Years ago, when the CFA was freshly in effect, I spoke with a Tamil colleague, when he was giving me a lift back home from work, to specifically find out how he felt about the dismantling of military checkpoints in Colombo. Checkpoints are now back and part of our normal, urban landscape. I was interested to find out what impact these structures had on Tamils.
Possibly aided by a name that is relatively rare and unmistakably Southern and Sinhala-Buddhist, I find checkpoints a breeze to negotiate and have never feared them. Some friendly chatter about the war and prospects for peace, or even just a ‘kohomada ralahaami?’ asked nonchalantly with a warm smile is enough to secure ‘Ah yanna yanna’, with the most cursory check and quick signature on file. Yet, we all know of many examples to the contrary, where blatant racism and racial profiling have combined to harass, detain and delay Tamil citizens in particular.
Checkpoints are a telling barometer of violent conflict, in size, location, number and nature. For many Tamils, they are symbolic of the underlying causes fuelling terrorism, reflecting a mentality that sees Tamils as suspect, inherently violent and tolerable only if they don’t clamour for their rights as equal citizens. This was cogently articulated by Gen. Sarath Fonseka last year and through its silence, wholly endorsed by the Rajapakse regime. This mentality sees fuller military expression in the Vanni today, where the outright murder and dismemberment of Tamil children, women and men by the Sri Lankan Army, and not just by the LTTE, is rendered unproblematic since it is vital to and inextricably part of a larger strategy to wipe-out terrorism. Checkpoints dotted around the country in their hundreds are absolutely vital to this task, because terrorists, and their supporters, live amongst us.
Years before the situation today and the violence against Tamils under the Rajapakse regime, my colleague told me that the removal of the checkpoints felt like a dark cloud over Colombo that had dissipated. The mental freedom associated with the dismantling of checkpoints exceeded by far, my colleague noted, the physical freedom of unhindered travel. My colleague had grown up and lived in a country that had systematically marginalised his community, and in those naively optimistic first days of the CFA, he felt that for the first time, there was some hope for a political process that could address the alienation of Tamils. The colleague with whom I had this conversation on checkpoints was Kethesh Loganathan. Today, he is dead and checkpoints very much alive. I wish it was the other way around.
Checkpoints remind me of Neelan Tiruchelvan, the Central Bank bombing and the attacks against Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Gotabaya Rajapakse – the bloody violence, trauma and war that has defined our lives for decades. It reminds me that while we may abhor them, their relative absence contributed to an environment ripe for exploitation by the LTTE. For some, they symbolic of the “humanitarian operation” in the Vanni, carried out by brave and behaved soldiers under the direction of a benevolent, Buddhist leadership. For others, they are enduring and unpleasant markers that we are still very far from peace and the eradication of terrorism. The results of the recent Western Provincial Council elections demonstrated that voters are largely supportive of these structures and what they symbolise and are willing to countenance their increasing establishment. This is very worrying.
What should be temporary structures are now turning into permanent fixtures, with advertising to boot (fancy a new high-definition TV while you are being strip searched?). Just as permanent structures are rendered gradually invisible (do you really notice the architecture of any of the buildings you pass by on your daily commutes?), the violence of cocked guns, bunkers, barrels and military fatigues in our every day lives becomes far more dangerous when we stop seeing them as extraordinary. It is a vicious cycle – dismantling mechanisms and structures that give us a sense of security leads to a heightened anxiety, fear and racism, giving rise to violent social and political circumstances that require their re-establishment on a larger scale. It is not a stretch to see checkpoints as visible building blocks of a totalitarian state, the foundation for an architecture of oppression and coercion under the guise of public safety and national security.
If we accept that in order to win the war, the Sri Lankan State today is, and needed to be very akin to the LTTE in spirit and form, we must also realise that sustainable peace is never a consequence of suspended democratic governance. The three Rajapakse brothers and their regime assumes that more checkpoints, more militarisation, more regulation, more hate against the international community, more harm directed against NGOs guarantees of sustainable development, stability and peace. They are very wrong. President Obama, in a recent speech to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley fully acknowledged the challenges of going up against enemies with no moral scruples, who willingly and gladly kill innocents, have no appreciation of human rights and no constitution to bind them to the rule of law. He mentioned Al Qaeda, but it could have been the LTTE. However, he also went on to stress the importance of being on the better side of history, noting that,
I believe our nation is stronger and more secure when we deploy the full measure of both our power and the power of our values, including the rule of law.
Governments that believe socio-political and economic conditions necessary for war are those that secure and sustain peace suffer from the same cognitive dissonance as terrorists. Peace and development require more democracy, not less. The Rajapakse regime has amply demonstrated how it can win wars by killing more than terrorists. It now has to prove that it can win peace by supporting more than its apparatchiks.
Published in The Sunday Leader, 3 May 2009