Hearts and Minds

The thing is, you can’t browbeat Sinha-le, the BBS, Sihala Ravaya or the likes of Udaya Gammanpila. In recent weeks, opposition to racism has condemned those who promote divisive, inflammatory ideas and content. The PM threatened certain journalists and media institutions, and then threatened to take action against websites that promote racism. The President scoffed at Sinha-le proponents, saying they are unworthy of his attention. The Foreign Minister called certain groups ‘neo-fascists’ and ‘misguided Sinhalese Buddhists’ for opposing closer ties with India.  Them be fighting words. But do they have the intended effect of engaging those who genuinely believe in illiberal individuals, institutions, social movements or religious doctrines to re-assess their beliefs? Does it strengthen a moderate centre, the so-called and ever elusive ‘silent majority’, or does it inadvertently only strengthen the very forces being condemned? How really can one challenge extremism, if by addressing it, one invariably promotes to a greater audience precisely that which is critiqued?

Countering violence extremism isn’t an exact science, and counter-intuitively, is best done by examining closely what is done by who we hate the most. Take the Rajapaksa family. Their ability to generate empathy, despite everything they’ve done to eviscerate democracy, flies in the face of reason and logic. A single tearful photo is able to generate enough support to gloss over the reasons for an arrest done by the book. The gross misuse of State funds to fund a son’s education – recorded not by some NGO or foreign agent, but in our Parliament – is glossed over in an outpouring of outrage over incarceration. Fraternal incantations on social media around the dangers of stepping on the tails of Lion’s generate likes by the hundreds. A martyr is crafted. A movement is born.

The Rajapaksa’s gifts to the nation were harbours, highways and airports. The real cost of these projects was hidden, but the public were able to experience what they did. Infrastructure was seen, the corruption and waste was not. The Rajapaksa’s appeal was and is primarily emotional. They made a majority in the South feel good. In concert, manic monks who once enjoyed the limelight, possibly now scared of being outshone by more recent racist well-springs, buoyed by meeting the President, mouth off in court, get arrested and generate heightened attention around what was in the past year dormant extremism. So too the beautifully crafted Sinha-le logo, which fills a void, inhabited by fear. The absence of a broad, plural national identity is infested instead by exclusive, communal markers. The sticker symbolises insecurities of a community projected as pride, something to feel good about when in the popular imagination, the community perceives itself as being under siege.

Racism in Sri Lanka is somehow the new rational, and it is the opposition to extremism that is seen as unwarranted. Logic and reason, appealing in other words to the intellect pale into insignificance when in competition with how communities feel. It’s a simple fact often overlooked – emotion drives reaction; the intellect informs response. Here is the reason why charisma and charm will win votes in a way cold statistics, no matter how factual, will not. This is also why outright condemnation of racism as it is manifest in Sri Lanka today doesn’t make the cut, and may actually serve to strengthen it. Emotions can’t be replaced by the force of reason alone. Marketers and advertisers know this only too well – the heart most often rules over the mind.

What today the President dismisses, the PM condemns and the Foreign Minister calls out are manifestations of a larger, deeper issue with the Sinhalese, who renowned Harvard anthropologist Stanley Tambiah called a “majority with a minority complex”. Instead of a multi-pronged, multi-lingual, strategic nationalist project to address economic disempowerment, real fears around India’s unfettered access to our economy, deep-seated concerns around how proposed transitional justice mechanisms agreed to in Geneva will impact the tens of thousands of lives dependent on, directly or indirectly, the Ministry of Defence or for example a concerted effort to use the dhamma itself against the bigotry of monks, the government will not shift hearts captured by campaigns, brands, institutions and individuals who capitalise on fear and uncertainty. On one level, appealing to and stoking communal fear is easier than crafting an appealing counter-nationalism that speaks to those already disenchanted with government. On the other hand, it isn’t impossible. The trick is to choose the right speaker, carefully select the most compelling media, use emotive language, tailor the expression and produce gripping images. Speakers can come from sports, popular culture and the arts. Media can range from mainstream to instant messaging, posters to flyers, stickers to wrist-bands. An emotive language would openly speak to key fears seriously and without derision, no matter how unfounded or bizarre, thereby compelling closed hearts to engage with the message. The expression would change depending on audience – a popular idiom for young adults, more sober reflections for those who are older, rap and verse to slang and wordplay. Images that appeal to a shared humanity, reflecting key public officials in unguarded moments, in a lighter vein and reflecting, by framing various subjects, the diversity in the country. In sum compelling content that doesn’t always set itself in opposition to something else and tries always to hammer home a point, but rather, inspires, engages, goes viral and over time, becomes embedded in the public consciousness and popular discourse.

This is also why the Prime Minister needs the President. Sirisena’s appeal, his brand if you will, is emotive, whereas Wickremesinghe’s projections are often, though factually sound, alienating, cold and delivered without any strategic consideration around tone or expression. Being smug in Parliament may win immediate partisan cheer, but isn’t any guarantee of wider, public appreciation or support over the longer term. The incumbent President’s brand is unique, and though of late without the same appeal as it had a year ago, still vital to communicate democratic and plural values.

The key to combatting Sinha-le and all manner of competing racisms isn’t only with outright condemnation. We need to erode what give them life by addressing the fear, distrust and ignorance deep within our communities. This isn’t just an intellectual or academic endeavour. Change happens when we feel and care enough about something. Facts and data have their place, but move the heart, and you move minds.

###

Published in The Sunday Island, 7 February 2016.

Thoughts on Sri Lanka’s post-war media

Note prepared for Lasantha Wickremetunge Memorial lecture on  21st September 2013 in Toronto, Canada. For full video of full presentation and the ensuing discussion, click here.

###

Over four years after the end of the war, what is it about Sri Lanka that still resists greater freedom of expression?

At a recent meeting with members of the team that visited the country on a fact finding mission from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a sadly familiar litany of issues regarding the suppression of media freedom, culture of impunity, growth of hate speech, lack of any meaningful investigations into the abductions and murders of journalists and the heightened self-censorship were tabled in great detail. The team was reminded that Sri Lanka ranks near bottom of every single global press freedom index since 2009. These facts are well known, and yet the political will to enact remedial measures remains absent. Tellingly, what is an outrageous record of violence against critical journalism is, within Sri Lanka, not a subject of sustained debate or outrage, save for when there’s yet another contract killing to silence an inconvenient voice or media institution.

And therein lies the rub.

Threats, often violent, in response to any kind of journalism or voice that interrogates Sri Lanka’s growing democratic deficit and militarisation continue to grow, and yet agitation for greater freedom of expression including the safety and security of journalists remain both episodic and peripheral within the mainstream media itself. What is often portrayed simplistically and condemned as a media hostage to and victimised by a brutish Government masks a more complex reality.

After the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper in early 2009, censorship and control of media is more sophisticated than just the use and threat of violence. Proxies of the government have bought up once independent newspapers, with obvious impact on their gaze and output. Others, often businessmen who stand to win large tenders and contracts, have setup media institutions that compete with each other, as well as State owned media, in a race to produce and publish propaganda. State media itself is guilty of hate speech, especially targeted at human rights activists. All broadcast and print media, without exception, rely on advertising to maintain operations. The Government itself is one the largest advertisers. The threat of losing advertising revenue is alone enough to effectively silence, and without any official censorship in place. Even less is spoken about the unprofessionalism of mainstream media. For example, Editors of many leading newspapers admit to meeting the President regularly at breakfast meetings to discuss the news agenda. Why they repeatedly do so, and what is discussed, remain secret. Unsurprisingly, since the end of war, critical dissent and the most revealing exposes have shifted to web media, including over web based social media like Facebook and Twitter. This has not gone unnoticed. Without any legal basis, websites continue to be arbitrarily blocked for publishing content on corruption, human rights abuses and militarisation few, if any mainstream media in Sri Lanka will first or even subsequently publish or broadcast. Earlier this year, the all-powerful Secretary of Defence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, went as far as to openly call social media a national security threat. Overall, Tamil language media continues to report on issues in the North and East of the country that don’t, even in passing, get mention in Sinhala language media and only occasionally, and then too in diluted form, find expression in English language media.

The net result is that, ironically, the most ardent consumers of mainstream media are also the most ignorant of issues around democratic governance and the rule of law that rapidly and comprehensively undermine Sri Lanka’s prospects of a just and sustainable peace. Web based media operating domestically and outside of Sri Lanka meticulously record and publish the inconvenient, but lack the reach and impact of mainstream media. Thus the central challenge remains one of promoting critical commentary in a context that trucks no dissent.

Just a few weeks ago, a senior investigative journalist found herself and her children at gunpoint. Her predicament, in a country we are told is now enjoying peace and from which she was lucky to get out alive, is emblematic of the larger media context. Truly independent media and the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka remain under the shadow of a gun.

We ignore this only to risk another, more brutal war.

 

A review of ‘The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lankan & The Last Days of the Tamil Tigers’

This review was originally written for and published on Groundviews.

###

I was elated to take delivery of my copy of The Cage by Gordon Weiss yesterday. Having pre-ordered it off Amazon UK, I fully expected it to be held up by Customs officials in Sri Lanka, given the incendiary issues the book is anchored to and its author, an erstwhile employee of the United Nations (UN) in Sri Lanka. As a friend quipped, they probably thought it had something to do with the Dehiwela Zoo. This may be true for now, but it is highly unlikely, in a country that has repeatedly even blocked issues of The Economist with articles perceived to be against the incumbent government, that this tome will be freely sold in bookstores.

The publication and release of The Cage comes soon after the hugely controversial and deeply distressing report by the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts, which found credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both the LTTE and government armed forces in the final months and weeks of the war. Just today, no more than 24 hours after I first picked up this book, Kumaran Pathmanathan (alias KP), the former head of the LTTE’s arms procurement department, said in the media that the UN and West were prepared to send in a ship to rescue LTTE leaders towards the fag end of the war[1].  As I sit down to write this, the sonic booms of Kfir jets over Colombo, once a familiar sound, herald preparations for the second anniversary of the end of war. Last year, the President proclaimed that the armed forces did not kill a single civilian and that they “carried a gun in one hand and a copy of the human rights charter in the other”. It is a powerful fiction – simply told and sadly, simply believed. A few days hence, this compelling fiction will drive the proceedings of an international seminar, organised by the armed forces, aimed to share the government’s unique ‘mojo’ of defeating terrorism with the rest of the world[2].

The Cage is a page-turner. Gordon’s prose is lucid and compelling. This is not a book you can easily put down once picked up. There are around 60 pages of notes and background reference material – Weiss has clearly done his homework. The book is anchored to the final few weeks of war, but holds lessons more broadly applicable, and covers issues as diverse as geo-politics and international relations to international humanitarian law and its application in the Sri Lankan context. Weiss is also clearly well versed in the art of communication – for example, demonstrating a rare insight into how to humanise a large tragedy, he compares throughout the book the size of the sand spit where the war ended and tens of thousands of civilians were trapped in to the size of New York’s Central Park, London or Hampstead Heath. This is powerful writing, because it communicates far more effectively the cramped landmass than any figure in square kilometres or miles can.

As I read the book cover to cover in a matter of hours, it reminded me so much of another book – David Blacker’s A Cause Untrue, first published around 2005. As I noted in a review of A Cause Untrue,

“the strength of Blacker’s writing is that it is hugely believable. We know we are reading a work of fiction, but the familiar names, places, incidents – all serve to sharpen the illusion of reality. Intense, thrilling and intoxicating – the Schumacher pace of this book fuels the careening progress of its plot. The thrill, primarily, is in reading the fictional accounts of familiar actors– the Government of Sri Lanka, the Special Forces of the Army, the LTTE etc.”

Weiss does not intend his book to be perceived or judged as fiction. It invariably will be by many. The comparison between Blacker and Weiss is perhaps unfair, but with certain merits. Both books deal with Sri Lanka’s 30-year-old war that ended decisively in May 2009. Both portray, albeit very differently, the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE), which at its zenith was one of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the world. Blacker’s fiction renders operatives of the Sri Lankan armed forces like Fleming’s Bond – as suave, raffish international operators. In contrast, many accounts of the armed forces in The Cage are ferociously barbaric, visceral. Just as much as I observed that Blacker’s work intersperses the real with the fictional, many sections of government, the armed forces and even the UN in Sri Lanka and New York will see Weiss as a talented but tainted author of a book that isn’t pegged to any evidence on the ground.

Sadly, some of the irresponsibly written and edited content in The Cage will support this response. Weiss notes that his first introduction to Gotabaya Rajapaksa – who is featured extensively in the book – was just after the suicide attack against him in December 2006[3], stating that it was a Mercedes that saved his life. It was in fact an armour plated BMW 7 Series that saved Gotabaya’s life and ironically, one that the former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge imported to Sri Lanka[4]. On page 6, Weiss notes that on the day Prabakaran’s death was announced through the media, “there was little of the air of celebration one might have expected at the end of such an epoch”. I do not know which part of the country Weiss was at this time but it was one big, riotous party in and around Colombo on the 18th of May[5] and extending for the most part of a week. On page 145, Weiss asserts that Sri Lanka’s current Foreign Minister, G.L. Peiris, was in May 2010 the Attorney General. He never was – Weiss confuses Mohan Peiris with G.L.  Peiris. There are other revealing ambiguities, over for example the portrayal of the Sri Lankan armed forces. On Page 180, quoting an article that appeared in the Hindustan Times by Suthirto Patranobis, Weiss avers that an ‘unnamed Indian doctor’ said the true death toll had been ‘brushed under the carpet’. Weiss could have researched this better. The Indian doctor does in fact have a name – he was Dr. Tathagata Bose, and before the Hindustan Times report, the first we heard of his observations treating those coming out of the war zone was on Groundviews, where he said “If an infant could not be protected, imagine the plight of older children and adults. The so-called ‘Sri Lankan Solution’ being touted as the panacea for dealing with terrorism worldwide needs a thorough relook.”[6] Page 186 is nearly entirely devoted to high praise of Sri Lankan doctors working in the front-lines during the end of war in horrific conditions and the kindness of front-line soldiers. As Weiss avers,

“During the course of research for this book, dozens of Tamils described the Sinhalese as inherently kind and gentle people. The front-line soldiers who received the first civilians as they escaped to government lines, those who guarded them in the camps and the civilian and military doctors who provided vital treatment distinguished themselves most commonly through their mercy and care.”

Further on in the book, Weiss gives examples of soldiers who tried their utmost to distinguish between LTTE combatants and civilians in incredibly confusing and stressful ground conditions, gave up their own rations to feed those who were dying of hunger in the internment camps established by the government just after the war and other incredible stories of compassion and mercy towards injured Tamil civilians – mothers, children, infants and men – in the hellish last weeks and days of war. This ostensibly echoes what for example Brigadier Prasanna de Silva from the 55th Division says in the film directed by Guy Guneratne The Truth That Wasn’t There[7]. However, Weiss also then unequivocally asserts that “this does not mean that soldiers did not directly kill thousands of civilians in the heat of combat” and notes that “… Survivors testify that advancing soldiers lobbed grenades methodically into bunkers that often held civilians.” Gordon’s attempt to portray the armed forces through a wide-angled lens of complex emotional, psychosomatic and combat responses to war is commendable, and indeed, more rounded than what most other writers, including those in civil society, have penned to date. It is sadly a leitmotif left abandoned in the book. Weiss offers no larger analysis of this tragic fragmentation between spontaneous compassion and calculated mass scale atrocity, and its affects on the civilians caught in direct or cross-fire.

Sections of The Cage therefore will be flagged as authentic by government, most other passages, violently derided as conspiratorial fiction. Unsurprisingly, given the reaction to the UN Secretary General’s report, the sections the government will be most upset by and why this book will never be openly sold in Sri Lanka will be those dealing with ground conditions in the Vanni from around January to May 2009 in particular, plus the content on page 225, dealing with the assassination of the LTTE’s leadership even after the conditions and path of surrender had been worked out with those in government.

The vociferous support of the UN Secretary General’s report by many sections of the pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora is pegged to its repeated and deep consternation over instances where government armed forces actively targeted civilians. What the UN report also makes explicitly clear and Weiss in The Cage repeatedly underscores are the unimaginably barbaric actions of the LTTE “to fire artillery into their own people” based on “the terrible calculation that with enough dead Tamils, a toll would eventually be reached that would lead to international outrage and intervention.” Here’s the rub – with their leadership decimated, there’s no one in the LTTE to hold accountable.

Not so with the armed forces.

Chapter Five (Convoy 11) is a damning indictment of the Sri Lankan armed forces. Weiss quotes at length eye witness testimony and the experiences of two military men – retired colonel Harun Khan from Bangladesh and the UN’s security chief Chris Du Toit from South Africa, also a retired colonel. The chapter is based on their experience of accompanying the 11th WFP food convoy into the Vanni. It is a mind-numbingly harrowing account of violence that supports what the UN Panel of Experts says are credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Weiss takes pains to emphasise that the appalling details are based on reports by two men who each had significant experience in active combat. Throughout the chapter it is made very clear that the Sri Lankan armed forces were driven by the single-minded pursuit of decimating the LTTE. As Weiss notes regarding the establishment of the so-called No Fire Zones (NFZs), “The decision to unilaterally declare an NFZ in that particular location, hard up against an unpredictable and eroding front line had little to do with protecting civilian lives and everything to do with their removal as an obstacle to unrestrained firepower” and goes to say that “… it was reckless and dangerous strategy that had everything to do with political expediency and little to do with the duty of care owed by the government to civilians. It also said much about how the Sri Lankan leadership valued the lives of the ‘Tiger’ civilian population”. The Sri Lankan armed forces, in sum had towards the end of war become a mirror image of the terrorist group they were fighting against. Pages 116 – 120 are, simply put, difficult to digest even after reading the macabre details published in the UN’s own report and others from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Weiss speaks of photographic evidence of the carnage taken by Col. Khan, but there is none to be found in the book itself. Dismembered babies may have been too gruesome to include in the tome, but are photographic evidence of the deliberate targeting of civilians. Weiss does not say who has these photos, but we can assume, amongst others, the UN does. The Cage goes on to deal with what is now, sadly, the well-known shelling of the PTK hospital guided by what Weiss claims “to be the result of a frantic SLA push to seize the town before Sri Lanka’s annual independence celebrations on 4 February”. On page 133 Weiss calls out the mentality of the government and the armed forces towards the end of the war, which believed “that the failure of civilians to make the perilous crossing of the front lines in effect amounted to complicity with the tactics of the Tamil Tigers.”

The Cage then, though in form different to the UN Panel’s report, supports the same significant concerns over war crimes committed by the armed forces and the LTTE. There is however one other development that arises from this book’s publication when juxtaposed with the official version of the UN Panel’s report, released late April. The justifiable caution over and confidentiality of sources in the UN Panel’s report is ruined by the revelations in The Cage, attributed by Weiss to specific individuals.  Pages 23 to 24 of the UN Panel’s report, in particular sections 83 – 89, also deals with Convoy 11’s experience. No names of the sources however are given. After reading The Cage, it is a matter of simple extrapolation that the sources were in fact Col. Khan and Col. Du Toit. It is unclear how the UN itself will respond. Weiss makes it clear that those accounts that are attributed to individuals was done with explicit permission. The situation reports they would have submitted to WFP and other UN agencies would obviously have informed the Panel’s report. What Weiss has unwittingly done here is to add fuel to the government’s propaganda machine and its most vicious, voluble proponents. It also runs counter to the author’s own assertion (page xxix) that he has done his best “… to interpret and use publicly available information, and has not drawn on confidential correspondence or internal reports, discussions…”. I pride myself on being rather well informed about what is in the public domain dealing with the end of war, but cannot once recall or find any record of what Du Toit or Kahn refer to in The Cage outside of the book, or published anywhere before it.

Annoyingly, The Cage also features the off-handish inclusion of disturbing allegations. On Page 211, Weiss passingly mentions the use of phosphorus shells exploding amongst civilians. This is in fact an extremely serious allegation, and though it has also been reiterated in Tamil media in Sri Lanka, it is one that the government and the armed forces have vehemently denied[8].

That said, The Cage is much more than the narration of carnage so violent, that it defies easy comprehension. Weiss’s book is an attempt to contextualise this violence in the history and ethno-politics of Sri Lanka, and here he succeeds better than most. Weiss calls himself ‘an informed observer’ early on in the book. At the beginning he asks several questions – and vital ones at that – on whether the Sri Lankan government had any alternative to what they ended up doing to end the war. This book is a scathing critique of what the author sees, and those like Louse Arbour also agree as the UN’s “complicity with evil”, but no more so than the report by the UN Secretary General himself. Some soul-searching has been promised, but it is clear that it will take time and will involve problematic investigations into the culpability of highly placed officials in the Secretary General’s cabinet, the resident representative of the UN in Sri Lanka at the time and heads of other UN agencies. The strongest condemnation however is directed at the armed forces and government. Weiss on page 145 (and again on page 197) offers an alternative denouement to the war, though noting that it is now impossible to determine how the government would have reacted to a UN system more proactive in its condemnation of civilian deaths. The alternative proposed by Weiss is interesting reading, but utterly divorced from the (Sinhalese) mentality and sheer hatred of the LTTE that drove government and the armed forces, who having whiffed the decisive end to the war through the decimation of the group’s leadership, weren’t interested in anything or anyone that stood in their way.

Tellingly, the resulting gory and for example the unearthly conditions of Menik Farm remain, at best, of peripheral interest to the majority in Sri Lanka. They are issues and people out of sight, out of mind. The Cage will have about as much impact in Sri Lanka as banning issues of The Economist. Dozens of copies of the book will invariably make its way into Sri Lanka. Much like my own copy, they will be passed on from hand to hand to inform a few concerned about war crimes allegations and are in favour of robust, independent investigations into such allegations. Internationally, The Cage will guarantee it’s author a slot in the literary festivals circuit (sans the Galle Literary Festival) for the next year at least, coupled with media interviews, reviews such as this and op-eds to plug the book – all of which will keep the spotlight on Sri Lanka’s tryst with war crimes. Will this result in any demonstrable change in Sri Lanka? I think not.

If anything, The Cage is more than a disturbing scrutiny of the final phase of war.  Weiss also flags in some detail a corrupt, dysfunctional judiciary and the erosion of democratic governance, even before the 18th Amendment. In highlighting the murder of the fifteen aid workers in 2006, Weiss underscores what Amnesty International has also clearly flagged – no commission of inquiry or process of investigation into killings that have involved the State has brought the perpetrators to book. The Cage looks the significant role China played in the guarding Sri Lanka against UN condemnation and sanctions both in Geneva and at the Security Council in New York as well as supplying the armed forces with weapons. The author places Sri Lanka centre and forward in the new ‘Beijing Consensus’, and sees China’s complicity with the war’s end as the building block of deep and lasting economic partnerships over the coming years. The considered position of an informed observer gives Weiss a unique vantage to see how the systemic decay within Sri Lanka, coupled with the shift of geo-political advantage to the East in international fora played into the carnage in the Vanni.

For me, it was a single sentence in The Cage that captured the tragedy of war’s end, and how it has so violently defined our country. It wasn’t anything to do with the effects of shelling and shooting point blank children, lactating mothers or the elderly. It wasn’t about the entrails that adorned burning landscapes after the shelling ended. It wasn’t in fact anything to do with the violence rent by arms. Page 185 deals with how even in sheer destitution and despair, civilians in makeshift camps sandwiched between the armed forces and LTTE tried to make the most of their perilous condition. Weiss notes that ,

“There was a shortage of material for everything, and people were compelled to use their colourful, expensive wedding saris, which usually handed down from mother to daughter.”

For most Sri Lankans and especially for Tamils, this is an image extremely resonant and more than a little saddening. This tragic loss of dignity and identity to just survive through the night are not wounds that heal easily. This loss of what it means to be human is not regained by the year on year growth of GDP or the increasing influx of tourists. During the war, the government perceived all Tamils as LTTE, even in Colombo[9]. After the war, nothing – nothing at all – of what the government has done meaningfully addresses legitimate grievances that gave rise to the heinous entity that was the LTTE. From the violence of the 18th Amendment to that of government ministers in Jaffna[10], the treatment of those interned in Menik Farm, the wasteful and outrageously insensitive celebrations over the second term of the President[11], the millions of dollars the government spend son bids for the Commonwealth Games and entities like Bell Pottinger to whitewash its name[12] and yet can’t spend on those uplifting the livelihoods of those most affected by war, including families of armed forces personnel killed or MIA – these and so much more of what the Rajapaksa regime does suggests we are all hostage in a cage much larger than what Weiss flags in his book, and arguably harder to fight against and escape from. The necessary opiate to keep inconvenient questions and truths away from public scrutiny remains a language of hate and harm – viciously denying, decrying, defiling and denouncing anyone, in Sri Lanka or outside, who questions the President’s assertion, parroted by his brothers, government and unprincipled schmucks in the UNP that no war crimes were committed by our armed forces.

In January 2010, the discerning Sri Lankan voter faced a horrible choice in selecting a viable post-war President. Equally egotistical and megalomaniacal, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka represented the girders of this larger cage. One won, the other lost more than expected, but indirectly or directly, they are both responsible for allegations of war crimes and crimes of mass atrocity against our own people. These are allegations that will certainly not result in any quick regime change, but are as unlikely to ever fade away. They will keep coming back, again and again and again. Until and unless there is a meaningful process of truth-seeking and truth-telling, we risk losing out on the verdant democratic potential of our country post-war and a descent into what Weiss ominously notes in the final sentence of The Cage as a “tyranny where myth-making, identity whitewashing and political opportunism have defeated justice and individual dignity.”

The Cage is published by Bodley Head, Random House and available at the time of writing on Amazon UK.


[2] Seminar on defeating terrorism: Sharing Sri Lanka’s experience, http://groundviews.org/2011/05/16/seminar-on-defeating-terrorism-sharing-sri-lankas-experience/

[3] Defence Secy escapes LTTE assassination bid, http://www.dailynews.lk/2006/12/02/sec01.asp

[5] The celebrations in Colombo after Prabhakaran’s demise, http://groundviews.org/2009/05/19/the-celebrations-in-colombo-after-prabhakarans-demise/

[7] In 2009 three young filmmakers crossed the frontlines in the wake of civil war in Sri Lanka. In doing so they became the first independent journalists to visit the final battlegrounds. See https://www.facebook.com/tttwt

[8] On 20 September 2010, the Tamil newspaper Sudar Oli quoting the testimony given by N. Sundermurthi to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) also noted the use of phosphorous bombs. As noted by Sundermurthi, “The LTTE even attacked airplanes that were sent to attack the safe zones. When they counter-attacked, the Army used banned phosphorus and cluster bombs against the LTTE. There were many casualties on account of this. Around 400 – 600 died daily, and around 1,000 were injured. It was a grim situation. After this, amidst incredible hardship, we arrived in areas controlled by the Army.” See http://groundviews.org/2010/09/24/did-the-sri-lankan-army-use-cluster-bombs-and-phosphorus-bombs-against-civilians/ for a translation by Groundviews of this disturbing Tamil news report.

A review of The Travelling Circus

The late review is at an advantage, in that it is informed by the published critiques of others and subsequent responses online and in print. In this respect, watching Tracy Holsinger’s The Travelling Circus on the last day of its run was to juxtapose the live performance against reviews that dismissed the production as highfalutin nonsense and others that praised it as compelling theatre.

Tracy’s attempt at devised theatre is without, to my knowledge, precedent in Sri Lankan English drama. With roots in commedia dell’arte, devised theatre is a difficult form, which even seasoned actors balk at since it involves co-creation and improvisation instead of the comparatively more straightforward interpretation, direction and delivery of a script. This dramatic inflorescence requires a high degree of skill and discipline from both director and actor alike. The Travelling Circus, in this respect, was a technical tour de force and, by far, the best production of Tracy’s theatre group Mind Adventures to date. I would rank it amongst the best productions, in any theatrical tradition, I have seen in the past thirteen years. Yet, Tracy’s treatment and selection of subject matter will make this production her most controversial to date, tellingly unappealing to a public more comfortable with a theatre of insouciance based on mindless scripts providing entertainment and escape.

Here there is no escaping the visceral reality of war and its human consequences, even though the action on stage was comically burlesque and satirical. It was a natural fit with advocacy and rare journalism highlighting the plight of those displaced by war in Sri Lanka, through a form and expression essentially political. Concerned with the exploration of psychosocial trauma, violence and human displacement on account of war, the production eschewed easy denouement. The twin denouement to the play, one more hopeful than the other, reminded us that truth is multifaceted, a leitmotif of a production deeply subversive, forcing us to reflect and on occasion, even as we laughed, be ashamed of ourselves.

Other reviews, revealingly by a younger audience demographic and online, have celebrated Tracy’s adroit use of the devised theatre genre to weave a captivating lyricism into the performance. From baila to original rap, brilliant verbal riffs to solos by actors cum singers, The Travelling Circus reflected a diversity of musical form refreshingly original and skilfully combined into the script. One particularly tender moment is when the character of a girl in an IDP camp, after two attempts at song with the word ‘home’ in them shot down by the unscrupulous Camp Warden (marvellously played by Subha Wijesiriwardene), launches into a rendition of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” worthy of Dietrich. This particular moment is also one example of rapid changes in tone and pace throughout this production, effortlessly switching from the irreverent and funny to the sublime and reflective.

It’s easy to see why this production would appeal to a younger, web-savvy generation generally apathetic to the complex politics of human displacement and war. It was to see on stage the familiar and loved idiom of mash-ups they create and participate in online – at one level a production that was fun and which they could identify with, defying the generational perception of theatre as stodgy, alien, highfalutin or just plain uncool.

The ‘Travelling Circus of Refugees’, a motley band of fantastic characters that entertained to interrogate, featured actors well-known and emergent. For example, Gihan de Chickera’s signature cadence from Last Bus Eke Kathawa was present in this production as well, and used to good effect. Tehani Chitty as a rather animated cow, and Ruvin de Silva as a boy, clearly traumatised, who spoke through numbers stood out in a cast extremely accomplished in their acting. The absorbing nature ofThe Travelling Circus is also a reflection of their courage, for this is a production that will be invariably interpreted by those closed off to any perspective other than their own as theatre condoning the violence of the “Other”. The resulting diatribes will attempt to name and shame the production and its actors as those blind to, in particular, the causes for and conduct of war – jus in bello and jus ad bellum. Yet it is precisely here that, to coin a phrase, these critics will lose the plot. Tracy’s play is about a deep humanism that transcends violent factionalism, self-serving definitions of peace, pyrrhic victories and petty justifications for violence. One does not find, thankfully, an ideal or idealised peace in this production. One denouement to the play, after all, has three characters leaving their IDP camp only to be blown up by mines, which in fact is a real challenge impeding resettlement. On the other hand, through devices on stage such as the question tree that sprouts vital questions on war and peace and the purposefully wicked landmine choreography and lyrics, Tracy’s play unflinchingly illuminates the sheer inhumanity in war, where the banality of evil erases borders dividing aggressors and victims. Given the pathetic post-war mainstream media coverage of the lives of IDPs, this production is informed by and critiques ground realities not many in Colombo will be comfortable with, or able to face. The pro-war, Sinhala nationalist lobby will be the most incensed, and understandably so, for this is the same lobby which normalised the internment of a quarter of a million Tamils in squalid conditions for months after the official end of war. If anything, the politics that undergird The Travelling Circus is a mirror of ourselves, and how most of us justified, perhaps out of fatigue and a desperation for its end, levels of hate, racism, violence, killing, abduction and corruption during war that severely eroded an essential ingredient of democracy – a shared humanity. Post-war, the boy who speaks in numbers tells us in his inimitable way, hope of reconciliation and peace can only be engendered through remembering our past. These are not ideas that have great traction in polity and society today.

Nuga Sevana, on the grounds of the Anglican Church in Colombo, served as an ideal venue for this production. The gnarled branches of the nuga tree and, on the day I went, the rain and mud added an atmosphere impossible to recreate indoors. My first experience of theatre at this venue was over a year ago, and the drawbacks evident at the time – ambient noise, poor sound, bad light and an audience at the mercy of the weather – were addressed through discreet sound amplification that worked well, excellent stage lighting and a marquee that all added greatly to the play’s premise as an impromptu circus act.

Tracy Holsinger is not infallible as a director. Her bathetic production of Sharman Macdonald’s After Juliet earlier this year forced a hurried exit from the venue. Yet, the juvenile After Juliet was unbearable because the expectation of theatre going into any of Tracy’s productions is high – very high. She is one of our most gifted and technically proficient directors, with her worst better than what many others consider their best. The Travelling Circus will not be her most viewed, profitable or liked production. It is commendable and memorable precisely because of this. Tracy’s disdain for the “safe” theatre that is commercially viable is refreshing, and also why we must be particularly thankful for the courageous sponsors of this production, whomust continue to support the theatre of Mind Adventures and others inspired by or like it. As I noted when I interviewed her on public television earlier this year, Tracy’s theatre is deeply political, anchored to her appreciation that there is, in her own words, a “culture of fear, corruption and mockery of law and order that has been forced upon us by the very people who are supposed to protect morals and principles”. This degree of commitment to and love for professionalism in theatre is rare, especially given that it is not a profession one can pursue as a full time career in our country and because the economics of production and profitability often trump theatrical innovation, form and content.

The second, more hopeful dénouement to the play had the boy who spoke in numbers deliver a rousing speech, completely through numbers. These numbers were significant dates and years in our bloody history, to which discerning members of the audience pegged their own memories, prejudices and perspectives. Thus, to the end, Tracy’s play offered no easy solution, no panacea. And even when The Travelling Circus made us laugh, it quickly compelled us ask why we did so, and at what. To the very end, it sprouted through dramatic device and riveting performance vital questions we needed to ask about our status quo, society, politics, prejudices, history and our avowed humanity.

This is theatre at its best.

###

For an interview with Tracy Holsinger, click on The Travelling Circus: A different take on IDPs in Sri Lanka

For a longer interview with Tracy speaking on theatre and the arts in Sri Lanka, click on In conversation with Tracy Holsinger

Media in Sri Lanka

For over three years, I have discussed media and conflict resolution at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) in Colombo in classes with high-ranking officers in active service from the intelligence community, Police, Army, Navy and Air Force as well as staff from NGOs, university students and ordinary citizens. My fundamental emphasis in these classes was to suggest that all citizens in Sri Lanka today own or have access to tools and technologies that allow them to produce, disseminate and consume news and information beyond traditional media coverage. Few disagreed with this thesis.

This is not a technocratic argument, or one based on and reflective of some privileged social or political class, an elite not unlike those who control the media we consume today. We already see how mobiles have changed the way we get and transmit news – from tsunami warnings and road closures to the latest cricket scores. As research by the Colombo based telecommunications policy think tank Lirneasia highlighted recently, there are already more phones in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Thailand than radios at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) – the largest and poorest socio-economic group in these countries. In Sri Lanka, over 70% of BOP households have a telephone, either fixed or as is increasingly the case, mobile. We are looking at what I call an addressable humanity in less than a decade. Everyone, wherever they are, will own or have access to a number that connects them to the rest of the world. In many cases, this will be a mobile phone. Think about it – affordable, ubiquitous voice and data connectivity for everyone. How will the use of and access to communications at this scale impact human rights and governance? Will this level of borderless addressability realise Francis Fukuyama’s end of the nation-state, or conversely, will it strengthen movements for internal self-determination? Do we embrace this future or do we seek to violently stymie its realisation? Essentially, why are these developments and questions so important for professional journalism?

One reason is because these new tools and technologies are re-organising the power around, the perception of and respect towards traditional media. Strip away all the highfalutin hype and well-known pitfalls over the practice of citizen journalism and examples of new media and you still have historic changes in content creation, by and for citizens, unprecedented since Gutenberg’s movable type 560 years ago. This is not content that necessarily needs, or uses, the enabling architecture of traditional media to get read, seen or heard. And this is precisely what bothers our senior journalists. As renowned BBC journalist Nik Gowing recently noted in The Guardian,

Too often, the knee-jerk institutional response continues to be one of denial as if this new broader, fragmented, redefined media landscape does not exist. Yet within minutes the new, almost infinite media dynamic of images, video, texts and social media mean the public rapidly has vivid, accurate impressions of what is unravelling. Overall, the time lines of their institutional power and the new media realities are increasingly out of sync. This creates what a few enlightened officials or executives concede is the new fragility of their power in a crisis. Institutional assumptions of commanding the information high ground in a crisis are from a different era. The instant scrutiny created by the new digital media landscape subverts their effectiveness and leaves reputations more vulnerable than ever in a crisis. It usually does so with breathtaking speed.

Emphasis mine. For my sins as a scholar, I have been forced to interact with opinionated journalists who are overwhelmingly less knowledgeable about new media than most students I have encountered my classroom, including many from our defence establishment. There is perhaps a simple explanation. Senior journalists, much like our government today, think they alone know the truth and thus over time come to believe their own fiction as fact. As a result, many see no reason to engage with alternative viewpoints and facts emerging from citizen produced content. Readers remain consumers, journalists remain producers and the news flows out from the newsroom. It’s a simple worldview. My students, on the other hand, are interested in ways they can manipulate existing media and create their own. Both groups, perhaps unequally, are fascinated and frustrated by new media. Fascinated because they find that media production for a global audience is now as simple as a few strokes on a mobile device. Frustrated because with this knowledge comes the realisation that it is no longer possible to control information flows opposed to, or that question, one’s own opinion.

How does this impact on media production and consumption in Sri Lanka? The re-activation of the Press Council is a good example. The government’s decision to reactivate it was ostensibly on the basis that salaries and rent were still being paid to maintain its membership and offices respectively, even though it was dissolved a few years ago. The manic lunacy of the Rajapakse government sadly survived the war. My observation however was that not a single press release or media report on the reactivation of the Press Council acknowledged the elephant in the room – deep and enduring divisions within traditional media in Sri Lanka that undermines media freedom. But we already know this. Just recently, a prominent member of the Editors Guild itself, commenting online, supported the reactivation of the Press Council and bringing to book producers of content that, in this instance, highlighted clear examples of the defamatory use of online sources and plagiarism in a leading newspaper. While media freedom remains under severe threat from government, the defence establishment and armed parastatals, the significance of senior journalists themselves undermining the professionalism, independence and impartiality of their profession is a topic that is simply not talked about openly.

Why is this important for us, the consumers of media? For starters, we now can talk back to journalists and comment on their content, even if they refuse to feature or publish us in their own media. This makes many senior journalists feel deeply insecure and vaunt to respond to new media in the same manner as the Pope would if you asked him when he last had sex. This is unfortunate. All that really differentiates traditional and new media today is their ability to create or strengthen value. Progressive newspapers like the Guardian in the UK show how value can be added to traditional journalism by engaging readers as participants in news-making through the web. In opening up an investigation into the expenses of UK MPs, the Guardian recently invited readers to categorize 700,000 pages of information, transcribing the handwritten expenses details into an online form and alert the newspaper if any claims merit further investigation. Professional journalists who bring to bear their experience, training and impartiality to investigate claims made by the general public greatly enhance the value of news. This is a participatory culture of news-making radically different to old models of production and consumption.

Value creation also works the other way around. Given the flagrant violation of codes of conduct and ethics drawn up by media organisations and senior journalists in Sri Lanka, citizen themselves will increasingly hold media accountable to a higher standard. In Tamil, Sinhala and English, citizens – from youth to a number of progressive and well-known journalists who blog anonymously – are using new media to produce content that interrogates government, governance, private enterprise and increasingly, traditional media. They are also producing content that reveals war casualties, IDP camp conditions and alternatives to what the government and pliant traditional media would have us believe is the only truth. Senior editors in Sri Lanka may rant and rave about awards won and copies sold, but the hard reality – whether they choose to accept it or not – is that their reputation and integrity competes against and is scrutinised by a media model beyond their control.

How must students of journalism and activists committed to the freedom of expression respond to this new weltanschauung of media production and consumption? I would argue for engagement and innovation, but here again we face a significant problem. Many of the institutions, free media movements and colleges of journalism today are hostage to a close association with and coloured by the parochialism, unprofessionalism, essential dishonesty and bias of senior journalists, including many leading Editors and owners of news organisations. This is a systemic problem. How then can we construct a more progressive movement towards professionalism in a context of continuing violence against independent media? Again, I see no other option but mutually strengthening symbiosis – of traditional media embracing the potential of new technologies and citizen journalism embracing the values of professional media as it should be, not as it is.

As I was writing this column, the death of Michael Jackson was first communicated and then confirmed – before AP, CNN and the BBC – via my friends on Facebook. I passed on the message through Twitter and Facebook itself, potentially reaching, through the friends of friends and so on, thousands around the world in a matter of minutes. This is news production today. The visceral video of Neda Soltani dying on the streets of Tehran at the hands of a regime our own government calls a friend is another example. You may have seen this haunting video, shot on a mobile and now online where Neda – a young girl who was not even part of the demonstrations against Ahmadinejad – is shot and locks eyes with the camera as she bleeds to death. How can trained, professional journalists use these same new technologies and methods to help us understand and shape the world we share? How can civic minded citizens create media of their own to cover issues and places traditional media are not interested in, choose to ignore, or cannot cover because of rising costs? These are challenges and questions central to post-war media development in particular and the restoration of democracy in general. A bastion of ageing, and worse, pompous journalists commanding what Nik Gowing calls news regimes from a different era pose a challenge to media freedom equal to the government’s censorship and repression.

Conversely, voters unable or unwilling to realise and leverage the potential of mobiles, PCs, the web and Internet to strengthen democracy will get the media and government they deserve.

Published in The Sunday Leader, 28th June 2009

A new media

There are three worlds in Sri Lanka defined by Sinhala, Tamil and English media. Consume only Sinhala or Tamil media and the construct of Sri Lanka is framed by lens so deeply ethnicised that ‘Other’ communities often cease to exist. This trend towards the essentially ethnic is particularly evident in heightened conflict – now and in the past – when traditional print and electronic media are caught in the vice grip of propaganda, censorship, violence and fear. The resulting quality of media coupled with very poor media literacy creates a polity and society that perceives propaganda as fact, fact as fiction and dissent as terrorism.

This is much more than a matter of mere academic concern or interest – it is about how we see our country, our place in it and our agency in shaping its future. Consume mainstream Sinhala media today and you will not find any real concern over or interest in the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni and acts of aggression by the State and armed forces against civilians. Egregious conditions of internment in IDP camps go unreported. The bizarre definition of ‘safe zones’, areas for refuge and evacuation that are actively targeted by parties to the war does is not critiqued. Mainstream Tamil media on the other hand shows an enduring concern over the humanitarian crisis and the egregious loss of life in the Vanni, yet glosses over the LTTE’s reprehensible actions to use civilians as human shields, preventing their movement to safer terrain and on occasion, using suicide bombers in the midst of civilian IDPs to horrendously kill and maim. Media monitoring over the course of 2009 I have been involved in reveals some interesting and disturbing key trends, unsurprising given the context. Sinhala and English media continuously refer and give primacy to State authorities such as the Ministry of Defence, the Media Centre for National Security, the Presidential Secretariat, the Foreign Ministry and the Government’s Peace Secretariat in their reportage. Tamil media also quote these same sources, but attribute other websites, international wire reports, opinions of Tamil politicians both here and in South India in particular as well as publish statements from INGOs, NGOs and the UN. These same statements no longer make it to Sinhala and English media in full or as excerpts. They are only published in the context of what is often a vicious and blanket rebuttal by the State against allegations and observations therein.

Framing and fuelling this media behaviour is a government that has (in a manner sadly reminiscent of the LTTE’s violent clampdown on free expression in areas once under its control) through unofficial censorship, outright murder and a resulting fear psychosis very successfully controlled and contained dissent, critical thinking and public debate on its deplorable record of democratic governance outside theatres of war. This means that even when news based on or quotes from a government authority is found to be misleading or incorrect, a retraction and correction is rarely made by or in traditional media. Ironically instead, those who discover and go on to point out such inaccuracies and underlying bias are targeted for vicious smear campaigns, including being branded as terrorists. But it’s not just the regime that censors. For example, few newspapers today are willing to openly stand up against the continued incarceration of journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, who is branded as being partial to terrorists on the most bizarre grounds imaginable.

Addressing this harmful symbiosis between illiberal governance and the exclusive, conservative nature of traditional media will be challenging and absolutely critical in the months and years ahead. Few traditional journalists today are aware of and champion key developments that generate more eyeballs on grossly under-reported places, aspects, events and processes. While there is a vested interest in being the dominant purveyor of news and information as each sees fit, neither traditional media nor repressive regimes will be able to stem the free flow of information in the future, coming from and going directly to citizens. I have written a great deal on the potential of media to support conflict transformation. A lot of this potential however, quite apart from the antics of the Rajapakse regime, is wasted by traditional media’s own obduracy to adapt and transform. Even though we may contest how we got here, and whether or how long it will last, a historic opportunity today presents itself to citizens keen to shape democracy by taking both government and traditional media to task. Both have failed us, repeatedly. Both take exception to criticism. Both engage in frequent name-calling, but neither is compelled to imagine new ways of representation.

But can we always pass the buck to government and traditional media? If neither fully represents us – our identity, community, location, class, caste, language, culture or whatever, we increasingly have a number of avenues to make our voice heard. For us to not explore such means, and for government and media to not support their development and widest adoption is to risk reverting, once more, to the old extremism and violence that drowns out new ideas.

The seeds of another war.

Published in The Sunday Leader, 12 April 2009

Post-War and Post-LTTE, but not Post-Racial

Six years ago almost to the day, I was in Kathmandu when the Maoists made their first public appearance in seven years. We were travelling to a meeting and did not at first know why or where the sea of red we found ourselves suddenly in the midst of was flowing. On 3rd April 2003, curiosity and hope in the valley were entwined with red flags, armbands, bandanas and sweat drenched clothes of tens of thousands eager to see the elusive Maoists – their heroes. Chanting, singing, shouting, laughing and fighting bitterly for prime locations atop precarious terraces, roofs and street lights, the excitement over the promise of imminent social and political change in the country was palpable and infectious. Though I have seen many photos of this event, they unsurprisingly fail to capture the essence of the moment, the eyes that were lit up, of life in a bustling, chaotic city at a standstill yet acutely alive. As the BBC reported afterwards, Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai told cheering crowds numbering around 30,000 that “Our revolution is not over yet. We have only completed half our task”. This same chord was struck on the night of Obama’s victory in the Presidential elections. He knew that change would not come overnight. He realized the essential task of transforming America domestically and internationally, the promise of which elected him to power, would outlast his sojourn at the White House. His note of caution was assuredly lost in Times Square in New York City, where sheer euphoria gripping the thousands who had gathered to hear cable TV call the election in Obama’s favour at around 11pm that night. I distinctly remember hundreds of white Americans who were in tears around me, before I was violently grabbed by a complete stranger – a black American woman – and was temporarily lost to the celebrations in her ample bosom. I emerged to the expectation of change so palpable, a catharsis of the past eight years so real, that you could not escape it. Similar to the sentiment after 9/11 in 2001 when Jean-Marie Colombani in Le Monde claimed that “we all are Americans”, on this night in New York and for the millions around the world witnessing it, you could not escape partaking in the celebrations as an American. Obama was, to his country and to the world, everyman and a symbol of change. Yet as a symbol of change, he was more than a man. Obama was an idea, one that drew deeply from the core of America’s democratic foundation to transform years of apathy and fatigue in polity and society to engagement and action. The Maoists in 2003, as they first emerged into the democratic mainstream, were also more than elusive rebels and architects of a bloody insurgency since 1996. They embodied the idea of engendering a future more democratic and without an oppressive, meaningless Monarchy. Both ideas fuelled historic change in their respective countries. Both Obama and the Maoists promised emancipation, hope, defiance and resilience – a compelling national narrative in uncertain times, transcending traditional socio-political and economic markers (and in the case of Nepal, caste barriers).

I recounted in some detail these two events I was part of because really want to see, but sadly don’t find even a hint of a comparable leader, party or overarching national idea in what is soon to ostensibly be post-war or post-LTTE Sri Lanka. The men of the moment – our President, his brother the Defense Secretary and Gen Sarath Fonseka – certainly animate and bring cheer to many, but not uniformly or necessarily on the lines of hope and emancipation across ethnic and communal groups. If the compelling idea of change in Kathmandu in 2003 and in the US in 2008 was anchored to participatory, citizen centric democratic mechanisms, the dominant ideology animating us today is markedly different. What inspires is an end to the LTTE by any means necessary and the subsequent establishment – not too quietly or ashamedly either – of a State that is in spirit, design, outlook and expression, overwhelmingly and exclusively Sinhala Buddhist. A country where what is seen and defined as the national interest and security, what animates governance, what motivates and defines political will, instructs post-conflict rebuilding, resettlement and rehabilitation, forges development and foreign policies as well as inspires cultural and literary expression is a narrowly defined, violently maintained, Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. This fear of a thinly veiled and quasi-theocratic, dictatorship undergirded by the military emerging from the dregs of violent conflict prompted me to ask on Groundviews earlier this week what the most important issue facing the peoples of Sri Lanka in a ‘post-LTTE’ context was and how can the State address it.

The answers from fellow citizens, some perhaps from the readership on this paper, were revealing. Some submitted that a post-LTTE is possible only when Sri Lanka constitutionally becomes a Post-Buddhist state. Others said the single most critical post-war issue for Sri Lanka was to figure out meaningful ways to include LTTE supporters in the Tamil community in the social, economic, political, and judicial life of Sri Lanka and avoid triumphalism (as a socio-cultural phenomenon) and revenge (as a behavioral issue) among the majority community. Many said democratic rule – currently in suspended animation – needed to be restored as a priority. Unsurprisingly, many said that root causes which led in the first place to the LTTE demand for a separate State for the Tamil people needed to be effectively addressed. A particularly telling response demands full reproduction here,

I hope to see eloquent and idealistic Tamil leaders who will inspire Sinhala like myself to join them in achieving their legitimate demands peacefully, in the same way that Martin Luther King Jr. inspired white Americans to join the Civil Rights movement, and Gandhi inspired white English men and women to support his call for self-rule. Perhaps with Prabhakaran eliminated and the LTTE emasculated, Tamil leaders can dare to shake us with the power of their ideas rather than that of their suicide bombs. I also hope and pray that with the end of the war, the spotlight that has been cast on the Sinhala chauvinists to drum up solidarity for the war will be switched off and the power supply permanently disconnected.

Not a single person who responded to date believed the (necessary) military defeat of the LTTE was a permanent guarantee against violent separatism and secession in the future. And yet, we know there is seemingly little or no interest in the certainly risky, but vital political leadership able to transform us into a humane polity and society that, at the very least, recognises a ‘democracy’ inspired by ‘Buddhist values’ is meaningless when hundreds of thousands of citizens inhumanely languish in tin-sheds and makeshift tents in the North, neatly tucked away from public scrutiny by media that covers only the handshakes and flashlit moments of war and its termination.

Should we not urgently ask ourselves why this political leadership is so elusive and how we can foster it before it is too late? No government can guarantee peace without, inter alia, allowing and responding to critical dissent. No NGO can guarantee peace without buy-in from government. No foreign donor can or must come to Sri Lanka with attitudes and conditionalities that smack of, as they so often do, arrogance and disdain, if only because many of them face (or have faced) democratic lapses and deficits no less significant than in Sri Lanka today. Many Sinhala Buddhists, including myself, feel very deeply discomforted to be so ill-defined by the Rajapakse regime’s ultra-nationalist expression and actions, outside the domain of the war against terrorism, to hunt down dissent and minority rights like some bloody plague. The resulting stunted national is extremely frustrating, because like many others, I want to love, celebrate and live nowhere else but in Sri Lanka without the associated guilt of supporting a regime inimical to democracy, dissent and its attendant voices. How we articulate this to the regime in the months to come, and indeed, whether we are able to are at all, will define whether we meaningfully address and progress beyond terrorism or not.

Sri Lanka may be soon post-war, perhaps even post-LTTE. It is sadly and tellingly however, definitely not post-racial.

And therein lies the rub.

Published in The Sunday Leader, 5 April 2009.