By Lilani Jayatilaka –
Some years ago while on a visit from abroad, my niece was entertained and perhaps a little shocked when she overheard comments broadcast over the loudspeaker from a nearby school.
It was the day of their annual sports meet and a teacher, obviously short-tempered, screamed into the microphone at some hapless students, “Magay yakaawe aussande epaa”. When translated into English, “Don’t rouse the devil in me” it loses colour and pith but in its original Sinhala form, her words and tone of voice, packed quite a punch.
Reading the newspapers today, I am reminded of the words of that teacher. It seems that it takes very little to raise the sleeping devil in the Sri Lankan psyche. Any hint of criticism directed at our fragile egos and we are ready and willing to take umbrage. Is this part of our Sri Lankan psyche? If so, it does us a disservice.
Some of these thoughts on the Sri Lankan psyche ran through my mind when I attended a seminar on Wednesday 12 December, on the all- but- forgotten Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) Report. Interestingly, I learned that there was a measure of dissatisfaction with the report among some hard—line Tamils in the North as much as there was among many Sinhalese in the South, though for different reasons. The Tamils feel that due to the narrowness of its scope, the report fails to address the root causes for the war of 30 years, a crucial and significant omission. The hard- line Sinhala stance is in line with that of the government, and this is not to re-revisit the events that took place in May 2009, but instead to assert its confidence in the armed forces, the acknowledged heroes of the nation who saved the day. Leave alone rooting among the debris for evidence of war crimes, such hard liners find themselves unable even to consider the relatively mild and non threatening recommendations of the LLRC. In the meanwhile, the government is in the unenviable position of having commissioned a report which is a veritable Pandora’s box in its hands.
For instance, Chapter 3 of the report focuses on how the war was conducted during those last crucial days, while among its many recommendations at the end of the report, the commission also emphasizes the need for an independent body to investigate the channel 4 videos, the killings of 5 teenage boys in Trincomalee, the murder of 23 Aid workers in Muttur and the people who went missing during the course of the war. Rumour has it, that these disappearances and killings could be connected to the echelons of power and privilege. What does a government do with a report it commissioned to stave off mounting international pressure, but which could prove to be a powder keg in its possession? What it has done so far has been exactly what previous governments too have done with embarrassing facts, and that is, to sit it out. This brings me to the second significant aspect of the Sri Lankan psyche – our short attention span. We flog an issue to death on the streets and in our homes as long as it is “hot hot” but a few months down the line, we forget about it and focus on the next sensation.
There is a general unspoken consensus, never publicly acknowledged by the apologists for the government, that there were considerable civilian casualties in the last days of the war. While civilian casualties are inevitable in the conduct of warfare, it is the scale and proportion of such casualties and the measures taken to secure their safety and welfare, which should concern anyone with a measure of human feeling, here or elsewhere. The diaspora, in crying ‘foul’ sees the actions of the government as one of genocide, a deliberate and wicked attempt to wipe out the Tamils in the north.
However, if one looks at the way the governments in power dealt with the JVP uprisings of the 70s and 80s, one can see that they were just as brutal and ruthless in dealing with rebellious Sinhala youth as they were with their Tamil counterparts. Neither was there any attempt thereafter to investigate and bring to book those who were guilty of human rights abuses, which brings me to the third aspect of the Sri Lankan psyche. And, this is a tendency to gloss over ugly truths in hopes that a new beginning can be made, forgetting that new beginnings can only be made after a proper and serious attempt to deal with the issues of the past.
The LLRC states in its report that government policy during the last stages of the war was to give highest priority to civilian safety. This goes some way towards protecting the government from charges of war crimes, but does not seem to tally with the stories of survivors and with the numbers dead and missing. Contradictory and conflicting stories have emerged from the battlefront. Channel 4 footage (whether we believe it or not) has left an indelible impression in our minds of atrocities committed by the army in the conduct of the war. But as we all know only too well, the LTTE was no pussycat. It was responsible for the killing of thousands of innocent civilians all over the island during the course of this long, bitter and bloody war. It was not incapable of distorting and obfuscating the truth for its own ends, and always followed the policy that the end justified the means.
I had it from a trusted and respected source in the army during those last crucial days that soldiers were dying like flies because they were under orders not to use heavy artillery fire in the war. And yet thousands of civilians died; thousands are missing; and there are the stories of the survivors and the channel 4 footage. . . how can one make sense of it all? Perhaps there was a gap between policy and execution and the temptation to crush a dangerous enemy while he was down, proved too strong for the government to resist. Liberal –minded Sinhalese and international voices, while accepting that the ground reality was murky to say the least, question why the government did not heed the call for a negotiated settlement when it clearly had the upper hand, thereby saving thousands from a terrible death. Why indeed? Perhaps, just as Macbeth feared that when he failed to kill Banquo’s son along with Banquo, he had merely,
‘scorched the snake, not killed it. She’ll close and be herself whilst out poor malice Remains in danger of her former tooth’
so too the government and its army must have feared that unless it decimated the LTTE lock, stock and barrel, it would re-group, re-form and live to fight another day. Previous attempts to negotiate with the LTTE had failed miserably and spectacularly. Some of those holding high office in the present government had, in fact, taken an active part in the aborted Vaddamarchchi operation and would have remembered only too well and with bitterness, how victory had eluded them at the eleventh hour due to interference from without. Hence it did not trust the bona fides of either the LTTE or even those who attempted to mediate between the two, knowing that they had enough rope tricks up their sleeves to put an Indian fakir to shame.
It must have been with a sense of déjà vu that they decided not to heed the call for a cessation of hostilities but decided, like the tiger, to go for the jugular. To seek justice for all who suffered would need a Solomon as judge. And yet, collective amnesia is not the solution either, for it cannot be practiced by those who have suffered the loss of friends and loved ones. Wounds must be healed, not plastered over and left to fester within. The latter course unfortunately, is the one favoured by the government, but it then becomes just a matter of time before the whole problem erupts once again and engulfs the land with its miasma.
In recognition of this truth, the LLRC, the brain child of the government, recommends that the government while making a genuine effort to unearth the truth should ask forgiveness from the people as this might go some way towards healing the wounds of the past. Governments of other nations have done so. Post World War 11 Germany apologized to the Jewish community at large as did Japan to South Koreans and others. Instead of razing down cemeteries and preventing the commemoration of the dead, they have sought to preserve the evidence of their shame as a reminder that such atrocities must never again be allowed to happen. Shame is a good thing. It makes us uncomfortable and goads us to be vigilant.
However, another aspect of the Sri Lankan psyche rather closely connected to our belligerent response to criticism, is our inability to admit a mistake or to say “sorry”. During the sixty years since independence, Sri Lanka has experienced several race riots in which many were killed and their homes and livelihood destroyed, while the governments in power stood by and did little to curb the orgy of violence. Individuals have expressed their shame at such excesses and apologized on behalf of their ethnic group, as did Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe most eloquently and movingly in the aftermath of the ’83 riots while the then head of state, President Jayawardene excused the excesses of the mob as ‘the natural reaction of the Sinhala people’ to the murder of 13 soldiers in the north. Much later, President Chandrika Kumaratunge apologized to the Tamil people for the excesses of the ’83 riots. It takes courage and strength for a person to admit to a mistake and apologize to another. And what is true for the individual holds true for the nation at large.
And of course, it is not only the government and the Sinhala people who need to apologize to the Northern and North Eastern citizens of this country for the excesses of the army and the mob, but also the supporters and funders of the LTTE, to the people of this country for the ethnic cleansing of the North and for unleashing a protracted, bloody and ultimately pointless war on the whole of this land. However, any attempt to discuss the culpability of either, brings on a defensive reaction and an endless debate about who the real victims and who the real culprits are.
The position taken by hard- line Tamils is the mirror image of that taken by their Sinhala counterparts. Each group sees itself as victim and the other as the victimizer. The Soulbury Commission in formulating the constitution of independent Sri Lanka commented that communalism was the biggest impediment to creating a united Sri Lanka, as subsequent events have proved only too well. What the LLRC stresses in this regard is the need to recognize that all have suffered on both sides of the ethnic divide and in recognizing and acknowledging this truth, we go some way towards recognizing our common humanity, a first step towards building a common Sri Lankan identity.
Even though the LLRC report has been conveniently shunted aside as other events of note grab our attention, we cannot afford to forget that in March 2013, the UN human rights council will meet once again to review Sri Lanka’s record and performance in implementing the recommendations of the LLRC. And even if our instinctive response is to say, “Look at the human rights record of some of the big donor countries. Who are they to tell us what to do?’ we should desist. Yes, their hands are bloody too. But this does not make our hands less bloody and to seek to clean up our act can only, after all, benefit us in the long term. And this is where civil society too has a role to play.
It is easy to stand on the sidelines and smugly point our fingers at the government, the LTTE or even the international community for creating the mess that we have to live with now. Passive acceptance of all that is dished out to us is also part of our psyche, but in so doing we become indirectly responsible for the abuse of human rights as much as those who are directly responsible. The cliché “A people gets the government it deserves” reminds us that governance cannot be left solely to governments in power. The people need to make their voices heard loud and clear through non-violent means – be it through street protests, art, music, film, theatre, the written word or even the spoken word. We have a part to play. The meek shall not inherit the earth for there might be little left to inherit.