The rendezvous of victory

“I really don’t care much for the GOSL but I do care about the possible economic impact to Sri Lanka… Viewing everyone who defends Sri Lanka as a GOSL flunkie (sic) is as nonsensical as viewing everyone who raises questions about the plight of the IDPs etc as LTTE sympathisers.”

Rukmankan Sivaloganathan, “Fighting the PR War”, Groundviews

“Who cares what the west thinks? We won the war, the Sinhala nation triumphed over terrorists and that is something the west did not believe could happen. Let the west go interfere in the middle east and leave us alone, we have other allies and we have our country back for good. May this be a warning to all other people and groups, the Sinhala nation will always come out on top and the Sinhala people will continue to prosper in Mother Lanka.”

Lanka, commenting on “Fighting the PR War”, Groundviews

It was reported on the BBC website this week that Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona, speaking on the internment of over 250,000 IDPs in government camps, noted that everyone there had to be carefully screened, adding that it was “quite likely” that even many elderly people were “with the LTTE, at least mentally”. What this convoluted and bizarre statement means is anyone’s guess, but it is a telling insight into the government’s approach to and understanding of post-war peacebuilding and reconciliation.

My last column rejected the hypocrisy of the West in calling for investigations into war crimes in Sri Lanka, a position I have not shifted from since and many share. However, this is not in any way an excuse for postponing home grown truth-telling initiatives that are the fundamental basis of reconciliation, healing and a durable peace. It is clear the government, basking in domestic and international triumphalism, does not understand this, which is most unfortunate.

Not a single person I’ve met with partial or vehemently opposed to the government has dismissed the significance of the historical moment we are participants of today. Obviously however, deep divisions persist regarding the government’s willingness and ability to win and maintain a just and durable peace. These divisions in polity and society will continue to grow because many of us are still fearful of expressing what we care about – an essential critique of power. Close upon six months into the murder of Lasantha Wickremetunge, those who killed him roam free. The attack on Poddala Jayantha last week, in broad daylight, clearly highlights that journalists critical of war and government still face physical violence, the possibility of death and a culture of impunity. Accounting for such monumental disasters to our country as Mihin Air are now forgotten. Critique of dangerously deified political power remains muted, overwhelmed by the enduring thinly veiled violence of propaganda against dissent emanating from civil society and independent media.

Edward Said succinctly called them “scholar-combatants”, individuals from retired military men to glib academics who are indistinguishable from policymakers in the service of legitimising violence and war. Their legacy both internationally and domestically is a miasma of hagiography, disinformation, partial truths, selective readings and blatant lies that seriously risk undermining fundamental post-war imperatives of peace and development. Reconciliation fundamentally requires us all to go beyond this self-serving propaganda and confront multiple truths including those inconvenient to and incompatible with our beliefs. It will require us to confront the brutality and fanatical terrorism of the LTTE that held thousands hostage as fodder for collateral even as its demise was imminent. It will require us to investigate – meaningfully and in a transparent manner – allegations supported by a body of evidence ranging from eye-witness testimony to satellite imagery of atrocities against unarmed children, women and men in “safe zones” and IDP camps committed by the Government armed forces.

We need to, without any prevarication, say that we are for such investigations as Sri Lankans, not as agents of some foreign agenda, but as citizens who love and care for the future of our country and as architects of a shared destiny. Three decades of war relinquished our control of this shared destiny. Belief in the agency of gods and heroes to solve our problems arises out of our own perceived powerlessness. Anxious, fearful and unable to say what we are for, we have been defined instead by what we could not be against – the war against terrorism. And if this war captured our imagination, we must now free ourselves from the bondage of violence to develop – through dialogue, participation, listening and reconciliation – a sense of who we are as a peoples and what we must become in order to first heal and then grow as a united country.

Victory speeches and military parades are arguably vital vents for a triumphant army and cathartic for our Sinhala peoples. Yet, no army, no general, no defence secretary, no President can bring about durable peace without meaningfully supporting critical dialogues from political and civil society that focus care and attention on those displaced, the restitution of their livelihoods and above all, strengthen accountability. We must be quite clear that the degree of public participation envisaged as vital for a durable peace was not witnessed even during the zenith of the CFA, when the government of the day demonstrated a marked inability to anchor its peace plans to the psyche of voters in the South.

The challenge of creating and sustaining inclusive, civil dialogues is central to peace, development and security. I strongly believe increasing access to and use of mobile phones as well as the Internet and the web, along with the transformation of traditional print and broadcast to digital, participatory media are building blocks of a new deliberative democratic culture and participatory governance. Yet it is by no means a given that a government defined by, constituted for and celebrates war and violence can nourish or is even remotely interested in public debates contesting truth, justice, principles and convictions. On the other hand too, the corruption, nepotism, parochialism and petty egocentrism of civil society with equal violence undermines radical new voices with innovative solutions tailored to address enduring socio-political and economic challenges. Both actors therefore need to rethink and remake their shared destiny together. This is why I chose to highlight two comments published on Groundviews online at the start of this article. The first grapples with the challenge of being critical of Sri Lanka and government today as a patriot. The second reminds us of powerful voices from Rajapakse regime, rendering critical engagement with government as it stands today difficult and dangerous.

Yet critically engage we must, for it is the fundamental basis of a new humanism and our peace. And even if we don’t all survive such a tempestuous engagement, we must believe our ideas will. As the acclaimed French poet Aimé Césaire said, “There is room for all at the rendezvous of victory”.

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