The anxious society

“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”

Three years ago almost to the day, 65 children, women and men in Kebithigollawa were killed by a LTTE claymore attack as they were travelling in a bus. The resulting scenes of chaos and trauma galvanised public opinion in the South of a peace that could only be established through war. Less than two months after Kebithigollawa, 15 aid workers were killed in Muttur, military execution style. It was the bloodiest attack against the humanitarian aid community after the 2003 Canal Hotel bomb in Baghdad. Post-war Sri Lanka would be welcomed and seen very differently for the families of the victims in Kebithigollawa and those of the aid workers. Because of this and more, with the end of war and the crushing military defeat of the LTTE, one expected some acknowledgement from government of the shared trauma of war amongst all communities. Instead, and overwhelming brave yet isolated voices of progressive reconciliation in government, we now have manifestations of a witch-hunt against new enemies of the State, a new minority who patriotic credentials are suspect and therefore eligible for incarceration or worse.

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.

Sigmund Freud, in his definitive 1920 essay Jenseits des Lustprinzips (Beyond the Pleasure Principle) looked closely at fright, fear and anxiety, suggesting that it was a mistake, as many did, to use each word as a synonym for the other. Fright, he noted, refers to the state we fall into when suddenly confronted by a dangerous situation for which we are unprepared. Fear presupposes a definite object of which we are afraid. Anxiety refers to a state of mind when we prepare for a danger we know we may not be able to avoid. If fear defined our lives during war, anxiety endures after its end. If the LTTE was what we were fearful of a few weeks ago, its demise brings new enemies, new concerns of internal displacement and new threats to civil society. This insecurity and anxiety is not limited to post-war Sri Lanka. Developed countries in the West share some of our insecurities precisely because their greater material wealth is, post-9/11, the new target of terrorism in the age of asymmetrical warfare. Anxiety in these societies stems from the fear of terrorist attacks that suddenly deny citizens the good life they feel entitled to in societies where there is otherwise little or no risk of social, economic, cultural or political violence.

It is also a sense of entitlement by the Sinhala Buddhist majority in polity and society that underpins anxiety in post-war Sri Lanka, for a few within this community and greater numbers in minority communities. The economic manifestation of this sense of entitlement is not too different from the peace dividend promised by the UNF during the CFA, the simplistic assumption being that when guns are silent, greater public spending and economic confidence augments the quality of life and prosperity. Severely undermining any immediate peace dividend today are plans to increase the numbers of active service personnel in the armed forces, the global financial crisis, our national debt crisis, the cost of first developing the infrastructure for and then maintaining a large standing army, and above all, the massive redevelopment and reconstruction needs of the war ravaged North and Eastern Provinces. The political manifestation of a sense of post-war entitlement starts with the Rajapakse family, extends to the Commander of the Army and then beyond to the armed forces, Police and all those who unequivocally supported the decimation of the LTTE and the murder of a few thousand Tamil civilians in the process as unavoidable and necessary collateral. For these people, sacrifices made during war require, nay demand immediate and enduring dividends – social, economic and political – they alone can first enjoy and choose to share selectively. To wit, they are completely closed off to any suggestion of the need to think beyond a victor’s justice framing the future of Sri Lanka. The marked lack of any consultative approach to post-war development, the animosity against civil society, a confused and confusing new foreign policy that sees us befriend regimes that, like ours today, clamp down on human rights, the retroactive witch hunt against institutions and individuals perceived to be partial to and supportive of the LTTE in the past, the allegations made against independent journalists of being in the pay of the LTTE, the continuing censorship and clampdown on the freedom of expression, the hidden hand of the defense establishment dictating post-war development and diplomacy all suggest that Sri Lanka is still what renowned sociologist Ulrich Beck would define as a risk society, unable to express or define itself without reference to some sort of threat, from within or without, to territorial integrity and national security. As Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch notes,

“Rajapaksa and his advisers, staunch Sinhalese nationalists, appear to believe the western world, including the UN, have been plotting against them. Virtually anyone who had any contact with the LTTE, whether Sri Lankan or foreign, is now a suspected LTTE sympathiser. Sri Lanka appears headed for a McCarthyite period where the government believes – or cynically acts as though it believes – there is a Tamil Tiger under every bed.”

Just as fear clouds judgement, anxiety fuels the fiction that all will be well eventually. This is a dangerous and delusional fiction to guide post-war Sri Lanka’s future. A statement by Rt. Rev. Duleep de Chickera, Bishop of Colombo issued last week after he visited the Jaffna peninsula provides a stark counterpoint to the rosy picture of post-war Sri Lanka painted by the Sri Lankan government.

“The predominant and recurring feeling amongst all classes and ages however was that the Tamils are an isolated and constrained Community. On the Peninsular, the people feel they are marooned; physically, psychologically and politically. The Youth in particular are restless and search for answers to difficult questions. Many will migrate if given the opportunity. Options for study and employment are few and restricted. Yet only the desperate or daring will think of travelling to the south in search of better prospects. Stories of inconvenience and some ridicule and harassment experienced in travel, abound. In the south there is severe hardship in finding suitable lodging as even friends and relations are reluctant to take them in. State sponsored Youth hostels which will also provide an opportunity for the integration of our youth of all communities, are non-existent. There was little enthusiasm for elections. A feeling prevails that change must come now; as a preparation for and prelude to elections.”

This is systemic violence against minorities – violence wholly invisible to many Sinhala Buddhists because they are both born into and immune from the entrenched racism that defines public life and transactions with the State. It is the same violence that gave rise to the LTTE. It is the same violence that makes even the Tamils opposed to the LTTE now fearful of a triumphalist, jingoist government. It is the same violence that will bedevil our sustainable development, political stability and reconciliation.

Can we then meaningfully capture this historical moment, beyond all the frenetic flag waving and public jubilation, to design and implement a process of peacebuilding and reconciliation that avoids the terrible pitfalls of majoritarianism and triumphalism?

I don’t have all the answers to that question. The Rajapakse regime would like us to believe it does, when in fact it does not and cares little for such questions anyway. Perhaps you do? The question then becomes whether you can, without any fear violent retribution, articulate and champion your thoughts and ideas respectively in public fora today. Upon the answer to that question rests our real prospects for peace and reconciliation. The quote at the beginning of this article is from Albert Einstein and rings true for Sri Lanka. It doesn’t take a genius however to realise precisely how the Rajapakse regime intends to make and keep the peace in post-war Sri Lanka.

Published in The Sunday Leader, 21 June 2009


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