Daya Master: the Tamil Tiger leader turned politician

Daya master      During and after the 26-year long civil war in Sri Lanka, many leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), which fought for a separate state for the Tamils, renounced violence and joined their one-time enemies.

The most high-profile transitions to date include the terrorist outfit’s former eastern district commander Vinayagamurthy Muraleetharan, alias ‘Colonel’ Karuna, who is now a parliamentarian and deputy minister, and its chief arms procurer Selvarasa Pathmanathan, alias ‘KP’, who is now running a non-governmental organisation helping the Tamil community.

The transformation of Velayutham Dayanidhi, better known as Daya Master, from the chief spokesperson of the Tamil Tigers to a pro-government politician is no exception. During the interview, he appeared to distance himself from the LTTE, using words like them to refer to the organisation that he once represented. But when the interview was over, he asked me to address him as Daya Master – a name that became popular during his time in the LTTE. “You’re probably the first journalist to call me Mr. Dayanidhi. Everyone calls me with the name that I’m famous for,” he said.

While studying for his A-levels in his hometown of Puloly in Jaffna Peninsula, Daya Master saw the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, who make up just 12 percent of a Sinhalese-dominated population. As a young high school graduate, he himself was affected by the marginalisation of the Tamil community by the Sinhalese – an issue facing the Tamils since independence from Britain in 1948. “After passing the A-levels, I was without a job for a long time. At that time, it was a bit difficult to get a job from the government,” he said.

Despite the difficulties, Daya Master started working as an English tutor in his hometown in early 1990s. But soon he found it difficult to make ends meet with the income he earned from running the tuition centre. It was the LTTE that came to his rescue in 1995. “The LTTE knew my area people very well. They came to me and asked me to join them. So I joined them not as a member, but as an employee at their office in my area,” he said.

As a “non-trained cadre” of the LTTE, Daya Master was asked to meet the dignitaries coming from the south to meet the LTTE leadership during Chandrika Kumaratunga’s first term as president. He greeted journalists, Buddhist monks, political leaders and representatives of international organisations near the Kilaly lagoon, and took them to the Jaffna city. “I was the main contact point of the UN and other international NGOs. For a long time I was the contact point between the LTTE and these international NGOs,” he said.

The dawn of a new millennium marked the beginning of a new chapter in the LTTE’s struggle for a separate state. The Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government were engaged in peace talks brokered by Norway in 2000. It was then Thillayampalan Sivanesan, alias Soosai, the commander of the Sea Tigers, brought Daya Master to the attention of Tiger chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran. Soon he was “enrolled as a member” of the organisation, and appointed its chief spokesperson. “I was asked to operate as the spokesperson for the LTTE’s political side. They appointed another person as the military spokesperson,” he explained.

During the ceasefire that came into effect in 2002, Daya Master and his colleagues at the LTTE’s media division kept the international community well-informed of the situation in the rebel-held areas. The Tamil Tigers also fabricated video footage to harm Sri Lankan military’s reputation and distributed them among international media, he claimed. “I was in the LTTE’s political office, so I saw many propaganda videos that show the army allegedly killing or torturing civilians,” he said, denying any involvement in the production of such videos.

Daya Master’s strong links with the LTTE leadership made him one of the few Tiger leaders to be permitted by the government to travel to Colombo for medical treatment during the ceasefire. In July 2006, he underwent heart surgery at Lanka Hospital, then Apollo Hospital, in capital Colombo. But when Daya Master returned to the Tiger’s de facto capital Kilinochchi after the surgery, the ceasefire and peace talks were on the brink of collapse. “Now I’m telling the truth; during the ceasefire agreement, it was only LTTE that violated the agreement in Jaffna and Vavuniya. They carried out small attacks on the security forces,” he said.

With renewed hostilities, the new government of Mahinda Rajapaksa officially withdrew from the ceasefire agreement in early 2008, and began an unprecedented offensive that would wipe out the Tamil Tigers in a matter of months. “The government forces started its operation by capturing Mannar,” Daya Master explained. “After that the forces moved quickly to Killinochchi and to other areas. The LTTE fighters kept retreating to one side, and they were cornered near the Nandikadal lagoon and the surrounding areas.”

Why he remained with the LTTE until the last stages of the war, I asked. “I wanted to leave the LTTE as soon as the peace talks collapsed. During the last stages of the conflict, the LTTE did not allow civilians or cadres who wanted to surrender to the army to do so,” he said.

But in April 2009, a few weeks before the defeat of the Tigers, Daya Master got the chance to flee the rebel-controlled areas and surrender to the Sri Lankan army. “I managed to surrender to the army without them [the LTTE] knowing, about one month before the end of the war. I went with a group of civilians who escaped from the LTTE-controlled areas in Puthumathalan,” he recalled.

Daya Master, like many other captured Tiger leaders, was offered safety and protection by his captors. He was released without any charge, and soon he found employment with a regional television station in Jaffna that is associated with a pro-government parliamentarian. “I’m living with my wife in Point Pedro [the northernmost town in Sri Lanka]. I have a quiet, simple life. The people are also very friendly,” he said.

But Daya Master’s simple life will soon be filled with high-profile meetings and public speeches as he prepares to start his political career. His former captors have turned to him to turn around the damning results they received in the last northern provincial elections, and win the elections slated for September. “I was approached by three parties, but I gave consent to only one party; that is the government party [resident Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA)]. But I have not yet received a feedback from the party,” he said.

I asked whether he regretted being involved in the LTTE, but he simply said that the Tamils “don’t want to go for a ‘post-mortem’ of the past”. “The people want to live their lives in peace,” he stressed. Why did he choose to align with the government? “I want to help the war affected people, ex-LTTE cadres and develop the province. I believe it can be achieved through the government,” he said.

For some diaspora Tamil groups, Daya Master is a traitor like many other former LTTE leaders. For others, he is a realist whose genuine interest is to help the battered Tamil community. But history will ultimately judge his intentions. (Haveeru Daily)

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