Photograph courtesy Sri Lanka Guardian
My mother always used to ask me why I didn’t write more often and I always had a stock reply “Everything I write is so negative, even I can’t stand it”. She was a prolific writer in both Tamil and English, never shying from her quest to explore questions, and was frustrated when I deferred writing. For her writing was an important way to reflect, evaluate and attempt to change, not just other’s perceptions, but our own actions. I am reminded of many such conversations with my parents as I sit down to write about the decade that has passed.
I think even today, given continued state surveillance and the lack of a really free and informed media (an unfortunate legacy of war and successive repressive governments and ethnic polarization from within), we can still appreciate the reasons for the birth of Groundviews. It was the first platform of its kind to promote citizen journalism. It was the ability or rather need to speak, especially for citizens, when journalists had been silenced and driven out of their homes.
“You said there is light in social change
The silence of your voice is my darkness”
Excerpt from “Notes: for a longer poem I need not write” (translated from Tamil)
I don’t know how many of you remember, but information had become so precious, and truth such an easily abused commodity, that even die-hard Sinhalese-nationalist friends of mine were reading pro-LTTE news in order to know what was happening during the late 1990’s. By early 2000 mainstream media had become highly politicized, almost an extension of the state itself. The misinformation regarding peaceful overtures- the lies regarding the true numbers dead- the inability to sympathize- was only broken once in a while with some rare investigative journalism. My youth was coloured very much by this reality. It was in this environment that new media presented opportunities for us- well, there is no other way to say it, to fight back.
The seeking of truth, and not just truth itself, is a fundamental part of being human. And when this quest is obstructed, especially with violence, it is an affront to that very fundamental part of us. The silencing of so many voices, especially of daring journalists, such as the murder of Sivaram (2005) and Lasantha (2009), and enforced disappearances and exile of so many others, has cost us our civilizations’ truths. Truths that we fight for even today. The Right to Information Act, which comes into force on the 3rd of February 2017, carries a huge weight on its shoulder. The history from which it has risen is certainly not a smooth one. The unnamed sacrifices bear testimony to the importance of and need for its proper implementation.
“Harthal in the North and East
how unfortunate it is
we must do something
peace activists gather to discuss
between their tea and cocktails
in the Capital city of Colombo
we can’t let this pass
“Let’s issue a statement fast”
Children of the south growing up
not knowing their history
a legacy of a conflict 50 years’ old
in their own country
that rages some-where “up in the North”
“We can’t separate our island into two”
Not the land of the Majority
How dare anyone suggest this
Brotherhood. Equality. Unity.
My brother is turning 21
close to the age of another boy
who was harassed and beaten
before having to kneel on the ground
along with four others his own age
on a cold January night
and Shot Dead
if it had been my Brother instead?”
Excerpt from “My Brothers” for the 5 Tamil boys killed on the 2nd of January 2006 by the Sri Lankan Armed forces in Trincomalee.
I think war hits home in a number of ways for different people; especially when you least expect it. The war had significantly affected the lives of my family. My parents were refugees of the 1983 pogrom, who returned to Colombo 8 years later as social activists and my siblings and I travelled with them extensively, through LTTE and army controlled territory. There was many a time we barely escaped bullets and shelling. But I think in only hit me later, on a feverish night in Batticaloa town when my mother and father had to break it to us that our playmate would not be able to come over anymore, because he had run off to the join the LTTE. Three months later he was severely maimed in an army attack and died some years after in the tsunami when the disabled boys’ camp in Mullaitivu was completely destroyed. It was the sense of injustice that felt so bitter.
For many of my friends in Colombo the Central Bank bombing in 1996 was a turning point. Some remember that day vividly, having lost loved ones in the attack. But for a majority it left a common mark on their lives; a painful, lived experience of the atrocities of war, the fear which rises with the smoke and the inevitable feeling of helplessness. I think if there is one thing all Sri Lankans can safely say they have learned over this decade, no matter who they are, is that war is cruel.
War forces you to pick sides that you may not have under normal circumstances. In early 2009 civil society activists (and incidentally, many contributing writers to Groundviews) participated in a peace vigil asking the government to cease the bombardment of civilians in the North. I called a close school friend of mine (who still remains a dear friend) to join us. She was resolutely against such an idea. At eighteen years of age, she was convinced that the government had to do everything in its power to kill the “terrorists”, as “they all had to be the same”. I remember the feeling of betrayal that I felt and subsequently learned to swallow. But to be fair to her, she was not alone in her views. Many thought like her, and the vigil eventually petered out.
In a tango
Out of beat”
Excerpt from “Notes: for a longer poem I need not write”
On May 18, 2009, my family and I were travelling back to Colombo from Trincomalee with a well-known peace-worker (I doubt he would identify himself as such) and we were taunted with phrases like “Now that your leader is dead…”. I was always under the impression that the majority population in the South didn’t understand the demand for a separate state in the North until the LTTE actually lost the war. It seemed as if they knew more about it than Tamils themselves. In Wellawatte, hordes of young Sinhalese men shouted at me that we had lost “our” country (Eelam) and this was their Sinhala Buddhist country.
In 2006, before Groundviews started, 5 boys were killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces, their only crime was being Tamil. In 2016 when 23-year-old Nadarasa Kajan and 24-year-old Pavunraj Sulaxan, two student leaders from Jaffna University who had volunteered to work with the organization I worked for, were killed by the police, the sinister parallels were not lost. The machinery is now a little more sophisticated, that is all. What struck me then and even now is the silence of students. If students from all walks of life cannot rise in anger at the murder of one of their own, something is terribly wrong. We then have to acknowledge that reconciliation is not some ephemeral concept, but is our only cure for this long standing malaise.
Even today many people who avidly consume divisive rubbish on the media, have not bothered to reach for the Human Rights Watch report titled “We Will Teach You a Lesson” which documents detention and torture of Tamil prisoners. What does a title like that say about us? So many people have argued with me that having Trump (albeit a racist and sexist) as President of the United States is “good” for “us”, as it means less chance of a probe into war crimes here. But is this what we have come to? Do we not have any standards for our leaders? Why is there no national and political appetite to engage with the findings of local reconciliation mechanisms? Did the Buddhist tradition of meditation make us flippant about the present need for reflection and self-enquiry?
‘Forget what your mother has said,
her mother before and her mother before
Forget what your father wrote
or his father before
and all your forefathers
Imagine a world where we only learnt
what children thought?
The world is after all
a playground of sorts”
Excerpt from “Notes: for a longer poem I need not write”
Free media platforms such as Groundviews, really have their work cut out for them over the next decade. As a young person, who grew up in this country, I am tired of the lies that the political elite have fed us. Groundviews came, ironically, with my coming of age, my fumbling steps into young adulthood. Now many young people take social media activism for granted, but at that time it was all new for us and it opened doors we never knew were there.
But even now, I can’t help noticing the youth are in danger of betraying us. To my dismay and surprise, many young women who stood shoulder to shoulder with the men to campaign for Yahapalanaya are being marginalized within political parties when it comes to power sharing. Their own male peers are the ones telling them they haven’t done “enough” for the party.
Why is this significant? Our homage to patriarchy and male patronage politics has led to the prevalence of this macho-militaristic-culture, unforgiving and violent, which has fueled our civil war. Therefore, preventing women from occupying decision making forums, at all levels, is a continuum of its acts of exclusion, marginalization and inequality.
It is time to change this. In the next five years if women don’t rise in politics and as heads of corporations, if female journalists and senior editors aren’t promoted and women’s contribution in the home-sphere aren’t appropriately valued and acknowledged, I fear even my generation is in danger of betraying another generation of men and women alike. As the youth, we need to constantly remind ourselves that the values that underpin peace- such as respect for human life, dignity, equity and substantive gender equality- have a far ranging impact on the life we live and the life we leave for our children to live.