Ranjan Wijeratne, the Rajapaksas and the rise of Douglas Devananda

The Founder-Leader of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) is the Minister of Fisheries in the Rajapaksa Government. Prior to the 2020 Parliamentary Poll, Devananda was the Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. Although the nomenclature of his ministerial portfolio has changed, the Minister continues to retain control of fisheries and aquatic resources in practice.

The new Rajapaksa Government is overwhelmingly “Sinhala majoritarian” with only two Cabinet Ministers and two State Ministers from the Tamil and Muslim communities. While Devananda elected MP from the Northern Jaffna District is the Cabinet Minister of Fisheries, National List MP Mohammed Ali Sabry is the Justice Minister of Cabinet rank. Jeevan Thondaman elected from Nuwara Eliya and Sathasivam Viyalendran from Batticaloa District are the two State Ministers.

Douglas Devananda

Douglas Devananda, called “Deva” and “Duggie” by his friends, is the most senior and experienced among this minority quartet. He has been in Parliament for 26 years at a stretch since August 1994. He was elected from Jaffna in the 1994, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2010, 2015 and 2020 Parliamentary Polls. Moreover Devananda has had several stints before as a Cabinet Minister in 2000-2001, 2004-2010, 2010-2015 and even the short-lived Maithripala-Mahinda regime from October to December 2018.

The EPDP Secretary-General being appointed Cabinet Minister by President Rajapaksa with the concurrence of Prime Minister Rajapaksa has an interesting background. At a time when most political parties representing minority ethnicities in the country were keeping aloof from the Rajapaksas and fostering ‘Gotaphobia,’ the Devananda-led EPDP took a bold decision and declared support for Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Presidential Elections.

On 19 August last year a four-member delegation of the EPDP led by Douglas Devananda met with Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo. Several issues were discussed. Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave three broad assurances to the EPDP. The first was that he would facilitate and ensure the smooth functioning of the Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils. The second was that he would focus on the economic development of the regions where Tamils were concentrated and would provide employment opportunities. The third was that he would examine and review the problems affecting the day-to-day life of Tamils and devise speedy solutions as far as possible.

When the meeting concluded and the EPDP was about to depart, Gota thumped Douglas affectionately on the back and said, “You will get a powerful ministry through which you could develop the areas and provide youths with lots of jobs.”

Extremely satisfied with the Gota meeting, Douglas Devananda issued a statement on behalf of the EPDP saying the party would support Gotabaya at the Presidential Elections. Devananda followed it up by conducting a media conference at the EPDP party office in Jaffna one week later. He reiterated that the EPDP would support Gotabaya at the forthcoming Presidential Election. Douglas also said that the victory of Gotabaya was certain and that the Tamils by voting for Gota should be participants instead of being onlookers.

EPDP, Gota and the North

When the 2019 Presidential Election got underway, Devananda’s EPDP engaged in intensive campaigning for Gota in the north. Despite these efforts the outcome was disappointing. Though Gotabaya Rajapaksa defeated his chief rival Sajith Premadasa resoundingly in the Sinhala-dominated districts, the latter got the better if the former in all districts with a Tamil majority. In Jaffna where the EPDP worked hard for Gota, the result was most disappointing. Gotabaya Rajapaksa polled only 23,261 (6.24%) votes while Sajith Premadasa obtained 312,722 (83.86%)

According to knowledgeable sources, the result was quite a blow to Douglas who had expected the Gota tally in the north to reach the six figure mark. This was because the EPDP had done remarkably well in the 2018 Local Authority Elections and had enhanced its vote bank. In the August 2015 Parliamentary Election the EPDP polled only 33,481 votes. Devananda was the solitary EPDP Parliamentarian to get elected. Barely 30 months later in the February 2018 Local Authority Elections the EPDP did much better and obtained 74,128 votes. This enabled the party to get 41 directly-elected representatives from wards and 57 indirectly elected under PR thereby making a total of 98. The EPDP also won two Pradeshiya Sabhas.

Significantly enough the EPDP was in the opposition at the Local Authority Elections and had no access to Government patronage or power. Despite this it had done reasonably well. Therefore Devananda felt the 100,000 target could be achieved. He assumed that a large number of youths desiring employment would vote for Gota. This segment plus the EPDP vote bank could together garner a lakh of votes. But these hopes turned into dupes. The EPDP could neither attract new votes nor mobilise its own votes sufficiently in favour of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

In spite of Devananda’s inability to deliver, the Rajapaksas did not indulge in ‘Karapincha/Karueppilai’ treatment. The family appreciated Devananda’s loyalty and recognised his intrinsic worth. Douglas Devananda had hitched his wagon to the Rajapaksa star since 2005. He remained with the Rajapaksas when they were out in the cold instead of crossing over. This was appreciated by the family and Douglas was given a Cabinet portfolio by Gota after his victory last year though both the EPDP could not get Tamils to vote for him in large numbers.

The EPDP performance was fairly satisfactory in the 2020 Parliamentary poll. From only one MP seat in 2015, the EPDP tally doubled to two in 2020. The EPDP polled 61,464(0.53%) in this election. Of these votes the EPDP got 45,797(12.75%)in the Jaffna electoral district. Douglas Devananda was elected MP with 32,146 preference votes. The EPDP polled 11,310(5.44%) in the Wanni electoral district. Kulasingham Thileepan of the EPDP was also elected as MP with 3,203 preference votes.

Judging from official communiques the new Fisheries Minister seems to have buckled down to the task at hand. It has been decided to spend more than Rs. 3.2 billion in the year 2021 on five key areas, namely, the uplifting of the Marine Fisheries Industry, Freshwater and Aquaculture Development, Fisheries Community Development and Welfare, Village ‘Livelihood with a Tank,’ Infrastructure Development Programs, and Introducing New Technology to the Fisheries Industry.

A parallel program will be drawn up for the agriculture sector as well as for the aquaculture sector and the lands that are suitable for agriculture in the Northern Province. Agriculture, fisheries and aquatic resources sectors would be developed through the restoration and replenishment of tanks and reservoirs in the Northern Province.

If Devananda is able to implement his plans successfully then the country at large would benefit greatly. It is indeed farcical that an island nation like Sri Lanka has to import canned fish. When G.G. Ponnambalam Snr. was the Minister of Industries and Fisheries in the Governments of D.S. Senanayake and Dudley Senanayake, he implemented several infrastructure development projects to improve the fisheries sector. Many of these were located in the Northern and Eastern Provinces because both provinces have more than half of the Island’s coastal area. Thus it is possible for Devananda to both help the people of the north and east as well as better the economic prospects of the country by constructive improvement and expansion of the fishing industry.

Douglas Devananda’s rise to power

Douglas Devananda is in a sense a very unique personality. He has displayed a high degree of consistency in opposing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). If the LTTE claimed to be the sole representative of the Sri Lankan Tamils, Douglas Devananda tried to counter it by projecting the EPDP as the sole alternative.

Douglas had to pay a high price for his stance; the LTTE killed numerous comrades and cadres, including his own brother. Furthermore several attempts were made on his life. Douglas Devananda is the only person who has survived several different assassination attempts by the LTTE. Among these are a full-scale attack with SMGs, grenades and RPGs on his residence in Colombo 5 and two attempts by women suicide bombers in Colombo 3.

Douglas Devananda’s rise to power and office from relatively obscure origins is a fascinating tale. His family hailed originally from Chunnakam but later moved to Athiaddy in Jaffna town. Devananda’s father Kathiravel was a white collar employee of the Petroleum Corporation. His mother taught at Jaffna Central College. Devananda’s paternal uncle was the well-known trade unionist and activist K.C. Nythiananda. Devananda spent many years with Nythiananda at 17 Frances Road in Colombo 6. The bachelor Nythiananda virtually adopted Devananda who studied at Colombo Hindu College then. Earlier he was at Jaffna Central. Devananda was no academic bright light but learned rudimentary politics from his uncle. Devananda went on to include both Nythiananda’s name and his nom de guerre in the militant movement, “Douglas,” as part of his official name later.

The seventies was a period of political ferment for the Tamils. The old left lost its lustre because of its unashamed cohabitation with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Leftist stalwarts like Nythiananda metamorphosed into Tamil nationalists. The Tamil youth too were getting radicalised. Secession and armed struggle to achieve it was the credo of the youth.

Devananda also was not immune to these currents. He joined the General Union of Eelam Students (GUES) and, thanks to his mentor – another erstwhile Trotskyite – Eliathamby Ratnasabapathy, went to Lebanon and obtained military training with the Palestinians. After returning from the Middle East, Devananda along with K. Pathmanabha and others formed the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF).

Devananda’s indulgence in pre-1983 militancy was short-lived. He led a not-so-successful robbery of the Thirukkovil Bank in the Amparai District but was caught by a Muslim civilian when fleeing at Akkaraipattu. Jailed at Welikada, Devananda like Panagoda Maheswaran and others fought tooth and nail to escape death at the hands of Sinhala convicts in July 1983.

Transferred to Batticaloa, Devananda played a crucial role in engineering the breakout from within. Escaping to India he underwent Indian arms training also and then formed the Military Wing of the EPRLF the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Douglas was the first PLA Commander. The PLA’s military track record was not very impressive and its most ambitious project, the attack under Douglas’s command on the Navy installation at Karainagar, was a disaster. Douglas lost a cousin sister Shobha (the first woman cadre to die in combat) as well as his second-in-command Sinnavan among other casualties in the abortive attempt.

Soon sharp differences arose between Devananda the Military Chief and Pathmanabha the Political Commissar of the EPRLF. The movement in practical terms was split vertically. The EPRLF politburo removed Douglas from his post and appointed Gaffoor as Military Commander. This resulted in Devananda travelling in late 1986 to Chennai (then Madras) to meet Pathmanabha and resolve matters. While Douglas was staying at Choolaimedhu in Chennai, there arose an unsavoury incident where a mob was instigated by interested parties into attacking the EPRLF-backed office, the Eelam People’s Information Centre (EPIC). Devananda fired at the mob and an Indian Tamil lawyer was killed. Douglas was arrested. Under these circumstances the EPRLF split became permanent.

After his release on bail Devananda’s faction and a PLOTE dissident faction led by Thangarajah alias Paranthan Rajan came together and formed the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF). The Indo-Lanka accord and its aftermath led to this front collapsing. Devananda took up a firm Tamil nationalist stance and condemned New Delhi. Devananda’s position on the Indo-Lanka Accord was very much akin to that of the LTTE then. This assertion of Independence cost Devananda greatly as the pro-Indian Paranthan Rajan ingratiated himself with New Delhi at Devananda’s expense. A friendless Devananda and cadres were left to fend for their own.

This phase was perhaps the nadir of Devananda’s fortunes. He formed the Eelam People’s Democratic Party in Madras but found himself pathetically short of funds. The EPRLF had never been a source of unlimited funds but the situation now was pitiful. A desperate Devananda was compelled to engage in extortion and kidnapping of Sri Lankan Tamils in Madras to extract money. He was arrested on a kidnapping charge and tasted prison life again. This episode earned him the negative sobriquet ‘Pillaipidikaran’ (Kidnapper) among Tamil circles. After securing a temporary release from prison, Devananda jumped bail and returned to Sri Lanka where he soon dialogued with intelligence officials and struck a deal with Ranjan Wijeratne.

Douglas Devananda’s deal with the Government

Douglas Devananda met with Ranjan Wijeratne, then Deputy Defence Minister under President Ranasinghe Premadasa, for a confidential discussion. Devananda made an offer that the unconventionally dynamic Wijeratne could not refuse. Devananda was prepared to place at the Government’s command the full cooperation and unstinted support of his newly-formed organisation in return for protection and support.

The offer was path-breaking at that time as no Tamil militant organisation had until then come forward to help the main ‘enemy’ directly. An uneasy truce between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was in force then. Devananda however could prove useful if war broke out in the future. It was advantageous to Colombo then to procure the services of Devananda. Preliminary arrangements were made. The agreement arrived at with the Government then was like manna from heaven to Devananda. It was only some weeks before that he had arrived in Colombo with two comrades from Chennai (then Madras). His political fortunes were at a low ebb. The offer to help the Government was born through desperation. The bold gamble worked and then bloomed successfully after war broke out with the Tigers.

With war erupting in June 1990 between the Government and the Tigers. Douglas Devananda was in business. EPDP cadres scattered in several parts of India and Sri Lanka began to converge in Colombo. Devananda also went in for new recruits and dissidents from other groups. Soon he had more than 300 cadres at his disposal. Apart from outright block grants of money by the State, arrangements were also made to pay monthly allowances per cadre. The EPDP also engaged in propaganda for the State in both the print and electronic media.

Devananda was criticised severely then for betraying the Tamil cause and openly collaborating with the enemy. Douglas however maintained some form of independence from the start. His cadres did not engage in any joint exercises or military activities with the armed forces. It is to Devananda’s credit that he did not let the EPDP deteriorate into a stark mercenary outfit alone devoid of political content.

As war progressed the LTTE withdrew from the islands off the northern peninsula. This was Devananda’s opportunity. Douglas and his boys arrived with food and provisions by sea and set foot after many years in the north. The islands were entrusted to the EPDP’s care by the then UNP Government. This helped the EPDP to establish a strong presence in areas coming under the Kayts constituency.

Life thereafter was on the ascendant for Douglas. Utilising the control he had over the offshore islands, Devananda began transporting seafood to Colombo. A lucrative trade in dried fish was established. The transport of goods to and from the islands were another source of revenue.

He next moved into the Parliamentary arena, fielding an Independent list of EPDP and UNP candidates in 1994. The captive voters of the offshore islands ‘cast’ their votes overwhelmingly for Douglas. Since the bulk of Jaffna voters were under LTTE control and therefore could not vote, the EPDP list with about 10,000 votes went on to gain nine seats. Douglas entered Parliament. Thereafter he has been elected MP from Jaffna in every election.

Douglas aimed high and established a financial empire by exploiting the offshore islands’ restricted economy first. Thereafter he went after political power and got the EPDP ensconced in Parliament utilising his hold on the islands. The EPDP remains a formidable force in the ‘Theevuppahuthihal’ or island areas still.

At the 2018 Local Authority Elections the EPDP gained control of two out of three Pradeshiya Sabhas in the island region. In the 2020 Parliamentary Election, the EPDP polled 40% of the votes in the Kayts electoral division. With the Fisheries Ministry coming under the purview of Douglas Devananda, the offshore island EPDP stronghold is likely to be developed further in the future.

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com)