By Charles Sarvan –
Dr Sanjiva Wijesinha’s article appeared in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times, 22nd November 2015. Those who haven’t read it should be able to access it or infer content from what follows. The main thrust of his reproach is that while there was massive coverage of the terrorist attack on Paris, Sri Lanka was left alone during the years when the Tigers were active: “we grieved alone”; “we grieved and mourned and suffered alone”.
It has been observed that success in a legal case depends on one’s financial resources or the lack of it, the ironic question being: “How much justice can you afford?” O. J. Simpson when charged with murder employed some of the best (highest paid) lawyers in the US, forming what was described in the press as a “dream team”. On similar lines, mutatis mutandis, some countries can garner publicity while others don’t have the necessary power and influence. For example, the attention paid to the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the Second World War pale when compared with the extensive and continuous coverage given to German atrocities. The crimes of the Japanese were against Asians (until recently, a poor and powerless people) while that by Germany was against the Jews, now ranked, because of unqualified US (and Western) support, as one of the most influential of people.
To cite another example, as I have written elsewhere, the African slave trade is the worst blot on human history, taking into consideration its (a) nature, (b) numbers (millions) and (c) duration over centuries. Punishment was appallingly cruel. I cite one case: Thomas Thistlewood came to Jamaica (1750) and kept a diary in which he meticulously, methodically and dispassionately noted his diurnal doings. These include flogging slaves and rubbing pepper, salt and lime into the wounds; “taking” slave women when and where he pleased; burning to death over a slow fire; rubbing in of molasses, followed by exposure to flies during the day and to mosquitoes at night. One of Thistlewood’s punishments was the “Derby’s dose”. The whipped slave had “salt pickle, lime juice & bird pepper” rubbed into the open wounds, and then another slave was made to defecate in his mouth. He was immediately put in a gag whilst his mouth was full, and made to wear the gag for “4 to 5 hours”.
Yet the slave trade gets little attention when compared with what the Shoah receives: the Afro-Americans are not as rich and influential, as organised and powerful, as the Jewish lobby. Government, media and public sympathy depends on non-humane factors. To my knowledge, there is no national day in the US to mark and mourn the slave trade. The end of the slave trade marked the beginning of ‘Jim Crow’: see my article in Colombo Telegraph, 14 November 2015, titled ‘Film, fiction and falsity’. This is not to decry remembering the Holocaust, most certainly not, but to draw attention to the comparatively little publicity; the public reminding that slavery receives when compared with what the Shoah is accorded. Germany has repeatedly confessed its guilt, expressed contrition and paid compensation. Chancellor Willy Brandt, in his Warschauer Kniefall, went down on his knees in penance at the Warsaw memorial (7 December 1970). The contrast with Japan vis-à-vis Asians is extreme.
There is also the element of affinity. It’s not surprising that the Western media gives prominence to an attack on Paris, a Western capital. The plight of a Sri Lankan housemaid now about to be stoned to death in Saudi Arabia on the allegation of adultery receives far more attention in Sri Lanka than it does even in neighbouring Asian countries. The unfortunate victim of this barbaric sentence is a human being, a woman, a mother: that she is a Sinhalese, a Muslim or a Tamil should make no difference. Whether it does influence reaction, I don’t know. (‘The New Testament’ of The Bible, John 8 : 7, relates the story of a woman similarly sentenced to stoning, and the words of Christ: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” One by one, the crowd dispersed.) Conversely, if the woman had been from, say, Indonesia, I doubt there would have been an equal sense of outrage in Sri Lanka: affinity and identification do play a role, though in an ideal world they would not.
Yes, as Wijesinha points out, there is discrepancy; and the functioning of double standards in the world but, “lest we forget”, Sri Lanka did not stand alone while combating the Tigers. On the contrary, Sri Lanka received massive help – diplomatic and financial; weaponry and advice – from the US, Israel, China, India, Pakistan and other countries. Such help is more effective than what appeals to the ephemeral emotions of the excitable public: words of sympathy, lighting of candles, observing a minute’s silence. “Lest we forget”, foreign powers either maintained a loud silence or made token noises at the nature of the final phase of the war and its immediate aftermath. Now that it’s over, some climb onto the high horse of ethics, justice and human rights. To alter the saying, it is to hunt with the hounds and, when the chase is over, pretend sympathy for the dead hare.
It is unfortunate Wijesinha has nothing to say about Tamil suffering; no sympathy, much less empathy: Professor Rajan Hoole in his ‘Sri Lanka: the Arrogance of Power’ details Tiger cruelty under which Tamils suffered, as have several other writers: “Lest we forget”. Wijesinha writes of the security checks, and the atmosphere of fear in which Sinhalese people lived. This is fully accepted but it applied even more to Tamils – and still applies. Sympathy and understanding, rather than being broad and inclusive, are narrow and excluding; perpetuating rather than helping to heal “illness”. Physician, heal thyself‘ (The Bible’, Luke 4:23): we need to undertake honest soul-searching, reach an accurate and fair diagnosis of sickness which will, in turn, lead to a cure of society and the body politic.
“Terrorist” is now the term of political abuse, freely used and misused; rarely paused over and examined. States can also act in terrorist fashion by visiting violence on civilians, even if the pretext proffered is that terrorists are harbouring among them.
“The ‘Final Report’ presented to the UN Secretary General on 13 November 2006 by the ‘High-Level Group’ states that injustice and inequality fuel violence and conflict. “Wherever communities believe they face persistent discrimination, humiliation, or marginalization based on ethnic, religious, or other identity markers, they are likely to assert their identity more aggressively” (3.13).
State terror has done far more damage than that unleashed by terrorist groups. To their list of the Holocaust, the Stalinist repression, the genocide in Cambodia, the Balkans and Rwanda (3.12) one can add the two World Wars, North Korea, Burma under the military junta, certain dictatorships in Africa and South America, China under Mao – the list is long, and the destruction and death caused by governments is much more gross (“greater” is inappropriate here) than that carried out by “terrorists”. Indeed, there is no comparison. In the First World War, 15% of the casualties were civilians; in the second, it reached 50%. This destruction of life was caused not by terrorist groups but by states. (Sarvan, Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2, pages 51-53.)
Terrorists are not a sudden, inexplicable and unfortunate phenomenon but the product of certain factors and historical development. These must be taken note of, not to exculpate (emphasised) but to understand, and so work towards a more decent and kinder; a ‘healthier’ and happier society.
Finally, Wijesinha writes that during ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s period of office there was corruption: “It is easy and fashionable nowadays to castigate Mahinda Rajapaksa for the corruption he allowed to flourish”. This formulation seems to imply that though there was corruption, President Rajapaksa himself was not involved in it, did not profit, and therefore remains an unstained hero worthy of electoral reward and power. I don’t know whether Wijesinha was aware of, and intended, this implication; and if intended, whether it’s valid. The last is for others, far better informed than me, to speak.
Dr Sanjiva Wijesinha is to be thanked for an article that stimulates discussion and the sharing of perspectives.