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Memories of War, Dreams of Peace

The long and bloody Sri Lankan war is over, and not a moment too soon. I really want to believe it. The alternative is too depressing to consider.

Of course, there is no independent verification – it has been a war without witnesses for the past many months, with no journalists or humanitarian workers allowed access. We know that history is written by victors, not losers. I am willing to take a leap of faith if that’s what we need to usher in the long-elusive peace.

As we stand on the threshold of peace, I am overwhelmed with memories of our collective tragedy. I hope we can once again resume our long suspended dreams for a better today and tomorrow.

I have lived all my adult years with this war providing a constantly grim, sometimes highly disruptive backdrop. I had just turned a teenager when the Tamil separatist agitations turned into a nasty guerrilla war. I have seen the war in its many different phases, including several uneasy lulls when guns were temporarily silent and truces were negotiated. I watched most of my own friends join the exodus of genes and talent from a land where they saw no hope or future. I chose to stay on, but questioned the wisdom of it each time a major atrocity took place. I went through six jobs and one marriage, and raised a child who would soon be the same age as I was when the war started.

It’s hard to believe that I survived this seemingly never-ending war. I realise that it has scarred me emotionally, perhaps forever.

But I am among the luckier ones: I have lived through it all with my life and limbs intact. Hundreds of thousands of my fellow Lankans haven’t been so lucky. The official death count, often quoted in the media, has been stuck at 70,000 for far too long. We may never know exactly how many lives perished in the name of liberation, patriotism, anti-terrorism and national security. We have only ballpark figures for how many were driven away from their lands and homes, or separated from their loved ones. No family has been spared. No one has escaped unscathed. This has been everybody’s war.

Lost generation?
We can assume that most combatants knew what they were fighting for, even if some were not convinced about the cause or process. In contrast, the larger number of innocents caught in the cross-fire often had no idea what they were dying for, or fleeing from.

Suddenly, the labels and divisions seem to matter less. In my mind, all the Burghers, Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils (to list them alphabetically) who perished in this war have joined a grim roll call of Sri Lanka’s lost generation. Among them were people I knew, worked with or cared for.

Two classmates who joined the official war effort soon gained wings: smart young men with expensive (and deadly) flying machines. One crashed in the prime of his youth. The other deserted soon afterwards; he has been living in exile since.

Some were dreamers and creators. Like my ex-colleague Sudeepa Purnajith, the talented cartoonist who died in a bomb attack on a crowded train in Dehiwala, on the west coast, in July 1996. He was 29 and about to get married.

Others suffered from both Nature’s fury and man’s inhumanity to man. Like tsunami survivor Thillainayagam Theeban, 16, who was shot dead in Karaitivu, on the east coast, by unknown gunmen in March 2007. I had tracked his story for a year after the disaster as a story teller. Apparently he was killed for refusing to be recruited as a child soldier.

I want to believe that these cannot and will not happen again. We must not forget the suffering and sacrifices, but if we want healing to begin, we must start forgiving now.

I remember the helpful words of William Makepeace Thackeray: “Good or bad, guilty or innocent — they are all equal now.”

I first invoked these words when the Asian Tsunami wreaked havoc in December 2004. As 40,000 of our people died or disappeared within a few calamitous hours, some of us naively hoped that the pounding from the sea would help end the war. That was not to be — much more blood had to be spilled before we reached now and here.

This 30-year war has cost at least thrice as many lives as the tsunami – young and old, soldiers and rebels, men and women, girls and boys. It has cut right across our various ethnic, religious, caste and class divides. “Good or bad, guilty or innocent — they are all equal now.”

Lasting peace, at last?
Now that the war is officially over, will this mark the beginning of real peace? I want to believe so. I want to audaciously dream of peace. The alternative is too dreadful to consider.

I remember the views of my mentor Sir Arthur C Clarke, who called Sri Lanka his home for half a century. He lived in Colombo through two youth insurrections and much of this bloody war, never once giving up his hope for eventual peace and reconciliation.

He was a master dreamer, but a realistic one. Listing ‘three last wishes’ in his 90th birthday reflections in December 2007, he said: “I dearly wish to see lasting peace established in Sri Lanka as soon as possible. But I’m aware that peace cannot just be wished — it requires a great deal of hard work, courage and persistence.”

Indeed, there is a huge gulf between war mongering and peace building. Can a generation raised on war cries and war drums easily switch gears? Just as the absence of illness is only the beginning of good health, the silencing of guns is merely the starting point on the long road to peace. I want to believe that we can sustain peace with the same fervour with which we pursued or supported the war – on one side or the other.

Can we as a nation finally stop glorifying the war and its weapons, and return to our cultural heritage of ahimsa? How do we turn the current opportunity for peace into something tangible and lasting, so that we don’t allow political violence and war ever again? Do we have what it takes to go beyond chest thumping and finger pointing, and begin to care and share? Would we eventually be able to liberate our minds from our deep-rooted tribalism that sees everything through the prism of us and them?

Can we expect the state to be magnanimous in victory, and begin to unify our utterly and bitterly divided people? Will our governments finally stop pleading perennial emergency and national security as stock excuses for side-stepping the rule of law, ignoring rampant corruption and other lapses of governance?

I have these and many other questions. For a long time, we were told to be good boys and girls, to keep our mouths shut until this war was over. It is, now, so I hope we can talk freely again.

We want to resume our interrupted lives and dreams. I dream of a land where the only label that counts is Sri Lankan, by descent or conversion. I have visions of not being suspected or presumed guilty by the authorities until I prove or protest my innocence. I want to live without fear of bombs, abductors and goon squads.

I dream too of a rapid return to the real norms (not rhetoric) of a functional democracy. This isn’t utopian: as children, my parents’ generation witnessed their country gain political independence, and they grew up in a land where people were free to discuss and debate issues; ask nagging questions when necessary; and change governments regularly at non-violent elections. These are norms, not privileges, in a free society. Norms my generation has forsaken, either out of patriotism or in fear of reprisals.

When will our state start trusting all our people again, irrespective of our origins, allowing everyone the freedom of movement, expression and dissent? Can our society relearn how to react to each ‘song’ and not probe the pedigree of its ‘singer’?

Just as important, how soon might we as a nation become tolerant and accommodating of each other – allowing the full diversity and choices in political belief, religious faith, intellectual tradition and sexual orientation? Would we see in our lifetime a pluralistic society that once thrived on this maritime island through which genes and ideas have flowed freely for millennia?

Our political leaders, in whom we entrust our collective destiny, now face a historic choice. Leaders of other nations have stood at such crossroads and made radically different choices. African analogies can go only so far in Asia, but at this juncture, it is tempting to ask: would our leaders now choose the Mandela Road or the Mugabe Road for the journey ahead?

We can only hope that presidents Mahinda and Mandela share more than just five of the seven letters in their names.

Writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been a dreamer for all his 43 years. He asks more questions than he can answer, and blogs on media, society and development at:

  • Kris

    Exceedingly well written.
    But has a very subtle agenda.
    Why bring in sexual orientation ?
    However you want to put it these constitutes acts against nature and requires correction not tolerance.
    Please don’t push subtle agenda items in the guise of freedom.
    Might as well brought in right of choice for abortion .
    Or do you believe in the right to life of the unborn ?

  • Shanthapriya

    Wonderful insight into a dreamer. Just as you have exampled out many others have been lucky throughout their lives in a very testing four decades. So how about cherish what you have and many others do not. In a typical manner you want more, from others, so quick to blame the state. Yes we do not have perfect government, never have and may never will. How about when you say your forefathers had more freedom and free speech and all those nonsense. It’s not true. They’ve had their fair share of struggle that you were never told. Lastly how about we stop blaming ourselves for the ethnic problem that Tamils have largely to blame to. Just like you and many others Tamils blame everyone else but themselves for the sorry state that they are in. Imagine if black Africans in America did what Tamils have done here. Would the world ever have a Barak Obama as American president ?. Africans became African Americans with a bit of color. Along the way many suffered, but they never took violence against their state. Thanks largely to Martin Luther King junior. So you and many others like you can stop blaming yourselves and the state for the Tamil problem. They are (Tamils) asking for something that won’t happen. World is not a fair place my friend for good or bad it is still a place where the survival of the fittest rule apply.
    So…. Stop blaming your motherland out of frustration and get on with whatever
    you do in life and ENJOY. More importantly pass it on.
    Thanks mate.


  • Kris,

    Thanks for appreciating my writing. But sorry to disappoint you: there’s really no hidden agenda. If we believe in pluralism, we have to accommodate even those whose choices we don’t like, or we find repulsive. That is the live-and-let-live philosophy that we need to revive again. Your polite comment proves my point that it’s sadly lacking in today’s Sri Lanka!

    See also the brilliant cartoon and accompanying comment I posted on my blog today:

  • Thavapalan

    Dear Mr,Nalaka Guanawardene, Thanks for remebering the ill fate of the young child Thiyagalingam Theeban once more. When I read his story in the past it touched me very much.It is the falt of the Sinhala and Tamil rulling classs who have created and destroyed the life of the poor Tamil ,Sinhala ,Muslim and the other people .But it is the part and parcel of the programme of the Imperialism ,
    particualarly the British Imperialism. From the Roman empire to the USA they have been continuing to use this divide and rule tactics in favour of their exploitation of the people. But we have to unite and fight for our unity and freedom .It was the great mistake made by the tamil Saiva,vellala rulling class and they have handed over thier political authority into the hands of the MAFIA LTTE or tamil Tigers.Now it is the immediate duty of the patriotic Sri lankan government to rehabilitate the LTTE rebels who have conscripted by force by the LTTE and settle down the tamil people who are temporary living in the DVP camps .Then they have to immediately and fully implement the 13the amendment to the constitution.

  • CheeLanka

    Dream on, brother, dream on! There is no hope for rebuilding Sri Lanka as long as all power and resources are so tightly controlled by the four Rajapaksa brothers. It is good to dream at a time like this and to remain hopeful and optimistic. But we have been here before. Remember the hopes we had when Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected in 1994 with a massive majority (far, far bigger than Mahinda’s) after 17 years of UNP misrule. What happened? After the initial euphoria things only became worse and she left us with the atrocious legvacy of the Rajapaksas!

  • Disgusted

    Kris >>

    The whole “sexual orientation” thing seems to be working overtime in your head, as the writer has only mentioned this once 🙂 Hmm…. Still, please read prevailing scientific findings on what you consider to be “against nature”. You’ll find that these acts “against nature” are more common than you think in the animal kingdom, which of course includes our species. So I don’t understand how you expect to correct what’s already nature? Understanding is better I think and may bring you greater peace of mind.

    As for the abortion debate, Carl Sagan beautifully tackles it from a modern scientific and moral perspective in his book “Billions and Billions”, if I recall correctly.

  • Greetings;

    Thank you for your well-written, heart-felt submission. As a non-Sri Lankan (an American), I believe you correctly capture the complexity, the “messiness” of the situation in Sri Lanka.

    Throughout the world (and reflected in Sri Lanka), I see people who think political discourse is “I get my way”. They believe in the politics of “I am right, you are wrong, and that gives me the right to kill you”. People would rather kill — and die — rather than give up an IDEA.

    Will that attitude change in Sri Lanka? Not without a major change in heart…



  • Neil Upali

    Well said.Sri Lanka needs more dreamers whose dreams should be grounded on sterling realities.Using the words of Martin Luther Kingjnrmay I say”I havea dream of a lanka where Tamils and Sinhalese will live in harmony enjoying the rich cultures,and languages they ‘ve inherited .I havea dream of a Lankawhere ,Sinhalese ,Tamil,and English are taught in all schools(North,East,West,South) from kinder to secondary,to senior .I have a dream of a Lanka where there will be no more refugee camps for our own citizens in any part of the Island .I have a dream of a Lanka where we will never judge people by the accident oftheir birth but by the dignity and sanctity of life .

  • CheeLanka

    Your idealism is admirable but it is so far removed from the ground reality in Sri Lanka. If anything, Sinhala Buddhist hegemony and triumphalism will only get worse after this Pyrrhic victory. The military operation against the Tigers was conducted on a very simple, brutal logic borrowed from the Bush II administration: if you are not with us, you are against us. Rajapaksa administration added a corollary: if you are against us, we will silence/eliminate you.

    You talk about restoring tolerance and pluralism, but yours is a lone voice. You ask whether we will stop seeing ‘everything through the prism of us and them’. I think we already know the answer.

    The President of Sri Lanka, who addressed Parliament and the nation on the same day this article was published, said: “We have removed the word minorities from our vocabulary three years ago. No longer are the Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and any others minorities. There are only two peoples in this country. One is the people that love this country. The other comprises the small groups that have no love for the land of their birth. Those who do not love the country are now a lesser group.” (Source:

    This sounds to me like patriots vs traitors being continued. You dream of a Sri Lanka where these simplistic labels are no more. The head of state and commander in chief, with all powers firmly in his hands, declares otherwise. What are we to believe?

    Wake up and smell the dead and decay all around you, brother. There are no roses left in Lanka.

  • Disgusted

    CheeLanka >>

    You may be right. But now one extremist group has been eliminated, leaving us with the lesser evil to deal with. One which we can actually topple at the next election if need be. Makes life easier don’t you think?

    Shed your tears for the LTTE elsewhere, where you might garner more sympathy for your racism. This is certainly a victory for the world to be proud of. It’s a victory by a democratic nation against decades of brutal terrorism by a group of people who want, not equality, but their own racist utopia. Get with the program and learn to integrate and live with other people. You want equality? We’ll fight with you. You want to constitutionalize racism? You’re on your own.

  • Nicolai

    Nalaka. Thank you for this wonderful article. It is good to have hope and it is good to have dreams. Without them, we will never achieve. We must tolerate our differences including sexual orientation, I agree. Obama could never have become president if he didn’t dream. He could have said “nobody in Amrecia would vote for a half black man” and just given up long ago.

    So to CheeLanka, I respect your opinions and your differences, but you offer no hope in your own mind.

    Therefore you will not be offering a helping hand to betterment of the country you obviously love. Otherwise you would not be reading these posts and offering your comments.
    With respect to your comments, I do also have a rather pessimistic view regarding the Rajapakse brothers. Even if they have somewhat honest political intentions their hands may be tied by their alliance with the JHU. Yes the Rajapakse brothers are more than likely racists,but I don’t believe they have extremists views like the JHU members. They do know that they have to bind this country together, regardless of their rooted beliefs.
    So to CheeLanka, even though I do agree with you in some cases, I prefer to have hope. Here is mine. The government will have another election and they will win with a majority. Let’s just hope they manage to do this without the JHU/JVP alliance. Nevertheless, this government will fall quickly like Bush and Churchill if they do not implement a satisfactory political solution for the Tamils in the North let alone the state of the economy. It would then be in their best interest to do so.
    If not they will be defeated by the UNP led by Premedasa’s son, a very capable foe. We have waited 30 years. Now we can wait another 6 years to see what they can do. I will then put my hope with them. If they disapoint, I will find another hope. I love this country too much not to have it.

  • Good piece, Nalaka. My best wishes to you and to all Sri lankans ; I too am hopeful that some common national good will come about now.

  • another dreamer

    thank you for this brilliant, well-thought-out, sensitive piece of writing which captures the concerns of so many of us who, in the hope of better days, decided to stay in sri lanka doing our part for the country in whatever small way we could…….those of us who lived in hope of better days and still continue to hope…….this is the best piece of writing i have come across so far since the declaration of the end of fighting. thank you. i hope more people read this and think deeply about what nalaka says.

  • I’m humbled and pleased that my views in this essay have resonated with many readers. This is just what a writer seeks to accomplish: connect with readers and get them to discuss and debate.

    My professional training as a science writer and documentary film-maker has been to gather and analyse information, and present them in logical, coherent and accessible ways. In writing this essay, I consciously departed from all that. I’m neither political scientist nor activist to engage in ideological or technocratic discussions. So I wrote at an emotional level, looking back and looking forward.

    If my views come across as naive or idealistic, I shall plead guilty as charged. My emotions are best described as cautiously optimistic, but as some readers have reminded us, our high hopes have been betrayed before. But can we afford not to dream privately and publicly at this juncture? We have suspended our dreams for too long, and it’s time to start dreaming again. There are as many kinds of dreamers as there are dreams.

    One of my favourite quotes comes from the British soldier and writer T E Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame): “All men dream, but not equally…the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

  • Heshan

    Unfortunately, I have to agree with CheeLanka… that the war is a pyrrhic victory. The key component of that victory was scale… everything that was done was done on a scale of epic proportions, from weapons procurement to stifling internal dissent to recruitment of soldiers. Any boundaries that may have gotten in the way were demolished literally instantaneously: from Opposition parties (who were rendered laughingstocks) to that fine line between the Defense Ministry and the Government, and even to the extent of appropriating economic policy by defying the Supreme Court when it came to prices and engaging in such failed endeavors as Mihin Airlines by securing fantastic loans from the Central Bank. In short, every single rule was broken to achieve “victory”, every rock overturned, with scant disregard for potential consequences. This “throw everything at your enemy” approach may have certain advantages during wartime… however, post-war reconstruction requires entirely different methods. Empowering the armed forces is now redundant; the need of the day is to empower local communities… unfortunately, there is little to be said when the inhabitants of such communities are largely locked away indefinitely behind barbed wire… it is telling that Rajapakse, despite his Tamil linguistic abilities, is yet to visit such a camp. I cannot forsee him, or the members of his extremist coalitions, coming up with concrete, genuine assurances to ease minority suspicions. In short, the Rajapakse Government is not the correct one during this transition period from post-war to stability. One must have extreme patience, one must be able to seek out and build good relations with democratic Western nations who are willing to lend aid (not China), and, unfortunately, one must have a clean record. The Rajapakse’s have destroyed ten’s of thousands of lives and livelihoods… it is natural to question what interest they could have in restoring those. I will end here by saying, it took the Americans 8 years to realize that Bush, while he may have “avenged” the September 11th attacks, was a walking disaster when it came to economics. It took an economic recession to open American eyes. I hope Sri Lanka does not also get mired in a similar quagmire over national security.

  • Samanthi Colonne

    Thank you for an excellent article.

  • i strongly felt this…………………….and strongly believed this………………………………………..its quite true…..stop war and make peaceand always hope to build a newly integrate world.every war has a reason and the only medicine to war is peace….

    sujay nayak

  • this article drews me randomly towards the useful of peace in limitting a war………all men are our brother and all women are our sister.stop war built peace………..war has no benefits rather it make losses of lifes,children become orphan,women became widows,loss of properties etc.peace is the weapon which has more power than ammunations evenif it can end up a war………..
    stop war only peace………….creates a healthy world

  • 21st Century Fox

    The first comment made by Kris above was right – this guy writes well but has a very subtle, sinister agenda. And it is not just to promote sexual minorities, but to ridicule the glorious victory by our valient soldiers and to undermine the Sinhala Buddhists historic triumph over Tamil terrorist brutes. I have seen this writer use his skills to question and attack government agencies as well as academics that support the government. He is clearly part of the west learning, so called liberal , English speaking mafia of Colombo who can’t stand us Sinhala Buddhists advancing. I presume the writer is not a Buddhist althoughh he has a sinhala souynding name.

    So here is some friendly advice to the writer. Right now we have plenty of heroes so don’t try to be one yourself. You are nothing but a coward who didnot go to war and suddenly come out with your dreams of peace. You and your kind can stuff your dreams wherever you please, but not in this land of Sinhala Buddhists.

  • Aniket

    I was very deeply moved by this essay. My heart bleeds for the victims (dead and alive) of this war in Sri Lanka .. and I fear that the colonial state of India might mete similar treatment to its “terrorists”.

    I share with you the importance of liberty, pluralism, peace and ethics. Where I part ways with you is on the continued existence of the “state”. As Michel Foucault among others have shown, the enterprize of state goes hand in hand with violence.
    I can no longer condone any violence.

    The people of South Asia have been largely peaceable, respectful of diversity (religious, sexual, ethnic, cultural) for close to 5000 years .. I can understand why children of the colonial encounter cannot imagine life without a nation-state .. But most people can do without .. I believe.

    Gandhi advocated local self-sufficiency, autonomy at the village/community level. I have faith in Gandhi.

  • At one level, I admire the persistence with which 21st Century Fox follows my output online and posts comments. This would have been fruitful engagement if not for his/her repetitious, single-tracked and by now predictable line: doggedly demanding to know my religious faith. Clearly, this is one person who prefers not to react to each ‘song’ and instead wants to probe the pedigree of its ‘singer’….

    As for my religious faith, I simply can’t see how that is relevant at all to this or any other public discussion on peace, development or technology policy that I engage in. In the 21st Century, religion is not something to flash around as a calling card – as they did it in the Middle Ages – but something very private and personal. What I believe or don’t believe is my choice and mine alone, and if I don’t choose to disclose these details, no assortment of foxes will have the right to demand it.

    I would like to think that Sri Lanka has not yet become an Absurdistan where every public and private act of individuals and institutions must have a religious basis, flavour and connotation. For purposes of this debate, I would declare myself a secular humanist. If that offends the narrow religious sensibilities of 21st Century Fox and his ilk, so be it.

  • Heshan

    “He is clearly part of the west learning, so called liberal , English speaking mafia of Colombo who can’t stand us Sinhala Buddhists advancing.”

    Do explain in detail how you “Sinhala-Buddhists” plan to “advance.” Most of the present infrastructure, including healthcare, education, and the military, was laid down by the British. That wolf in sheep’s clothing, S.W.R.D tried to put a distinctly Sinhala-Buddhist touch on all this… but anyone with 2 eyes and half a brain cell can see the consequences of that: mass exodus of the intellectuals, civil war, and two major uprisings (JVP, LTTE)… even the Jathika Chinthanaya racist Nalin De Silva, probably more educated than any of you racists, has a thorough grounding in classical & modern Western science. So much for advancing.

  • Tmama

    Hi Nalaka,

    You write, but to write sense, you have to read a great deal too. There are no easy answers to problems of the world, blaming one ethnic group ruling classes etc. may be a nice way out but it lacks intellectual satisfaction of solving a situation or analysing a situation.

    Have you analysed how Jaffna came to be Tamil speaking; place names like Batakotte bacame Vaddukodai; alarge sub class of Koviars surprisingly close to Sinhala word Goviya came into being, a dictator by the name Sankil came into power in Jaffna in the period when Kandy’s power went to decline after Portugese occupation of maritme provinces. [Mudaliar Rasanayagam has written a good account of Jaffna, and his thesis, may not be entirely correct but must be read by likes of you.

    Also do please read about the decline and fall of the Kandy Kingdom, [PAul Pieris, Colvin R De Silva, Lorna Devarajah, Davy, Robert Knox, John D’oyly et al] treaty made then broken thousands massacred in Wellassa, indentured labour brought in by hundreds of thousands, peasants, fenced out of the land that belonged to them for the plantation industry, the divide and rule and lop sided education policies that left 75% of the country Kandyan Districts and Ruhuna faring worst, near illiterate.

    Also the moere recent past the rise of Tamil Nationalism by Prof Asoka Bandarage, many attempts to deny the award of independence to Sri Lanka in the 40s, honouring andd glorifying the cyanide wearing schoolboys by the FP leaders in the seventies analysed by Prof Roberts.