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The THAMOTHERAM funeral. A Sinhala Tribute

By : Brian Senewiratne
Source : TWG

Last week a Sinhalese thought it appropriate to fly half way round the world to attend the funeral of a Tamil, Jeyam Thamotheram, whose funeral took place in the Methodist Church, Hammersmith, London, on 4 November 2005. The Church was packed to capacity but from my perspective the highlights were the tributes paid by two exceptional Sinhalese – Adrian Wijemanne and Neville Jayaweera. The 30-hour flight seemed well worthwhile.

Rev Roger Dunlop detailed the unbelievable achievements of an extraordinary person. The first Tribute was from “Siva”, Subramanium Sivanayagam, the finest Tamil journalist, indeed Journalist of any ethnic group, that Ceylon has ever produced. It was a very personal tribute from a close friend read by Mr Sithamparapillai. I will not focus on Siva’s contribution because I am sure it will be published elsewhere. The next was from the irreplaceable Adrian Wijemanne read by myself, and the third by a relative, Dr.Karuna Alagaratnam.

This was followed by the cremation, attended by just the family. After lunch followed the many tributes from relatives, friends and representatives of the numerous organizations that Jeyam founded. I will deal with just two of these tributes because of the importance of the message, which should be heard by all, the Sinhalese in particular.

The Adrian Wijemanne Tribute.

Before I read Adrian’s Tribute, I thanked the Thamotheram family for honouring me by asking me to deliver it. Before I did so, I briefly introduced Adrian, not that he needed an introduction. I described him as a great Sinhalese whose shoelaces I was not worthy to untie. While my contribution to the Tamil struggle for justice, equality and dignity were based on emotion, Adrian’s was based on irrefutable facts, presented and argued with the precision of a brilliant lawyer (which he was not). Here is what he wrote:-

“I met Mr Thamotheram, for the very first time, in June 1994. It was at a meeting of the International Tamil Foundation to which he invited me. Within minutes of meeting, he made me feel as if I had met a long lost friend. He had a gift for friendship. It was a gift that survived the pain and trauma that our two nations were suffering in the throes of war at that time.

Soon our friendship ripened for our concerns were identical – peace and good neighbourliness between our two nations on the island which both of us regarded as our spiritual home in which we had been nurtured and in which the bones of our ancestors lay buried. We got to first name terms very soon – I called him Jeyam and we spoke on the ‘phone with each other nearly every day.

Inevitably our perceptions of the future of our two nations differed. Mine more pessimistic and shorter term than his. He had a longer term hope of eventual amity and peace. He was wiser and more humane than I and he had the advantage of moral integrity which the Sinhala people (myself included) had sacrificed to their eternal discredit. These differences did nothing to cloud our friendship which thrived as the years went by. Never a cross word passed between us and our families drew closer together. I had the advantage of knowing at first hand what a cultured, middle class, Tamil gentleman of the early decades of the last century was like. Jayam was its perfect exemplar.

The ravages of time made short work of all our hopes; the future takes dimensions unforeseen. Nevertheless as human beings we project values of eternal relevance however translated into reality of time and tide. Jayam stood steadfastly for the hope some day, even in the very distant future, our two nations would live on the island, in their own political configurations, not only in peace and good neighbourliness but even more importantly in friendship. He knew and personified the healing grace of friendship” Adrian Wijemanne

I could not have possibly delivered it as well as Adrian would have, having had no sleep for some 30 hours did not help. Just 24 hours later, Adrian was admitted to hospital with a severe pain in his back. I fear he has crushed a spinal vertebra from the relentless myeloma which I know he has. I pray for his recovery, it is about as much as is left to do.

The Neville Jayaweera Tribute.

I had not met Mr Jayaweera until I arrived in the Church. Years ago, he had been the G.A (Government Agent) in Jaffna. His address at the funeral was worth travelling 15,000 km to hear. Here is what he said:-

“Madame Malar Thamotheram, members of the Tharmotheram family and friends.

In the course of several tributes paid to the memory of Jeyam during the Church service, all speakers have referred to his many and varied endowments and achievements. Therefore, during the few minutes allocated to me to speak from this platform I will not go over that ground again. Rather, as a member of the Sinhala community, I want to dwell on an aspect of Jeyam's life which, for obvious reasons, other speakers preferred not to dwell on.

Like many others seated in this audience, Jeyam was a victim of the injustices heaped on the Tamil people by my own community. When I think of how Jeyam's career, and indeed the lives of thousands of other Tamil brethren, had been thwarted and terminated through discrimination practised against Tamil people over decades, I feel a deep shame and contrition. If Jeyam can hear me from wherever he is now I can only ask him to forgive me as a member of the Sinhala community and indeed to find it in his Christian heart to forgive the whole Sinhala community for the wrongs they have inflicted upon the Tamil people”. (I might add that Neville is a Buddhist)

“As I look around me in this very hall, I can see many other brilliant Tamil mathematicians, engineers, accountants, doctors and other professionals, all of whose services and skills are desperately need back in Sri Lanka. So then, why are they here rather than there? Why is it that a Sri Lanka, a country so desperately in need of skills and talents for nation building, squandering all these precious assets in foreign lands? When will Sri Lanka ever realise, if it ever will, that only the termination of its discriminatory policies will attract these skills and talents back to serve the country of their birth?

Fifty seven years after Independence Sri Lanka is still only a state, a state comprised of two warring nations. When will it be able to transcend the divisions that have plagued it for so long and emerge as a single nation? It was Jeyam's undying hope and prayer that some day it will.

As you have heard many speakers say, Jeyam was a brilliant mathematician, one of a galaxy of brilliant students of mathematics who came out of Hartley College Jaffna, among whom was Prof. C.J. Eliezer who went on the become Professor of Mathematics in the Colombo University, (I might add that he was the youngest Dean the Faculty of Science has ever had and the only Ceylonese I know of. who was invited to work with Einstein), but himself had to pursue his career abroad because of discriminatory policies perpetrated upon his fellow Tamils. Jeyam could have pursued a career in the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service, but instead opted for the far nobler vocation of teaching. Many leading secondary schools in then Ceylon sought to employ him as their mathematics teacher but, as a practising Methodist Christian, he opted to serve in Ceylon's premier Methodist institution, Wesley College. However, when in the fullness of time it was Jeyam's turn to be appointed Principal, the discriminatory policies which by that time were in full bloom, took toll again and he was denied what was his legitimate right. Those who knew Jeyam and who were acquainted with the rights and wrongs of the situation were aghast and outraged. Jeyam resigned his job as a teacher at Wesley, opted out of the profession, and after a short stint with the British Council (I think) in Colombo, he migrated to the UK.

However, a man so richly endowed by God would not let his many skills and attributes wither on the vine. In the UK, Jeyam went on to pioneer many institutions and activities to improve the prospects and the quality of life of the Tamil diaspora who were by the mid 70s growing into a steady stream. You have already heard several speakers pay tribute to Jeyam's qualities as an institution builder, as a pioneer and as a leader of the Tamil people.

It would not be an exaggeration to say of Jeyam that he was to the Tamil Diaspora, in the UK as well as in other countries, what Martin Luther King had been to the black people in the USA of the 1960s. Jeyam was deeply hurt but was neither embittered nor discouraged. He had felt the searing pains and carried the scars of injustice, but would not allow himself to be deterred from his vision. Like Martin Luther King, Jeyam had caught a larger vision. To the very end he believed that it is still possible for all the communities who comprise the fabric of Sri Lanka, the Sinhala, the Tamils, the Moors and the Burghers and all religions, to live in peace and amity and without recourse to war. He hoped and prayed that the discriminatory policies followed by successive governments of Sri Lanka would be turned around and that wisdom and reason would triumph over injustice, bitterness and conflict.

Whether Jeyam's dream will ever be realised, and whether the Tamil people of Sri Lanka will ever gain the Promised Land, remains an open question. Notwithstanding, it is the measure of Jeyam's greatness and his quality as an exceptional human being, that despite all the evidence to the contrary he continued to the end to believe in his vision.

May his vision be realised in full and may his Soul Rest in Peace.

While condoling with the Tharmotheram family I thank them again for the privilege of allowing me to speak on this platform.” Neville Jayaweera

I could barely retain my seat, the urge being overwhelming to rise to my feet and applaud. I could then have said that Neville Jayaweera got a ‘standing ovation’ which he richly deserved.

When it was my turn to speak, I could say nothing, it had all been said much moré eloquently by Siva, Adrian and Neville. All I could do was to say that I was proud to identify myself as a Sinhalese at a time when there is little to be proud of in being one. I feel much less isolated to know that people of integrity and honour such as Adrian and Neville who had not sacrificed their ‘moral integrity’, as Adrian so accurately stated.

In my heart I have always had a yearning to do what Neville had just done so touchingly – to say “Sorry” to the Tamil people. As I said in one of my earliest publications on Sri Lanka The July 1983 Massacre. Unanswered Questions which was quoted by Sivanayagam in his recent monumental work Sri Lanka:Witness to History,

“It would be too revolting and unprofitable to recount details of the acts of barbarism committed by Sinhalese mobs. All that the author, a full-blooded Sinhalese, can say is that for the first time he has felt ashamed to be a Sinhalese. It is not that one identifies oneself with the hooligan mobs, but there inevitably is a collective responsibility for the behaviour of one’s countrymen – hooligan, barbarian or civilized. He who watches while a fellow human being has his limbs cut off, belly slit open, petrol poured on and burnt to death, is only marginally less guilty than he who does it. In the General Hospital, Colombo, desperately ill Tamil patients had their intravenous infusions disconnected and were thrown out of wards because they were Tamils. Tamil doctors had to take refuge in toilets to avoid assault”. What I said so long ago (1983) it is what Adrian Wijemanne refers to when he speaks of the Sinhala people sacrificing their moral integrity to their eternal discredit.

In a covering letter I have just received from Ivan Pedropillai who was the ‘Master of Ceremonies’ in the post-lunch presentations , he says

“ Neville Jayaweera's text is concise but also carries a resounding message to his misguided compatriots that unity and prosperity in a modern State can only be built on equality under the law without distinction of race, caste or creed.

Take the United Kingdom, where the Scots represent about 10% of the population and yet hold many of the senior Cabinet portfolios as well as senior positions in industry. This is not an issue here at all as it works on meritocracy. The West is able to make these strides in economic and social development because a man's race, tribe or religion is just private and personal and he is not judged by it.

When the electorate in Sri Lanka is mature enough to leave religion and race
out of politics and when there are multi-ethnic secular parties in the country shorn of corruption, we shall again have a prosperous land. As long as the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims have their own parties, and when rabble-rousers can play on the baser emotions of the unsophisticated electors, there will continue to be the bane and the stain of racial politics in the country. Brave people like you and Neville have to run the gauntlet of vicious racists on all sides to restrain the country from
continuing with its grim slide into the fate of Hades”.

I am so very glad I decided to go all the way to the UK, not only to farewell an incredible gentleman but because I was also able to meet and hear some extraordinary human beings who give me hope that there is a future, contrary to what it appears to be.

Brian Senewiratne Brisbane, Australia 8.11.2005