The sickness of Sri Lanka

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
There were, those people, a kind of solution.

Waiting for the Barbarians, C.P. Cavafy

Sri Lanka follows a predictable pattern of ejaculatory commentary on democracy and peacebuilding. The death of a prominent personality gives rise to a frenzy of debate and discussion. This discussion hotly contests the nature of the death, the ideals of the person who was killed, his political affiliations and his ideological bent. The best friends of the deceased emerge from the woodworks to sing hosannas, while others, less friendly, brand him (or her) a pariah, terrorist, journalist hack, criminal, womaniser, enemy and all manner of labels as they see fit. Both camps engage in a fierce battle of words that at first concentrate on the circumstances of the death but become increasingly radicalised to drown each other’s claims. Soon, the discussion takes a life of its own, with each side using the deceased and their interpretations of his / her life and writings to add veracity to their outlandish claims, until the public get sick of the ignoble clash and switch off – emotionally and intellectually.

And then silence. Until another murder.

To date, Taraki’s death has been peddled by everyone imaginable to score points on the political map. From those who see another needless death preceded by hundreds of others, to others who think he deserved to die and sets the stage for the elimination of many other traitors to the ‘motherland’, we have nigh exhausted the ways in which we can talk about his life and contribution to Sri Lankan politics. In the process, we have not as yet learnt transcend from the personal invective to a passionate exploration of the larger socio-political foundations upon which such terrible events are constructed and enacted.

Sri Lanka’s tryst with democracy needs constant fertilization, not from the blood of patriots and traitors, but by rousing public debate on how we want to address the serious problems that confront us as a nation today. In short, the impetus should be to explore processes that are larger than any single individual. While remembering the dead, our greater responsibility lies in building just and sustainable futures for the living. The death of even a single person, if it could have been avoided, is a tragedy. An unhealthy fascination with a single death, over an extended period of time, at the expense of exploring ways by which the larger aspirations of polity and society can be met, is an even greater tragedy.

Taraki’s death reminds us of the murder of so many before him. Beyond the opprobrium for such wanton, senseless violence, our collective political responsibility to ensure that such incidents don’t take place into the future requires an approach to nation-building which creates dialogues that moves political parties, among others, away from the cult of the individual to entities that are responsive to public debate. In the words of Paul Hilder, a noted academic who has written about the art of making political parties more accountable to the collective aspirations of citizens – “(the) challenge is to redesign them into human friendly places, channelling our collective wisdom more than our folly”.

The historical ineptitude of the UNP and the SLFP to shape a non-violent Sri Lanka, the vacuous alternatives promoted by the likes of the JVP, JHU and PNM and the disturbing lack of political choice in the Vanni have the cumulative effect of effectively silencing public debate on the very issues that we need to talk about – from reconciliation, human rights and poverty to environmental pollution, sustainable development and education.

In the absence of such political debate, it may be the case that our society collectively moves away from exercising intellectual rigour to examine the moral and intellectual cowardice of our leaders and instead buys into inflammatory messages that claim to hold the cure for all socio-political evil. This is dangerous and we can already see the corrosion of the social fabric in the South to increasingly mirror the intolerance for diversity that we find in the Vanni. The inability of the State to respond to the structural violence that gave rise to a secessionist movement, coupled with the growing cost of living informed by ill thought out economic policies, have opened a space for extremist elements to parade the worst forms of extremism and intolerance in the name of creating a new society free of the hardships that we have to deal with today. The rhetoric towards the creation of a new dharma rajya needs to be seen in this light – where the objective is the construction of an alternative social reality that disguises intolerance in the veil of a viable return to a more innocent past. That the JVP is seen to be a viable alternative to the corrupt and tired politics of the UNP and SLFP can also be understood in this light. Extremism takes a human face, beguiling a traumatised society reeling under economic hardships that the solutions to the problems they face lie in the fatal politics of fascism.

How then do we move forward? Does it really take the murder of well-known individuals to kick-start our minds into exploring ways to prevent a social milieu in which such brutality is the norm?

Surely, we only need to look around to see the continued hardships faced by our peoples well into the ceasefire. While recent polls indicate that support for the ceasefire remains high, the much touted peace dividend in economic terms has failed to materialise in the manner in which it was promised in the giddy months that followed the signing of the ceasefire agreement. Amidst growing economic gain for the social elites, rising social inequality, low intensity violence and crime hound efforts at strengthening democracy and building a just and sustainable peace.

Moving forward requires that we remind ourselves of those who have had the foresight to see the problems of present-day Sri Lanka nearly two decades ago. As Rajani Thiranagama notes, “What we have today is a weak society tending towards fascist regimentation. It has produced so-called traitors in dizzying proportions and little that is creative. To hide its mediocrity and the poverty of human qualities in its leadership, it needs to strengthen patronage and stifle intellectual development. This is reflected in its politics.”

Her voice is silent today, like so many others since then.

Moving forward requires that we remember those who have died, but simultaneously avoiding a reductionist debate that only discusses peace, peacebuilding, conflict resolution etc in relation to the life of a single individual. Terrorists are not born out of ether. Hopelessness, nepotism, zero-sum politics, extremism, corruption are all heads of the same Hydra that confounds our progress, bedevils the onset of a just and sustainable peace and gives rise to violence.

To ensure the creation of a just society requires approaches that celebrate a shared humanism in all our peoples. To paraphrase Nobel Laureate John Hume, this requires us to “forge a covenant of shared ideals based on commitment to the rights of all allied to a new generosity of purpose.” Tamil, Muslim or Sinhala, we must not forget those who have died, but at the same time unshackle ourselves from an unhealthy fascination with death and trauma. This is invariably difficult, when so much of cruelty still envelops us, but absolutely necessary in order to move forward and engage with the larger processes of nation-building.

As Cavafy warns us, the danger of abandoning an active and vocal lobby to explore such forward looking options is that, in our silence, we inadvertently give currency to the unhealthy views of undesirable socio-political elements that seriously threaten our democratic fabric.

This is to be avoided at all costs.

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