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Five Years after the end of the war ‘"to have learnt nothing is terrible’’

| by Gnana Moonesinghe

"The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits."
- Plutarch

"It’s no crime to light a lamp in the darkness,
For swallows need the blue sky of March
And bees need a flowering orchard."
- Tsou Ti Fan

( June 1, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Following his victory in the battle of Kalinga Emperor Asoka stood on the battlefield and looked around. All he could see was the devastation caused by the war - the wounded, the crippled and the dead scattered over the battlefield - the destruction and mayhem caused by the war was there to see. He immediately understood this to be the result of his greed; of his miscalculated policy decision to go to war to annex the resource rich territory of Kalinga. He made up his mind to convert to Buddhism and thereafter conduct his affairs in accordance with the Buddha Dharma; the dharma based on co- existence, tolerance, compassion and non-violence. He set up a reign that would highlight the values both of state morality and individual morality. Right speech, right conduct, right action were to be his tools for governance. A total transformation took place within him. There was no room for triumphalism; he could only despair over the toll the war has taken. He was humbled by his victory.

In Sri Lanka when the war ended everyone was relieved. The LTTE represented one of the most lethal forces of terror in modern history; the victory over those who subjected the nation to extreme forms of violence and cruelty called for celebrations. Triumphalism and euphoria were to be expected. Perhaps, it would have been justifiable if ‘celebrations’ were only for a short period of time. But when continued as an annual feature in the Sri Lankan calendar of events it needs to be censured as insensitive and boorish behavior towards the vanquished. Victory celebrations cannot bring closure to the three decade war. At best lessons should be learnt for the future from the conflict and a commitment undertaken to prevent a repetition of such a challenge to the State. Using victory in the war as a tool to whip-up and be used to sustain enthusiasm for the continuance of the present government would in the best of scenarios be folly of unimaginable magnitude. Emperor Asoka directed his attention from war to peace by placing emphasis on creating a just and fair society.

Sri Lankan politicians also should have been able to work the transition from a culture of war to a culture of dialogue, tolerance and non –violence. Those at the helm of power dispensation have for too long been preoccupied in parochial politics and did not see the urgency to search for strategies to work out peace from the initial stages of the post war period. Having secured victory the State’s primary objective should have been to empower Lankans on the absolute need for peaceful cohabitation and reconciliation in society peopled by individuals from different ethnic and religious identities. Such compatibility can be secured only if a long term approach is adopted and measures are undertaken "to firmly anchor peace in the minds of men and women" to nurture a sense of caring and sharing and actively foster a sense of community. But alas, it is still the politics of majority ethos and not equity of status for all its citizenry. Pluralism is not part of the ‘political language’ of the politician other than on occasions when lip service is paid to the concept in the abstract. Since this one dimensional approach of majoritarian politics is the reality, it has become increasingly difficult, for, even the moderates among the ethnic Tamils, to espouse with conviction identity politics of one nation, one people. One of the reasons being that the NPC elected to be the power sharing mechanism for the minorities has faced several administrative problems.

Bodhu Bala Sena, Ravana Group et al

A more lethal development than the gun-toting terrorist is the emergence of the saffron clad Buddhist clergy grouped into aggressive conglomerates for the protection of the majority religion- Buddhism- and the interests of the Sinhala majority, a serious cause for apprehension. Their rabble rousing ingenuity has resulted in attacks on mosques, Christian churches and minority business interests. Although caught on concealed cameras the offenders have successfully evaded prosecution. Their behavior is reminiscent of the post ’56 period when similar aggression took place with impunity following the declaration of the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act, also with the Buddhist clergy in the forefront. Both then and now State patronage and /or non- interference appears to be the key to their boldness. Shockingly, clearance for their stand has been indicated from higher clerical authorities. This permits the monks to continue unhinged, free to flaunt their brand of ‘peccadillos’ on society under cover of being self- proclaimed custodians of Sinhala Buddhism and Sinhala race.

Minorities within the majority perspective

From Independence to date the country has walked the path of the supremacy of the majority as its political culture. This has on many occasions brought destabilization and displacement to many from among the minority communities. Some indication of how the ethnic minorities are shaping up in the post war context can be seen below. The minorities referred to in this essay are the Tamils, the Muslims and the Indian Tamils.

The Tamils in the North can be categorized as follows:

1. Those advocating aggressively the concepts of Tamil nation, homeland theory and distinct cultural identity.
2. Those who want to be left to work their own destiny without any other involvement. No political ideology here except a practical approach.

Some among the decision makers, and those who find it financially advantageous to access money from the diaspora belong to the first group.

Victims of war both from the LTTE and the Armed Forces, the war weary people belong to the second group.

A simple line of hope for unity of interests between the majority and minority rests on the Chief Minister of the NPC and some of his colleagues amongst the Councilors, who have demonstrated the capacity to think out of the box for the welfare of the Tamils. If flexibility is permitted the common destiny of the Tamils can be shaped through an energized Northern Provincial Council. What other legitimacy could there for the newly constituted NPC?

The Indian Tamils are unobtrusively working their way out of the plantations. Access to education and exposure to the TV culture are a great influence in their lives. They are creating special niche employment for themselves with jobs in small business establishments, in construction sites and even venturing for employment (both men and women) to the Middle-East. They are not looking for agitation politics and any plantation issues that arise are covered by the trade unions looking after their interests. Being bilingual has helped them to assimilate better within the country.

The Muslims who for a long time lived and worked in amity with the Sinhalese and the Tamils are suddenly facing hostility from some extremist Buddhist clergy organizations actively engaged in attacking religious sites and business interests of the Muslims. A well planned attack on the Muslim way of life is threatening the peace of the country as a whole. Having wrestled with one minority it would seem inadvisable if not a gross miscalculation to provoke another civil disturbance, this time Muslim religious conflict, which could unravel itself from unexpected contours outside the country.

It is therefore time that the government took a good long look at its sponsorship of the majoritarian credo and see how its adverse effects can be blunted by fostering inter-personal relationships amongst the people cutting across ethnic and religious boundaries. If playing politics as we do now is to continue as the guiding principle then the future for the country does seem dismal.

The Tamil Diaspora

There has been criticism of the diaspora - that they are interfering from the ‘rock comfort’ of their homes in the Western countries they have settled in. It is feared that the remittances they dispatch to their kith and kin in the North and the East are creating indolence and waywardness amongst the youth harmful to them and to society. The young are losing their initiatives and their reputation for hard work.

It does seem as claimed by authoritative sources that the diaspora has got their priorities mixed up. News comes from the North that temples are being constructed or renovated at huge cost while people are living in sub-standard shelters in the Vanni and other areas. Although it is necessary to pave the way for the spiritual needs of the community, excessive outlay on temples may be considered ill-advised at a time when the North is hard pressed to find finance for urgent development needs to create employment as well as to produce goods for the market, generating income for the people.

The Tamil diaspora‘s attempt to influence Sri Lankan policy through foreign governments work to the disadvantage of the Tamils living in the North. The Geneva scenario would have come through anyhow sans the intervention of the diaspora. But when the diaspora is seen to be active against the government of Sri Lanka and in collusion with the Western powers the Lankan government tends to play the national security card and place increased surveillance over the Tamils living in the North and the East – much to the concerns and fear syndrome of the people. As it is there is a heavy military presence in the North with high security zones which inhibits movement and freedoms of the people to whom the war experience is still too close to forget and the military not a friendly presence. The government spends more money on defense in post war period than it did during the war. This country increased its troop count by 100,000 after the war increasing the numbers to 300,000 troops for a population of 21 million.

Marcos Ana in the poem ‘Victim’ writes,

"Knock his wound once in a while;
Never leave it free to heal.
His pain must spurt fresh blood
And anguish live on forever in his entrails."

Is this to be the past, the present and the future of the Tamil ‘victims’?

Internalize democratic way of life

Amartya Sen has convincingly put across that "faith in democracy and democratic principles must be so internalized that it becomes a way of life." (Development as Freedom) In any society contradictions exist and it is up to the leadership to adopt a ‘conciliatory spirit’ that will ‘maximize areas of agreement’ for the welfare of the people. If the government can be propelled to act bearing ethical values as its guiding principles for policy formulations, then it should be feasible to set up an independent civil service, independent judiciary, free media and a secular state. Amartya Sen developing his argument further says that in such eventuality ‘civilian control must be firmly entrenched over the military’. This ideal state seems to be a far cry from the reality of having to deal with the 18th Amendment, chauvinism and a strong showing of the military. The current president with his fabled commonsense approach and well versed in the vagaries of realpolitik should have been able to turn the country around after the war. But sadly short term interest and perhaps poor advice has inured him from taking the path to rebuild the nation binding all the people together.

Social disintegration

The sharp division on political, racial and religious basis has polarized society. Consequences of the three decade war, earlier the southern revolt and politicization and the system of patronage have destroyed social cohesion within the different layers in society. A direct result of all this has been the jelling of the people together over the trouncing of the LTTE, just one unquestionable triumph of this government. The voices of the people remain mute and the erosion and near collapse of the ethics and values on which society has been hitherto structured overlooked.

The social fabric which the government is expected to protect is fast coming under various mafias of the kudu culture, the arms culture and the culture of impunity of politicians and their henchmen. The lack of moral value is apparent in the shocking waywardness of the people. Rape, incest, killing and kidnappings for ransom, burglary and violent deaths, road rage and careless driving causing so many accidents are symptomatic of serious social problems and an abominable unconcern for the other.

Reconstructing social cohesion is the cry of the times. Empowerment of the people with ethical values with serious content, community interactions through personal and functional roles, promotion of close communication through arts, culture, and sports are few of the ways to break the polarization in society. A culture of human rights through the assertion of the rights of the people will help to build individual dignity and self -worth. Rights must not belong to the domain of the privileged as perceived today.

The Geneva Resolution

The Geneva Resolution has made the government flex its muscles for combat rather than containment of the problem. Sri Lanka is a small country with no proven resources of oil or gas to tempt international interest. Lee Kuan Yew has said that to ensure peace, free trade is vital. People must cooperate and compete with each other without going to war. Sri Lanka has to create that interest because we need the international community more than they need us.

In the early 50’s and 60’s and running into a part of the 70’s we saw a CIA agent behind every bush, behind every issue. CIA was then the destabilizing force. Now we are looking for conspiracies being hatched in the international centres of the world to destabilize us. Our only call today for attention from the international community is our poor human rights record. Yet there was a time our physical quality of life-PQL – attracted so much praise and interest among researchers. We were the ‘miracle’ nation that produced a relatively high quality of life in a low income country. At the time we also had bureaucrats and policy makers who were independent and offered the best advice for policy decisions. That is the past; the present has none of those options. To keep one’s seat warm and permanent has become the unashamed credo of influential persons. Until society at large is "capable of critical judgment, absorbing information from the written word and applying a critical eye to it" Sri Lanka cannot hope to move forward. We will not be equipped to make peace with the rest of the world for coexistence.

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