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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2583

The New War in the Post-War Sri Lanka

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"I would like to take this opportunity to warn against the risk of triumphalism. It is very important at this time to unite and heal the wounds rather than enjoy all this triumphalism". Ban Ki-Moon (Speaking at the UN on Sri Lanka - AFP – 5.6.2009)

Post-war Sri Lanka is in thrall to a dichotomous worldview, consisting of ‘patriots’ and ‘anti-patriots’. Lankan politics is being redefined as an unceasing struggle between these two camps, a holy war by the ‘patriots’ for the protection of the nation from the ‘machinations’ of ‘anti-patriots’. This Manichean worldview has made certain issues taboo, depicting them as ‘psychological enemy territory’ and thus no go areas for all ‘patriots’. It has also rendered the stifling of dissent easier and indeed ‘de rigueur’ by labelling it ‘pro-Tiger’ and, thus, treacherous. The resulting climate of political dogmatism enables a Lankan to subordinate one’s own conscience to the ‘them against us’ outlook of the collective, and, thus, to tolerate blatant acts of injustice by accepting them as necessary for the patriotic cause.

Take the issue of the Tamil civilians, held in a string of camps across the North or killed in the final stage of the war. The President continues to claim that the Lankan Forces was not responsible for the death of even a single civilian, not even inadvertently, because they waged this war with a gun in one hand and the human rights manual in the other. In wars civilians die, even when the utmost care is taken to avoid such ‘collateral damage’ and no person with even a modicum of sense or intelligence would believe otherwise. But, despite its blatant ludicrousness, the President’s claim of ‘zero-civilian casualties’ goes largely unchallenged. Though the exact number of civilian deaths will never be known, most of us realise that civilians died, some killed by the Tigers and some by Lankan Forces (however inadvertently). But, because it has become unpatriotic to admit to civilian deaths by the Lankan Forces, we pretend to believe in the ‘zero-civilian casualties’ myth.

Wars kill innocents. When wars are over, it is better to admit to such tragedies and to apologise for them rather than deny their very existence. Because the regime clings to the myth of ‘zero-civilian casualties’, the second course of action has become impossible in Sri Lanka. How can one apologise for deaths and sufferings, which, according to the official version, never happened? The result is that the civilian dead have become ‘non-persons’; they did not exist or if they did it was as Tigers. Can the emotional and psychological wounds of war be healed through such a policy of denial?

The government’s statements about the situation of civilians held in camps are equally apocryphal. Minister after minister, official after official, apologist after apologist claim that these 300,000 displaced persons are happy, safe and contented. Such claims defy both intelligence and commonsense and yet they are made and accepted by an absolute majority of the populace. To question this official view is to risk being considered unpatriotic and labelled a Tiger supporter. This official view of the camps also paves the way for deeds which are criminally inane and unjust. Two cases of point are worth mentioning as they are symbolic of the prevailing mindset and its outcome. A top official boasted, on record, that the government turned down an offer of several hundred used blankets by a Five Star Hotel, because the ‘First Class Citizens’ in the camps do not need second hand things. The regime is taxing many of the goods brought by international aid agencies for the inmates, arguing that these items should be brought from the local markets rather than imported. Clearly the wellbeing of the inmates is not quite a top priority with the government. But then why should it be, when they are already doing very well?

A State of Denial

Denial is often comfortable and safe. It is done by millions of ordinary, decent people in both dictatorships (Germans about the existence of concentration camps and gas chambers) and in democracies (Americans about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib). Many Tamils, especially in the Diaspora, chose to ignore the manifold crimes of the LTTE, either out of fear or an excess of nationalism, or a combination thereof. A nation can go into denial, even when information about the crimes and injustices which are being committed in its name is available. In post-war Sri Lanka too, there is no need to read the pro-Tiger Tamilnet to discover the real nature of the ‘welfare villages’. Last week, two people (one Sinhalese and one Tamil), neither of whom can be stigmatised as pro-Tiger by any stretch of the imagination, went public about the grisly reality of these camps and the plight of their unfortunate inmates.

According to V. Anandasangaree, the leader of the TULF and an outspoken critic of the LTTE, the conditions are ‘good’ in some camps and ‘horrible’ in many others: "Health, water and sanitation situation is horrible. Many people have skin diseases as they don’t get a chance to have a shower for days because of water shortage… Pregnant mothers and newborn babies go through a harrowing time in the camps due to scorching heat" (Tamilweek – 3.6.2009). In one of his final addresses as Chief Justice, Sarath N Silva spoke forthrightly about the abysmal conditions in the ‘welfare camp’ he visited (ten people to a tent in which standing up is impossible except at the middle, yards long queue to the single ‘toilet’): "I visited ‘relief villages’ where displaced people are sheltered. I cannot explain their suffering and grief in words" (The Hindu – 6.6.2009). He went on to point out that these people cannot expect any succour in law as they exist outside the law of the country: "Law of the country does not show any interest in these IDPs. I openly say this. The authorities can penalise me for telling this…. It is an utter lie if we continue to say that there is only one race and no majority or minorities in the country" (ibid).

Why is it assumed that to speak out about the plight of the displaced people is to be pro-LTTE? Why is it deemed impossible to be both anti-LTTE and concerned about the safety and wellbeing of ordinary Tamils, particularly the inmates of the Northern camps? The issue here is not about devolution or power sharing; it is to do with far more basic things, humane qualities such as kindness, decency and pity. The former Chief Justice is not a supporter of extensive devolution let alone of federalism. Yet he spoke out against the conditions in the camps because no Sri Lankan, no human being should be so treated. And if we continue to treat a segment of Sri Lankan Tamils as ‘Untermenschen’, post-war Sri Lanka is unlikely to be a land of injustice and discrimination, more than ever before.

In the aftermath of the victorious war, the government seems to be embarking on a witch-hunt to ‘punish’ those deemed ‘anti-patriotic’, from conscripted children to the two Tamil doctors who informed the media about civilian conditions and casualties in the ‘safe zone’ in the last stages of the war. According to the Human Rights Minister these Tamil physicians are to be tried for aiding and abetting the LTTE after being held for a period of one year or more. Clearly ‘the quality of mercy’ is to be conspicuously absent ingredient in post-war Sri Lanka’s notion of justice. Sri Lanka's foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona introduced a note of surrealism into whole issue when he claimed that everyone in the camps have to be carefully screened because “it was ‘quite likely’ that even many elderly people were ‘with the LTTE, at least mentally’” (BBC – 4.6.2009). Since being supportive of the LTTE, at some time or the other, ‘at least mentally’, is a charge that can be levelled against a majority of Tamils, the government, has all the ‘justification’ it needs (at least in its own eyes) to regard most Tamils as real or potential
l enemy aliens and to run the North and the Tamil areas of the East as occupied territory.

Mahatma Gandhi, when asked for his opinion on Western civilisation, replied that it would be a good idea. A Sri Lankan nation is not only a good idea; it is a necessary idea. And it cannot be built by Presidential fiats; nor can it be built by treating a majority of Tamils with suspicion, because they are suspect of having backed the LTTE, ‘at least mentally’. As Mr. Anandasangaree pointed out, “The civilians risked their lives while fleeing from the LTTE held areas…. If the government suspects such people as Tamil Tigers, then the entire population of the two districts – Killinochchi and Mullaitivu – should be suspects. Then the government will never solve the problem” (Tamilweek – 3.6.2009).

The New Imperial Wardrobe

‘Pro-Tiger’ and ‘traitor’ are labels that are infinitely flexible and elastic; they can cover a multitude of deeds, from economic strikes to political demonstrations, from protesting about the abysmal and illegal conditions in the ‘welfare camps’ to exposing abuses of power by the powers that be, from talking about civilian casualties in the war to speaking out against attacks on journalists. The abduction of yet another journalist, in broad day light, from a busy junction, (even as representatives of several media organisations were, reportedly, discussing media freedom with the President) indicates that the movement away from democracy towards violent intolerance and the proclivity to replace the rule of law with the law of the rulers will continue. After all, senior journalist Bennet Rupesinghe (currently the news editor of Lankaenews website) who informed the IGP about Poddala Jayantha’s abduction was summoned forthwith to the Mirihana police station and kept overnight for interrogation. The police, instead of doing its utmost to capture the actual criminals who abducted and assaulted Mr. Jayantha, focused on detaining Mr. Rupesinghe for informing the victim’s family and the public about this heinous deed. Perhaps the intent was to discourage protests when journalists are abducted or killed in the future. If that is an indication of how the wind is blowing, post-war Sri Lanka may experience the enshrinement of extra-judicial and arbitrary rule, in the name of patriotism and national interest, behind the comforting façade of a democratic system.

In the current politico-psychological climate, the charge of ‘traitor’ is a particularly potent one. Just the label is adequate to justify indefinite detention and public condemnation. Even the family of the accused is stigmatised and those who come out to help him or condemn the treatment meted out to him are deemed suspect (guilty by association). There is no need of evidence or a formal charge, let alone a trial or a conviction. Just the labelling would be adequate to deprive dissenters of their basic rights, because it is unpatriotic to think that ‘anti-patriots’ are entitled to any rights. If this trend continues, and the regime’s curious response to the abduction of Poddala Jayantha indicates that it will, fewer and fewer people will speak out against abuses by authorities, be it in the political or the economic realm. Fear of being in the wrong will silence the promptings of conscience; we will continue to believe official tales of fantasy because not to do so would make us less patriotic. After all, Lasantha Wickremetunga’s killers are still at large and the government which achieved the feat of defeating Vellupillai Pirapaharan has not been able to apprehend a handful of murderers in the South.

Once the silent acquiescence of a majority is ensured, it will be easy for the government to deal with the recalcitrant minority, with whatever means necessary. Thus, in post-war Sri Lanka, politics will be faced on a war footing and conducted with battlefield mentalities and tactics….
….. as the LTTE did, once upon a time, not so long ago!

- Asian Tribune -

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