When the civil war came to an end in May 2009 I was still a final year undergraduate at the University of Peradeniya. Peradeniya was miles away from the war zone. The only venues that supplied us with details about the happenings in the war theatre were the television channels stationed in the South, self-censoring the civilian casualties incurred and feeding to the Sinhala nationalist jubilation of the times. And on the other side were websites like Tamilnet and Puthinam run by parties sympathetic to the LTTE releasing carefully filtered out reports singularly focusing on the deaths of civilians caused by the military leaving no trace about how the top leadership of the LTTE was recruiting children and adults, despite knowing so well they had already lost the battle or how the civilians who were trying to flee the war zone were shot down by the militants.
One had to work around these competing narratives to get at least a partial sense of the nature of the violence that the people ensnared in the No Fire Zone were exposed to. Some of us had friends whose relatives had been in the LTTE-controlled areas. When the guns breathed their last in Mullivaikal, some of them had already moved to hospitals and camps in Trincomalee and Vavuniya with their loved ones injured during the war. It was from these wounded men and women and their families that the harrowing experiences of the thousands of people inside the narrow battlefield trickled down to us in May 2009. The South erupted into celebrations when the re-unification of the island was announced via the media. As the former president in his televised address from Parliament was busy instructing the people of the country to annul the notions of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ from their political discourses, fire crackers celebrating the military victory started to deafen the ears of those of us who were seated under the senate building of the University of Peradeniya—Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims and Malays—pondering in groups what was awaiting us and the country in the days and years to come.
I revisit these dark and frustrating days now not just to reflect upon how the people in the Vanni were subalternized by the state, the liberation movement, representatives of their own community, the media and the international community seven years ago during the height of the war but also as a way of understanding the difficulties that we outsiders who were not present in Mullivaikal, whether we were Tamils or Sinhalese, encountered in making sense of violence and truth. Being cognizant of these difficulties is necessary to understand the plurality of the responses to the war’s end that emerged seven years ago. No doubt, the end of the war would have meant relief to many in the Sinhala community who had to protect themselves on a daily basis from suicide bombers masquerading as passengers in buses and trains and the families of the soldiers who were fighting the war for a living. The war had created uncertainties for them and placed them, especially the ones who lived in the border villages around the Northern and Eastern provinces, in a precarious position. Many Tamil dissident activists who had fled Sri Lanka or the North-East of the country because of the threats they faced from the LTTE also expressed a sense of relief at the demise of the Tigers.
Even as we are critical of the manner in which the South responded to the end of the war, it is important that we understand the political and economic conditions that led to the rise of pro-war sentiments in the South. The state’s constant portrayal of the Tamil militancy as a terrorist problem and the LTTE’s violence against the Sinhala and Muslim populations made a larger section of the Southern polity endorse the government’s all-out war against the Tigers. The re-consolidation of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist forces after the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2005 presidential election stifled the voices against the war in the South. These forces took advantage of the marginalization of the rural agrarian communities and working people which occurred as a result of the neo-liberal economic reforms introduced by the previous regimes of Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe. On the other hand, the increasing internationalization of the ethnic conflict, Norway’s role as mediator in the peace talks between the LTTE and the Wickremesinghe government in particular, gave these forces an opportunity to ignite fears of neo-colonialism among the Southern polity. The JVP, JHU and the nationalistic sections of the SLFP under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa launched a misleading campaign mixing their anti-federal, anti-minority politics with their anti-West, anti-capitalist rhetoric. This campaign slowly reversed the growing support for devolution and the re-formation of Sri Lanka as a pluralist state since the mid-1990s in the South.
When the war ended in May 2009 after claiming the lives of thousands of Tamils in the Vanni, this new wave of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism had reached its peak and many in the South did not find their participation in the victory celebrations problematic in anyway. The television visuals of the Tamils who were crossing the Nandikadal lagoon and the marks of sorrow, pain and loss visible in their faces had barely any impact on the euphoric flag weavers and kiribath-feeders on the streets. Yet, there were others who collected food, clothes and essential items for the displaced people and expressed their anger and disappointment at the insensitive festivities unfolding before their eyes. And some of these people who rushed to the camps where the displaced were kept, were turned back by those in power whose sole aim was to make political capital out of the ethnic divide. At a time when the leadership of the Sinhala political community should have reached out to the Tamils and other minority communities and made efforts to win their trust, it used the war victory to build a grand narrative of patriotism and nationalism that it thought would ensure its stay in power for many more years. The end of the war and the celebrations that followed it showed the manner in which the mutually reinforcing nationalist politics of the state and the LTTE had fractured and polarized the people of the country along ethno-religious lines.
Seven years have passed briskly since the war’s end but the larger questions that led to the carnage still remain unanswered. The state which is supposed to treat all its people and communities equally continues to be discriminatory. The minorities’ demand for a measure of regional autonomy continues to be trivialized or is made a non-issue by the politicians in the South. Even after the regime change last year, political authorities failed to take action against the illegal construction of Buddhist temples in lands owned by the Tamils. The military’s attempt to grab land continue amidst communities’ protests in the North, though private lands in some areas in the Northern and Eastern provinces have been released to their owners after many years. The state has done little to address disputes arising from competing claims made by Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim communities over agrarian land and fishing waters in parts of the Northern and Eastern provinces giving room for chauvinistic forces to exploit these conflicts to deepen the ethnic divisions in the region. But we have been visited by moments of hope too. The Tamil people of Padukaadu, a border village in Trincomalee district note that the majority of the Sinhala community in the village were in support of their move to re-start cultivation in their lands, even as a group led by the Chief Incumbent of the Dehiwatte Buddhist temple armed with knives and axes recently attempted to obstruct the farming activities underway and retain illegal control over those 300 acres of land belonging to the Tamils. Likewise some courageous voices from within our communities attempt to initiate a dialogue on the war across ethnic barriers. A friend recently told me about the positive response the Sinhala translation of Thamilini’s (the former leader of the LTTE’s women’s wing) self-reflexive account on the war and militancy received in the South. It is these acts of translation, communication and solidarity across divisions that emit a spark of hope in a land that has suffered much.
Translation across territories, nations and ethnicities within the island is an act that the country can benefit immensely from. I do not want to reduce translation to acts of translating texts on the war or the ethnic conflict from Tamil to Sinhala or vice versa. As a metaphor, translation also means how we translate ourselves into others, those we perceive as different from ourselves; the ethnic Other, the social Other, the class Other, the gendered Other, the caste Other among others. These differences may be understood as socially and politically constructed, but we tend to see them as what defines us primarily as subjects. Translating ourselves into others would be an act of moving across these differences and identifications. This is, of course, a difficult act and one that is always incomplete given how history and politics have produced us and shaped our experiences differently from others’. But history also shows us that we are connected and products of shared systems (like the Sri Lankan state).
We are always already in a world with one another. As shared spaces and constellations, the world, the nations, the states, and the systems that we are part of function as the condition of possibility for translation across differences however incomplete the translation is. To imagine the Other in us empathetically and through our reflections on our own commissions and omissions towards it is an act of translation that helps us see our connectedness with and responsibility towards the Other and our involvements in the actions that affect it. This process of translation gives birth to a politics that helps us become conscious of the idea that our togetherness should also represent a form of political solidarity.
Even as we memorialize the end of the war as a tragic event in the North and by contrast a day of honor to be remembered with pride in the South, there is very little translation that happens through these acts of memorialization. As communities, we have individuated our responses to the war in such a way that we can easily abdicate ourselves from the responsibility of scrutinizing how we as activists, militants, catalysts, mute spectators and even victims are complicit in the crimes committed in our name against others which include not just the Mullivaikal tragedy but also the disenfranchisement of the plantation Tamil workers, state-aided anti-Tamil pogroms before the start of the militancy, the two JVP insurgencies and the counter-violence of the state, the eviction of the Muslims from the North, the Tamil-Muslim killings in the East, and caste violence in the North to name a few. The Mullivaikal tragedy that we remember in the month of May as the horrific culmination of the civil war has left a humongous black blot in our country’s post-independence journey. Even as the state tries to conceal it, it appears again and again to haunt the idea of Sri Lanka or what it meant to the Tamil lives destroyed by the state during the so-called humanitarian operation in 2009.
The violent methods the LTTE used during recruitment during the last months of the war and the tyrannical grip that it had over the people in the Vanni before and during the final battle demonstrate that Tamils who were killed during the latter part of the war became disposable in the LTTE’s eyes too. The searing cries of these people whose last attempts to save their lives were thwarted by the commissions and omissions of the top leadership of the LTTE and its local and international propagandists continue to puncture the body of the Tamil nation and the narratives of Tamil genocide presented to the international community by Tamil nationalists.
If our engagement with the past, the war as a whole and its frightening end in Mullivaikal should take us to a violence-free, inclusive and democratic future we should acknowledge the multiple ways in which the people as individuals, communities, dissidents and subjects marked for caste, class and gender experienced the civil war and ethnic violence. This multiplicity should encourage us to question not just what the nation (including the Tamil nation) and the state (including Tamil Eelam) mean to their differently constituted, differently positioned peoples within their territories but also the idea of truth as singular, fixed and neutral. We should also be aware of the limits to truth-based approaches to justice and reconciliation. Laying bare the ‘truth’ as names, digits and facts through a judicial mechanism alone would not heal the wounds and guilt (if at all they are healable) caused by the war among the victims and perpetrators (one should also be aware of the ways in which the ethnic conflict and the competing nationalisms have blurred the boundaries of perpetrators and victims in Sri Lanka); paradoxically, in the absence of a larger social will to co-existence, it may aggravate the existing communal antipathies and widen the emotional and political disconnect between the communities. At the same time, we cannot build our future on false foundations without addressing the war and its effects upon the communities or by denying the war-survivors justice and reparation. Navigating these messy and muddy waters of truth, justice and co-existence is one of the greatest challenges facing Sri Lanka seven years after the end of the war. How our political leadership and we as communities, activists, writers, perpetrators, witnesses, survivors and victims respond to this challenge through legal means and creative avenues like social dialogue and translation will determine our political future.
*The writer is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratization in Sri Lanka