rebellious youths and radical personalities. He bought Frantz Fanon's books in Europe in 1968 when I was traveling with him. I suppose, what I did was try to walk the talk; I tried to make the revolution not just write about it. And he understood.

Though he did not talk about it expressly, he was sympathetic and empathetic, even a little supportive of my dangerous adventures. He understood that in a way my mother could not. He understood that because he had read Maroe and Silone, and he could see it happening all over the world.

He understood that his son was taking that path and it was something shaped by world history.

Q: Where did you see yourself heading professionally in the years prior to establishing yourself as an academic?

A: When I was growing up I used to ask my parents not to bother building houses for me because I expected to make the revolution. In my teens and twenties, I saw myself as a revolutionary. The watchword at that time for my generation was "be like Che." So Che Guevara was our role model.

In my thirties, I saw a role not as a politician, but as a participant in the politics of transformation - progressive mainstream politics. But right throughout there was a track-two running. Track-two was as an intellectual. I always spent time reading, thinking and scribbling my own ideas.

As a child one of my most pleasant memories was being sent to Peradeniya University on holiday to the home of my aunt, Lalita Fernando, who I believe was principal at Mahamaya College, and my uncle, Prof. Fernando, who was to become the Vice Chancellor of Peradeniya University.

Peradeniya in the 1960s and 1970s was a beautiful place. I liked the life they had. So I did have this dream of being an academic. But it was part of a larger notion of myself as an intellectual. While I was an activist and then later a policy advisor, I never let go of that other identity of reflection, of serious thought, of writing.

That manifested itself later in serious political commentaries in the media. But I think it has become the mainstream of my life as an academic and author. My book on the political thought of Fidel Castro is to be published in London this fall.

In a sense, I think I have come home to what I was meant to do - serious political thinking and writing. My academic supervisors and friends see me as a public intellectual. That, I suppose, sums it up.

Q: You were a Fulbright Scholar at the State University of New York. Yet you abandoned your studies to get involved in Sri Lankan politics. Why was this important?

A: It's a bit of a story. I got a First Class Honours Degree in Political Science and won the C. L. Wickremesinghe Memorial Prize for Best Results in Political Science. My results were supposed to be the best in decades.

I should have been recruited to the staff of Peradeniya but a hard-line right-wing group of UNPers prevented me from being recruited to the staff. They suppressed the post, which had been advertised, for which I had applied and for which I was by far the best qualified.

Now the Commonwealth Scholarships came only through the government at that time. Had I been on the staff of Peradeniya University, I would have been a natural for a Commonwealth Scholarship. I already had a place at the University of Manchester and a supervisor had already been appointed for me.

But I didn't have the money to go because Margaret Thatcher had just doubled the fees for foreign students at postgraduate level. And the Commonwealth scholarship was not available.

So, I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship and chose not to go to Harvard or Yale but to a state university upstate New York because I wanted to study with renowned Marxist intellectuals like Emmanuel Wallace stein and James Petras.

Now, when I went there, I found that unlike the British system in which I had been trained at Peradeniya, you don't get to work on your thesis straight on. You have to put in a couple of years for coursework even though I was admitted as a doctoral student. And I was getting very restless because things were hotting-up in Sri Lanka and things were hotting-up in the world.

When I was in the United States I didn't spend that much time on my studies. But I did get very heavily involved in the solidarity movements in support of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Movements, which successfully prevented overt US military intervention in Central America. I was spending most of my time off campus. But I had not dropped out of my doctoral studies when I returned to Sri Lanka in late 1982 to observe the presidential election campaign, which of course was won by President Jayawardene.

And I was about to go back to my studies in New York when he declared that there would not be a Parliamentary election (scheduled for early in the next year) and instead he would have a referendum. So I stayed behind for the anti-referendum campaign.

That referendum is now widely documented as having been coercive and fraudulent. I never went back to my studies; I got drawn into increasingly militant forms of political protest and then wound-up a revolutionary activist.

Q: What kind of training did you get as a member of the Vikalpa Kandayama and what kind of a political future did you foresee for yourself and the country through these activities?

A: The Vikalpa Kandayama hoped to bridge the widening ethnic divide that was ripping the country apart after July 1983. We hoped to build generational bridges with our counterpart in the North and the East.

And we thought that our relationship with the EPRLF would enable us to mount a joint struggle, which cut across ethnic division. This struggle was for a socialist transformation of the island as a whole.

Now, what really happened was something else altogether. The LTTE regarded the EPRLF and other Tamil organisations as traitors. It recognised that these were not organisations that were hardcore separatists and proceeded to physically eliminate the Tamil new left. Similarly, Southern extremists, chiefly the JVP, murdered those elements of the Southern Left who wanted to transcend ethno-national differences.

They killed Vijaya Kumaratunga, who was the leader of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP); they killed Daya Pathirana, who was a radical student leader of the Colombo University (and who had earlier been affiliated with the Vikalpa Kandayama).

Our project was a joint Sinhala-Tamil struggle for a socialist revolution. My dream was that Sri Lanka would be the Cuba of South Asia. Of course, it was a na‹ve and utopian fantasy. But I believe it was a decent goal.

Q: What were your years in exile like?

A: In the three years I went underground, two were spent in Sri Lanka and one in India. The literature that has come out on revolutionary experiences throughout the world, such as the work of fiction by R‚gis Debray called Undesirable Alien, makes the point that the existence of the clandestine urban militant is psychologically far more gruelling than being a political prisoner or a rural guerrilla because you are alone and its only your self-discipline and commitment that prevents you from opening the door and walking out onto the street.

There are places in which you cant even flush a toilet because nobody is supposed to be home at that time. And there are places in which there simply are no toilets. I mean, I could write a book about that experience.

I don't look back upon it with any great regret. It was a testing experience. I have faced other tests too, but this one, I faced and I passed. Now, I remember during that period, J. R. Jayawardene's government hounded very vociferous nationals, such as Mr. Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne.

But they decided to turn up at a police station and turn themselves in. And there were others such as Mr. Indika Gunawardena, who belonged to a southern group affiliated with the PLOTE, who allowed himself to be arrested at home.

Now I didn't do any of those things because when it comes to the crunch, it all depends on whether you can leave everything behind; take that existentional plunge into the unknown because you don't know when you will surface.

If you are caught you can be killed because there will be no record of you. If you are caught in safe house, you can just disappear, tortured and disappear.

The funny thing is that when you are underground you leave your whole persona behind. You are no longer Dayan Jayatilleka. I had a succession of names. It doesn't matter where you are coming from; you left it all behind - father, mother, the movies you are accustomed to, your music - everything that constituted your life until then.

You are down to the essence, just you. Sometimes you just do nothing but count the squares in the ceiling, if there is a ceiling in the place you are hiding. I've done that.

There is an excellent book by a Cuban revolutionary called Enrique Oltuski who was the youngest member of Fidel Castro's government after the revolution. It's called La Vida Clandestina (Clandestine life).

It's a very good portrayal of what life is like for an underground revolutionary activist. As I said, it was a testing time. That's what separates real revolutionaries from fake ones. And I passed that test; I stayed underground. I was never caught.

Q: How did politics affect your personal life? I hear you've been married three times.

A: Yes, politics affected my personal life. I was first married to my high-school sweetheart, a Burgher girl called Margreet. The break-up of our relationship had something to do with the fact that I was getting increasingly serious about my radicalism when I came back from the United States in the middle of my PhD.

Now, had I opted to remain a parlour-radical like many in Colombo at the time, I think that the parting of ways may not have happened. But I distinctly remember this time; it was when J. R. Jayawardene decided on the referendum.

The old lifestyle we had maintained was no longer possible. We had been separated for personal reasons but perhaps one might have been able to get back together. But we were heading on two different paths.

One of the problems we had was, when one of her relatives invited Ranil Wickremesinghe and several UNP ministers over for a party and wanted the two of us to come. We were not married at the time and I really didn't want to go because this was months after the July 1980 strike.

We had been protesting in the streets about the sacking by the UNP of 60,000 strikers, dozens of who had committed suicide. I thought if one was serious about one's commitments one couldn't socialise with these people who were responsible for that dreadful situation.

But Margreet felt that because of family she had to go. So we had two different notions of I suppose what life was about.

My second marriage was to Pulsara Liyanage, who is a very wonderful woman. Fine mind, very courageous woman. But I suppose the fact that we had spent many years in the struggle together had changed us, and therefore the relationship.

If you take many couples that have been involved in revolution movements, liberation struggles, they all tend to come apart of the scenes - Nirmala Nithyananthan and her husband, Nelson Mandela and Winnie - so I think it was perhaps a mistake to have got married.

We got married after everything was over and that was more my mistake. I suppose it was that everything had changed and one felt the need to cling to something of that past we had just experienced. It was a survival thing; and it was a mistake.

Now that I am out of that political tunnel, I see myself far more clearly. I don't view things as a by-product of my role as an activist. When you are in that mode, everything you do, including the relationships with women, are coloured by how they'd fit into the struggle.

So either they play a role because they fit into the struggle or they are pit stops from the struggle, just rest and recreation. That's the wrong way to go about it.

I think what really happened was that I got involved with people who were very fine but whom I should never have married. I mean I was only a teenager when I got involved with Margreet. I was sixteen-plus and she was there. She was good-looking and it was time I had a girlfriend.

But we really didn't talk too much and understand each other. You don't understand people when most of your energy is flowing towards understanding books, society and politics. Human things, you leave aside. But after my parents died, I found myself all alone. And then I understood myself much better.

Now I am married for the third and last time to somebody I had known on and off many years ago, Sanja de Silva, who is a UK-based Accountant. I really believe what a gypsy fortune-teller in Washington DC told us when we just walked into a market in Eleventh Street on Capitol Hill.

She said we are soul mates; we come from the same part of God. And the lady in Borella, Sri Lanka, who predicted the tsunami, said that Sanja and I had been married in a previous birth.

Now, I don't believe in rebirth and I wouldn't necessarily believe in astrology. But in this case, I believe what they both said; that this is the right one. And if not for my politics, this is the person I would have married, because our paths did cross in the 1980s.

But we were on different trajectories and then we met again in the late 1990s and after 2002, we fell in love. She was in London. She had her whole life of 20 years there but we broke all the barriers and got together. We got married last year in Brisbane, Australia.

Q: How did your transformation from revolutionary politics to mainstream politics happen? I mean you had a short stint at the North-East Provincial Council.

A: When I was underground I distinctly remember an event that took place on April 30, 1986. I read in the papers that the Tigers had rounded-up Tamil youth belonging to the TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation), a rival organisation and burnt them alive on the streets of Jaffna.

Later that year they were to follow it up by a murderous attack on the EPRLF. They killed 60 EPRLF activists who had been held captive in two rooms, including some young men that I knew.

There as a guy called Sinnabala, a Royal College student who was killed by an LTTE guy called Aruna, who came and sprayed the two rooms with a M-16. In December that year, the JVP abducted and slashed the throat of Daya Pathirana, a Colombo University student leader.

One of the things his abductors had asked him (and this is about the testimony of sole survival) was where I was. He didn't know.

So when I was underground I understood that there are formations, entities and phenomenons far worse than the state and even the Capitalist system. That there are in some countries anti-state entities, which are barbaric. And the state is in need of a bulwark against such barbarism.

That is what made me shift paradigmatically and politically back into the main stream. I completely changed my attitude towards the state. I suppose I returned to the fundamentals of my academic discipline, political science, and I began to understand the state and my role vis-…-vis the state very differently from what I had understood before.

Q: How would you describe your association with Vijaya Kumaratunga as Central Committee Member of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP)?

A: I joined the SLMP after Vijaya died, but on an invitation extended by Vijaya before he died. When Vijaya founded the SLMP in 1984, I wrote four cover stories for the Lanka Guardian profiling him.

He was something very new and very progressive on the Sri Lankan political scene. And let me tell you, in his consciousness and as a human being, he was light years ahead of his widow Chandrika.

Chandrika is a traditional, dynastic politician; Vijaya Kumaratunga was a combination of Bobby Kennedy and Barack Obama, as close to Sri Lanka would ever get to that kind of a politician. He was trying out a new social democracy. He was a brave man willing to go against established prejudices. Had he lived, Sri Lanka would have been a very different place.

I think that the kind of Sri Lanka that I would like to see would only have been possible if Vijaya had lived. I am not at all surprised that the JVP chose to kill him because Vijaya and the JVP represented two entirely different notions of what it is to be on the left just as Che Guevara and Bin Laden or Fidel Castro and Vellupillai Prabhakaran represent two completely different notions of what it is to be a liberation party.

So I am not surprised that the JVP not just killed Vijaya but that his assassin shot him in the face because that is the kind of hatred that fanaticism always has towards that which is tolerant and modern and rational and attractive.

Vijaya was not just a political phenomenon but also a cultural phenomenon. We were friends. When I was underground one of the places I stayed in was at Vijaya's sister's. Vijaya wanted to keep me at his mother's and I said no.

He was very close to his mother and that was the safest and best place he knew. He used to turn up at his sister's flat to see me and talk to me.

He first sent some wild-boar meat or deer meat wrapped in banana-leaf and a bottle of fine arrack.

Now I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t drink arrack. But he used to come and see me and we used to have these late-night discussions. That guy was the most charismatic human being I’ve met in Sri Lanka and Vijaya was one of the reasons why I shifted to the mainstream.

When he was alive, he and his wife Chandrika, hosted dinner for me at their flat in Rosemead Place and he wanted me to join his party. So too did two other people very close to Vijaya. They both invited me to their homes and urged me to join the SLMP in the mid-eighties.

One was Prof. Carlo Fonseka and other was Prof. Premadasa Udagama. But I am afraid I declined at that time because the SLMP was not just Vijaya and there were Sinhala chauvinist elements in that party and they later rebelled against Vijaya.

I told Vijaya that I would support him from outside. And the Vikalpa Kandayama thought of itself as running parallel with Vijaya and the SLMP. But looking back, I regret not having joined Vijaya’s party at that time.

Just before he died he announced to the political bureau of the party that my comrades and I were to join the SLMP, which is true. We had negotiated that arrangement. But he was killed before that could happen. So in fulfillment of that promise I joined the party.

Q: You changed direction a number of times as a political activist. You were associated with revolutionary politics, the SLMP, the Premadasa government and now you are linked to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. How do you think these changes of direction affect your credibility as a political analyst?

A: These are not really changes of direction. I mean, look at the Sri Lankan electorate. If the Sri Lankan electorate didn’t opt for one government and then the other, we would have had the same government throughout. This is the kind of change that happens in every democracy. I would say that my political line and my underlying political values have not changed.

You will find that I have remained a consistent critic and opponent of the Tigers. I have been an opponent of the JVP when they have been violent and a critic of JVP when they have been sectarian.

But I have supported them when they have played a positive role. I also always stood for extensive devolution and regional autonomy as a solution to the Tamil issue.

Philosophically, I have been consistently opposed to the use of terrorism by liberation movements and I have always emphasised the distinction between the right and wrong way to deploy violence.

This has been consistent throughout, from my days as a revolutionary right through to today. I have drawn inspiration from Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and emphasised that there is a huge moral gulf between exemplary liberation fighters such as those two and fanatics and terrorists such as Bin Laden and Prabhakaran and Pol Pot and the JVP at one time. I have always been a modernist and stood for values of modernity.

I have always been an internationalist. While I had increasingly become a nationalist in the last few years that has not been at the expense of my internationalist ideas. So I would say that there is a strongly consistent core of ideas, which have acted as a compass throughout my years as activist and analyst.

I’d never do anything unless I had read about it and deliberated on it and I am satisfied that it is the right thing to do under the circumstances. I always give reasons as to why I support this or that government or project.

I had given my reasons for my support for Premadasa and I don’t regret it at all. And my support for Chandrika was when she was under attack from the Tigers.

But I criticised her on a number of issues. And again I made clear the reasons for my support of the present President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In any case, when the LTTE launches a war of aggression, as they repeatedly do, what choice does one have if you want to resist the Tigers than to support the Sri Lankan state and the elected government of the day? Now, that elected government obviously changes. And the elected leadership changes.

But what I had consistently supported over the last two-decades certainly is the democratic Sri Lankan state. So my loyalty to the Sri Lankan state has remained consistent over the last 20 years. Before that, of course, I wanted to replace this state with a socialist state. That’s another matter.

Q: You were also following doctoral studies at Griffith University, Australia. Did you complete your studies there?

A: In January I handed in my PhD thesis, it’s still with the examiners.

Q: What was your thesis on?

A: It was on the political thought of Fidel Castro.

Q: Why Fidel Castro?

A: I would say that Fidel is the single greatest figure to have been born in the 20th century. He is obviously not the greatest political figure of the 20th century, but is one of the greatest political figures of the 20th century. That’s reason enough.

But beyond that what attracted me to Fidel was his combination of militancy and ethics. There are those who are militant, radical, revolutionary and even courageous, but who deploy violence in an indiscriminate manner. They think simply because their cause is just everything they do is right.

Fidel is not like that. Fidel has never been like that. He has been consistent in observing a distinction between the innocent and the guilty. He has never indulged in or permitted the targeting of civilians.

He never even conducts military operations where there is even a chance of civilians being killed. Now we read about the human rights atrocities committed by the US and British armies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Cuban army fought at various times in Africa between 1963 and 1988.

In Angola alone over 200,000 Cuban soldiers served between 1976-1988. Two-hundred-thousand Cubans, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean for 12 years, not once has even the United States charged Cuba with a single atrocity committed during those years in Angola.

I interviewed the former South African minister of defence Roelof Meyer and asked him about the behaviour of the Cuban troops because the Cubans kicked the South Africans’ ass on the Angola-Namibia border. And Roelof said, the only problem that he could remember was to do with game reserves and that was to do with animals, not human beings.

There were no charges of human rights violations or atrocities. Now that’ the way to fight. And I found that deeply appealing.

So in Fidel, I find the epitome of the ethical rebel, the ethical revolutionary and leader. And it shows how you can combine violence in a just cause with the moral and ethical way of wielding violence.

Fidel always stayed on the moral high ground and that is something that most revolutionary movements have been unable to do and most governments cannot do.

But Fidel has been able to do that first as a revolutionary leader and then as a head of state. I think he has been a very important influence in my thinking and my values.

Q: Finally, how do you think Sri Lanka’s conflict would end? And what is, in your opinion, the best solution to the conflict?

A: There are those who would like to see it end with a victory for the Tigers or with a foreign intervention that prevents a Sri Lankan victory. I don’t think either of those two nightmares is going to come about.

The reason is simple; the anti-Tiger section of the population is the overwhelming majority of the citizens of this country.

The Sri Lankans have nowhere to go if they lose this war. The Americans can go back to the United States from Iraq, where they should not have been in the first place. But we have nowhere to retreat, only the sea. So I don’t see us giving up.

Sri Lanka is also a democracy and a democracy tends to put pressure on leaders while repressing leaders who do not fulfill their historic tasks. So there is always this democratic pressure on a leader to resist the Tigers.

Finally I have seen, both at a distance and close at hand, this special nature of President Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and the other services chiefs, Wasantha Karannagoda and Roshan Gunatilleke.

In all my years as observer/participant in the Sri Lankan crisis, I am sure I have never seen a moment when there was such a cohesive team experienced and committed to end terrorism. President Rajapaksa speaks with genuine patriotic feeling. I listened to him yesterday.

He came across as very authentic. He is relatively young and inexperienced but he is very authentic. And the others are experienced in warfare. And I think that is like our cricket team during the World Cup we won in the nineties.

This is one of those times in history where the right combination of human resources is at the top. So those are the reasons - demography, democracy and the present leadership - that I think the Tigers are not going to prevail and that those who want a foreign intervention will not be able to ssustain such a policy.

I do think that perhaps for the first time the Sri Lankan side has got a grip on the game. I think that the Tigers can be beaten.

Now what would be the best solution for Sri Lanka? I have always been very clear about that. The best solution for Sri Lanka would be the combination of (a) a military defeat of the LTTE, (b) authentic regional autonomy, which provides the political and cultural state at the periphery for the Tamils in the north and east to manage their affairs to a considerable degree, (c) an economic model, which promotes rapid growth with equity, which promotes the narrowing of inequalities, (d) an ideology and consciousness of modernity, reason, pluralism and internationalism as opposed to parochial and even primitive currents that are eclipsed in society, (e) a foreign policy, which is non-aligned, patriotic but not isolated, one that integrates us into the world and positions itself with the social democratic centre-left currents on the globe.


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