Black July redux?

1983 is, for many, Sri Lanka’s annus horribilis – our darkest hour. It was a year that defined the meaning of ethnic conflict for many in my generation. Coming home from schools hurriedly closed to allow for children to go home, we walked amidst burning vehicles, buildings and on occasion, charred bodies, to get to homes in neighbourhoods suddenly torn apart by ethnic identities. There is that infamous iconic photo, like the young naked girl running for her life in Vietnam, of a man, naked and surrounded by three other men, taken in Colombo at what appears to be a bus-stand – symbolic of the Sinhalese mobs that ran amok laying waste to lives and property in that bloody month of July.

Have we learnt anything?

When we look back as a nation at those shocking images and our own memories, what do we remember? Does Sri Lanka today have the confidence to say, as the slogan chanted on the streets against torture, rape and disappearances in Argentina promised – Nunca Mas (Never Again)?

Recently, the suicide attack on Gen. Sarath Fonseka and the Claymore attack on a civilian bus in Kebbitigollawa most seriously tested Sri Lanka patience with terrorism. Many said that the lack of mobs running amok on the streets was a sign of Sri Lanka’s maturity in the face of extreme provocation. Can we really be certain of this? Colombo’s streets, anxious and empty after the attack on Gen. Sarath Fonseka, were far from calm – people were rushing back home, to their loved ones, away from the general vicinity of the bomb blast, for fear of a communal backlash in response to the attack.

The fear of another ’83 was very much alive.

The reporting of Kebbitigollawa also whipped up ethnic fervour – images of children, mothers and strewn limbs fed into the real fears of human security not just in the North and the East of Sri Lanka, but for those living in Colombo as well.

Again, fears of mob rule were on the ascendant.

Why is this the case? After over 25 years of bloody conflict, Sri Lanka is still unable or unwilling to come to terms with a past written in blood of innocents. Many of whom were too small to recall 1983 in great details were children and adolescents in the bloody years of the JVP reign of terror, that saw both the JVP and the Government of the day engage in acts of brutality too horrible to mention. Even today, news reports speak of a society that tortures those in custody, a culture of impunity that values the human life less than the price of the bullet or machete that culls it.

Is 1983 really possible again?

Perhaps there are sociological or genetic reasons for violence. However, the agency of political actors cannot be underestimated in an analysis of communal riots. For instance, newspaper accounts are not very clear about the precipitating events that led to the riots in 1983. The main event is recorded as the killing of 13 soldiers. The impression that is conveyed in the press reportage is that spontaneous violence then erupted in Colombo. However, there is a corpus of literature that gives detailed information on the events that occurred. To cite from one, the first outbreak of violence in Colombo occurred on 23rd July 1983, the day the bodies of the dead soldiers were brought to Colombo. A large crowd had gathered at Kanatte, the main cemetery in Borella, Colombo where the corpses were to be brought before being given a military burial. At the last minute, the official burial at Kanatte was cancelled and the packed crowd at the cemetery had erupted in violence. Street thuggery had taken place in Borella, Thimbirigasyaya, Nugegoda, Wellawatte and Bambalapitiya for almost a day before the police and army intervened. On 25th July 1983 however the violence had taken a different turn armed gangs went through the city targeting the economic bases of the Tamils in Colombo and their homes .

Why this political flaccidity to quell the communal violence? While many point to the lack of political will as a factor that has prevented the transformation of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, it is in fact the opposite that is true. Political will is in abundance and often exercised to incite communal passions.

Given the perverse nature of political will, how can one engender reconciliation?

Sri Lanka’s biggest driver of reconciliation is also its fatal flaw – our political architecture. Sri Lanka’s political framework gives those in high political office extremely undemocratic powers that can be used to galvanise progressive public opinion, but regrettably (and understandably) used for parochial political gain.

This was certainly the case in 1983, where the President and the government of the day aided and abetted Sinhala mobs. No apology, to date, has been made by the United National Party (UNP) for its role in the events of 1983. The Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) has made no apology for its role in the bloodshed during the JVP led insurrection towards the late-80’s. No apology has been made by the LTTE for its acts of terrorism, most notably the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth in 1999. The only expression of regret regarding the events of “Black July” to date (as the riots in July ’83 are referred to) is one tendered by the former President Chandrika Kumaratunge in 2004.

Comfortable in their high offices beyond guilt, responsibility, shame, reprimand, public accountability and regret, those who command and instigate acts of violence are today free men, elected into office or reign supreme in their fiefdoms in the North and East of Sri Lanka. These then are the deep ironies of political life in Sri Lanka.

At the same time, the key to reconciliation is also in their hands. A single statement from the President or from Prabhakaran has more effect than years of civil society initiatives aimed at reconciliation. With the complex interplay of caste and religion, reconciliation in Sri Lanka is (unfortunately) driven by the whims and fancies of those in power. We witness, for instance, the graveyard of commissions and committees on reconciliation in the past decade, all of which have only succeeded in increasing the cynicism of those affected by violence.

An official apology or statement of regret is symbolically important, but is appropriate and truly useful only if it is accompanied by substantive measures that seek to repair the damage that is the basis for the apology. In this sense, Sri Lanka is an abject failure. We celebrate words, but shy away from action, assuming that compensation for victims of communal riots bring closure to the trauma of such events. From 1983 onwards, we have not initiated a single successful process of social transformation to reveal the unpleasant reality of protracted conflict – that we are all victims and all aggressors.

Those who espouse the “eye-for-an-eye” response to terrorism forget that blindness is the only surety of such a course of action. Rather than regress into the darkest hours of our nation, we must look instead to the future and how we can create, in spite of great adversity, social contracts between communities that hold human life and human rights over and above the incitement to violence by politically motivated forces. To paraphrase Irish 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.”

There is a memorable passage in James Blinn’s Gulf War novel The Ardvaark goes to War. In it the hero is asked what makes him feel anxious. His answer is a telling commentary of Sri Lankan society today:

What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of everything. You think war scares me? Is that what you think? Well, it does, it scares the shit out of me.… I’m afraid of my ignorance. I’m afraid of things I can’t see, things I don’t even have words for…But the main thing that frightens me is fear.

From the timbre of fear that pervades Sri Lankan society today to the high ideals expressed by Hume lies a peace process that needs to embrace reconciliation at all levels. If we are willing to talk about war, let us by all means plan for it in full knowledge of its pyrrhic nature – that any victory on the battlefield is an inevitable defeat in winning over the hearts and minds of the very communities we wish to embrace in a multicultural, multiethnic Sri Lanka.

Why are we so fearful of reconciliation? Is it because we hate Tamils so much? Is it because they hate us so much? Is it because years of terrorism have eroded a fundamental humanity that binds communities together? Is it because war, as the likes of the JVP, PNM and JHU with strained vocal chords tells us, an answer to all that bedevils Sri Lanka?

These are questions we need to ask ourselves when asserting with an utterly misplaced confidence that another Black July is unthinkable in present day Sri Lanka. The fact that with every serious violation of the CFA, and with every high profile suicide attack, we teeter on the edge of communal violence, even in Colombo, is proof enough that much more needs to be done urgently to engender reconciliation at all levels of society.

The victims of Sri Lanka’s bloody past are watching us. And waiting.

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