Those who forget the past…

“Ape kollo billi gaththa
Prabhage mas api kanawa / api kanawa!”

The LTTE as we know it is kaput. I did not believe the Rajapakse regime could militarily defeat the LTTE in this manner and in such a relatively short time. I was very wrong. A lot of us were in fact. The ignoble and necessary end of the LTTE as we know it allows the space for a different set of political, social and economic actors and factors to shape our future. For my entire life, the LTTE, not the Sri Lanka State or successive governments determined Sri Lanka’s politics and future. That era is now over and the future must be embraced as best we can with hope, optimism and as a shared challenge to restore a wasted democracy.

On the streets of Colombo and in many other towns and cities, this was a week of spontaneous and unbridled public celebrations that cut across socio-economic and dare I say, the usual party political divides. On Tuesday, the day of the President’s address to Parliament, three-wheeler and vehicle convoys brimming with flags, blaring patriotic Sinhala music, with bold posters of the President and teetering with ecstatic young men took over the streets. Families holding up photos of men and women killed in action jostled with throngs of people distributing kiribath to passers-by, dancing and drinking on the streets. Tellingly, two of Colombo’s leading nightclubs on Tuesday night visibly sported Lion flags at their entrances and on the shoulders of patrons, or as bandanas. Perhaps for the first time in such places of trance and trend, conversations lavishly praising the Armed Forces and the President could be heard above the music – a vicarious and infectious machismo.

So we begin a new chapter. This is uncharted terrain – exciting, hopeful, frightening. The President laid out his vision in Parliament this week and there are many who feel that with the end to war, re-imagining peace and a new Sri Lanka needs our unequivocal support. At the very least, this is a time for reflection and course correction for both government and civil society alike. Post-war Sri Lanka cannot be what it was before the war, or during it. Tarun Tejpal, award winning Indian author and the brains behind one of India’s leading investigative journalism websites, said that they were silent when India was at war with Pakistan, but openly critical of the defence establishment and government once the war was over. We have a different recent history – where independent media tried and failed to report the war in the public interest, with many journalists killed with impunity and forced into hiding or exile. There is no place for the vicious war against free media in post-war Sri Lanka. Likewise, if war militated against Right to Know legislation, renewed agitation by civil society must result in its rapid establishment. If Bangladesh with a military regime and India with a billion people could do it, so can we. While it may be too much and too early to ask Government to give up its vice grip of State media, decades of opposition to and censorship of real community radio must end. I was in Nissankamallapura two weeks ago, a small, relatively remote village in Polonnaruwa, to help 48 villages that have collectively lodged a request to set up Saru Praja Radio to broadcast on 96.1 FM news and information produced by villagers for their own community. It is a remarkable venture by peoples who are no strangers to the human cost of war. Post-war Sri Lankan must foster the development of such hyper-local media – media made by and for regions in the vernacular – that can fuel equitable, endogenous and sustainable development, precisely what the government desires. All of this supports the need for post-war governance to be transparent and accountable. A fraternal cabal that passes today for government and overrides parliament is incompatible with our democratic potential. Initiatives such as the new Open Government initiative under the Obama Administration in the US are instructive in this regard, with examples such as and useful for our own ICT Agency to champion, adapt and adopt along with of course initiatives to empower local and Provincial government. Everyone knows what needs to be done, but the war has always been an excuse for non-implementation.

New beginnings chart the coordinates of where we want to go based on where we are. Yet, have we really acknowledged who we are today? There is the irony of the Sri Lankan flag to begin with. Fluttering with new found vigour on our cars and roofs, most fail to see that it symbolises an exclusive Sinhala Buddhist nationalist perspective that framed and fuelled the idea of Eelam, and its violent establishment. Yet are we mature enough to even rethink of redrawing our flag to reflect the President’s erasure of ethnic identity in post-war Sri Lanka? The President’s fluid expression in Tamil in Parliament (a first for a Sinhala President) and his message on the 21st calling for people to celebrate the LTTE’s demise ‘with magnanimity and friendship towards all’, ‘leaving no room for anyone’s feeling to be hurt in any manner’ is statesmanship of a nature we have not seen before from him, but find very difficult to believe will be sustained. Is the President willing to acknowledge, for example, the bravery of the LTTE cadre who chose to die in the battlefield fighting? Figures are as yet unknown, but I would bet that there aren’t too many LTTE POWs. This disturbing level of commitment to violence for a greater good, arguably even fanaticism, had a reason, a source, sustenance and a clear goal. Given that we still shy away from interrogating the underlying causes of violence in Sri Lanka, can we really capture our future potential the way we are? Essentially, the question then becomes whether the regime that decimated the LTTE is by default one fit to chart and support our future progress as a democracy. As author Maithu notes in an article published on Groundviews after the President’s speech to Parliament last Tuesday,

Somewhere I hoped that this speech would signal a new chapter, a transformation in this Government that they wanted to begin a post-war phase. Instead the language of the War on Terror found its place once more. The President declared that the term ‘minorities’ is no longer part of the vocabulary of Sri Lanka. I don’t think he was speaking about the idea of each of the major communities being a nation or people in their own right. Instead, he continued there are only two peoples – those who love their country [read those supported the war] and those who “have no love for the land of their birth.” Essentially those who fail to gather around Government holding the national flag are classified as unpatriotic… Those others who do not love their country according to this rule of patriotism must also include the dissenting media, opposition political parties and critical NGOs. So it unclear if there will be an end to the culture of fear, intimidation and violence by ‘unknown groups.’

Emphasis mine. There are other challenges too. It is unlikely that the Government will support or cooperate with any investigation into alleged war crimes committed by the Armed forces. Israel’s approach will most likely be followed, where the UN’s investigation into alleged war crimes led by respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone is being stonewalled and staunchly opposed, ironically preventing as a result investigations into Palestinian fire that resulted in Israeli civilian casualties. Lest we forget, the Sri Lankan government defeated the LTTE by embracing most of its reprehensible tactics in the theatres of war. The LTTE in turn used civilians as human shields and when frustrated (which was quite often), indiscriminately killed them all the while claiming to be their sole representatives. To move forward, reconcile and heal, we must first acknowledge this bizarre war fuelled logic. As Bobby Ghosh writing recently in Time magazine notes, the study of the manner in which the LTTE was destroyed by the Sri Lankan government must be prefaced with ‘do not try this at home’!

Though the LTTE is gone, the idea of Eelam remains alive and well, particularly in the Tamil diaspora. It can only be addressed and contained through the open contest of ideas, based on wide and deep constitutional reform. Yet the posters, the chants such as the one at the start of this article, the pagodas, the floats, the flags, the media coverage, the symbolism of the Buddhist flag entwined with the Lion flag in several large junctions and roads in Colombo, the deification of the President, the blessings for violence and veneration of the armed forces by the Buddhist sangha clearly flag an underlying Sinhala Buddhist nationalism very much alive and pulsating with triumphalism. This is profoundly dangerous. One possible future scenario we can expect given the nature of the Rajapakse regime is that, amongst others, those who stood opposed to war on principle, stood up for the public’s right to know, championed human dignity and security, wanted a humanitarian ceasefire to protect civilians, and highlighted possible war crimes by both parties to the conflict are named, shamed and dealt with in much the same manner as the LTTE.

This would be a mistake.

Obsequious veneration of the Rajapakse regime is dangerous for it shuts off the possibility and recognition of dissent also for the love of Sri Lanka. There are no sole representatives of peoples in a democracy. No dictatorial authority that clamps down on dissent, suspends democracy, kills public intellectuals, censors inconvenient truths and harms its own people can survive in the long term.

Just look at the LTTE.

Published in the Sunday Leader, 24 May 2009.


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