Colombo, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Vavuniya

Sri Lanka: Vanquished Tiger, Roaring Lion

The stakes of life and death, hope and despair, peace and conflict are now higher than they were when the war was declared “over”. The Tiger was declared dead, and the Lion roars.

We watched this nation dance to the drum beat of the victor, sing triumphant songs, parade the glory of the forces, rejoice at the restoration of the nation while it ignored the lament of the victim, forgot the dead, and disregarded suffering. While a significant portion of its citizenry grieved, the nation celebrated. We, therefore, expressed but a part of our humanity, and a part of the heart of this Nation.

If the nation wishes to forget its festering wounds and ignore a suffering part of its nation – 300000 civilians, men, women and children, the elderly, infirm and dying – languishing in the refugee camps, it probably can. After all, life continues as normal for most of us. It is easy to forget, easy to shut out, easy to go on as normal.

We can ignore it because we are spared images of it on TV, for the censorship and lack of media presence in the camps ensure the absence of visual access we would normally have. In the competing array of visual stimulation, we are visual creatures and the absence of the face of the refugee on our screens means an absence of consciousness throughout our average day, and an absence on our conscience. The authorities know this. The spectacle of the 9/11 attack on the twin towers in USA demonstrates the potency of the visual image as it seared the images ad infinitum on the consciousness of the international community. Remote villages in Sri Lanka would have viewed it on their tiny television screens. It is the potent visual image of the suffering of the incarcerated people that this nation now lacks. We do not “see” the suffering, or “hear” the anguish on our screens, and therefore we do not feel it in our hearts. The absence of the headline news – as was pointed out – of the dire conditions of the flooding in the camps is but an offshoot of the general invisibility of the camps. The silencing of the media and the murder of journalists is but a means of buying the silence, in order to ensure the support of the nation.

The few meagre pictures filtering through are hardly adequate to raise sufficient awareness to move the hearts of the general public. What the puppet media is set up to proclaim is the “danger that these inmates of the camps can be”, the threat that it holds to the nation. We now see a spate of “bomb recoveries” that are certain to put the people into a panic of believing that the LTTE are at large, and, by default, feeling that the camps are absolutely necessary. In the absence of a “national consciousness” of the situation within the camps, many of us believe the incarceration is an inevitable consequence of victory and defeat; we believe it is the conclusion, the logical end of a bitter and searing war with the “terrorists”. Surely now that the war was so “successfully” won, and “peace” so sacrificially bought, it is our responsibility as a nation to ensure that the refugees fleeing the battlefield are weeded of the “terrorists” among them.

While the use of visual images is half the battle, the clever use of language is the other half. The LTTE understood this, as do the present government. All politicians and celebrities understand the need for a successful use of words and images. So they should, for we learn language as children and comprehend the possibilities of its usage. We learn that words can tamper with truth: “I don’t know” we say, when confronted by a deed we have done, or “it must be his fault”. We learn that the “image” and the appearance of things matter; as our parents teach us so we learn to “play our part in delivering the constructed images of “virtuous daughter”, “dutiful son”, “decent family”. And so, having learnt its currency from our birth, we use both language and images well, especially in the media, in love, deception and war. Especially in the media, and most specifically in times of war.

To use the official language of war in our own nation – these languishing lakhs in the now unbearable flooded out camps, are the unavoidable “collateral damage” emerging from the “surgical strikes” in the “offensive towards liberating the suffering Tamil people from the LTTE”. Despite the curious remark from the government, to the effect that there were no civilian casualties from the government forces, the surgical nature of the strikes ripped apart a community with blood and death. But that is neither here nor there in the currency now. The subsequent incarceration, as was the case with Guantanamo Bay, is presented as necessary in the successful “war against terror”. The inevitable netting in of innocent with the guilty and their consequent suffering is unavoidable. Of course there is no torture in the IDP camps (they do not really need it as they are suffering to a high degree)

Yet the “Tamil People who were suffering under the LTTE needing liberation” are the same people now paying a final and terrible price in the ugly conflict of thirty years.  They are now the classifieds of “warspeak” or as George Orwell calls it “doublespeak”, where, as always, the first weapon is language, and the first casualty, truth. The fleeing thousands were, therefore, described with the classic ambiguity of wartime double speak. They were the “unfortunate victims of the LTTE”, experiencing the blessing of being “liberated by the Sri Lankan Army and government”. By some strange twist of fate they are now “suspected members or supporters of the LTTE” and “possible enemies of the State”. In the terminology of warspeak the internment camps guarded with military are “welfare camps”. This is the power of language when used well, and the enduring paradox of official proclamations of warspeak. We take comfort from words and phrases coined; thus we feel less guilty about those in camps when we are told of “necessary security checks”, “slow settlement plans”, “screening LTTE supporters”. Or the most interesting of all “ensuring no future LTTE emergence”. The latter phrase takes the conscience of most kind and decent human beings to a position of believing that this for the good of everyone, including the incarcerated.

The ongoing incarceration of the civilians, with the recent floods and oozing overflowing toilets, is now beginning to feel like an oozing and stinking wound in the heart of the nation. There are, we are told, among the people incarcerated, LTTE cadres or “supporters”, people with “connections to the terrorists”. On the surface this seems an easy enough concept to understand. LTTE supporters need to be “dealt with”…in some way or other. We are not that sure what that means, but we might believe it as necessary.

Nevertheless, we need to ask ourselves who are those with LTTE connections. Take the first complicating factor; the possibility that there are indeed, among the refugees, ex-LTTE cadres. Does it matter at all that some of them were forcibly conscripted, even abducted as children, trained in combat against their will or desire. That they are children taken against their parents’ wishes, may even despise the LTTE and may be desperate to be back with their parents and families. What if they were teenagers forced into combat at gunpoint against their own dreams? Does it matter at all that some of those believed to be LTTE are actually people relieved to be free of the LTTE?

The next complicating factor is that indeed the refugees in the camps may have at some point in their lives supported someone from the LTTE.  Suppose they nursed them, supposed an injured cadre fled for shelter to his mother’s home and she bandaged his wounds, fed him and kept him for a night. Does she too now have to pay the price? Suppose a wife was left by her husband, or vice versa. Suppose they still love and care for them, still feel for them? Still want to protect them…what then?

The most troubling and complicating factor is what methods, if any, can the government use to determine which of the 280000 people are LTTE or not? Direct questions “are you an LTTE member?”, looking into their faces and thinking “aha this is definitely an LTTE member”, sticking pins under their fingernails till they confess out of fear (methods used by the police in Sri Lanka), threats of death, promises of freedom? How these can be determined from among a mass of humanity – especially in the absence of weaponry, distinctive clothing or activity. It is unlikely that the government has records of all the LTTE members left. It is even more unlikely that the LTTE members will confess to their affiliations – not least because the same government forces that shot at blank range those emerging with white flags of surrender. So…where does that leave us?

It leaves us with 300000 humans standing behind the barbed wire fences in disgraceful conditions. They may or may not have or have had some distant relative, who may or may not have entertained a young man or woman, who was a terrorist, in their house, knowingly or unknowingly, many moons ago. They may have even dreamed of a homeland, of safety and believed what was told them by the LTTE. Yet links with “terrorists” are often fragile…and even unwilling. A long lost daughter, visiting briefly, before she left to join the LTTE, never seen again. The parents grieved but now in the refugee camp they are by a vicious twist of the dice, named as terrorist supporters and asked to sip a bit more from the chalice of suffering.

Are we supposed to believe that these 300000 refugees, or should I say “camp inmates”, or “prisoners of war”, should have no such family or filial love towards their own? Is the requirement of “having no LTTE connection” an inhumane standard imposed with the expectation of inhuman betrayals? Should all Tamils be damned because they do not betray their children or walk forward boldly and hand them over to the army to possible death (as the past has taught them)?

Is it not the mark of our common humanity…that we do not betray our loved ones, and that we love and are loyal to those who are “family”? That we care deeply and faithfully for the ones who belong to us? Admittedly those taking the oath to fight as Terrorists – be it JVP or the LTTE – are trained to deny our common humanity in the pursuit of their goals. Should their living loved ones, now suffering bereavement, loss of home, life and future, in the refugee camps be expected to have just such a dehumanised nature?

So it is as suspects of the human race, guilty of sustaining human feelings towards their families, their children or spouses, or parents that most of the languishing Tamils suffer in the refugee camps. After all they might have or have had, or could even in the future have links to the terrorists. Or worst of all, the horror of it, they might have human love towards LTTE members or may have protected them. Or believed in the cause or accepted the governance of the LTTE. So they are to be punished, treated as criminals. Some of them will die. No, let me correct that, many will die – especially grandparents of the terrorists, or their infant children, or toddler siblings. Recent figures give an approximate of 5-10 avoidable deaths from malnutrition and common illnesses. Pregnant women commit suicide apparently. But they must all somehow deserve it because they dared to have love, to be loyal, to sustain some form of human emotion and demonstrate some aspect of humanity in the midst of their long nightmare.

These are civilians, who by some travesty of justice, are considered “guilty until proven innocent”. No one really understands what proof is required. For those who have visited the camps, these are desperate people; desperate to locate children, parents, brothers, sisters, spouses who have been separated – and living now with no knowledge of whether their loved ones are dead or alive. A simple census and record of those considered missing, photographs of lost children would have done much to alleviate the emotional anguish of these people during the last 3 months. The process of re-uniting families could have begun. Instead, they are held at gunpoint now.

What we will soon begin to hear is of “suspected terrorists being shot” as desperate inmates of these camps attempt to leave in a bid for freedom, or as language continues to be used diabolically we will be told that there were “accidents”, “uprisings of LTTE” and such like and that “x number of LTTE members were killed. What will be the fate of these people who are now ironically prisoners of their liberators?

Expecting liberation from the clutches of the Tiger, they are now held immobile in the jaws of the Lion.