By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
What if after the defeat of the JVP insurgency, the Premadasa administration prevented Sinhala families from mourning their JVP-dead? What if every commemorative activity from the political to the religious was banned? What if Buddhists monks were told to stop preaching sermons (bana) and accepting alms (dane) on behalf of dead JVPers?
Would such measures have caused reconciliation or a renewal of hatred?
By turning mourning into a crime, are the Rajapaksas building-peace or seeding another conflict?
The Tigers were many things, intransigent and efficient, disciplined and intolerant, hardworking and maximalist. They were also, like fanatics everywhere, stupid, blindingly, self-destructively stupid.
That was one of the key lessons of Nandikadal.
The Rajapaksas, who defeated the Tigers, seem to be made of some of the same political genes and psychological memes as their vanquished opponents, including suicidal inanity.
How else can one explain the dangerously destabilising impeachment? Or the bottomless financial quagmire that is Mihin Air? Or the inanely brutal military crackdown inJaffna, on the Birth Anniversary of Vellupillai Pirapaharan and the Tiger’s Great Heroes Day?
According to media reports, on November 26th, some students of the University of Jaffna had commemorated the Great Heroes Day. In an ideal world, no Tamil would have reason to remember the Tigers with nostalgia, just as no Sinhalese would feel like commemorating the murderous Second Insurgency of the JVP (which targeted anti-racist Sinhalese under cover of fighting the IPKF). But we do not live in ideal worlds. Moreover,Jaffna students engaged in their commemorative activities peacefully and quietly. They did not have meetings or hold parades; they reportedly lit some lamps inside a dorm.
It would have made sense, from a political point of view, to ignore that secret deed. Had the regime allowed it to pass, the commemoration would have come and gone without creating any waves, nationally or internationally.
But the Rajapaksas are maximalists, as much as the Tigers were. And such people do not believe in compromise. They want everything their way, at any cost. Their obduracy and tunnel vision prevent them from seeing or understanding how self-destructive their maximalism can be.
During the Second Insurgency, the JVP imposed strict rules and regulations on how a ‘traitor’ killed by the “patriotic forces” (i.e. the JVP in its DJV guise) should be given his/her last rites. These included a ban on public mourning such as flags, gathering of mourners, funeral processions and graveside speeches; the JVP even decreed that the coffin of the ‘traitor’ should be carried below knee-level. These ‘rules’ were obeyed to the letter, outside cities, especially when the victims were ordinary people who had incurred the wrath of the JVP by violating its confusing array of dos and don’ts, from arbitrary curfews to selling Indian products, from voting to participating in ‘patriotic’ strikes.
Perhaps Mahinda Rajapaksa, who backed the JVP during its most racist and murderous phase, internalised some of those uncivil notions and indecent habits.
The Tigers too often denied those they labelled ‘traitors’ and murdered the right to a decent funeral and their families the right to mourn. Today the Rajapaksas are taking the same path.
The day after the ‘Great Heroes Day’, the military forcibly entered the hostels of the JaffnaUniversity, both male and female. “The army had entered the hostel through the water tank, broken open the doors of the girl’s hostel and put out the lamps. They had also frightened the girls by putting guns to their heads, threatening to shoot them. Some girls had fainted out of fear and shock” (The Death of Freedom of Assembly, Expression and Religion in the North of Sri Lanka – Watchdog – Groundviews – 1.12.2012) The similarity between the military’s modus operandi and that of the STF at Welikada is obvious; both were illegal searches conducted with brute force and both created more problems than they solved. They are also deadly precedents, which will be used against every real or imaginary opponent of Rajapaksa rule, irrespective ethnicity, creed or class.
The story did not end there. The following day, students held a demonstration to protest against the violently illegal conduct of the army. The riot police attacked the peaceful demonstrators. And, in gross violation of parliamentary privileges, the military prevented a TNA parliamentarian from entering the consequent scene of mayhem. This at a time when the parliament is battling the courts, allegedly in the name of legislative supremacy! In reality, in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka legislative supremacy depends on the political position of the legislator. Those legislators who support the Rajapaksas (plus their kin) are superior to the police, the military and the courts (as evidenced by the impunity of Duminda Silva and Rishad Bathiudeen vis-à-vis the judiciary and Malaka Siva vis-à-vis the military); those legislators who are opposed to the Rajapaksas do not enjoy any kind of superiority; in fact they can be as powerless as any ordinary Lankan.
That was not all. Hindu Kovils were banned from holding pujas, even though the ‘Festival of Lights’ was on the 27th of November. Churches were reportedly surrounded and demanded by masses were being held. The house of the Chairman of the Karainagar Pradesheeya Sabha was set on fire and a Killinochchi businessman threatened. The police also arrested three Jaffna University student leaders including the Secretary of the Students Union.
This year, the lighting of a commemorative lamp was turned into a crime. What will the Rajapaksas do next year? Punish mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, wives and siblings for weeping for their dead? What will the Rajapaksas ban the year after? Grief? Memory? Longing?
Mourning is a basic ingredient of closure. When the Rajapaksas criminalised mourning, they ensured that the wounds of the Eelam War would remain unhealed. Had the people been allowed express their sense of grief and loss in public, they might have been able to put the past behind them and look to the future. Since that natural human impulse was forbidden, the people’s sense of grief and loss, driven inward, festered. The end result of this abnormal process cannot but be something unhealthy to the nation.
For the Sinhalese, peace has been mostly good, even in the absence of the peace-dividend. For the Tamils, the time since Nandikadal has been far less salubrious. The absence of shelling, bombing, forced recruitment, child proscription and relentless fighting (in which neither side cared a tuppence about civilian safety) would be welcome. But the absence of war has been almost the sole positive development for most Tamils. The non-appearance of the promised political solution and the uncertainty regarding even the system of provincial devolution may not concern all Tamils, but the overbearing (and often persecuting) presence of the military and the absence of basic facilities, plus the regime’s inane prioritisation (according to which highways are more important than houses and international sports stadia are more important than schools) cannot but have an adverse effect on almost every Tamil. For Tamils the absence of normalcy and the rule of law is not an exception but a fact of everyday life.
This context of searing absences and asphyxiating presences is bound to create the conditions for the resurgence of separatism, perhaps even a Tiger-reborn.
Rajapaksas’ Selective Patriotism
For Sinhala supremacists, Nandikadal opened a door to 1956, 1971 (Standardization) and, if necessary, 1983. For the Rajapaksas, Nandikadal opened a door to a more ancient past, to a pre-modern, pre-democratic time of absolute monarchies when potent kings ruled over powerless subjects.
Sinhala supremacists think that they can use the Rajapaksas to achieve their racist utopia. The Rajapaksas, knowing that, are using Sinhala supremacists as shock-troops in their offensive against democracy.
The Rajapaksas are Sinhala supremacist – but only as long as Sinhala supremacism serves their purpose. This utilitarian attitude is evidenced by the manner in which the Rajapaksas respond to advice from the Buddhist clergy. In public Mahinda Rajapaksa calls any monk ‘Ape Hamuduruwo’ and imply that he is willing to do follow every request of any of these many ‘Ape Hamuduruwos’, unquestioningly. In reality, the Rajapaksas follow advice from the clergy only when doing so suits, aids and abets their own purposes. So if the clergy asks the President to abolish the 13th Amendment, he will follow it to the letter. But when the four chief prelates of the four main chapters request the withdrawal of the impeachment motion, their request will be ignored. (It is no secret that the Rajapaksa underlings threatened the Third Gem of the Triple Gems, in order to prevent the holding of a Sangha-conclave on the Fonseka issue).
Patriotism for the Rajapaksas is a means to an end, a weapon, an instrument, a banner and a mantle; nothing less, nothing more. They will use patriotism to build their familial state just as Vellupillai Pirapaharan used Tamil nationalism/separatism to win himself a country.