Tigress Rathika Pathmanathan’s Turbulent Journey, 2006-16

Zahrah Imtiaz in Daily News, 16 August 2016, where the title is “Rathika–A  Succcess Story”

At 23, Rathika Pathmanathan has borne many names; orphan, LTTE combatant, Ex-LTTE combatant, call centre girl and finally writer and activist. Her journey has been long and arduous and as she stood in a crowded auditorium at the OPA, for the launch of her maiden book of narrative stories and poems in Tamil, ‘There is a darkness called light and I grope for myself in the thick of it’ (with Sinhala and English translations), last week, she stood as a testament to what successful rehabilitation needed to be.

AA-rathika 22 Rathika Pathmanathan

“This book is an honest declaration of my feelings and thoughts during and after the war. It bears the scars of that time,”she said and added that it was a project undertaken to record the sufferings of the people who went through the war. “I am surprised at the courage I have gained to be able to speak before a large gathering today. A few years ago, I did not know a word of Sinhala, we didn’t know what ‘Kauda’ (who are you?) meant. I was depressed and had no one to talk to and as I lay in hospital in Colombo, I started to write poetry.

“As I kept writing, I felt more relieved and empowered, so I kept writing. The writing calmed me down. This book helped me get out of depression and learn to live a better life,” she explained.

AA-rathika 1Pathmanathan who fought as an LTTE cadre in its women’s wing, was active in the frontlines and had her leg blown off in a landmine during its final stages. She along with 100 other injured cadres were transferred to the Colombo National Hospital after the war for further treatment. She stayed in hospital close to a year with multiple surgeries being conducted to restructure her leg. During her time in hospital, she would both face cruel treatment at the hands of the hospital attendants for being attached to the LTTE and also learn kindness and generosity from a group of doctors at the hospital who took it upon themselves to help the cadres who had no one to turn to.

“I am happy and surprised at her transformation. She could not understand a word of Sinhala earlier and today she is making speeches and launching books,” Dr. Wimala Ravindran one of the doctors who attended to her, present at the launch, said. Her book is a refreshingly honest account of the circumstances under which she grew up in, the stories of destruction at the hands of the army, her willingness to die as a martyr of the LTTE, the final disillusionment with the war and her recovery and desire to build a new life after it.

She is the second former LTTE cadre to release a book, the first was the story of former LTTE women’s wing head, Subramanium Sivagami, alias ‘Colonel’ Thamilini. Sivagurunathan who had translated the book into Sinhala observed that they would need to be prepared to accept the fact that the book may offend certain sections of both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, “More often than not both Sinhalese and Tamil communities do not like stories which go out of their accepted narratives,” he said.

But for her adoptive father; Upali Chandrasuriya, this book was to be a start to a more open and vibrant dialogue on reconciliation and rehabilitation. Her story however would be incomplete without his.

A Sinhalese father: Chandrasuriya is proud to see Pathmanathan’s transformation over the years. He observed that she had achieved more than the 12,000 former LTTE cadres who have undergone the programme of rehabilitation conducted by the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation (BCGR).

  AA-rathika plus CBKRathika with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga

It was Chandrasuriya who funded her book and spent Rs. 300,000 of his own funds to print 3,000 books. A freelance, insurance consultant by profession, Chandrasuriya recalled that he faced many threats and criticism for having supported Pathmanathan, “When my daughter brought Rathika home, I had a tough choice to make. The army and CID were questioning me and I was worried about the social stigma of taking care of a young girl with no parents. My wife had passed away some time ago and society does not take kindly to a single father adopting a girl,” he recalled.He met Pathmanathan for the first time at the hospital as he visited his daughter on the next bed. The two girls had struck up an unusual friendship despite them not knowing the other’s language. Once Pathmanathan was released from hospital, she tried to go back to her sister and their home in Kilinochchi but found that her sister did not have the means to look after her. She then contacted Chandrasuriya in Colombo and asked for help, he invited her to his home and has supported her since.

Pathmanathan in turn had her sister and friends cut off ties with her for associating with Chandrasuriya and his family. They objected to her being friends with a Sinhalese family. Chandrasuriya, however, has always been a revolutionary and social worker at heart. He said that his main objective through this project was to provide an example of what true rehabilitation meant. “At present when you take Rehabilitation, it mainly involves some meditation, vocational training and other skills for a year. It does not address the root cause of the problem. It does not make the hate go away and neither does it help the individual deal and speak about his or her trauma,” he said.

The BCGR estimates that over 22 percent of reintegrated cadres were unemployed. The rest are mostly employed in blue collar work while around 5 percent work in the Civil Security Department.

“Rehabilitation is a package. You need to address the person’s mental health, their humanity and then provide them with material and social resources to bring out their full potential. We have to help them stand on their own feet and believe in themselves so they live out their potential. The material resources need to supplement this, they are not the end goal. If she stands on her feet, she is not a burden to society but a contributor to it,” he explained.

He also said that if rehabilitation was to truly work, society needed to overcome the contradiction between action and words, “I do not have much money but I have provided, love, kindness and support to Rathika to live her potential. We cannot tell people that you are a rehabilitated cadre now and then not treat them equal to everyone else. They need to feel the kindness and reconciliation we speak of. It is only then that they are able to function as productive individuals,” Chandrasuriya said.

An economy in ‘depression’ :  While Rathika prospers, her own family in Kilinochchi have progressed very little over the years. Her cousin, P. Sharmila (26) followed a free government course on beauty culture having not gained entrance to university. She is however yet to receive her certificate to practice. That was two years ago. At present she spends most of her time at home, uninterested in work. According to Chandrasuriya, Sharmila was more the norm rather than the exception in the North and East.

aa-upali c Upali Chandrasuriya

Statistics from the Central Bank of Sri Lanka show that the economic contribution of the Northern Province to the national GDP in 2010 stood at 3.4 percent, five years later, it was at 3.5 percent. In 2010, the Eastern Province contributed 5.7 percent to GDP, in 2015, the number had marginally improved to 6 percent. The Department of Census and Statistics in the meantime showed that the Northern and Eastern Provinces also suffered an unemployment rate of 13 and 15 percent respectively; much higher than the national average of nine percent.“We have to ask ourselves why the Northern and Eastern Provinces have consistently contributed very little to the country’s GDP. If you analyse the problem, you will notice that the problem lies in the fact that a large proportion of the population still suffer from mental trauma as a result of the conflict, they have low levels of education and that there is a complete breakdown in their societal structure. With such problems, you cannot expect the people to work, even if you build new roads and factories,” Chandrasuriya said.

“If our country is to develop we all need national goals which will bring everyone together. But do we have national goals?,” asked Chandrasuriya. He along with Pathmanathan are involved in a community support group called the Centre for Community Reconciliation where he is President and she treasurer to reach out to the war affected in the North and East. We work on building people to people ties and through that reconciliation,” he said. Pathmanathan also works with 17 war affected children in Kilinochchi and through her example, seeks to help them rebuild their lives. They also plan to write down the stories of these children in 17 books in the next two years. “My goal is to release 1,000 books of stories of those who were affected by the war. These stories need to be told and heard and through them we can better understand our people. It is also therapeutic for them,” he said.

Learning reconciliation: Having worked in the field of reconciliation, Chandrasuriya believes that changing the education system of the country would be key to lasting peace. This is not the first time reconciliation through education has been proposed. In 1992, the National Education Commission was established to design a national policy on education, driven by the two youth insurrections in the North and South during the 1980s.

The President at the time, stressed that the Commission’s main areas should be ‘Character building, Nation-building, Development of General Competencies and the Development of Specific Capabilities’.“For nation building, they introduced this programme called, Api Lak Vasiyo (We are Sri Lankans), which basically taught children, the traditions of each community. This soon developed into a superficial programme of different costumes. This could have been a good opportunity to teach our children to respect each other’s communities and languages and to truly value the difference but today no one remembers this,” Chandrasuriya explained.

His relationship with Pathmanathan is a living example of what reconciliation means and can achieve and whilst Chandrasuriya has done his utmost to ensure Pathmanathan’s success, he admitted that it would only be only sustainable if his efforts are supported by the community, “Rathika will always have the stigma of being a former LTTE cadre. If she is to overcome that, society has to help her move beyond that. These have to be in the form of actions, not just words. They have to feel that they are part of our society. It is then that true reconciliation occurs,” he said as he expressed an earnest desire of a father to see his daughter succeed in life.

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2 responses to “Tigress Rathika Pathmanathan’s Turbulent Journey, 2006-16

  1. Eddie Wijesuriya

    There is some good in everyone, if guided properly.

  2. Pingback: Defeating the LTTE: Major-General Kamal Gunaratne in Riveting Q and A | Thuppahi's Blog

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