This essay will reflect upon one of my long and complex associations with an internationally acclaimed counterterrorism expert, think tank, and professor of security studies, Dr. Rohan Gunaratna. He is an Associate Professor and the former head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), part of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. According to its size, ICPVTR is one of the world’s most prominent counterterrorism research and training centers (ICPVTR, 2020). Gunaratna is also the Director General at the Institute of National Security Studies in Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defense. I saw Professor Gunaratna as my mentor and a trusted friend for more than twenty years.
I was a great asset and tremendous source of information for the government of Sri Lanka since I was a former naval intelligence officer who knew the modus operandi of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers. Kidnapped from high school and forced to fight as a child soldier with the LTTE, I rose quickly in the ranks to become an intelligence officer, working closely with the LTTE leadership. Having broken the LTTE code of conduct by falling in love, I was blackmailed into working for the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) – the Indian government’s foreign intelligence agency. Fear and despair drove me to confess my betrayal. In penance, the LTTE sent me to infiltrate the Sri Lankan government. Where a chance encountered association with the intelligence services of the Sri Lankan military, I became implicated in the fall of the LTTE-held Jaffna peninsula in the Sri Lankan government’s hands.
In this essay, I will identify stimulus/observation, express my thoughts/ interpretation, my feelings upon the reflections, and my intentions regarding my feelings in this situation. The situation is very personal, but I will contain it to the focus of communicating and relating. Therefore this essay will show how the communication between Gunaratna and me broke down and how that left me feeling depressed, abandoned, and used.
Gunaratna first met me in the summer of 1996 in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, when he was doing his Master of Arts at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University. I was held as a prisoner of war in Sri Lanka, even though I had defected from the ranks of the Tamil Tigers. During this period, Gunaratna interrogated me for his book entitled “International & Regional Security Implications of the Sri Lankan Tamil Insurgency” (Sri Lanka: Alumni Association of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, 1997).
Gunaratna met me for the second time in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in the mid-1997 and interviewed me for his second book entitled, Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Crisis & National Security (Colombo: South Asia Network on Conflict Research, 1998). During this meeting, Gunaratna informed me that he was interviewing me for his master’s dissertation entitled “Changing nature of warfare: LTTE at the razor’s edge”, submitted in 1998.
As an advisor to the government, Gunaratna recommended that the Sri Lankan security forces provide me an amnesty and release me from detention. I genuinely thought that he was helping me be released from custody in Sri Lanka and go to Canada to make a clean break from the violence of a military life I had never chosen. I did not realize that Gunaratna would ploy to blackmail me into providing him with information on the Tamil Diaspora using my family, still in Sri Lanka, as collateral. The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora played a crucial role in funding the LTTE’s fight against the Sri Lankan government (ICG, 2010).
Gunaratna met me for the third time in 1999 in Montreal, Canada, and interviewed me for his doctorate dissertation. At that time, he was doing his Ph.D. at the Department of International Relations, at the University of St. Andrews, where Gunaratna was a British Chevening Scholar (The UK Foreign Office’s Scholarships and Awards Scheme) from 1996-1999. Gunaratna’s Ph.D. was supervised by Dr. Bruce Hoffman, entitled, “Dynamics of Diaspora-supported Terrorist Networks: Factors and Conditions Driving and Dampening International Support for PTRA. LTTE. PKK and Kashmiri Groups”.
After completing his Ph.D., Gunaratna became a Fellow at the University of St Andrews’ Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. Between 2000-2002, he asked me to work with him as a terrorism analyst, writing periodically on the Tamil Tigers’ ORBAT, organizational structures, domestic and international operations, procurements, formations, divisions, personnel profiles, tactics, and strategies. Gunaratna requested me to fax or email the work I was doing for him. These include writing detailed articles about the history of the Tamil Tigers and its wings, translation of Tamil newspapers, magazines, calendars, and pamphlets published by the Tamil Tiger front, sympathetic and cover organizations in Canada.
As an insider, my unique knowledge of the LTTE was essential in dismantling their operations domestically and internationally. I provided Gunaratna with information about the LTTE later extrapolated into Al Qaeda and sold to the Americans, British, Australians, and Israelis. In return, Gunaratna promised me that he would help me to get my bachelor’s degree. In October 2004, he invited me to speak at a seminar on terrorism at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies (IDSS), part of his center at Nanyang Technological University. I was awarded the IDSS token of appreciation. On this occasion, Gunaratna asked me to write a thesis on the LTTE organization and operations, mainly focusing on its intelligence apparatus, and gave me a thesis outline. He said that since I had been working with him for eight years, he would exempt me from studying for three years in university, and upon the completion of the thesis, I would be graduating with my bachelor’s degree.
He also introduced me to one of his colleagues, another professor from his center, Dr. Eugene de Silva, and said he would supervise my thesis. As Silva and I developed a professional relationship by emails and phone calls, I completed my thesis statement outlining the introduction and sent it to him within months. But when I clarified with Silva which university I should register and get this degree from, he replied that I would be getting the degree from a university in Denmark called Knightsbridge University. According to a higher education case study in the private sector, Knightsbridge University was not an accredited institute in Denmark (Kersey, 2006). Also, in 2009, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers listed the university as a diploma mill (Ezell, 2009).
When I asked them for their explanations, both Professor Gunaratna and Professor Silva were vague, contradicting, and blaming each other. Subsequently, I had a falling out with them and refrained from associating with them. But even after that, Gunaratna visited me in Canada again and debriefed me to gather more information about the LTTE front organizations operating internationally and co-authored another book entitled, “Countering Terrorism – Can We Meet the Threat of Global Violence?”. I realized that he again used me to advance his career goals without giving any credit to me. Gunaratna told me that he could not mention my name because he protected me as his source of information. “What a wonderful excuse, kind of pathetic…” I thought to myself. This kind of devious working of Gunaratna is a type of life-alienating communication as I draw on moralistic judgments by labeling someone (Rosenberg, 2003). But in that situation, I felt like I was vulnerable and doing all this under extreme fear to protect my family back home, who were held as collateral by the Sri Lankan intelligence since Gunaratna was its linchpin.
After all these experiences, I felt that the LTTE was fighting for a legitimate cause. However, I’m afraid I disagree with their violent methods such as using child soldiers, suicide bombings, etc. The LTTE was indoctrinating the young minds by saying that since the independence from Britain in 1948, the minority Tamil-Hindus in Sri Lanka were continuously oppressed and discriminated against by the majority Sinhala-Buddhists (DeVotta, 2002). I interpreted this as an analogy to my personal experience with Gunaratna and Silva. They both are Sinhala-Buddhists scholars from Sri Lanka, whereas I am a Tamil-Hindu student from Sri Lanka and a former LTTE cadre. From 1996 to 2009, Gunaratna made many promises, such as going to school at IDSS in Singapore, bringing my family to Canada, or getting a legitimate job with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) but alas, nothing ever materialized. He did not keep any of his promises, just like all the “broken promises” by the successive Sri Lankan governments for the Tamil minorities’ grievances that nothing has ever been manifested since independence.
When Gunaratna assured me that he would help me get my degree, I was delighted and hopeful. I felt like all the troubles I went through had not been in vain. I shared this exciting news with my family and friends. I exchanged encouraging emails with both professors and believed that I was going to get this degree. I was so enthusiastic and motivated to achieve this goal in my life that I was doing extensive research on the subject day and night. I took time off from work and began writing my thesis.
However, once I knew that getting this degree was a scam, I felt betrayed and depressed. I knew that the information I was providing was being used to obliterate LTTE once and for all. By doing this, I became a traitor in the eyes of the LTTE. I knew I had been responsible for destroying the Tamil people’s – my own people – only existing hope for freedom. Because of my actions, a separate homeland for Tamils was a dream that may never come to pass. The government of Sri Lanka had all but won the war because of my actions. I felt shame for betraying the Tamil people’s hopes and dreams, though it was to save my life and my family’s. This disloyalty was so far from what I could ever have wanted or imagined happening, but I knew nevertheless that this was my only choice.
Extensive research revealed a looming threat, the incumbent government in Sri Lanka. Gunaratna is recently appointed an advisor to the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is a threat to national, regional, and global stability. By pro-China populists consolidating power in Sri Lanka, constructive strategic implications exist. Rajapaksa clan returning to power does undercut the core narratives of the Tamils. Successive Sinhalese governments will never accommodate Tamils politically, economically, culturally, or socially as Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority still practice extreme ethnonationalist ideology. This is known as the “Jathika Chintanaya” or the “Mahavamsa Mindset” and its outcome is the “Sinhala-Budda Deepa” and “unitary state”. Therefore, for the next 2500 years, a Sinhala Buddhist will never allow a federal state or autonomy for non-Sinhala-Buddhists in Sri Lanka.
It is against this backdrop Tamil Eelam represents, the only viable solution to resolve Sri Lanka`s ethnic Tamil grievances. The Tamil Eelam cause is just, although the methods used to achieve the cause were absolutely abhorrent. I represent the solution to bridge the gap between the grievance and the solution. I live with daily guilt, persistent nightmares, and regret resulting from my betrayal of the Tamil Tigers. My guilt and pain must not be in vain. Tamil people’s dream of justice could be far-fetched but that shouldn’t stop anyone from doing the right thing.
I was used to being caught between worlds, conflicted in loyalties to family, country, and ideals. Over 150,000 lives and more than 30 years were lost in the conflict in Sri Lanka, the island nation that I still call home. I spent my entire childhood fighting a useless war and lived a lifetime before settling down in Canada, only to start over everything from scratch and live a peaceful life. But even in Canada, the kind of manipulation and blackmail nature under which I was forced to work against my will led me to an emotional and mental breakdown.
I firmly believe in the philosophy that other people’s accomplishments should be considered an inspiration rather than a grievance. However, my above-noted experiences remind me of all that I hoped for and were not allowed to achieve – terrible example of intellectual theft and plagiarism. I do not write this to denounce Professor Gunaratna and Professor Silva but rather intended as a community serving information in creating awareness on one’s roots.
My traumatic experience with Gunaratna and Silva is a lesson learned and a closed chapter in my life. This is just one example of how the Sri Lankan authorities take advantage of vulnerable individuals and treat them as second-class citizens. Today many former LTTE cadres are going through the same or even worse experiences because of hierarchical positions in my country. I am proud to be a Tamil Canadian and hope one day to share with my Sri Lankan brothers and sisters what I have learned from this land and its people: it is possible to live in harmony and diversity. Hence, I will strive to the utmost of my abilities to achieve peace, prosperity, equality, and dignity for my Tamil nation through peaceful means and free them from the ruthless Sri Lankan regime. I have also become aware by writing this reflection paper to a self-realization about the primary goals in my life. It is in telling all – in finally emptying my heart and my mind for all to see – that I can be genuinely free and whole at last.
Firstly, I learned not to trust people blindly or have faith in them before knowing their motivations and intentions. Secondly, I learned to believe in myself that I can do whatever I put my mind to.
Author’s note: Canadian journalist Michael Bramadat-Willcock contributed to this report.
DeVotta, N. (2002), South Asia Faces the Future: Illiberalism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Journal of Democracy Volume 13, Number 1. (Retrieved: September 21 2021) https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/south-asia-faces-the-future-illiberalism-and-ethnic-conflict-in-sri-lanka/
Ezell, A. (2009), Recent developments with degree mills: Accreditation Mills and Counterfeit Diploma and Transcript Operations. College & University Journal Volume 85, Number 2. (Retrieved: 21 September 2021) https://www.learntechlib.org/p/108456/
International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), (2020), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (Retrieved: September 21 2021), https://www.rsis.edu.sg/research/icpvtr/
International Crisis Group (ICG), (February 23 2010), The Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora after the LTTE, Asia Report N°186, (Retrieved: September 21 2021) https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/sri-lanka/sri-lankan-tamil-diaspora-after-ltte
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Rosenberg, M.B. (2003). Nonviolent communication: A language of life (2nd ed.) Puddle Dancer.
South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), (2001), Institute for Conflict Management, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). (Retrieved: September 21 2021), http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/terroristoutfits/Ltte.htm