Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

The end of one man and the legacy of another: We cannot glorify death

Yesterday we were given a body whose death left me strangely numb. While it was a man whose brutality I condemned, it was not a death that I could celebrate. It was not only that the event came to us bearing the stench of fresh blood from the camps and battlefields of the Vanni – but it was also all the talk that Prabaharan got what was ‘due’ and that this was ‘poetic justice’ for someone who lived by the sword to die by the sword.

Rather, the enormity of what Prabaharan had robbed us of is not susceptible to easy equations. Even in the last months there have been thousands killed through Prabaharan’s death dance with Rajapakse. Moreover, the people that Prabaharan had killed – Neelan, Kathesh, Rajani, and thousands of other less famous – were too big for him. They were too big to be captured in some clichéd ode to poetic justice their own vision of justice was more generous and forward thinking. They were too big to be avenged by the killing of a man who could not think beyond the horizon of an AK-47 their own vision of our collective future was more complex and pluralistic. There is no cosmic arithmetic where the killing of Prabaharan can avenge, compensate or provide closure for their loss.

As Prabaharan leaves the stage there are others who have taken over his script“ this time amongst Temple Trees not Vanni jungles. As with the LTTE’s killing of Tamils in the name of Tamil rights, Rajapakse’s address to parliament yesterday claimed the military campaign was a humanitarian operation that carried a gun in one hand, the Human Rights Charter in the other. The celebration of battlefield victories and the assertions of invincibility in the President speech echoed Prabaharan’s own heroes day speeches extolling the LTTE endurance against the odds. The speech’s military triumphalism situating this event in mother Lanka’s historic battles against the likes of Elara was not unlike the parallel deployment of perennial struggles and racist myths in the Pongu Thamil celebrations that were the hallmark of Prabaharan’s own toxic alchemy of ethnic chauvanism and militarism. This was but one of the many ironies that attended the public performance of Prabaharan’s body.

Over a decade ago, Prasanna Vithanage’s film, Death on a Full Moon Day, presented a haunting indictment of the government’s cynical use of poor Sinhala youth as cannon fodder. It took us to a coffin sent home without a body – a death that could not be moaned. In contrast, Prabaharan’s body was presented to us by that same government as a death that cannot but be celebrated. These last few months have brought on a war that has been hidden from external view – a war with no witnesses as one commentator has noted. In contrast to the thousands of unaccounted bodies in the Vanni, Prabaharan’s body was witnessed again and again on television, in viral internet videos, overexposed and over-posed. The spectacle of his body, the hoisting of flags and the beating of drums, the street dancing and victory fever, providing collective ownership over all the atrocities that attended the killing of Prabaharan “ownership but also a perverse redemption in the name of a racist nationalism. Redemption that wipes out the horrors inflicted on people in the Vanni as dispensable bit players in this drama. Thus, once again the Rajapakse machinery carries echoes of the pathologies unleashed by the LTTE that, as Rajan Hoole noted in today’s Indian Express, turned decent folk into cowards or killers.

Ten years ago, days before Prabaharan’s machinery killed him, Neelan gave what is now one of his most famous speeches in parliament in opposition to the death penalty. These words are inscribed into many of our heads “We cannot glorify death, whether in the battlefield or otherwise. We, on the other hand, must celebrate life and are fiercely committed to protecting and securing the sanctity of life, which is the most fundamental value without which all other rights and freedoms become meaningless. Neelan himself, in his gentle but principled way, would have protested the orgy of celebration that met Prabaharan’s dead body. He would have instead reminded us, as he did in that same speech that we need to turn our attention to bring an end to the human suffering, the displacement, the destruction and the senseless loss of lives both of combatants and of civilians.

It is the legacy of those who inspired us by their life affirming vision of our collective future that moves us forward.