Groundviews

Launch of Special Edition: The end of war in Sri Lanka, five years on

Photograph by the author

In the corner of my room, there’s a large air-tight plastic bag I open once a year, and occasionally glance at with mixed emotions. It contains, carefully folded, all the newspapers I could buy on 19th May 2009. Those who tried to buy a newspaper on this day may recall how difficult it was. Almost all the leading daily newspapers, especially in Sinhala, were sold out in the morning. With distribution networks disrupted on account of the unprecedented countrywide celebrations, all newspapers were just in short supply, or not available at news agents at all. I live in Nugegoda and drove as far as Bambalapitiya in search of newspapers on any other day I could have just walked up the road to purchase. I’m glad I made the effort. This was Sri Lanka’s New Day moment, a day no one, truth be told, had really planned for. The bold headlines, symbolic mastheads, full colour ads, op-eds, euphoric editorials and articles are long-forgotten, and yet, for many in the South, a sharp and welcome difference between war and post-war years endures. With this flows a gratitude towards the incumbents in power still powerful enough to varnish a systemic rot at the core of government and governance.

How to critique this?

One year after the end of the war, Groundviews invited over forty authors to contribute their thoughts on the socio-political and economic trajectories post-war Sri Lanka could take, and a critical gaze on the year just past. The articles were so well read and received online, many requested the content in book form. Subsequently, the content was also published as Sri Lanka’s first book available for free on Apple’s iTunes Book Store. A review of the collection by Channa Wickremesekera, a military historian and novelist noted,

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… 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.

Four years after the publication of this tome, and to commemorate five years after the end of war, Groundviews invited another set of authors to contribute their thoughts on the country’s tryst with justice, accountability and a positive peace, post-war. In the email inviting potential authors to contribute, I noted that they were

“…free to write on whatever subject or issue you want, reflecting or even contesting my own belief that peace is far more than the absence of war or the defeat of the LTTE, and that post-war, Sri Lanka’s social and political evolution has significantly faltered, with the rule of law, reconciliation, accountability, truth-seeking and democratic governance at increasing risk from a growing authoritarianism and intolerance.”

The resulting content will be published on the site in the days and weeks ahead leading up the 19th of May, and can be accessed here.

In the five years since the end of war, I have been repeatedly – with varying degrees of animosity – asked why this site refuses to more fully embrace the massive infrastructure development, historic and other building restorations, increase in tourist inflows, the soft-power benefits accrued from hosting the likes of CHOGM and IIFA, the rise to middle-income status, the massive projects around the redevelopment of the war ravaged North and the East, the efficiency and effectiveness of the military increasingly in charge of and participating in civilian affairs and administration and what interlocutors see as more ‘positive’ aspects of Sri Lanka’s post-war image. Close friends even have repeatedly said they fear to read my Facebook updates and the content on the site because it is ‘depressing’, or because there is a bias towards that which is wrong, and an inattentiveness, sometimes seen as a larger project of civil society, of never embracing what is good, different, better and progressive about post-war Sri Lanka.

Occasionally flippant and sometimes angered, I have always strongly defended the coverage and content on this site, but not because it is the only perspective on Sri Lanka, or because it holds any greater value to an outsider than, for example, a Tourist Board video, a Foreign Ministry press release, the editorial of a pro-government newspaper, or the opinions of a pro-regime columnist. I have defended the content, perspectives and the difficult choices around the dominant gaze on this site, and associated social media fora, because I strongly feel that even though they are to the majority peripheral, marginal and even damn annoying, a fuller, more accurate record of these formative post-war years demands it.

At the same time, the unceasing critical gaze on the site’s content and pushback in public is a useful catalyst for introspection. Looking back at those headlines and newspapers from May 2009, I wonder why that tsunami of euphoria, and what was an existential relief in the South, didn’t infect me more fully and for longer. Perhaps the curse or blessing lies in precisely that – the inability to be unthinkingly part of any majority, whether it is of people or ideas, the yearning to always seek out the uncomfortable and unfamiliar, an immunity towards propaganda and a desire to always contest.

The site reflects this. As I noted in May 2010,

“Bearing witness is never fully objective, never completely impartial. We have few narratives that, with the same vigour as the criticism of government, interrogate the manic violence of the LTTE throughout its sordid history and, in particular, towards the end of war. The documentation of this significant violence, in recent reports from the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International, amongst other local and international human rights groups, is a terrible record of a liberation movement gone very wrong, and ultimately, that orchestrated its own, tragic demise. However, our bias, evident since the inception of this site, is that elected governments as our representatives, our servants – must and can be held to higher standards of accountability.”

The contributions in this special edition come from a range of voices within and outside Sri Lanka. They complement perspectives in Tamil that will be published on Maatram.org and those in Sinhala that will be published on Vikalpa.org over the same period of time. Contributors were not invited on the basis of agreeing with this site’s gaze, or my personal bias. Though some who promised to write in couldn’t or didn’t, I ended up with compelling content from the majority of those I approached, a testimony to the maturity of web media in Sri Lanka as loci of meaningful debate and critical perspectives. It is likely that in the weeks ahead, in response to some of these articles, others will write in as well. All of the content from the launch of this special edition to its culmination will, as in 2010, be subsequently published as a high quality PDF as well as a free e-book, available for download off Apple’s iTunes bookstore.

Five years after the end of war, Steven Biko’s submission around the minds of the oppressed as the greatest weapon of the oppressor is a useful frame to understand Sri Lanka today. Our greatest enemy continues to be ignorance, often paraded proudly as a substitute for critical engagement and the value of knowledge. Arendt’s timeless Eichmann in Jerusalem offers another useful gaze around how today the inability and unwillingness to see violence as precisely that serves to normalise and render ordinary the worst inequality, racism, parochialism, nepotism and corruption. We are no longer aghast at the worst excesses of power and perversely clamour for the democratisation of impunity instead of calling for reform and redress.

Obviously, this collection of articles has absolutely no power to change all this, or even any part of it. Yet even if it is just a record of perspectives and ideas starkly and courageously different to what is accepted and celebrated in the mainstream and amongst the majority, the raison d’être of Groundviews is fulfilled. I hope these articles excite you think, respond and engage.

We continue to define our lives by what once was. This currency of fear must stop. Long overdue is the need to redefine our future by asking what we must become, and what should be. We know what and where the blue pill gets us.

Take the red pill.