Why I was disappointed by the Sri Lankan President’s speech heralding the end to war
At the outset let me say this. I am neither moved to tears of joy that would prompt me to fly a flag and light fire crackers nor tears of absolute sorrow that the war has ended and that the LTTE has been defeated. I am just relieved that â€œIT’ is over, all too aware of the cost the entire war, including the last three years, has had on thousands of people all over the island who have killed, abducted, lost loved ones, displaced and suffered in so many ways. But I am also apprehensive knowing that we are poised at a critical moment. The decisions the Government makes now (and in the days and weeks) to come will have a decisive impact on the trajectory of the underlying conflict. And that’s why I listened expectantly to the President’s speech and read the English translation afterwards.
We all could guess what the President would say. We all knew that he would emphasize what a historical moment this is. That he would appeal to the historical memory of resistance in Sri Lanka to threats external or internal. That he would vividly portray the existential threat that LTTE terrorism posed to Sri Lanka and its brutality. That he would proclaim the victory as one for all of Sri Lanka’s citizens who could now stand equal before the law. That he would praise the heroes among the security forces, a number of whom laid down their lives, and their families. That he would demonstrate how it was under his leadership that the country overcame a defeatist attitude and terrorism. That he would call upon the international community to help, but that it should know its limits and not give unwarranted advice. That he would welcome back the diaspora and call upon all to help rebuild the North. All of this featured in his speech and it would be difficult to begrudge the Commander in Chief his moment of glory.
The fact that he spoke a few lines in Tamil is very significant. Of course, it is a PR stunt and he is playing to the gallery but that he made the effort needs to be recognized. How many other Presidents and Prime Ministers have we had who somehow did not think it worth their while to do so? Speaking in Tamil he also spoke to the language issue â€“ the fact that despite being an official language it is still such a challenge to get state officials to use Tamil. In those lines he uttered he attempted to win the confidence of the Tamil people, including those recently ‘liberated’ who in some horrible twist of fate and politics are in welfare camps which they are not allowed to leave (at least for the next few months). â€œProtecting the Tamil speaking people of this country is my responsibility” he declared.
And we hope he does.
Despite this it seemed like he pitched his speech for his primary audience â€“ the Sinhala population, a significant number of whom supported the war. Apart from the repeated statements of equality for all citizens and his clear references to providing protection to the Tamils, he failed to acknowledge the role of the State in the war. At no point did he suggest that the State in the twenty-five years of bitter war had carried out any reprehensible act against civilians. It was all the fault of the LTTE. He could have done this deftly by acknowledging the suffering of all as a result of the war, not just of terrorism.
The speech did not mark a break from the current government rhetoric of liberation and separatist terrorism and hostage freeing operations. In his speech there was no war by the Government â€“ it was a â€œhumanitarian operationâ€¦ without shedding the blood of civilians.” Of course he was hardly going to admit to the civilian casualties in reference to that. The entire civilian cost of the last twenty-five years was attributed to terrorism. â€œWhat was seen in the past days at Pudumathalan area should forever remain seared in the minds of the Tamil people” In effect the message was ‘you supported terrorism, then that is the price you pay.’
While many of us would agree with the phrase that the Tamils are â€œin a tragic and helpless state due to the terrorism of the LTTE” we would have to be collectively suffering from historical amnesia to posit the blame of why the war broke purely on the LTTE. The other Tamil militant groups, July 1983, the series of riots from 1958 onwards, the series of agreements between the State and Tamil political parties that were not followed through primarily by the State, for example, had no place in the speech. I would not be surprised if a moderate, non-militant Tamil would feel uncomfortable with these omissions. He did not even have to go into the detail â€“ a mere reference to the complicated events leading to the war would have sufficed. I had hoped for more hints of reconciliation or implicit references to justice, but that is asking too much isn’t it?
Perhaps I should be comforted by the fact that he made specific reference to a POLITICAL SOLUTION, especially since he did not use the term in his Independence Day speech this year. On February 4th he said he would â€œconsider a fresh approach” and aim to arrive at a â€œnational consensus” but for some strange reason the phrase political solution was omitted. A political solution to the conflict is a phrase that in another country may sound meaningless but in Sri Lanka it speaks to the need to address the fundamental issue of power sharing through a political arrangement that will reconfigure the framework of the Sri Lankan state. There was little content in the speech to suggest how it would be done or any substantive guarantees other than â€œwe can achieve this,” and an appeal to other parties to cooperate.
He did attempt to connect with the desire among the Tamil community for peace â€“ a desire which the LTTE itself found problematic and debilitating. But without acknowledging the need for political compromises from all sides within a united (or even unitary for that matter) Sri Lanka it did not indicate that the post-colonial relationship between the State and the Tamil people would dramatically shift.
Somewhere I hoped that this speech would signal a new chapter, a transformation in this Government that they wanted to begin a post-war phase. Instead the language of the War on Terror found its place once more. The President declared that the term ‘minorities’ is no longer part of the vocabulary of Sri Lanka. I don’t think he was speaking about the idea of each of the major communities being a nation or people in their own right. Instead, he continued there are only two peoples â€“ those who love their country [read those supported the war] and those who â€œhave no love for the land of their birth.” Essentially those who fail to gather around Government holding the national flag are classified as unpatriotic. So for a moment think of the Tamil family who has lost one member to the recent fighting, in a camp not allowed to leave and are not in a state of mind to choose to be patriotic. Those others who do not love their country according to this rule of patriotism must also include the dissenting media, opposition political parties and critical NGOs. So it unclear if there will be an end to the culture of fear, intimidation and violence by ‘unknown groups.’
Having reunited the country in a territorial sense, here was an opportunity to reunite the people. Here was a moment to give hope, instead it’s another wasted opportunity. Let’s just hope that the speech is not the Government’s vision of the post-war Sri Lanka.