Colombo, End of war special edition, Human Rights, Human Security, Identity, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

The importance of not forgetting

One year ago, the war that had defined our lives for the last 30 years ended.  Brutally, callously and mercilessly fought like most wars are, it ended amidst allegations of immense suffering wrought on the people caught in the middle of the final desperate onslaughts.  Since then according to the official version, Sri Lankans have nothing but happiness and prosperity to look forward to because the one thing that has hindered our progress as a nation has been finally eliminated. That, as I said, is the official version.

Since May of last year, however, reports that contradict the official version of the story that ended happily ever after have been circulating.  It started with the horror of the internment of the thousands of people who fled the fighting, the arbitrary arrests and disappearances of those associated with the LTTE, of the suffering of those injured in the fighting, families separated from each other with no means of obtaining any information about what may have happened to their loved ones and the multiple displacements and losses experienced by people living in the North and East.  A few months later followed the stories of the influx of tourists from the South to the North and East, mainly from the Sinhala community; of Sinhalese Buddhists arriving in their droves to visit ancient Buddhist sites in the North and East.  There were many stories of new highways cutting through communities and familiar landscapes torn apart for hotels and guest houses to cater for tourists with total disregard for the feelings and desires of local communities.  More disturbing stories were to follow: of the lack of sensitivity of the tourists to local communities, and the rude disruptions to the everyday lives of local people by visitors from the South buoyed by the triumphalism and arrogance with which the Rajapakse regime portrayed the end of the war as a victory for a narrow and racist Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Recent media reports have described the demolition of Prabhakaran’s family home, the destruction of LTTE political wing leader Thileepan’s memorial  and the LTTE martyrs’ graves in Jaffna.  A statue of a Sri Lankan soldier has been erected in place of Thileepan’s memorial reportedly. Many other statues of Sri Lankan forces have also appeared elsewhere. New billboards proclaiming that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist nation and that this land has been blessed by the Buddha have also been spotted in the North and East.   When the President proclaimed last May that there were no more ethnic minorities in the country, whoever thought that he meant is so literally?

I am not surprised by the callous disregard of the Rajapakse regime for people living in the North and East despite all its pious claims to the contrary.  It has never demonstrated even a modicum of sensitivity to the minorities and has proved to be rabidly racist.  What is frightening is the way in which the regime has galvanised and justified racism among the Sinhala community.  If the regime after its demolition of the LTTE has showed even a small measure of humility and attempted to ensure that the victory was not going to be used to impose a Sinhala Buddhist ideology within the country, it might have gone some way in silencing its critics.  Unfortunately, instead it has lived up to its worst expectations.  Given that this is the tragic reality with which we will have to live for the next several years, where does this leave us?

Post colonial Sri Lanka has witnessed several moments of  state brutality against its own citizens in the name of stability, peace and unity.  Apart from the long fight against the LTTE, various regimes have also been responsible for putting down two insurrections in the South.  Thousands of mainly young women and men and even children have been killed, maimed and disappeared in this process.  What is remarkable about this bloody history is the ease with which these tragedies have been erased from our minds and the way in which an official version of the causes and consequences of such brutalities have been accepted by the public.  Thus, the JVP insurrections have been portrayed as those of ‘misled’ and ‘frustrated’ youth, examples of what happens when the impetuosity of youth is misdirected by manipulative political forces.  The young men and women who joined the LTTE have been portrayed as brainwashed and fanatical, manipulated by a psychotic leader.  At no point has there been any effort to question why thousands of young men and women in this country have been willing to die for these causes.  In fact, in celebrating the successful campaigns to eliminate these young people, the fact that they are citizens of this country, that their families are citizens of this country and that the state that is technically responsible for their protection and wellbeing have instead been responsible for their deaths have been forgotten.  When we danced on the streets in joy last May at the end of the war the fact that we were celebrating the deaths of thousands of our own citizens never seemed to have entered our consciousness.  The regime had done such a successful job of portraying the LTTE as less than human.

At this moment when we are inundated with visions of becoming the next Singapore, Malaysia or South Korea, maybe it is also time for a counter politics that argues for a future for this country which doesn’t forget the past so easily.   Not because of some ghoulish fascination with death and destruction, but in order to ensure that those who lost their loved ones are allowed to remember and to mourn and also so that we can begin to understand the desperation that drove people to their deaths.  The official response to these ‘misguided’ and ‘brainwashed’ youth has been offers of rehabilitation and training.  Apparently English and IT training will miraculously solve their problems.  And obviously the international community agrees if the recent proliferation of vocational training institutes in the North and East are anything to go by.  This was after all the same solution that the ‘misguided’ youth in the South were offered.

The counter politics that I am suggesting here is that when this regime presumes to act on ‘our’ behalf or speaks for us, or attempts to define this nation in a particular way that we find means to raise a different voice.  Thileepan may have fought against the state (in fact, he died protesting the presence of the IPKF just as many others in the South did), but is he not also a symbol of our failures to acknowledge and respond to very real problems in our society?  Who is to say whether or not the Thileepans of the North and the Heraths of the South were actually fighting the same battles against the same forces that have kept Sri Lanka progressing as a nation that respects freedom and non discrimination?   Pretending that they were misguided, politically manipulated or psychologically impaired is merely a refusal to acknowledge our responsibility for the atrocities that we have experienced and witnessed over the past many decades and a social and political system that spawns such desperation.

The need for a counter politics to this regime is essential and urgent.  Determining and identifying the shape of the counter politics we need to engage in will be a challenge, but this is probably where we will need all our ingenuity and creativity. It may be in the form of everyday resistance to being represented in ways that we do not agree; in our efforts to remember when we are being forced to forget; in acknowledging the spaces to mourn our losses instead of merely celebrating our victories; in claiming spaces for local communities rather than for big development, that we can take some steps in making our resistance felt to this regime’s totalitarian  and racist project.

End of War Special Edition