Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Somewhere, someone remarked to me this week that patriotism is at its most virulent when stalking the minds and intellects of human beings rather than when it cloaks itself in the deceptively heroic guise of (most always) men waging war against each other on the battlefield.
Patriots parading their stuff
That remark may well be true. Is it overstating the case to say that nine years after fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the state military ended in the Wanni, Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities are no closer to each other than they were in the propaganda-driven triumphalist Rajapaksa post-war years? All the signs point to this. Hatred and distrust drives the national debate with voices of reason and moderation being few.
Despite the absence of fighting, the bruising rhetoric of ethnicity and communalism rides high by ‘patriots’ parading their stuff in the uncontrolled domains of the social media, most probably living overseas rather than in this country. Unhappily, the month of May each year has become a trigger for vitriol rather than a time of pensive reflection and remembrance. Menacing games are played out in public while politicians (and others) on either side of the divide are unsurprisingly quick to reap the dividends of flawed contestations of victimhood.
Sinhala nationalists insist on deifying a supremely ridiculous notion of a brutal war being fought without casualties and without atrocities by agents of the state. Tamil nationalists refuse to accept that the Tamil community has not been the only victims of conflict in this country or indeed, to recognize the savage character of those lauded as liberators of the Tamil nation.
Common pain of victimhood
As pictures of the dead and dying in the Wanni during May 2009 cause anguish and pain, it may well be remembered that when the Government quelled the southern insurrection of the (Sinhalese) Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in the nineteen eighties, (Sinhalese) soldiers went into far Southern villages suspected of having sympathies with the insurrectionists and while shooting at (Sinhalese) mothers carrying little children, continued to shoot the children as they dropped from the arms of their mothers.
At that time, there was no social media to portray those horrors and no smartphones to capture the images. But the brutalities and the pain that resulted were real all the same to the victims. Let it be said quite clearly that there is no exclusive right to victimhood on the part of any one community, though the range of atrocities may differ.
Meanwhile, there are typically grim absurdities on display. In the spirit of the May madness that grips the nation, Sri Lanka’s Megapolis & Western Development Minister Champika Ranawaka had apparently taken upon himself to claim that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) could not be compared with the LTTE as ‘even though the JVP was responsible for a large number of political killings, it never conducted any mass killings or destroyed religious places of worship’ (Daily Mirror, 19/05/2018).
This, by itself, is undoubtedly rich assertion, betraying the racist tendencies of the speaker if not crass idiocy to say the least. This shows the visibly different lens with which ‘Sinhala terrorists’ and ‘Tamil terrorists are viewed.
Why there is little healing
But regardless of the mindless mumblings of ministers, this Government has to answer for deplorable omissions, which is one reason why Sri Lanka’s fractured communities show little sign of healing. Three years ago when a new regime was ushered into power and exuberance was high, Colombo was flooded by visiting ‘experts’ on transitional justice accompanied by their local counterparts. Statements issued by foreign missions were dime a wearying dozen.
It was then cautioned in these column spaces, that if the emphasis does not shift to the far North and the far South to touch the hearts and minds of the ordinary people who have actually suffered as a result of war rather than engage in contrived exercises engineered from Colombo for periodic consumption in New York and Geneva, this exuberance will be short lived.
Projects and donor funded exercises on community reconciliation between Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims as the case may be, are no substitute for vibrant peoples’ movements that take and twist these academic notions of reconciliation (the lifeblood of conferences), into real and living things, however much we may fondly believe or protest to the contrary.
It is no secret that change has most happened in countries when activism is deeply rooted in the communities themselves rather than imported from rarefied climes. South Africa’s post-apartheid reconciliation process, despite its limitations, was a classic illustration. It was not a dreary and passionless exercise operating on the basis of donor funded priorities. Rather, the movement was led by national figures of stature, whose professional credibility and reputations commanded respect even from their detractors. There was tremendous energy in holding together a deeply divided nation at the time even though now, staggering economic inequalities of black South Africans have resulted in societal ruptures.
How many deaths will it take?
Sri Lanka’s post-war reconciliation should have focused first and foremost on bringing justice and closure to victims, at least in closing emblematic cases of grievous human rights violations still languishing in the bowels of Sri Lanka’s courts. But even that basic minimum was not done. Today, the architecture of transitional justice is being painfully constructed, brick by brick. That this is happening even belatedly is a good sign. These developments must be constructively supported but also critiqued where such a critique is needed.
As the national unity Government fails most spectacularly on its promise to work together for the benefit of the country disregarding party politics, the coming tides of racist political fortunes may be so devastating that it may sweep away even the modest gains in the Rule of Law that we have seen recently.
So in the final result, it seems that thousands of deaths through the decades are still not enough. It is as if all the barbarities which stunted the growth of this country, killed good men and women (some of outstanding ability) and stripped governance institutions bare of any decent functionality have yet not taught us a lesson. Dylan’s iconic fury comes to mind when he asked as to ‘How many ears must one person have, before he can hear people cry? And how many deaths will it take ’till he knows that too many people have died?’
More conflict, more fury is needed to satiate a bloodthirsty monster which lies yawning in cavernous depths of savagery, to rise with intent when needed. That is our collective tragedy.