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Reconciliation or Triumphalism?

By Izeth Hussain

(March 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I don’t want to get involved in the controversy raging around Dr. Devanesan Nesiah who is accused of lying etc and even of making "efforts to keep Sinhala visitors from Jaffna". I regard him as a person of high moral integrity, exceptional intellectual competence, with a background of ethnic studies and of administrative and other experience that make him just the sort of person we need for nationalreconciliation. My purpose in this brief article is not to defend him, which he is quite capable of doing by himself. My purpose is to make some clarifications which could be of national importance.

Is it a process of reconciliation or of Sinhala triumphalism that is behind the spate of visits to Jaffna? How do the Tamils perceive it? The crucial clarification I want to make is that it is difficult to know, or know with certainty, because Tamils could say one thing to Tissa, a Sinhalese, and quite something else to Devanesan, a Tamil. Most emphatically this is not due to deviousness or downright duplicity, but due to a minority complex into which can go many things, including sometimes a fear psychosis. We must bear in mind that today the Sinhalese are in the position of the conqueror towards the Tamils. So, it has to be expected that a group of Sinhalese visitors to Jaffna can be warmly received with genuine friendliness, because we can reasonably presume that there is today both on the Sinhalese and Tamil sides a genuine desire for reconciliation. At the same time, because it is the conqueror who is being received, we can expect that together with the warm reception there will be going on contrapuntally in the Tamil psyche thoughts of a dark order of which only a Devanesan, and not a Tisse or an Izeth, will be made aware. The differing perceptions of what the spate of visits to Jaffna signify have to be explained in such terms, and not in terms of a diabolical Nesiah intent to stop the Sinhalese going to Jaffna.

I am not denying for one moment that Sinhalese going to Jaffna and interacting with people there on a friendly basis could in theory serve a useful purpose. My point is that at the present juncture it will be difficult to avoid giving the impression that there is some measure of triumphalism among the Sinhalese. Neither the Government nor the Opposition seems to be at all in earnest about moving towards a political solution. That smacks very much of the attitude of the conqueror.

I have in mind also the peculiarly horrible way in which the struggle against the LTTE reached its denouement – horrible I mean for the LTTE and its supporters. In my view they put themselves thoroughly in the wrong after 1994, firstly by scornfully rejecting every devolution offer, and thereafter by cynically making nonsense of the peace process. The sponsors of the peace process and the West as a whole did nothing to influence the LTTE to adopt flexible and co-operative strategies at the negotiations. Instead they encouraged the victim syndrome of the LTTE, quite forgetting that the victim can easily become the perpetrator, as shown most horribly in the last century by Hitler’s Germany and Israel. Retrospectively it does not seem surprising that the LTTE sabotaged Ranil’s Presidential chances and helped Rajapakse to come to power, clearly in the expectation that he would fight a war to the finish, a war which the LTTE felt sure of winning.

Thereafter President Rajapakse played his cards immaculately. Despite a series of LTTE terrorist outrages he did not engage in war, not even when there was an assassination attempt on General Fonseka, which provoked no more than a retaliatory bombing. He engaged in full-scale war only after the closure of the Marvil Aru anicut, by which time the LTTE was put thoroughly in the wrong and the Sinhalese side was seen to be fighting a just war. In the final phase the LTTE went down not in honour and pride as befitted the fighting prowess they had shown, but – by using human shields – in ignominy. The Sinhalese side emerged as the conqueror with justice on its side.

Given these circumstances it has to be expected that Sinhala group visits to Jaffna could be seen by the Tamils as betokening Sinhala triumphalism much more than a process of reconciliation. We should try to understand Dr Nesiah’s negative reaction, instead of snarling at him. The crucial point is this: the Tamils can be expected to have an inevitable predisposition to view the Sinhalese as conquerors as long as the latter don’t move, after having won the war, to try to win the peace. That will be possible only through a political solution, but neither the Government nor the Opposition is showing any sense of urgency about it.

Perhaps it will be useful to recount one of the greatest moments in the history of Islam. I was reminded of it when after the May 18 victory I saw on TV President Rajapakse descend from the plane and make obeisance to the tarmac. It occurred to me that the tarmac is not the sacred soil of Sri Lanka but a product of Western technology. The moment of Islamic history I have in mind occurred when Sultan Mohammed II conquered Byzantium in 1453. He prayed in the church of St. Sophia, came out and saw the ruined Palace of the Caesars, when in the great prose of Gibbon "A melancholy reflection on the vicissitudes of human greatness forced itself on his mind, and he repeated an elegant distich of Persian poetry" According to another version – which perhaps I am imagining as it is not there in Gibbon or in Steven Runciman – the moment was when the conqueror crossed the gate into Constantinople. He dismounted from his horse, scooped up a handful of earth and poured it on his head, reciting "The spider has woven its web in the Palace of the Caesars, / The owl has built its mansion in the towers of Afrasib". I would like to see a TV image of President Rajapakse scooping up a handful of Sri Lankan soil and pouring it on his head – without any commentary at all.

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