Head in my hands, Five years after the war

Reconcilation & conflict resolutionBy Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy.                                            

Five years after the war I often think of how it could have been. A President who, the day after the war ends, speaks to the people of the North and East, emphasises that the government was facing a ruthless enemy but expresses remorse for the suffering they have undergone and pledges to make amends, and does. An army, when faced with war crimes allegations, says categorically, discipline is important to us, we will not tolerate impunity, perpetrators will be punished, all the while winding down, returning to barracks and letting the civil administration take control. A majority community that reaches out to their Tamil brothers and sisters, saying we are sorry about all your suffering, we never understood your aspirations, we will try now and move toward a pluralistic, inclusive Sri Lanka. A Tamil community that says we are sorry for supporting this ruthless organisation that killed so many people; we were blinded by their propaganda. Let us talk now, openly and frankly and try and work it out. If we disagree – we reassure you our protests will be non-violent. A foreign ministry that urges the government to engage all members of the international community, realistically confronting their concerns about human rights and returns us to a non-aligned status.

All these developments would have signaled the nobility of our spirit – the investments and acclamations would have burst forth and we would have lived happily ever after. Yes, if only, that could have been. As I wonder about this, I can hear Neelan and Sithie Truchelvam from wherever they are saying, “Radhika you are fantasising again!”

Instead of my fantasy, what do we really have?

A President and a government that go to extremes on a triumphant march, start encouraging the defilement of cemeteries of LTTE dead, the building of military statues of soldiers wielding their guns all over the North and the East, especially in front of the dozens of new army camps with their manicured lawns under signposts that are only in Sinhala and English. Tamil students now sing the national anthem in Sinhala, not understanding a word they are singing, even though the Constitution contains a Tamil version. The Army, accused of war crimes with graphic videos circulating the globe, seen by everyone except Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka, do not even hold one meaningful trial, its message of impunity affecting every aspect of society. Instead of winding down the armed forces are now an empire, buying up land in the North and the East, doing things that civilians should do and therefore taking their jobs. In addition the intelligence services are everywhere. They come to all the seminars, national and international (I do not remember anyone from the Ministry of Defense being at any academic seminar before 2009) and they visit you, invited or uninvited, especially if you happen to meet someone of importance from the western world or the opposition. With surveillance technology from China, the Secretary of Defense says openly that all phones and Internet now can be monitored.

As for members of the majority community, those who once stood shoulder to shoulder as Marxists and Liberals fighting for democracy and pluralism in the 1980s, have now become great apologists for the armed forces and also say we should be happy to settle for something less than democracy or pluralism.  Their closest friends are well known rabid racists who the government feels for some strange reason should be editors and centre page contributors of their newspapers.   In some Colombo dinner parties it is now quite chic to say terribly racist things- forget about political correctness- even while Tamil guests are sitting there. The more sensitive feel, nevertheless, that we should give the President who rid us of Prabhakaran the benefit of the doubt- even if journalists live in fear of their lives and the government continues to destroy every institution of governance- besides the opposition may be even worse. The truly sensitive have died, gone abroad or retreated into social isolation.

As for the Tamil community, those whose hands are full of blood and who justified all the massacres, machinations and assassinations of the LTTE are now strutting the corridors of European Parliaments, the US Congress and UN institutions in Geneva and New York as “human rights activists”.  The TNA that raised so much hope among Tamils when it was elected to the provincial councils refuses to break with the past and continues with rhetoric that now sounds so terribly out of date, like a broken record stuck sometime in the 1970’s- though the fact that they are deprived of power and money must be frustrating. The rest of us Tamils have become sullen as we have been told to keep our mouths shut- an uncle of mine, every time he meets me signals that I should zip my mouth!

As for our international relations, someone forgot to tell our advisors that David only beats Goliath once in a thousand years. We have antagonized the most powerful nations on earth (US and Europe), we have prostrated ourselves at the feet of another rising power (China) and we play duplicitous games with the one that matters most, India. The era of the Dhanapalas, Palliakkaras, Rodrigos and Kariyawasams- (with whom I have had terrible arguments) when we knew that diplomacy is not megaphone advocacy and that it involves a lot of negotiations and give and take to keep our country safe, is gone, replaced by a foreign policy that seems to have only one purpose- to make us into international pariahs. Finally we have the religious leaders of the most beautiful religion of them all, Buddhism, – monks- rampaging about, caught on video, encouraging people to burn mosques and churches, throwing clothing and computers about in The Fashion Bug, having their robes ripped off at UNP headquarters and intimidating another monk in front of TV cameras. When I think of all this and more five years after the end of the war, I can only put my head in my hands and say- is this tragedy? Is this farce? Is this satire?

There are some good things. I love to drive down the southern highway- the scenery is beautiful. I love going to Jaffna by bus in four hours. I love the fact that the Southern province is booming. I like some parts of the beautification of Colombo and Battaramulla (and hate others).   I am glad the economy is growing, with or without cooked figures. And yet I am filled with a deep sadness. Something is amiss. Something has gone terribly wrong. We have lost something precious- perhaps it is our soul.(GV)

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