Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict

An Eye for an Eye, a Bomb for a Bomb

A bomb on a train in Dehiwela killed 9 civilians, including a pregnant woman. The Sri Lankan government blames the LTTE; they deny it. Three days earlier, a claymore attack on van deep in LTTE territory killed 16 civilians, including 5 children. The LTTE blames the Deep Penetration Unit of the Sri Lankan army; they deny it. In February, a bomb on a bus in Dambulla killed 20, while a bomb at the Colombo Fort railway station killed 12, including 8 children from the baseball team at D.S. Senanayake College and a 12-year-old girl. The LTTE was blamed for both attacks; they denied it. A few days earlier, a claymore mine attack on a bus in the LTTE-controlled area of Madhu killed 20 children. The LTTE blamed the Sri Lankan army; they denied it. And on and on it goes.

Life in Sri Lanka seems to follow the Old Testament of the Bible: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

We can add: “bomb for bomb.”

It has been this way for some time. It started with the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, a blatantly racist piece of legislation passed by the Sri Lankan Freedom Party, which made Sinhala the sole official language of Sri Lanka. Tamil politicians protested peacefully that it was unfair; they were ignored and ridiculed. The racism fermented by the act exploded in anti-Tamil riots in 1958. By the 1970s, pissed off young Tamils in the North armed themselves and formed militant groups. In May 1981, Tamil militants killed two Sinhalese policemen. The response was swift: that night, policemen and goons from the then ruling United National Party burnt the Jaffna Public Library, destroying a priceless collection of books and documents. In July 1983, the LTTE ambushed and killed15 Sinhalese army soldiers in Jaffna; the response was a massive nationwide anti-Tamil riot that killed over 1000 Tamil civilians. Tamils fled Sri Lanka en masse, creating a Diaspora that willingly (at first) funded the Tamil militancy. The LTTE, a little known group in the 70s grew in to a brutally efficient beast that breathed hatred and bombs.

It’s been 25 years since the race riots of 1983, and it’s been a tit for tat game of them killing us and us killing them.  A part of that game has been played on the battlefield with conventional forces, but innocent civilians are often caught in the crossfire. Bullets and artillery can’t tell combatant from non-combatant. And bombs, smart as they are today, are not that smart-the occasional ‘surgical strike’ by our air force does kill civilians too.

So how do we find our way out of this mess? Some politicians speak of military victories, others of political settlements. But it really comes down to us, the ones who vote for them. For it wasn’t Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike who passed the Sinhala Only Act-it was the people who voted for his communal brand of politics. The fact is that those who fight this war now are too young to remember 1983, let alone 1956. Who started what doesn’t matter any more. We just remember the last bomb, and most of us want to give it back to them in kind.

The government tells us that these acts of terror should strengthen our resolve to fight harder, to defeat and vanquish the LTTE forever. In the aftermath of our terrorist acts against them, the LTTE tells the people of the North that their only hope is to fight until they achieve Eelam. Both sides say the same thing: fight to the end, fight to win. Will this really solve anything?

Perhaps we should try something different. Perhaps it’s time to think about the words of a man that many in this island claim to follow, but few bother to understand:

“Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live, giving up victory and defeat.”

Verse 201, The Dhammapada, uttered by the Buddha


Some links for those with strong stomachs:

29th January: Attack on bus carrying children in LTTE-controlled Madhu

2nd February: Dambulla bus bomb blast

3rd February: Colombo Fort Station bomb blast

23rd May: 16 civilians killed in blast in N Sri Lanka

26th May: Dehiwala train blast kills eight