The Tamil In The Room At The War’s End
On May 19th 2009 the last shots in the nearly three decade long war between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE were fired. The end came in the form of the virtual destruction of the LTTE including its leadership, after a gruelling campaign in the northern Vanni region leading to the deaths of thousands of soldiers, LTTE cadres and civilians. There were wild celebrations in the south; President Mahinda Rajapakse was hailed as a conquering hero, a grand monarch who had delivered his country from the bane of terrorism, while hopes were expressed for a prosperous future now that the main threat to progress has been eliminated. Riding the wave of euphoria, the government scored two telling electoral victories, promising what the people wanted – a bright future.
A year after the war the hopes still remain but reality is also beginning to set in. It seems there are immense hurdles still to be overcome on the road to prosperity. There is still corruption, nepotism, bad governance, and above all the unfinished business of ethnic reconciliation.
The last reality, more than anything else dominates the consciousness of Sri Lankans post-war, even many of those who claim that there is no ethnic problem to settle. Everybody knows, though not everybody readily admits it that though the war is over the problem has not gone away. It is evident where everyone looks, the rhetoric of national unity, the triumphant trips to Jaffna, the promises of re-settlement, the denial of war crimes and even in the very denial of the existence of an ethnic issue lie the tacit recognition that there is unfinished business that makes us want to assert ourselves as conquerors, reformers or deniers. We want to move forward but, the Diaspora, the displaced, the unrehabilitated, the disabled, the very ruins that we pass on our proud visits to Jaffna, and above all that little voice in our heart that says that although we have finished the Tigers, the Tamils still remain. Having witnessed the brutality with which we have dealt with their brethren he won’t let us move forward in peace. And we know we have to deal with them.
This reality, the need to deal with the Tamil left in the room after all the partying is over, is at the heart of The End of War in Sri Lanka: Reflections and Challenges, an impressive selection of contributions to Groundviews during the first post war year. The contributions cover a vast array of topics and include both verse and prose. But no matter what the focus of the essayist or the poet is, it cannot avoid the reality of the Tamil who is left behind, and is shaped, even trapped by it. It is clearly evident in the hopes for the future but is also present, sometimes lurking below the surface, in attempts to deal with the past and the present. Thus Lionel Bopage wonders if it will be more of the same, whether we are steadily moving towards another conflict, Dayan Jayatilleke argues that the war was Just, and advances a re-reading of the Dutugemunu story to understand the post-war strategic imperatives, the underdog struggles to come to terms with his/her conscience, Lalith Gunaratne reveals the touching journey of child soldiers from trauma to rehabilitation and Kalana Senaratne worries whether peace will arrive before death. These are all musings of troubled people (some more troubled than others) whose hearts and minds are not at peace, struggling to come to terms with the glaring reality of the Tamil in the room, defeated yet unbowed, standing there, in a corner, yes, but refusing to leave, defying, challenging, even mocking in his sorrow and bitterness. They are all efforts to come to terms with him, what we have done with him and what we are to do with him, because we all know that good governance, law and order, peace, justice, economic prosperity are all tied inextricably to how we decide to live with him after we have driven his brethren to Nanthikadal and crushed them, leaving him in grief and fear but not in submission. Even Vivimarie Vanderpooten’s poem gasps in shock and horror at the demons swirling around us, made restless by the elusiveness of peace after the end of the long cruel war, a peace made elusive by the failure to deal with those who are left to savour defeat.
To me, a frequent visitor to Groundviews, what is important is not simply the opinions and reflections of the writers but the recognition of this post-war reality that underlies their work. In a way it is disturbing. It shows we are still far from being at peace, above all with ourselves. But it also shows that we recognise, some of us more than others, that something positive needs to be done about the Tamil left standing because without doing something positive about him, economic prosperity, good governance and national pride will be things to be debated and disputed, never to be experienced.
The articles and poems present a range of thought provoking reflections and opinions revealing hopes, fears and expectations of Sri Lankans that need to be given serious consideration in plotting the road map for a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka. But it is arguable whether they will provoke much thinking in the circles where the road map is being drawn, where thinking has long given way to instinct, and where power, preserved and extended, is the only reality that matters. Some may argue, with a great deal of reason, that Groundviews represent only a miniscule portion of public opinion on Sri Lanka and even that the opinions of those who can write reasonably well in English. Those who do not think like the Kalana Senratnes and Lionle Bopages are vastly outnumbered by those who are still savouring the victory over the ‘terrorists” and believe there is no need to deal with the Tamil in the room. The most cursory glance at some of the websites that showcases opinions from those whose first language is truly Sinhalese will show that it is still the Wimal Weerawansa’s rather than Kalana Senaratne’s who make opinions of Sri Lankans, even in cyberspace. They are still dancing the victory dance, expecting the Tamil in the room to join in singing Sinhala bailas or to leave the room altogether. This is scary, and sad too, but it is no reason to undervalue the efforts of Groundviews. And Groundviews, I am sure, has no pretensions to having the power to shift heaven and earth which is what, it appears at times, is required to change the direction the country is heading in. Yet, despite that seeming impotence, the collection of articles also presents a pleasing prospect. It shows that there are still at least a few of us who recognise that the end of the war has not ended the conflict as long as we do not deal with the Tamil in the room, fairly and justly. It may make a few other decent people stop and think, even feel. That would be a modest victory but a victory nevertheless.
The author is a military historian and novelist based in Melbourne Australia. His works on history include, ‘Best Black Troops in the World’: British Perceptions and the making of the Sepoy 1746-1805, and Kandy at War: Indigenous Military Resistance to European Expansion in Sri Lanka 1594-1818. Currently working on a book (history) on Ealam War I, the author already has three novels to his credit, Walls (2001), Distant Warriors (2005) and In the same boat (2010).