Responses and reactions to the statement in Parliament last week by the Prime Minister around the burning of the Public Library in Jaffna are a revealing case study in reconciliation’s progress, nearly two years into the Sirisena administration.
Mainstream media and social media, including the social media accounts of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms and the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed what they termed was an apology from the Prime Minister. Tellingly, the Prime Minister’s own social media accounts and official website, up until Thursday, didn’t even mention his statement in passing. This didn’t stop media reports, in print and online, which suggested he had in fact apologised for the burning of the Public Library. The viral spread of this “apology” began long before the context within which the PM made his statement was in the public domain. Verbatim and when read, the PM’s statements resonate very differently to when placed in the context they were delivered. Around a four-minute clip of the severe and sustained heckling the PM had to endure in Parliament during a contentious debate around housing the North and East was uploaded by a news group not long after the first reports around the statement went viral. In this video, a PM under pressure almost flippantly acknowledges that the library was burnt under a UNP government and says sorry for it, before challenging MPs from the former regime to own up to their own acts of violence. An MP behind the PM is smirking as he says this. This was pure political theatre, and true to script, sincerity of meaning was never the intent. This was a PM responding to heckling by an off-the-cuff remark around one of the most violent acts against a community and language in the history of our country. The amplification of this remark, which I noted was under ten seconds, was not the PM’s fault. A mainstream media, including influential voices on social media who didn’t wait to hear the context in which the PM said what he did before praising him were responsible for making what was a comment in passing, made under duress, into an “apology” on the lines of what for example former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga said on 23 July 2004, on the 21st anniversary of Black July. Here was an entire speech crafted as a national apology for the events of July 1983, with of course its own attendant problems. But the intent, the delivery and the occasion were considered. The Prime Minister’s comments last week were nowhere near as reflective. At best, this was a casual acknowledgement of an act of violence. An apology though, this was not.
The burning of an entire library, as with the scale and ferocity of violence over twenty-seven years of war, remains largely incomprehensible for most. The facts and figures available online and elsewhere around the event don’t capture the emotional, psychological impact of the event. Imagine an arsonist who broke into your home, took letters, books and other personal effects and made a bonfire of them in your garden, with complete impunity. It may well be the case that the material was worthless through the gaze of an insurer, or for anyone other than you and your family for whom they would be irreplaceable. Some of the texts may have had some historical value. Most would have had a sentimental value, passed on from generation to generation. A few may well have been rare manuscripts or texts that could have been highly valued independently. A newer book may have held more value than an older text. An older album may have held more worth than a more recent digital print. Sometimes, a common book may have held incalculable value because of an inscription, dedication or autograph. You quickly realise that the books and texts you have at home actually capture much more than the space they occupy. They are history, identity and memory, with a value and significance more than what can ever be pegged by a clinical valuation. Imagine then the destruction of this material, on larger scale. Amplify what you would feel at the burning of your personal effects and books, to a community which saw in the flames of an erstwhile library their own flesh being burnt. Sri Lanka often focusses on July 1983’s ethnic pogrom as a turning point in communal relations. I consider the burning of the Jaffna public library to be as bad, if not worse.
I don’t think the PM intended to add insult to injury as a consequence of a remark in Parliament that was clearly not carefully considered. There are even those who have openly said that in these ten seconds, they see a degree of contrition that can now be built on by others from the PM’s party, and beyond. On the other hand, the PM’s empathetic nature is not something that’s well known. Earlier this year, he went on record saying that those who remain disappeared are most probably dead, with scant regard for the impact of these words would have on the families and loved ones of the disappeared. As political-economist Kithmina Hewage noted on Twitter, “the reconciliation process has been so slow, our major breakthroughs are now inadvertent!” While immediate opposition to this observation will highlight the setting up of the Office of Missing Persons, the work of the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, the establishment of SCRM and other high-profile statements around transitional justice and reconciliation, what we have is a government that through ill-considered statements undermines grander plans.
The question then becomes how we value statements of individual politicians versus the intent and actions of government writ large. We are frequently reminded to be forgiving around a government that continues to be compared to the previous regime. And because this baseline is so low, the government continues to comparably fare very well. Does this excuse flippant statements and school boyish debating tactics in Parliament? I don’t believe so. A cosmopolitan-internationalist PM sans charisma is tasked with leading the country through a key referendum in 2017. This is both the opportunity and tragedy. What for the PM, in his mind, is clever repartee invariably resonates very differently amongst various key constituencies he seems irascibly immune to connecting with, and yet central to the success of constitutional reform.
Through an ill-considered, off the cuff remark lasting just a few seconds, our PM has opened the door to more long-lasting criticism around the government’s sincerity around reconciliation beyond telegenics. Though unfortunate, it perhaps also offers an opportunity in the near future for a more considered official apology that acknowledges what is the bloody, violent history of the PM’s party against Tamils in the early 80s and also against thousands of young Sinhalese tortured and murdered in the late 80s. If apologies are to be made, an accounting for this heinous past in the South, just as much as any accounting for the past in the North towards the end of the war, is important.
One hopes those who have the trust and respect of the PM will alert him to this.
First published in The Sunday Island, 11 December 2016.