“Ancient rulers of Sri Lanka built monuments established institutions to honour the philosophy of Buddhism. In turn this led to lesser folks following the principles advocated by Buddhism en masse.”
Lankapuvath, accessed 15 Feb 2009
“I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people… They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.”
Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, National Post, 23 September 2008
Every time a highly placed individual from the Rajapakse administration says something offensive – which sadly occurs quite frequently – I recall a photo of the President hugging, with great affection, his brother Gothabaya, who had just escaped an attempt on his life by the LTTE in Colombo. It’s an awkward photo in a sense – neither of them are posing, the President has this grin of relief plastered on his face and Gothabaya looks, well, human.
The photo is dislocating too, for you are acutely aware of just how much power they control and yet how little they seem to be moved by the plight of hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the embattled North today. They are starving. They are dying. They are sick. Children are being killed and maimed for life. The condition of life in IDP camps, for those displaced by the heightened conflict, from reports that sporadically come out from the region can only be described as hell on earth. As Human Rights Watch notes in a press release on 4th March,
In addition to preventing civilians from leaving combat zones, the LTTE has deployed their forces close to civilians, thus using them as “human shields,” fired upon civilians trying to flee to government-controlled areas, and recruited children for their forces. The Sri Lankan armed forces have repeatedly and indiscriminately fired artillery at densely populated areas, including unilaterally declared “safe zones” and hospitals. Government statements have suggested that all ethnic Tamils who remain in LTTE-controlled areas are combatants, effectively giving a go-ahead for unlawful attacks.
Jacques de Maio, ICRC’s head of operations for South Asia said on the same day that the current situation in the Vanni is one of the most disastrous situations he had come across. The lack of clean water and proper sanitation are also major concerns in IDP camps, which are high security zones accessible only by the ICRC and some agencies of the UN to mask them from public scrutiny. The leader of the TULF V. Anandasangari in a statement released on 5th March said that he was “reliably informed that people are not merely on the verge of starvation but some people had in fact died of starvation”. As one seasoned photojournalist noted at the Galle Literary Festival this year, this was the most hermetically sealed conflict he had ever encountered. Make no mistake, though remarkably well hidden from the public gaze, this is our Gaza and Darfur combined.
This is our shame.
On the other hand, there was no shortage of genuine concern for the safety and security of our cricketers. The outrageous attack on our cricketer team usurped vestigial local media coverage of the humanitarian crises in the Vanni. Instead we now consume penetrating analysis of the future of cricket in Pakistan, insights into the nature of injuries sustained by players and replays of tearful reunions at the airport. Perhaps life imitates art – anyone who has read David Blacker’s A Cause Untrue will also recognise the familiarity of some of the theories bandied around now suggesting the LTTE’s involvement in the attack. A President who cut short a foreign tour, a Foreign Minister who rushed to the scene of violence, and a Media Minister who wants the international community to sign a treaty on the prevention of terrorism with special emphasis on the safety of sportsmen and sportswomen. Some media have even gone as far as to draw parallels between this attack and the infamous Munich Olympics. Cricket is our opium, and we are intoxicated.
Is there some way we can channel at least a bit of this concern towards the situation in the Vanni? Are we so inured, misled or confident that killing a Tamil children, women and men is inevitable or even necessary to decisively end the war against a larger enemy? Is this not the same perverse logic the LTTE employs, to date, and with disastrous consequences? In a bid to secure peace, must we become in form and action that which we revile in order to defeat it? And if we must become less than democratic in our response to terrorism, what guarantee is there of democracy’s quick and full restoration after war?
This is why pronouncements such as the Army Commander’s deranged notions of what it is to be Sri Lankan and Lankapuvath’s tragic-comic bifurcation of our peoples to better and lesser beings are disturbing. There are of course many other of examples of incipient and blatant racism, notably the race riots of ’58 and the anti-Tamil pogrom of ’83. These suggest that the majority of the majority do not yet demonstrate the capacity to envision and embrace a Sri Lanka without the deeply ingrained, systemic racism. As the Peace Confidence Index of the Centre for Policy Alternatives clearly indicates, the majority today unequivocally support the President and his war. As a consequence, many columnists in this paper including your author have little or no traction in the mainstream Sinhala Buddhist consciousness. The looming danger for Sri Lanka is precisely on account of this – the sheer euphoria of the LTTE’s defeat coupled with the frothing intolerance of democratic dissent are the ingredients that can very easily give rise to a totalitarian rule no different to the LTTE.
And this is why I go back to the photo of the President and his brother. Google it and look at it yourself. We cannot escape the essential humanity here and it is undeniably a touching photo. And yet, we know that both subjects have gone on to demonise, with complete impunity, and arguably murder those who are staunchly and non-violently opposed to what they do and say. These are two men who command an army of soldiers and an army of voters, who without a moment’s hesitation will today support whatever they say or do.
They both say we are on the verge of a historic moment. We are. They say we must all be firmly committed to peace. We must.
But how we define history and make peace is up to us, not them.