The Single Story of Sri Lanka

Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images via Al Jazeera America

In a well-known TED talk, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie talks of the dangers of the single story.[1] “The single story creates stereotypes,” Adichie says, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Her talk highlights the dangers of a part as representative of a whole. This article is written as part of the special edition on Groundviews to mark five years after the end of the war in Sri Lanka and my own brief reflections on what is fast becoming the single story in post-war Sri Lanka.

Five years into the post-war phase, emotions continue to run deep with the events surrounding the war and the immediate post-war period. In post-war Sri Lanka, multiple changes confront us. Several positive developments are attributed to the end of the war. For example, it ended suicide bombings and direct hostilities. The A9 was reopened, enabling many to travel to the North and the South of Sri Lanka. Some changes are visible and tangible. Some more complex. For some the war is the past and questions related to it should remain in the past. Present day challenges such as the increasing cost of living and the ability to live in one’s home and not be evicted are more urgent than memories from the past. For others, the victims and the affected communities, many questions continue unanswered including the whereabouts of their loved ones. It is vital to acknowledge different narratives of the war and the equally diverse narratives shaping post-war discourses. This is important if we are to have genuine and sustainable peace and reconciliation. In reality, a single story is taking shape with no space for any other. I wonder whether my fellow countrywomen and men realize the power and pitfalls of this single story in post-war Sri Lanka.

Post-war Narratives

Post-war Sri Lanka’s single story is the story of moving forward on infrastructure and economic development with only a selective and subjective memory of the human costs of war. The present government’s official narrative is that of a paradise island with pristine beaches, ancient ruins, lush green tea estates and scenic beauties. The official tourism website advertises Sri Lanka as the ‘Wonder of Asia’ with breathtaking photographs that can excite many a traveler. Certainly, Sri Lanka’s geographic beauty is uncontested, but what lies beyond continues to raise questions.

The government describes Sri Lanka as rising—in peace and prosperity, in development, and in global connectivity. This achievement includes President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership in defeating terrorism, a campaign that saw a ‘humanitarian operation’ by valiant security forces with ‘zero civilian casualties’. Soon after the defeat of the LTTE, President Rajapaksa said the following: “Our intention was to save the Tamil people from the cruel grip of the LTTE. We all must now live as equals in this free country…we must find a homegrown solution to this conflict. That solution should be acceptable to all the communities…”[2] In his speech at the 66th Independence Day celebrations held in February, President Rajapaksa painted a picture of economic growth, a country where people are free and coexistence is possible. He took a similar stance the previous year, at the Independence Day celebrations in Trincomalee, when he referenced the ethnic harmony and freedom of post-war Sri Lanka. An examination of official statements by the Executive and his government provides an idea of the single story shaping post-war Sri Lanka. For example, President Rajapaksa was quoted as saying “Not one civilian was shot dead by our troops”[3]. President Rajapaksa also stated “There are no religious or racial problems. There are no racial politics…”.[4] The rest of the cabinet loyally toes the Executive’s line, and speaks of post-war progress and many Sri Lankan achievements. Many talk of the boom in infrastructure: new highways, ports, airports, stadiums, and conference centers. The official narrative includes addressing the humanitarian crisis of the war, having zero displaced persons and the progress of ‘homegrown solutions,’ including progress with recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

The official narrative is the only narrative allowed in post-war Sri Lanka. The authorities accommodate no other. Those who dare challenge the official narrative face an uncertain future. Those who talk of the impeachment of the Chief Justice in 2013, the politicization of independent institutions, evictions, targeting of religious minorities, militarization, sexual violence, land grabs and continued displacement are branded traitors out to tarnish Sri Lanka’s image. Unchecked ministers and officials threaten and abuse those seen as troublemakers. In 2013 a Minister even threatened to break the limbs of civil society who lobbied at the United Nations Human Rights Council for greater human rights protection and accountability in Sri Lanka. Despite documented evidence of these threats, officials have held none to account and have not asked anyone to step down. Perks are in abundance for those who glorify the Rajapaksa regime and vilify its critics.

The triumphalist policies of the present government have far-reaching implications. The Rajapaksa dynasty’s power has increased exponentially and they control all key aspects of government. Family, friends and cronies receive diplomatic perks, lucrative deals and luxuries. For example, according to media reports Sri Lanka has diplomatic relations with 62 countries with 35 Heads of Mission posts filled by political appointees.[5] It has also been reported of millions spent, Rs15.7 million a month to be exact[6], to promote Sri Lanka internationally and to hide its dark truths, with unsuspecting taxpayers footing the bills. In 2010, the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution removed checks and balances that ensured the independence of various government institutions and the judiciary. The same amendment removed term limits for the Executive, paving the way for perpetual family rule. Any hope of a political solution is fast diminishing with basic steps such as the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution yet to be a reality.

The wonder of Asia also hides many unpleasant truths. Sinhala nationalism runs rampant in the country, with both Tamils and Muslims coming under attack. Post-war paradise provides ample opportunity for the emergence of extreme Buddhist elements to target religious minorities, with multiple attacks on their religious places of worship and attacking business ventures owned by minorities. Although such attacks have been documented and received coverage showing the identity of the perpetrators, (including the incidents such as the Dambulla mosque attack highlighted by Groundviews), once more, none have been held to account.

Despite more than two years having passed since the LLRC was made public, many of its own recommendations are yet to be implemented. For example, the LLRC recommendation to demilitarize and return private lands occupied by security forces to their rightful owners have yet to be fully implemented. Although some lands have been returned to private owners, security forces still occupy thousands of acres of private lands, resulting in the continued displacement of thousands of civilians—amounting to upto 90,000 persons displaced according to the International Displacement Monitoring Center[7]- that is ignored in the official government narrative. Similarly, the claim of a demilitarized north is far from the truth if one ventures beyond the A9 highway the government touts as one of its successes.

Following immense external pressure from the international community, the Sri Lankan government has promised action to address the human rights situation and accountability in the post war context. In May 2009, soon after the war, the government issued a joint communiqué with the United Nations Secretary General. Numerous promises and pledges followed. This was the beginning of a trend in the unofficial post-war narrative: the regular repetition of promises unaccompanied by action. For example, during the war, officials promised to introduce legislation on witness and victim protection; they have repeated the promise several times since with no actual action. Simple measures at reconciliation such as singing the national anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil languages or to provide a comprehensive list of all detainees to loved ones do not require complicated legislative or policy reform. After five years, can one move beyond the official narrative of needing more time and get with it?

Resilience and Standing United: Is It a Myth?

The government’s defeat of the LTTE is couched in terms of the official narrative of a ‘humanitarian operation’ to free Sri Lankans from terrorism. The devastation in the wake of such a humanitarian operation is multilayered. Thousands died and disappeared during the war. Family members continue to search for the missing, going from one commission to another with unanswered questions. Around 300,000 were displaced during the last stage of the war, with many thousands more displaced in earlier years. Many were displaced multiple times, witnessing their homes and livelihoods destroyed and having to rebuild lives on countless occasions.

Sri Lankans are very resilient, having lived through the war, the 2004 tsunami, other natural disasters and the insurgencies in the South. In the post-war period, despite the end of fighting, the government has missed opportunities to build a country in which communities can peacefully coexist. The increasing attacks on places of worship and hate campaigns, demonstrate deep divisions within Sri Lankan society.

On April 21st, I went to support a few of my friends who ran the Boston Marathon, the oldest annual marathon in the world. This year was especially poignant, as it was the anniversary of last year’s deadly marathon bombing. The marathon saw 36,000 people from all walks of life run the race. This unprecedented number represented different nationalities, ethnicities, gender, ages, religions and beliefs. Several people I met at the marathon had traveled from across the globe to participate. Estimates suggest that over a million people turned up to watch, support the runners and stand in solidarity. Several people injured last year ran the course this year. All those who turned up stood together, diverse but unified.

I wondered then and continue to wonder if any single event in Sri Lanka could result in such strength, support and solidarity. Will we as Sri Lankans ever overcome difference and cherish diversity? The end of the war is a significant moment in the history of Sri Lanka. It impacted most Sri Lankans to one degree or another, and all communities have shown tremendous resilience. But the anniversary marking the end of the war is also extremely polarizing. Would we ever overcome divisions and recognize and accept the different narratives?

Making Space for Multiple Stories

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. The commemoration witnessed different discourses and recognitions of Rwanda’s past. A powerful New York Times piece titled ‘Portraits of Reconciliation’ captured the roles of the different actors, perpetrator, victim and bystander. It showed people standing together, despite different experiences. Rwanda, too, has had a difficult road. Many challenges remain there, but at a basic level, the country’s acknowledgment of multiple narratives, although not perfect, has helped the process of healing to move forward.

In contrast, the single story of Sri Lanka is deeply troubling and disturbing. It is a one-sided and narrow view of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. There is no acknowledgement of the challenges some communities continue to face, and the deep divisions within our society. It is a story in which triumphalism and chauvinism thrives. Multiple narratives must be acknowledged and provided space in post-war Sri Lanka. State policies must reform to support diversity, encourage coexistence, and facilitate reconciliation. This is the only way the present government can have moral authority and legitimacy.

Failure to take action now will have a devastating impact on Sri Lanka’s fragile peace. Many challenges confront us five years since the end of the war. Many questions remain for the next five, ten, twenty years and possibly longer. We all must ask: can we move beyond the Sri Lanka of a single story to a country where multiple stories exist? This decision belongs to all Sri Lankans, not just the elite few. As Adichie says “The consequence of the single storyis this: It robs people of dignity.It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.It emphasizes how we are differentrather than how we are similar.” We must insist on the space for multiple narratives. This diversity and richness should define our future. Ultimately, this is what will make Sri Lanka the true ‘Wonder of Asia’.

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[1]http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

[2]http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/may/18/tamil-tigers-killed-sri-lanka

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/08/10/sri.lanka.un.eu.us.economy.trade/index.html

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/apr/04/sri-lanka-elections-tamil-minority

[5]http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140119/news/foreign-service-or-family-service-80508.html

[6]http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140126/columns/foreign-mire-and-peoples-ire-will-there-be-voter-fire-81133.html

[7]http://www.internal-displacement.org/south-and-south-east-asia/sri-lanka

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.

  • srivanamoth

    The real truth about the war is well known but politically dead because of half truths and lies under cover of the PTA for the past 40 years. The Tamil rebels were created by the governments since the Sinhala Only act of 1956 and subsequent unilateral constitution of 1972 et al which remain unfulfilled to this day even as regards the minimal linguistic needs of the minorities to this day! The present constitution as implemented is a recipe for more disasters. The LLRC apart from not being implemented skirted the real issues. Lack of continuing governance sans monolithic unilateralism, rule of law and independence of justice and unaccountability are a recipe for more disasters.