Against vigilante nationalism

Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant
Tacitus, Agricola, ch. 30.

From death threats to doomsday scenarios, the prognosis is bleak for Sri Lanka in the face of a rapid deterioration in the space open for alternative and progressive voices in polity and society. The attenuation of democracy leaves in its place a firmament of intolerance and hatred that may well confirm what Dayan Jayatilleke calls in his most recent column the ‘permanent purgatory’ of Sri Lanka.

Commander Mayadunne’s letter to the ‘enemies of the motherland’ from the Therupuththabhaya Brigade, recently sent to a number of leading civil society and media activists in Sri Lanka, demands a response that both recognizes the full import of his words and tries to fashion appropriate responses which do not further inflame a volatile context. This said, reasoned and dispassionate arguments promoting pluralism and democracy, the author fears, may not be well received by Commander Mayadunne and may well hasten, in quick succession, a cudgel blow to the head and an enfilade of bullets. Given the sweeping damnation of anyone associated the ‘infamous imperialist forces’ it is also unclear whether any section of Sri Lankan polity and society can effectively engage in a constructive dialogue with the likes of the Therupuththabhaya Brigade.

The ostensible powerlessness of words to combat this growing vigilante nationalism must not prevent us from speaking against such virulent anti-democratic views with the steadfastness that has underpinned all democratic reform championed by civil society, progressive media activism and on rare occasion, by the State in Sri Lanka. Already, voices in the international community have decried such threats and hate speech. However, it is simply not possible to address such hatred through the support of the international community alone, given that in the minds of those such as the Therupuththabhaya Brigade, the international community, CIA, donor aid, imperialism, the dollar sign, Christianity, federalism, western decadence, g-strings, Sony Playstations, Microsoft Windows and all manner of other ‘evil’ is conflated into one giant adversary hell bent on destroying ‘our motherland’.

This confounded farrago of vitriol is fuelled, in part, by the hitherto remarkable and discouraging inability of the peace process to communicate with the grassroots, addressing their fears and concerns in a sustained manner. Marginalized and increasingly radical, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim grassroots communities are emboldened to make erroneous assumptions of key facets in the peace process by such statements as the ‘division of the country’, ‘traitors’, ‘imperialist forces’ etc.

Any engagement with grassroots goes far beyond the partisan televised coverage of meetings with communities, the odd political rally and attempts at trucks with loudspeakers rolling through the countryside. The inability of the previous and incumbent government to open up the peace process to include a larger spectrum of voices than just its own and the LTTE, the LTTE’s own intransigence in its transformation into the democratic mainstream, the zero-sum politics in Sri Lanka and the almost primordial animosity between the UNP and the SLFP have all contributed to a sense of apathy with regards to the peace process amongst grassroots communities. People don’t feel they are a part of the peace process. The peace dividend, federalism, interim administration, joint mechanism – all these are alien concepts, which have not been explained in ways that they can identify with. They don’t understand why we are talking with the ‘enemy’, to what end, what peace entails and why the peace dividend never touched their lives. Unfortunately, it is this very fermentation of insecurities within and between all communities that the intolerant froth of garrison nationalism now feeds on.

The process of engaging communities in dialogues that open up the space for public support of on-going peace initiatives is not yet a lost cause. It is also the only way in which a non-violent groundswell of opinion can be mobilized to act as a bulwark against the further deterioration of democracy in Sri Lanka. High-profile statements and condemnations from local, regional and international civil society and media actors alone are insufficient to create the necessary conditions or support to effectively combat growing extremism. For as long as communities themselves continue to feel far removed from the peace process, share no sense of ownership in it, have no interest in its continuity and deal with modes of governance that are unresponsive to their individual and group aspirations, extremism will have a healthy breeding ground.

For much too long, the people in Sri Lanka have been left out of discussions on peace. We have visioned peace between the State and Non-State actors, between the relative merits and demerits of secession and asymmetrical federalism, between internal self-determination and extra or contra-constitutional processes leading to a peace agreement et al.

We have not talked to, about or with people.

The people are at the heart of any peace process – they are its firmament, the fire through which the process itself, and any agreement that is part of it, is forged. Multi-stakeholder partnerships, involving the widest possible spectrum of participation from civil society (not just Colombo based NGOs, but civil society writ large), business, media and all shades of grassroots communities does not lead, as many argue, to cacophony and a lack of direction, but rather, encourages multiple dialogues at various levels of society that can effectively counter efforts to derail the peace process by spoiler mechanisms. Working in sustained partnerships with grassroots communities, reflecting their unique and collective ideas, concerns and fears in the fabric of Track 1 dialogues, a peace process can achieve the resilience needed to combat the many challenges that are an inextricable part of conflict transformation. No single or collective effort from civil society, media activism and international opinion can fully transform the dynamics within Sri Lanka itself – this transformation lies in the confluence of such interventions coupled with initiatives to broaden the debate on the peace process within Sri Lanka itself. Such processes would strip away what is currently a top-heavy and exclusive peace process to make way for inclusive, participatory, open, accountable and transparent dialogues.

In such a contest of ideas and opinions at variance with each other, it is the assumption that inclusive dialogues prevent a radical escalation of extreme voices, strengthens progressive voices from within Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities, combats the extremism and rabid nationalism purveyed by certain sections of these communities, and identifies and neuters the growth of extremist ideologies that not just threaten the peace, but our very lives and the future of Sri Lanka.

Lest we become a living expression to the words of Tacitus and create peace in Sri Lanka only through the conception of a wasteland, we need to look beyond the rhetoric, however venomous, of those such as the Therupuththabhaya Brigade and urgently explore ways in which a broader societal consensus can be created and sustained that challenges the audacity of such voices to speak on behalf of entire communities and peoples.

Amidst the deeply disturbing erosion of basic values of democracy, a growing fear psychosis and the silencing of voices supportive of a just and sustainable peace, we must continue to stand up against threats to our collective futures, lest our silence becomes the death knell for the creation of a peaceful Sri Lanka that respects the sanctity of life, celebrates difference and eschews violence.

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