Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lanka’s Mandela





By Janaka Abeywickrema
Both made it to the 20s. One was jailed for 27 years at Robben Island in South Africa and the other for 20 at Welikada in Sri Lanka. Nelson Mandela and J.S. Tissainayagam it could be argued were both jailed on similar grounds in similar circumstances – where regimes wary of the work they were involved in resorted to the easy way of silencing them by locking them up. Jayaprakash Tissainayagam many would say is no Nelson Mandela and they would most probably be right.
But let’s not get wires crossed here – the comparison is strictly limited to the fact that both believed in a cause that was for the greater good of society and went about it in a non-violent way – Mandela against Apartheid and Tissainayagam against anti democratic methods being used by the regime in power; be it the UNP in ’88-89 or exactly 20 years later, the UPFA in ’08-09.
From his childhood young Jayaprakash Tissainayagam showed signs of being different from the rest. He would stand up for what he believed was right and on many an occasion faced the wrath of the powers that be for his trouble.
This is what Tissainayagam, after 520 days in prison had to say from the dock on the conclusion of his trial;
“I was and am still an advocate against terrorism. I have criticised terrorism in whatever form. I never advocated violence, my objective was to generate non violent means of resolving the conflict, my research, writings and work was towards achieving this… I always agitated against violence, fought for justice and for the oppressed.”
Nelson Mandela concluded his statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the trial on April 20, 1964 at Pretoria Supreme Court, by saying;
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Tissa’s thinking was not much different. In the late ’80s he worked actively alongside those like Mahinda Rajapakse and Vasudeva Nanayakkara to bring to justice those responsible for many disappearances during the JVP insurrection. Twenty years later he was doing much the same thing but this time around his team mates in the ’80s were the ones he was fighting against and there, many say, lay the rub.
Blossomed out at Mount
Jayaprakash Tissainayagam was born on April 30, 1962. Six years later the young Tissainayagam was to enter S. Thomas’ Prep School. From there he went over to Mount Lavinia. Right along Tissainayagam studied in the English medium. It was after the young man shifted to the main school in Mount that he really blossomed out.
In his final year in school he won the class prize and also all three subject prizes in the A/L class. A voracious reader from a young age no one could prevent Tissainayagam from winning the Classical General Knowledge Quiz prize and went on to represent his school at quiz contests.
Tissa’s talents weren’t restricted to academic achievements; he was quite the sportsman too. And it was in athletics that the young Tissainayagam made an impression. His pet events were the rather challenging 100 and 200 metre events. He was a sprinter of no mean repute and had the distinction of being short listed to represent public schools.
Unfortunately his sporting exploits were to come to an abrupt end when one day young Tissa had fallen off a bus. Though physically he escaped with a few bruises he had damaged his eyes in the accident. It was later found that he had a detached retina and if extreme care was not taken to protect his eyes there was every possibility of him going blind.
In 1982 the academically inclined Tissainayagam gained entrance to the Peradeniya University. It was a volatile time for the young man as ethnic tensions were simmering pre-’83 but as fate would have it, when the riots broke out he was getting down from a bus that had arrived in Colombo from Kandy. Having survived through the riots and once things settled down somewhat, unlike the hordes of Tamils who took the first flight or boat out of the island Tissa took a bus back to Kandy to continue his studies at Pera.
In 1986 Tissa passed out from Peradeniya University with a second class upper in political science.
It was about this time that The Sunday Times was being set up and the young political science graduate was a natural choice in the first batch of journalists at the paper. After two years with The Times Tissa moved on to Marga Institute where he believed he would be able to put his knowledge to better use in the midst of the then JVP insurrection.
A little while later his thirst for knowledge took him to India, to the Jawaharlal Nehru University to complete a Masters. Having achieved what he set out to do Tissa was back in Sri Lanka in 1992 and immediately went back to Marga.

Contract terminated
About this time the staff at the institute were having a problem with the management and Tissa being Tissa spoke up on their behalf and soon enough it was he who was being targeted by the management and soon enough his contract was terminated. Tissa took the matter to the Labour Tribunal but lost the case there. Undeterred he petitioned the High Court where this time around he won the case and this enabled Tissa to hold his head high once again.
Later on the journalist in him took him to the Mirror where he stuck on for a while before he turned up in the offices of The Sunday Leader. Editor in Chief at the time, Lasantha Wickrematunge specially created the post of news features editor to accommodate Tissa. It was during this period that this writer really got to know Tissa. It was a laugh-a-minute situation in the editorial office with Tissa seeing the funny side of every situation and hearty laughs would ensue for quite a while.
But it was not all laughs either. There was serious work involved and no amount of distractions could veer Tissa away from his work in the news desk. Of course there was the almost daily post-mortem at the end of the day at the local waterhole, which was much looked forward to. Joining us quite regularly was Marwaan now in Bangkok and Asgar who is now in a different field. While events would be analysed, incidents dissected and theories formed following passionate arguments, it was all forgotten the next morning – just as well too – the ritual could start with a clean slate all over again.
Born introvert

If you knew Tissa for a day you would know that he was one of the most harmless people that walk the earth today. He is a born introvert. Violence was anathema to him and this resonated well with us for we shared similar sentiments. Tissa as we Sri Lankans say was very much an “eating drinking man” and far removed from the projected image these days of a terrorist.
Tissa left the Leader to engage himself in active peace building, a subject close to his heart especially with the then peace process floundering.
As a part of this endeavour he thought of setting up his own magazine which ultimately was to be the cause of his incarceration. While working on his magazine he also found time to find his life partner, a scribe herself and the two got married in Kandy in 2006. What a party it was where all his friends, the majority of whom were from communities other than his own, had a ball of a time. His wife, fearing for her safety is now in exile.

Chief Government Censor
A little known fact about Tissa is that almost every member of his family had served the nation in key posts at different periods with distinction. His father, M.J. Tissainayagam was Director Information and Broadcasting when he retired in 1979 after serving the Information Department for 35 long years. Ironically he was the Chief Government Censor during two crucial periods of the country’s history – after the assassination of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike in 1959 and during the JVP insurrection of 1971, on both occasions under SLFP regimes. Like Junior, Tissainayagam Senior also started off as a journalist in the early ’50s in the then Times of Ceylon.
Tissainayagam Senior was also a member of the Press Council when it was first set up in the late sixties, ironically again, the very institution the present regime is in the process of resurrecting.
Tissainayagam Senior was also the head of task force/competent authority for all media during the highly successful Non Aligned Summit in Colombo in 1976.
Following his retirement in 1979 Prime Minister at the time Ranasinghe Premadasa recalled Tissainayagam Senior back into service. Having joined the PM’s office he was entrusted the task of writing all the PM’s speeches. The historic speech Prime Minister Premadasa made at the UN based on which the organisation named 1988 as the Year of Habitat was also written by him.
Tissainayagam Senior’s brother, Tissa’s uncle, an engineer of repute served as the chief project engineer for the Kotmale Dam project, having been the sole government nominee for the post.
Engineering has been running in Tissainayagam blood – both Tissa’s grandfathers were district highways engineers when such posts were the domain of the colonial masters.
Of much significance however is that Tissa’s maternal uncle, mother’s brother, served the nation with distinction in the Sri Lanka Army. He rose to the rank of Major General and was the Army’s Chief of Staff when he retired in 1992 after 35 years of unblemished service. Many of the present commanders including the hierarchy of the defence establishment had served directly under him at some point of their service period.
Tissa’s own brother followed in the uncle’s footsteps in to the army and had to reluctantly hang up his boots having not been able to secure the required marks at the compulsory Official Languages Competency exam. He was the only Tamil in that particular batch.
As a result of this Parliamentarian Vasudeva Nanayakkara raised the issue of Official Languages Competency in parliament at the time but without much luck.
It is the son of this family that has done the nation proud who was tried under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and is today being incarcerated for a period of 20 long years. His crime, speaking his mind. If there is a message in that, it is being heard loud and clear. The exodus of journalists both from the country and from the field is proof of it. Mandela came out a hero and there is no reason why Tissa should not.

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