Colombo, Elections, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

26 January 2010: ‘Open Moment’, Closed Minds!

Colombo, 22 January 2010: Today marks exactly 250 days since Sri Lanka’s civil war officially ended on 18 May 2009.

On that momentous day, all Lankans shared at least one sentiment: a huge sense of relief. Many among us were euphoric, while some of us chose to be cautiously optimistic. It certainly was a defining moment, just like the tsunami had been four and a half years earlier.

In an emotionally charged essay written within 24 hours, I said: “I hope we can once again resume our long suspended dreams for a better today and tomorrow.” I later found that I had spoken for many.

We all knew the hard-won peace had to be nurtured and consolidated. We also realised just how formidable the challenges of healing and rebuilding were. But could anyone have imagined the dramatic turn of political events since?

Who would have thought that the victors of the war would soon be engaged in a nasty battle for personal glory and power? Who expected the historical feud between ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ to be replaced so swiftly by a showdown between self-proclaimed ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’?

Are we seeing the exact opposite of (Prussian soldier and military historian) Clausewitz‘s argument that “war is a continuation of politics by other means”?

I don’t know about you, but I feel disorientated and disgusted simply watching the current presidential election campaigns.

For some perspective, I just re-read my own May 19 essay, ‘Memories of War, Dreams of Peace’. With the hindsight of the past 250 days, I wonder if I was naively idealistic. Many common dreams and collective aspirations I expressed have been sidelined or shattered.

I had innocently asked: “Do we have what it takes to go beyond chest thumping and finger pointing, and begin to care and share? Would we eventually be able to liberate our minds from our deep-rooted tribalism that sees everything through the prism of us and them?”

No, I’m not an uprooted Lankan who grew up elsewhere with a romanticised notion of my land of birth. I have lived and worked in Sri Lanka for most of my 43 years.

I had the audacity to be idealistic. The alternative was too dreadful to consider.

That is why I asked, earnestly: “Can we expect the state to be magnanimous in victory, and begin to unify our utterly and bitterly divided people? Will our governments finally stop pleading perennial emergency and national security as stock excuses for side-stepping the rule of law, ignoring rampant corruption and other lapses of governance?”

A cynical friend — younger in years, but more worldly wise – told me not to build such fantastic castles in the air. We’d been at war for a generation, he said, and we are going to need ‘at least another generation’ to grow out of that war mentality.

I didn’t believe him. I asked him to give ourselves a chance, and check things out in one year’s time. Now, more than two thirds into that year, I worry if my friend was right after all…

Us and Them

I’m no political scientist or anthropologist, just a dreamer turned writer.  But I did temper my own idealism with some caution in a blog post published on the same day my essay appeared on Groundviews. It was titled: ‘Us and Them: Sri Lanka’s first landmine on the road to peace’.

The inspiration for that post came from an old newspaper cartoon. In our troubled times, cartoonists provide far more than entertainment and amusement. War and peace are no laughing matters, and neither is the profound advice some cartoonists offer us. While surreal celebratory scenes were unfolding on the streets of Colombo, I dug deep into my personal collection. I found clarity in a cartoon that had first appeared in a newspaper on the other side of the planet more than 15 years earlier:

Using this as my opening ‘peg’, I wrote: “I haven’t discovered exactly what provoked the American cartoonist Jeff MacNelly (1947 – 2000) to draw this brilliantly perceptive cartoon in the early 1990s. But the three-time Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist of the Chicago Tribune (and creator of popular comic strip Shoe) has captured a sentiment that characterises so many tensions and suspicions in his land and ours: us vs. them.

“This division is at the root of so much conflict and grief, be it between Islam and the West, or Sinhalese and Tamils. It is entirely a matter of perception, a creation of our insecure and insular minds. Yet we argue, wage war and kill for the sake of this perception.”

The blog post ended with these words: “Indeed, one of the first – and hardest – challenges as we try to unify Lankans and rebuild our war-ravaged country is to get over this division.”

Our 250 days of post-war experience reminds us how intrinsically this division is imprinted in our minds. When it could no longer manifest in an arena of war, it has found forceful expression in electoral politics. Party politics has always polarised Lankans, but no other election in recent memory has been as divisive.

The two main contenders both claim to hold a mutually exclusive key to a better future for our land and people. Their dizzy campaigns bombard us with lofty claims and counter-claims 24/7 delivered through broadcast, broadband, mobile and other media.

I doubt if they can hear us humble voters above their own ceaseless shrill. But I have a couple of questions for both camps, in case anyone is listening.

Did we — the long-suffering Lankan public — finance the prolonged war effort so that its key players can so blatantly gamble with the hard-won peace in such a short time?

Do you, the assorted warriors, consider that the people of Sri Lanka have given you a blank cheque to do exactly as you please?

If not, what else can we make of your sorry election campaigns?

I don’t expect any coherent answers amidst all your drum beating. More than once in the past few days, I have felt like invoking Mercutio’s desperate words, ‘A plague on both your houses’.

I hesitated only because, despite the dismal first 250 days since the war, I still haven’t given up hope. I remain hopeful despite your egotistic campaigns and unrealistic promises, not because of them!

Open moment, for how long?

I worked on another essay within a month of the war ending, which I never completed for some reason.

I had opened it with these words:

“With the long-drawn and brutal conflict finally behind us, we Lankans face a rare opportunity in our long and tumultuous history — an ‘open moment’. To seize this open moment, we need open minds and greater openness in our society that has been tightly closed for too long.”

I recalled that there another such ‘open moment’ in recent times when the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 battered over two thirds of Sri Lanka’s coasts. When the killer waves snuffed out 40,000 lives and displaced over a million people in a few horrible hours, they didn’t differentiate between Sinhalese or Tamil, soldier or rebel, rich or poor. Neither did they heed any ‘borders’ between combatants. (Indeed, one cartoon in a Sinhala daily showed an Army soldier and Tamil Tiger swimming together in the waves, struggling to save their lives, while asking: ‘what happened to the land that we fought so hard for?’)

For a few days and weeks afterwards, we held our breath hoping this would make both sides realise the futility of war. But that moment closed even before the coastal rubble was cleared. (In contrast, the same disaster paved the way for a peace accord in Aceh, Indonesia.)

In my unpublished essay, I wrote: “Having missed the tsunami’s open moment, we cannot afford to bungle again. Rebuilding a nation of lasting peace, plurality and prosperity will require so many sections of society to change their mindset. This is especially and urgently needed in our media, much of which has become uncritical cheerleaders for patriotism and tribalism in recent years.”

Subsequent events – and the current presidential race to the bottom – suggest that violence is not so easily wished away from our society. We seem to be trigger happy in times of both war and peace.

Just as the tsunami waves didn’t care for our divisions or labels, the tide of history doesn’t flow according to our timelines. Open moments don’t stay open for very long. But unlike consumer items on the supermarket shelves, they don’t come with a clearly labelled mandatory expiry date.

We can only hope that there is still enough time to steer the ship of Lanka into calmer waters and then sail to better times for all.

That’s the biggest challenge facing whoever wins the presidency on January 26.

Writer Nalaka Gunawardene keeps dreaming audaciously for better and saner times, and refuses to believe in anything less than an ideal world. When he is awake, he blogs on media, society and development at: