Internment

“Consider how well we use the word ‘recognise’. I recognise  the furniture in my room, my friend whom I see every day.  But no ‘act of recognition’ takes place.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Humiliation, identity and pride exist symbiotically. Sharp definitions and differences in identity are shaped and cemented in the face of prolonged or heightened humiliation, often leading to an exceptional pride. This can lead to hubris, such as we see in the Rajapakse administration today. Fuelling this hubris is the belief that conspiratorial domestic and foreign forces remain relentless in their drive to name and shame Sri Lanka as a perpetrator of genocide and war crimes. A similar hubris led many Tamils to support the idea of the LTTE, and many others outside Sri Lanka to directly support the organisation itself. For even when they disavowed violence and terrorism, many Tamils felt a sense of pride in a terrorist movement able to paralyse a racist, insensitive Sri Lankan state. This humiliation persists in the IDP camps, where hundreds of thousands of Tamils – all suspected terrorists – are interned with no freedom of expression, no freedom of movement and little hope of going back to their homes in the near future. The logic that conditions of internment in IDP camps are improving weekly makes about as much sense as being under house arrest, with little or no hope of freedom, at the Four Seasons. We must recognise IDP camps for what they are and symbolise – they are not homes and they are constructs of war. Sadly too, their management today is informed by a mindset that ensures the return of terrorism. The twisted logic that informs the improvement of IDP camp conditions is based on the spurious belief that upgrades to basic health, sanitation and living conditions will make those interned feel more at home, thereby affording more time for those “mentally with the LTTE”, as one manic senior government official noted, to be identified and weeded out.

Home however, is a construct of our own imagination. Homes cannot be forced upon peoples. The difference between prisons and homes is not the quality of infrastructure, design or opulence, but freedom – the freedom to choose, own, move into and out of property without fear. IDP camp infrastructure, over time, may look and indeed be better than the bombed out infrastructure civilians fleeing the war had to leave behind. Also, akin to the Stockholm syndrome, it is entirely possible that some of those interned, for reasons ranging from psychosocial trauma to an increasing dependency arising from destitution and hopelessness, are happy to not leave these IDP camps. But these are poor excuses for disallowing the freedom of movement and choice.

Indicative of the mindset governing these camps is the statement by another senior government official who earlier this year, and in all seriousness suggested that “in the sub-continent, barbed wire is the most common material to establish secure boundaries, to permit ventilation as well as views”. The considerable violence of such outrageous, insensitive opinion goes unquestioned in Sri Lanka today because the benevolence of our President and his government is beyond reproach. Worse, it is accepted uncontested not just by government, but by us. I have not read a single account of anyone from government quoting the wishes of those interned in Menik Camp. It’s as if the aspirations of these peoples don’t exist, don’t matter. Worse, the appropriation of their voice by government is no less than a continuation of the systemic racism and discrimination against Tamils that gave rise to terrorism in SRI Lanka. Why are we not flagging these issues more openly? Are we all fearful of being branded as traitors, when all we suggest is the blatantly obvious? Is government fearful of being exposed for what it really is – a cancerous organism controlled by a cabal of three brothers, a tumescent Army Commander, a few thugs and a handful of glib apparatchiks who between them have about as much interest in and commitment towards peacebuilding as Hitler and the Third Reich? Do we really accept that barbed wire meant to imprison, restrict and contain is justified because it is aesthetically appealing? Why isn’t the restoration and strengthening of human dignity more important than the inhumane, degrading search for remnants of terrorism? Why cannot we accept that elements of the LTTE will always reside in Sri Lanka and globally, and that the only way to address this residual terrrorism, and defeat it, is by ensuring that aspirations of minority communities marginalised by our majoritarian democracy are met and fulfilled? We talk today of a united country, but well over a quarter of a million citizens are invisible in the debates on constitutional reform and peacebuilding. Worse, they are not even seen as participants in these vital debates. We can parrot the numbers, but to many of us, fellow citizens in IDPs camps simply don’t exist. What if NGOs and the international community, including the UN, stop supporting these camps? For all the braggadocio of the President, neither he nor his government can care for those interned with domestic resources. In continuing to support conditions of internment and more importantly, an obdurate government that shows every sign of continuing to use violence to control and contain dissent and frame democracy, is the international community a party to new seeds of violent conflict?

The continuing humiliation of Tamil peoples in Sri Lanka is not going to be addressed or erased by Tamil language training for civil servants, rigged elections in Vavuniya and Jaffna, the powerless and meaningless APRC or trust and faith in the President and this government to deliver a panacea. As Sinhala Buddhists, we must be ashamed and shocked at what this government suggests. Yet it is our indifference that marks us as a community today. We seem to care, but really do not. If we did, it is only fair that we demand the President and all those who support the internment of fellow citizens to join them in the conditions they live under, for the duration of this terrible “screening process”. If we did, we would realise that the humiliation of life in these camps, the deracination of dignity, will invariably unravel and undermine the significance of the military victory against the LTTE.

If we did, we would be ashamed of ourselves, of what we have become and justify in the name of peace.

Published in The Sunday Leader, 26th July 2009

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