Human Rights, Human Security, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Trincomalee

Mistaking Night for Day in the New Dawn of the East: A Review Article of the al-Jazeera Documentaries, ‘How the East was Won’ and ‘Monks of War’

Reporter, Juliana Ruhfus, Director, Dom Rotheroe and Researcher, Aloke Devichand, have two films scheduled for broadcast on the al-Jazeera network which will be of interest to all those with an abiding interest in Sri Lanka both within and without the country. The first, “How the East Was Won” deals with the contemporary context and consequences of claimed military victory over the Eastern Province and the second, “Monks of War”, focuses on the political ascendancy of the JHU and the resurgence of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism which has been the central ideological legitimation for the return to a military solution to the ethnic conflict.

In that sense both documentaries are mutually illuminating of the political crossroads that Sri Lanka currently finds itself in but which is unfortunately also exemplary of the tragic and endless recurrence of attempts to pursue the same policies in the past albeit within the changed historical circumstances of the post-9/11 global dystopia. Despite the constraints of the brevity of the documentary, Rufhus in ‘How the East was Won’ successfully counter-poses the justifications and claims of Sri Lankan governmental and military spokespeople she interviews with the realities facing those on the ground in the East. Realities, which clearly raises some fundamental questions as to the consequences and potential outcome of the present direction of governmental policy which has not only militarized Sri Lankan social space to an extent that the country did not even witness in the bishane period of 1987-1990 but has also securitised ‘development’ to levels witnessed in other contexts of militarised interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

For example, Rufhus presents the claims of senior military commanders, who claim that the security forces have now reoccupied 95% of the land mass of the Eastern Province and that as a result, 178,000 civilians who were formerly in LTTE areas are “now with the government” and that the armed services are actively engaged in a programme to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people through redevelopment as a means of demonstrating the superiority and commitment of the government in comparison to the LTTE. She then contrasts this with the humanitarian “fall-out” that the pursuit of the military solution has created. Months of MBRL and aerial bombardment, 140,000 displaced, civilian killings, disappearances, abductions, ongoing child recruitment, fears of governmental surveillance in registration processes, forced and/or inadequate resettlement aid are all on-the ground experiences which Rufhus uncovers in her investigative foray into the situation in the Eastern Province. All this is compounded by civilians’ memories of the suffering that has accompanied past experience of military control, of the destruction of villages and eviction as well as the inevitability that the LTTE, having engaged in a strategic withdrawal from overt control over territory, have merely returned to low-intensity warfare through cadres that have infiltrated the East in the course of recent cycles of conflict, forced migration, encampment and resettlement.

Finally, Rufhus poses the question that the greatest obstacle to the government claims to be asserting a new found legitimacy through territorial control is to be found in the political ascendancy of Karuna’s TMVP which effectively controls many areas of the Eastern province and is extremely powerful in the Batticaloa District through what she describes as a regime of “intimidation, extortion and murder”. This development evidently gives the lie to the claims by Sri Lankan Army commander, Prasad Samarasinghe, that the Sri Lankan military is not collaborating with the TMVP and, due to its superior strength, has no intention or need to permit the activities of a paramilitary group. Whilst, this clearly spurious claim might betray the long-term dilemmas of the Sri Lankan government vis a vis its paramilitary proxies in the East, it does not ring true to the current unchecked reign of the TMVP which the government is more than happy to use in the short term as an attempted surrogate for the political legitimacy that the military clearly lacks amongst the Tamil community. Yet this is a strategy that, evidently, will not only continue to foment divides between pro-LTTE and pro-Karuna factions amongst Eastern Tamils but will also alienate the sizeable Muslim populations in areas of TMVP activity and dominance as some Muslim spokespeople argue that the current context is one where the TMVP and government are also actively cooperating in the combined economic expropriation of Muslims in the East. As a result, we are left with a profound questioning of the extent to which peace and development can really be achieved in the NorthEast for as long as meaningful devolution and federalism remain a taboo subject in government circles, a myopia rather farcically borne out by the smokescreen of the APRC on constitutional reform and its recent abrupt euthanasia. The only alternatives to a devolved settlement acceptable to ‘minority’ interests are surely the continuing spectre of civil war of multi-polar dimensions and the balkanisation of the country. As such, the Rajapakses must surely be mistaking night for day when beholding their vision of the New Dawn in the East.

The second of the documentaries, ‘Monks of War’, is the more ambitious of the two reports and, as such, does suffer more heavily due to brevity. Yet, despite the fact that an in-depth understanding of something as complex as Sinhala Buddhist nationalist ideology deserves more than a 21 minute time frame, the focus benefits from its willingness to engage across a broad spectrum from the more extreme proponents of Sinhala nationalism in the JHU, to secular critics and with those Buddhists who contest the right of the JHU and ‘just war’ monks to define the contours of the Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka. It might be argued that allowing the JHU to voice their exclusivist nationalist platform is unwelcome when what was considered a fringe ideological chauvinism just a few years ago in the context of the CFA has now assumed hegemonic status. For, it has acted as one of the central legitimating motors to the current regime’s rise to power and in their pursuit of a military solution to the ethnic conflict. Political and ideological loyalty to the Rajapakses on the part of the JHU has also been rewarded by a fulfilment of many of their nationalist projects as well as the staple ministerial portfolio and, more significantly, powerful influence in the inner circles of the Rajapakse regime. Yet understandings of the Sinhala nationalist position in the English language visual media that have not resorted to external didactic critiques rather than from-the-horse’s-mouth perspectives are few and far between and it is therefore refreshing that the likes of Champika Ranawaka and Narendra Gunatillaka are allowed free reign to indulge in the enjoyment of nationalist fantasies however galling that may be to cosmopolitan sensibilities. I use the term fantasy not so much to disqualify the nationalist project as irrational but rather to point to the manner in which, as both the JHU as well as their detractors, notably, Professor Uyangoda demonstrate, nationalism to differing degrees is grounded in a politics of fear, distrust and, of course, at some level, exclusion and in the Sinhala nationalist case the political ascendancy of Sinhala nationalism has always thrived on the exclusionary othering of internal ‘minorities’, particularly Tamil and Muslim.

The documentary goes on to examine how Buddhism has come to be the moral core of the Sinhalese and their identity and how this identity has come to dominate the postcolonial majoritarian state and the way in which the sangha act as the guardians of just kingship (which must protect Buddhism and the Sinhala Buddhist identity), facets of nationalist identity which achieve potent articulation in the politics of the JHU. Rufhus achieves this through a series of interviews in which the talking heads of academics, monks, lay activists as well as political posters attest to the potency of the relationship between religion, the sangha and governance in Sri Lankan political culture. Consequently, Rufhus manages to distil, in crude terms, some of the anthropological perspectives that have stressed the need to understand the cultural significance of the interplay between religion, identity, statehood, political leadership, patronage and centre-oriented political culture in Sri Lanka, including the work of Tambiah, Kapferer and Roberts; perspectives which have been criticised by detractors as excessively structuralist or culturalist but which are achieving a new-found relevance in the current resurgence of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

The report also achieves its central strength from the presentation of the fervent faith of the JHU leadership in the success of the military defeat of the LTTE, in their conspiracy theories that the LTTE’s ultimate aim is to capture the whole of Sri Lanka by linking up the North, East, the Hill Country and Western Province or that Tamil Nadu is intent upon invading Sri Lanka and the destruction of the Sinhala people and their civilizational ‘heritage’. The documentary also reflects upon the way in which such nationalist yearnings also reflect an intrinsic fear about the impact and spread of globalization and the hegemony of western culture, politics, philosophy, ethics and economics. A retreat in the storm of modernity to the anchor and safety of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism which is nothing other than the attempted reterritorialisation of sovereign control over culture and the political in the face of a world increasingly subject to deterritorialising dynamics including the role of the dominant donor states, global economics, IFIs and INGOs. That is why Sinhala nationalism so frequently falls into a discourse of loss, of the desperate aim to recapture or reinvent a past that is irrevocably displaced by the fluid mobility and contaminations of modernity but which at the same time reproduces these reactive tendencies towards territorialisation, fixity and purity. Yet it is exactly this desperation which also drives the desire to preserve the unitary boundaries of the Sinhala nation and state and hence the recurrent dynamics towards the eradication of any Tamil movement that threatens this unitarism and, which, is at work in the legitimation of the current military strategy, a desperation which is repeated in the JHU discourse of necessary blood sacrifice that must accompany victory in national preservation. Hence, the inter-significance of both these documentaries and in a sense, it is a shame that they were not woven together but again, presumably, the end-product is constrained by the schedule frameworks.

Additionally, whether it was a matter of time constraints or access, whilst the documentary recognises that many of these aspects of Sinhala nationalist ideology are also shared by the JVP, which evidently has a much larger grass-roots constituency base, the documentary misses the opportunity to explore the dynamics of the JVP at greater length including the social and economic differences and rivalry that exist between this party and the JHU. Such a focus would have demonstrated the extent to which nationalism is obviously riven by heterogeneous social, cultural, economic and hence political differences and demands which the process of the production of nationalist subjectivity is constantly attempting to meld together but which are also persistently ruptured, revealing the very constructed and fragile nature of the claims to national coherence and unity.

Yet, if there is one thread of hope that the documentary leaves the viewer with, it is that social heterogeneity and difference is also expressed in the resistance to the complete capture and definition of socio-cultural and political tradition that nationalist movements such as the JHU attempt to establish. This is seen in the testimony of those members of the sangha and the laity Rufhus interviews who are attempting to articulate a Buddhism free of the will to war. What should also perhaps have been expressed in the documentary is the still dire need to separate Buddhism from State as the latter continues to use the former to legitimate its political, social and developmental policies and practices and this continues to feed the distrust and fear that inhibits dialogue and drives conflict and the delusions of a military solution despite the lessons of history.

‘How the East was Won’ is currently scheduled for broadcast from Sunday 26th August at 14:30 GMT and is repeated on Monday 27th at 01.30 and 13.30 GMT and Tuesday 28th, at 06:30 and 20.30 GMT.

‘Monks of War’ Won’ is currently scheduled for broadcast from Wednesday 29th August at 14:30 GMT and is repeated on Thursday 30th August at 01.30 GMT, 13.30 GMT, Friday 31st, 06.30 GMT and 20.30 GMT and Saturday 1st September, 03.00 GMT.

David Rampton is a visiting lecturer in the Development Studies and Politics Departments at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in history and politics and a Master of Science in political studies at SOAS, where he is currently engaged in doctoral research on the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and nationalism in Sri Lanka.