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

Sithuvili: On war’s end and a year later…

Prelude: The following is a ‘fragmented reflection’, on present-day Sri Lanka, war’s end and related issues. The objective was to capture the thought process of a citizen ‘thinking’ about these issues as realistically as possible, hence the fragmented nature of the rendering, and the frequent passage from one point to an(unrelated)other.

A war was thus fought. It all started decades ago, when the colonial alcohol was well-absorbed into her, leading to inevitably sheer tipsiness, and the long-lasting ‘hangover’ was just about to begin.

As some said Sinhala should be the national language of independent Ceylon and Buddhism the state religion, some others felt insecure and concerned for their future in the island. Insecurity is a dangerously devastating feeling that’s always better avoided but virtually impossible to avoid, when going through tough times. The rest is largely history. Key events in the storyline include the following, among a trillion others: triumph of one shrewdly intelligent man at a Westminster style general election in 1956 (a sharp contrast to the 2010 Westminster elections in the UK, that, according to a Sri Lankan writer, saw the ‘black-out’ of ‘Brown’), nationalist campaigns against the recognition of minority rights, assassination of the Prime Minister in his private office in broad daylight, and thereby exploiting ‘widowhood’ to produce the world’s first female Prime Minister, ethnicity-based legislation at university admissions, youth unrest, bloodshed, stagnation and the meanderings of the Executive’s pouvoir absolu since the enactment of the Constitution of 1978.

From a post-2009 vantage point, and reflecting from afar, one is strongly struck by the feeling that all this sounds extremely surreal. From relative peace and economic stability, the island nation plunged into a dark age of desperation, hopelessness, violence and ritualistic politics of patronage, 12th century-style. The last twenty-six years were the toughest, a time when policymakers, the educated and sophisticated middle classes, and ministers of religion of the multitude of faiths practised there, could not raise a finger while well over a hundred thousand people (the figure could be much higher) died, thousands abducted and hundreds of thousands disappeared. Except once when the corps of an abducted (young and highly skilled) journalist was swept to a beach in Colombo by the rough waves of the Indian Ocean, next to nothing was ever heard of those abducted. They just ceased to exist. The numbers of children forcefully engaged in military training, young families torn apart, young children who died, are obviously uncountable. From Premavathi Manampéri to young Krishanthi Koomaraswamy (and to thousands of un-named young women of ‘our times’), womanhood was doomed, all this in a country where a Sorbonne/Sciences-Po educated, multilingual, cosmopolitan, liberal-minded, internationally respected and highly cultured lady (i.e. femme cultivée), with a strong mark of being a young Parisian of/from 1968, held the Gaullist executive presidency for some eleven years.

While inside was chaotic, one wonders how the chaos was felt outside. As qualified professionals packed their bags, obtained immigrant visas, and flew away to English-speaking greener pastures, other less qualified fellow citizens had a tougher time. The former category would settle in comfortably in their adoptive homelands. They would obtain citizenship, their children would easily mingle into the respective local societies, and in a world where ‘racial profiling’ (i.e. judging someone exclusively on his/her race/ethnicity, to give an example -  in UK academia, if someone with a South Asian face and tanned skin is to say that s/he has an academic interest in the politics of European integration or European border studies, many are the {Caucasian} academics who would look at you the way they would gaze at a strange animal) is still unfortunately the norm, this writer can proudly write of a substantial proportion of his fellow countrymen/women in expatriation who have been broad-minded enough to venture beyond the shallow boundaries of race, ethnicity and the ever-ridiculous east-west trash in shaping their personal and professional lives. By and large, the educated and highly skilled Sri Lankan expatriate remains a global citizen, and is capable of standing second to none in an increasingly competitive world. This is the ‘grand’ Sri Lanka, like the ‘grand’ Dublin of Ireland, where people would speak in the ‘grand Dublin accent’, study at Trinity, are wealthy, widely travelled and highly sophisticated (NB: the contrast between the Grand Dublin and the rest of Ireland has been considerably thinned in the last few decades, yet its presence continues). It is the Sri Lanka recognised and respected beyond the island’s shores, a minor example being the only former Head of State still alive being invited as Guest of Honour at a private dinner reception hosted last year by the Lord Hameed of Hampsted, a highly respected life peer in the British House of Lords.

Let’s talk about the flipside. This writer once heard the story of a man (a Tamil man, to be precise), who landed in Paris, immigrant visa sorted by his relatives already living in the outskirts of the city. He found work as a kitchen aid in a restaurant, and the smallest possible chambre de bonne, i.e. an attic room on the very top floor of a 6 to 7-floor immeuble Hausmanien. He had to cook his dinner on the rooftop of the building, learn French and adapt himself to a whole new way of life. A few years later, he arranged for his wife and seven year-old daughter to come over. His wife ended up being psychologically affected by the move, coupled by the physical nightmare of asthma. His daughter underwent bad experiences at school, and ended up becoming a psychologically fragile individual. This is just one fragmented anecdote, and worse stories galore in the streets around Gare du Nord, the tiny but bustling Sri Lankan (predominantly Tamil) neighbourhood of Paris. The large majority of expatriates from the Tamil community, especially those who left the island during the post-1983 phase and those who (unfortunately) are not part of the educated Sri Lankan elite, have had to reshape their lives the tough way, demonstrating strong willpower to reshape lives fragmented by civil strife and ethnic politics.

It has been well documented that the larger portion of the Tamil Diaspora harbours rather surreal conceptions of Sri Lanka, which continue to exist in the post-2009 phase. In the pre-2009 era, many expected Thamil Eelam to dawn, so that they can pack their bags, withdraw their savings, and fly down to Eelam. The year 2009 saw their tremendous attachment to their convictions regarding Ilankai, their native land. While Parliament Square in London was full of Sri Lankan, British and Anglo-Sri Lankan Tamil protesters, a young man burnt himself alive in Geneva, the same metropolis where yet another fellow countryman, a highly erudite Sri Lankan (Sinhalese) scholar was working hard at defending the interests of the Sri Lankan government, in a diplomatic capacity. Similar protests were the norm everywhere Tamils live in significant numbers. This activism helped increase international awareness on the Sri Lankan conundrum, and made the Miliband-Kouchner duo visit Colombo on what may be termed one of the most futile of Franco-British diplomatic ventures of all times. Meanwhile, Colombo’s diplomacy, where diplomacy was probably perceived as similar to breaking up a big estate into small plots of land and selling them at competitive prices (discerning readers familiar with Sri Lanka may understand), plunged into unpopularity, with the Swedish Foreign Minister being denied diplomatic entry clearance, during the Swedish Presidency of the European Union (the list could go on, and is better reserved for a different article).

While an American lawyer was working hard documenting rights violations by the former Sri Lankan army chief, the same army chief was being approached by opposition politicians, and in the aftermath of war’s end, positions changed in a dramatic swing, making a one-time army chief a presidential hopeful, then a possible leader of an opposition coalition and finally a political prisoner. As one journalist was killed on a busy Colombo road and many others were beaten up, journalists left the island in large numbers. Those aspiring positive transformation of Sri Lankan politics and society, who want to see Sri Lanka becoming a modern, cosmopolitan society are left increasingly sceptical, as what resembles a constitutionally-empowered monarchy makes itself comfortable in the post-April 2010 phase of Sri Lankan politics. The national cricket team, Lanka’s apple in the eye, led by a well-educated, handsome and extremely talented young man, is facing major challenges to move forward due to undue political interference, and those whose hunger for fame and power knows no bounds.

Now, a word about the media in an apparently democratic state. The state-owned media remains thoroughly uncritical, and exclusively focuses on endorsing the government in power and its policies. The private (both print and electronic) media institutions are under pressure, while some of them have resorted to ‘go with the flow’ and follow suit by adopting a clearly pro-government stance. The artistic scene is in lethargy, with a precarious film industry, where the ‘creative freedom’ of filmmakers has been substantially curtailed. The media (and those in charge of the media in the central government) comfortably forgets that it has a major role to play in making contemporary Sri Lanka a more tolerant, modern, physically, mentally and sexually liberated and critically-minded society. Instead of challenging heaps of existing prejudices – from socio-political inclusion to sexuality, Sri Lankan media thrives cultivating prejudice and sociocultural stagnation.

One key factor in post-war Sri Lanka that bothers this writer is Sri Lanka’s foreign relations, her standing in the international community and her credibility as a modern state. Whoever is in charge of Lanka’s post-war diplomacy ought to have one objective: make Lanka a forerunner, in terms of a booming investment market, using diplomacy to transform higher education (i.e. create a modern, world-class university system that stands in par with such systems in the so-called ‘west’), working hard to ease travel hassles for fellow citizens, put a stop to ‘Middle-East housemaid’ foreign employment and enable more people travel as professionals to states where fundamental human rights are respected, and the list goes on. In reaching such a colossal goal, what foreign policy framework are we to adopt? Bonne question. Is it one that slyly shakes hands with Mr. Ban every now and then, where our Head of State sits next to the Libyan leader in an Isurumuniya-pem-yuwala-reminiscent pose, makes the Islamic Republic of Iran and Myanmar’s Junta our foremost allies and dances to China’s tunes? Or should it be a more J.R. Jayawardene-like policy, with strengthened ties with Western powers?

While pondering on these questions, this writer came across a copy of the 2008 Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture, delivered by of former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. The latter is well-respected in the international community for his work in ‘conflict resolution’, but with due respect, this writer takes outright offence to the following paragraph:

It is good to remind ourselves about our Scandinavian and European roots and values, such as the rule of law and respect for human rights, which should have become global. The justification for advancing our values is based on their universal nature. At the same time, we should keep in mind how these values are being challenged in today’s world. My career has been intertwined with conflict resolution and development cooperaton and my work has always been guided by the common values laid down under the UN Charter (Ahtisaari 2008 10).

The opening statement of this paragraph makes a shallow affirmation subscribed to by many people around. According to this logic, the ‘West’ is the forerunner of human rights and the rule of law, and in places like Sri Lanka under the present government, the international community (i.e. the powerful and economically affluent western states) has to intervene and establish law and order. This is the root logic that runs behind the recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on Sri Lanka. Interpreting the rule of law and respect for human rights as quintessentially ‘European’ or ‘Western’ values is a farce, and cannot be accepted in 2010. If contemporary Scandinavia stands as a part of the world where human rights are respected and equality (in all respects) ensured, such feats were achieved after centuries of conflict, invasions, bloodshed, ideological and political conflicts over territory and blatant colonisation, such as the Danish colonisation of Iceland that lasted some five centuries. The story of the rest of Europe is even worse, and the ‘liberal’ society of contemporary (and post-1968) Europe was achieved after extremely long centuries of bloodshed, discrimination, trauma, violence and destruction. Forgetting history and making statements of this nature, guided by one’s high position, international stature and the nature of the event is thoroughly deplorable. The values Ahtisaari mention are not Scandinavian or European. They are way more universal, and the reality is the other way around: Scandinavia and Europe resorted to comply by them at given stages of their histories. Appropriating such values as ‘ours’ or ‘European’ or ‘Scandinavian’ inevitably make you sound ridiculous, bullish, and conveys the impression that good Ahtisaari is a deeply prejudiced ‘old lad’, as the Irish have it.

In the global political zeitgeist of the present century, rule of law and respect for human rights are universal values, and no one can afford to claim them more than others, and/or associate them with one particular continent, skin colour or people (not going hors sujet, this is similar to the widespread assumption among many people in many parts of the world that to be a sexually liberated man or woman, one has to be white-skinned – otherwise, you are the cheveu sur la soupe, frequent victim of loads of stereotypes and idées recues). If someone is to associate the above-mentioned values with one particular continent, s/he is practising a shameless and shallow form of race consciousness, making the discourse sound even white supremacist. If highly placed actors of the so-called ‘international community’ are to make open statements of this nature at a high profile event taking place in one of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious universities (i.e. Uppsala University, Sweden), it is no positive sign, and is of no good neither to the so-called ‘West’ nor to any state/community categorised by such international pontiffs as ‘non-Western’.

This writer certainly does not mean to state that Colombo ought to follow its lately predominant trend of ignoring all international pleas for reconciliation, rights and rule of law. Here’s the point: our foreign policy must develop a new discourse that suits the times, where respect for human rights, gender equality and the rule of law are OUR values (i.e. are quintessentially appropriated to Lanka and ingrained in policy-planning and implementation), a ‘given’, in an era that seeks to move towards a more promising phase of sociocultural socio-political and socioeconomic evolution. In this new logic, human rights transparency, rule of law and even a war crimes tribunal no longer become elements the ‘West’ is seeking to impose on Lanka, but what Lanka is striving to achieve, and is fully capable of achieving. Some readers may wonder if the present administration demonstrates sufficient willingness to go on a path of this nature. This is where the jigsaw requires to be put together: a more powerful opposition with a new and energetic leadership, increased civil society activism. Mr. Indi Samarajeewa’s recent article ‘The Liberal Circle Jerk’, published in his blog, shows the limited scope of liberal civil society activism. Such activism definitely needs to be extended to a wider audience, both nationally and internationally, especially among target communities such as university students and young professionals, both in Lanka and in the Diaspora, across ethnic and religious divides. It is all about working together, building new partnerships and working hard to develop new discourses and shift public support towards human rights, the rule of law, a more accommodating and humane ‘liberal perspective’ on life and equality, especially in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and social class.

Sources: Ahtisaari Martti (2009) Can the International Community Meet the Challenges Ahead of Us? Text of the 2008 Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture (held on 18 September 2008). Uppsala: Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.

End of War Special Edition