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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2994

War, Nation and Relgion

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The Army, which is virtually Sinhalese, in trying to deal with a reality where the LTTE has since 2002 built up a network of saboteurs and agent provocateurs, faces a major challenge….. Going by the recent record, there will be random and devious attacks and continual killings of so-called LTTE supporters and captive Pongu Thamil stars in Jaffna, after which well orchestrated accusations will be made against the Army and paramilitary forces….. To the LTTE's advantage the Army and most other groups lack the credibility to counter this strategy, as they too have been involved in some barbaric killings”.
UTHR Briefing No. 5 (27.12.2005)

The Tigers need Tamil refugees, as recruits, as service providers, as propaganda props, as justification. But an exodus of Tamils either to the Tiger territory or to India cannot happen without the full cooperation of the Lankan Armed Forces, Sinhala mobs and anti-Tiger Tamil parties. Unfortunately there are signs (such as the murder of five students in Trincomalee, the Pararajasingham killing and possibly the Kayts massacre) that this cooperation, in the form of anti-civilian violence, will be forthcoming.

Already there is trickle of Tamils fleeing to India and to Tiger controlled areas. The tragedy of the capsized refugee boat is a pre-warning of a humanitarian catastrophe that is in the making, unless the state of Sri Lanka and the anti-Tiger Tamils make a conscious effort to refrain from acts of anti-civilian violence.

The Tamil people of the North and the East are caught between a rock and a hard place. The LTTE is determined to bring death and destruction upon them, in furtherance of the cause of Tiger Eelam. Since these Tamils are citizens of Sri Lanka it is the duty of the Lankan state to protect them, irrespective of their political affiliations. If any Tamil is suspected of breaking the law by supporting terrorists, then he or she should be arrested and prosecuted, not murdered out of hand. Vigilante justice is apposite for terrorists but it has no place in a civilised, democratic state.

Unfortunately indifference seems to be the best that the Lankan state can offer its Tamils citizens. Indifference to the fate of the Tamils was characteristic of the LTTE- Wickremesinghe CFA and the peace process based on it; the underlying assumption was that the Tamils and the Tigers belonged together and thus the Tigers could do what they wanted with the Tamils. Consequently both the UNF and the UPFA administrations more or less ignored the Tigers’ crimes against fellow Tamils including political killings, extortion and child conscription. The strength and the ubiquitousness of this psychology of appeasement can best be seen in Colombo’s reaction to the Karuna rebellion. Though the rebellion was advantageous to Sri Lanka, nothing was done to assist the rebels; on the contrary the ‘patriotic’ UPFA enabled the Tigers to launch the Good Friday attack.

The Third Peace Process was based on the assumption that appeasing the Tigers is the same as being conciliatory towards the Tamils. Now we are in danger of tumbling into a Fourth Eelam War based on the assumption that attacking the Tamils is the same as attacking the Tigers. The agony of the family of Ragihar Manoharan, one of the victims of the Trinco killing - recounted by Namini Wijedasa in her excellent article of May 21st in the Sunday Island (reproduced in the websites, Tamilweek and Lacnet) - is symbolic of the common plight of the North Eastern Tamils. According to such reliable sources as the UTHR and the AI, the Lankan Forces and their Tamil allies have begun to resort to anti-civilian violence (the Trincomalee killing, Rajasingham and Vigneswaran murders, attack on the Uthuyan office and possibly the Kayts massacre). If we fail to protect the Tamils or permit the targeting of Tamils, the Tigers will get the war they want, a war of Sinhala state vs. Tamil people. That is a war the LTTE cannot loose and Sri Lanka cannot win.

Nation Revisited

What is nationalism in a Lankan context? Is it Sinhala nationalism? Is it Sinhala Buddhist nationalism? Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-lingual country. When we are talking of national culture, national traditions, national security, which nation are we referring to?

The task of building a Lankan nation came to an abrupt halt in 1956. With Sinhala Only, the Sinhala elite and a segment of the Sinhala populace made a choice for a Sinhala nation as distinct from and in opposition to a Sri Lankan nation. Fifty years and much bloodshed later we do talk about the Lankan nation, but this is often a euphemism for the Sinhalese. At its most inclusive, our conception of the Lankan nation is an inverted pyramid with the Sinhalese occupying a place of pre-eminence, based on numbers, origins or the Destiny Myth. The other ethnicities occupy subordinate positions and as long as they understand this order and adhere to it, then we can all live peacefully and this country belongs to us all. But the picture changes the moment this or that minority forgets this ‘natural’ order and assumes equality. Then we are outraged – we have been so nice, we have welcomed these ‘aliens’ and offered them every hospitality and this is what we get in return; an ungrateful minority is worse than the serpent’s tooth!

How can the nation we talk about be a Sri Lankan nation if the concerns of the minorities are not included in it? The Tigers have to be eliminated, some day. But are we willing to concede substantial devolution to the Tamil people? If a majority of the Tamil people are supportive of a federal or a quasi federal set up, and express that support in a free and fair referendum, are we willing to honour it? Even those Tamils who are totally opposed to the LTTE abhor a return to the status quo ante, because they, not unnaturally, fear a reassertion of the Spirit of ’56; that is why even the most moderate Tamil wants institutional and constitutional safeguards to contain Sinhala Supremacism.

As the UTHR explained: “What we fear is the rhetoric of the dismissive approach, which is calculated to appeal to that segment of the Sinhalese electorate that constantly asks without desiring an answer, ‘We are mystified, come, explain to us what this Tamil problem is all about’. To them the history of ideologically inspired violence directed against the Tamils, an experience which guided their perceptions, does not exist… Homeland and federalism are about coming to terms with a very nasty history and there is no Rip van Winkle solution to this…” (Information Bulletin No. 39 – 1.11.2005).

French President Jacques Chirac recently warned that history, with a little inducement, can change from “the key to a nation’s cohesion (to) a ferment for division” (Christian Science Monitor – 4.1.2006). We can decide whether we are going to be immersed in an interminable debate about who came to this country, when and why. What matters is that we are all here now, including the upcountry Tamils of Indian origin. That is the stark, unchangeable reality of today and we need to accept it and adjust to it. I think this country would be poorer without its Tamils and its Muslims, its Christians and its Hindus (it is certainly poorer without its Burghers); but even if I want this land to be occupied only by the Sinhalese (or Sinhala Buddhists) it is not going to happen.

So whatever we feel about the pluralist nature of the country, whether we like it or not, the only realistic choice is to accept it, because it is here to stay. Whether we celebrate the plurality and the diversity of Sri Lanka or whether we fear and bemoan it makes no difference to its existence. The sensible thing to do is to accept the Tamils, the Muslims, the Christians and the Hindus of Sri Lanka as equal citizens and owners of this country. They are not guests living here on our grace; they belong; this is their country as much as it is ours.

Our definition of ‘nation’ is central to the characterisation of the Fourth Eelam War. It can be a war between Sri Lanka and the LTTE if the nation we want to protect includes Tamils (and Muslims) as equal owners. The safety of the Tamil people did not feature prominently in the Third Peace Process; the signs are that it will be equally unimportant in the Fourth Eelam War. This is clearly discernible in the different reactions to the Tiger attacks on Sinhala villagers and to the Kayts massacre. The government, very appropriately, is taking necessary steps to protect the Sinhala villagers from Tiger atrocities; but the Tamil villagers of Allaipidy are left unprotected and non-reassured. The result is what the Tigers wanted – refugees; some of the survivors have begun to move to Tiger controlled areas. If this process of anti-civilian violence continues, the LTTE will have all the recruits and all the justification it needs for the Fourth Eelam War.

In Defence of Secularism

Appeasing this and that extremism is not the way to achieve a healthy balance or occupy the centrist space. It merely creates a never ending vicious cycle which will strengthen all sorts of extremisms at the expense of moderation. The regime’s decision to ban the Da Vinci Code movie is a case in point. The movie has not been banned in any Western country; it is permitted in secular India and in the Catholic Philippines. Our decision to ban the movie is obviously a balancing act, an attempt to compensate for the regime’s Sinhala/Buddhist bias and image. Just as the limitless appeasement of the Tigers paved the way for the present permissiveness towards acts of anti-civilian violence by the Armed Forces and their Tamil allies, the appeasement of the JHU also demands and necessitates the appeasement of the extremist manifestations of other religions. This policy of ‘chain-appeasements’ is doubtless being justified on the ground of even-handedness; the end result however is a situation where extremists on all sides get more and more opportunities to set the national agenda and direct all our destinies.

Each religion has its positive and negative side. We have seen the negative face of Sinhala Buddhism, most recently in the violent intolerance and extremism of the JHU. Christianity is no exception. It has had its Thomas Aquinas, Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More (who promoted humanistic learning and paved the way for the Age of Enlightenment). It also had its Justinian (whose laws against heresy made a singular contribution to the intellectual decline of the West and its decent into the darkness of the Middle Ages) and its Isidore of Saville, Bishop and Saint (who in his ‘Etymologies’ said: “Heresy is named in the Greek from its meaning of choice, since each at his own will chooses what he pleases to teach or believe. But we are not permitted to believe anything of our own will, nor to choose what someone has believed of his… We have God's apostles as authorities ... And so, even if an angel from heaven shall preach otherwise, he shall be called anathema.”). Religious fundamentalism - irrespective of the religion – is a potent force which, in the absence of a strong secular resistance, can flatten everything in its path and drag societies and peoples to places they never intended to go initially.

Having conceded on the Da Vinci Code (according to many critics a tedious movie; the Newsweek called it ‘overstuffed and underwhelming’ while the Village Voice dismissed it as ‘long winded’ and opined that the Vatican’s boycott call lent ‘Brown’s conspiracy theories a cultural weight he couldn’t buy for a million dollars’!) the Rajapakse administration will doubtless have to concede to demands from other religio-cultural extremists as well, to ban this or that book or movie. Worse still, the regime may have to be even more permissive of the inanities of Buddhist supremacists, at a time when such antics – for example the Anti-Conversion Bill – are completely unaffordable. Obviously a secular state is more conducive to national security (national as Sri Lankan) due to its structural impartiality and its greater immunity to contesting extremisms. India, for example, was able to use the secular nature of her state as an effective shield against recent Papal criticism of her policies, including her decision to permit the Da Vinci Code.

- Asian Tribune -

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