‘Remembering Kethesh’-Address by Ahilan Kadirgamar

English Translation of Address in Tamil by Ahilan Kadirgamar at ‘Remembering Kethesh’ 31 March 2007


This is an important day for us, as we remember the life and work of one of our most passionate democracy activists. We remember Kethesh for his commitment to truth and justice, something the protracted armed conflict and corresponding militarization of our society has almost destroyed. We remember Kethesh for his great sympathy for the ordinary people and his commitment to a people centered politics. We remember Kethesh for his vision of a democratic political solution to a destructive conflict in which he and we have lost so many along the way.

I remember Kethesh for his insights that he shared with many of us who were close to him. I remember Kethesh for the tremendous support he gave to the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, and to help shape our vision and politics. Kethesh was not only one of my mentors, but also a close friend. He showed his commitment to the development of a younger generation of activists by engaging sincerely in debate both in private and public. This, in a time when the Tamil community was eclipsed by a psychosis of fear and limited discussion. I remember Kethesh for the confidence he gave me, and as a source of experience and strength that I could fall back on when challenged by difficult questions and problems.

The initiation of the Norwegian peace process in 2002 came with much optimism, and Kethesh also shared the initial euphoria and attempted to imagine a process for a sustainable and transformative peace. His hopes were shattered as the LTTE took advantage of the Ceasefire Agreement and the peace process to initiate a campaign of political killings and child recruitment. The assassination of his former comrade in EPRLF, Subathiran, threw him full force into a campaign to stop political killings and think of ways to redesign the peace process. It was the sorrow over losing so many fellow activists that impelled him to take further risks towards challenging the LTTE and other actors on human rights.

He became one of the few voices within Sri Lanka that was willing to challenge not only Norway, but also the international community, the Sri Lankan state and the NGOs to take human rights seriously and push for a political solution. These challenges were consolidated in his writings, particularly the Sathya Column, which many of us followed with keen interest. From 2003 to 2005, Kethesh was like a prophet, a lonely powerful voice challenging the dangers inherent in a peace process which strengthened those who wielded power to the detriment of the people. He foresaw the risks inherent in a process that did not respect human rights or democratization.

He was able to envision a parallel process for a political solution, where it will no longer be held hostage by the LTTE. Kethesh was not naïve, he knew that any progress would require Tamils not only to stand up, but also to push the Sri Lankan state towards addressing Tamil aspirations. Kethesh took engagement with the state with the same seriousness as his critique of the state. Kethesh joined the peace secretariat taking great risks, as he felt a personal responsibility to contribute towards a political solution.

Any progress today with the APRC process owes much to Kethesh’s vision and work. The Experts Committee, to which Kethesh was the secretary, remains one of the major victories for those struggling for a political solution. But all this has come to us at a great cost. Kethesh’s experience of having drafted the Thimpu principles to his transformation from militant politics to social activism, to his conceptualization of processes for peace with justice and a political solution, were great experiential assets now lost to our community. We owe it to Kethesh and all those that have struggled for a negotiated solution to push for a credible solution out of the ongoing APRC process.

Kethesh’s assassination by the LTTE was also characteristic of where the LTTE stood with regard to a political solution. But Kethesh was not the first, there are the assassinations of Rajani Thiranagama, Amirthalingam and Neelan Thiruchelvam who all stood for a negotiated solution. There were the murders of Tamil political activists, such as Suntheram, Mano-master and Subathiran as the LTTE could not accept alternatives to its destructive politics. There were also the less prominent individuals, the mothers resisting the recruitment of children, government servants trying to carry out their work with honesty or the unknown youth resisting repression that have been killed. But it was such brutal repression that also inspired individuals like Kethesh to challenge the LTTE’s power with all their physical and intellectual energies. It was great sympathy for ordinary people and empathy with those struggling for justice that an unarmed Kethesh was willing to risk his life.

Kethesh had also moved away from the nationalist preoccupations that had stunted our community. Indeed, his travels and experiences made him an internationalist, someone who saw the eventual dissipation of nation states and national borders. And he saw the need for Lankan Tamils to see our future not in Tamil Eelam but in a South Asian union. But for that, there was a need for peace with justice in Lanka before we could move forward.

When we remember Kethesh, we remember his courage and politics. Whether it was his writings relating to human rights, his analysis of the peace process or his quest to find a political solution, these were all facets of his broader politics in search of justice. He struggled to make every effort and every venue a step towards expanding the democratic space in our community.

And today, as the minority communities are under siege from the war mongers on both sides – and when the LTTE continues targeting dissidents and constricting the space for Tamil democracy—and when the state has abandoned its responsibility towards Tamil citizens and has unleashed the machines of repression responsible for a human rights and humanitarian disaster, democracy activists are called to take up Kethesh’s challenge to call for an end to the madness of war and push for a political solution that can provide us the space to continue our struggle for democracy and justice.

Thank You.

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