By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Why is it that the Sinhalese, ‘the lion race’ find themselves confronted till death do them part, by ‘the tigers’. – SJ Tambiah (Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy)
Quite apart from sense, sensibility, intelligence and decency, there is a factual reason why Sri Lanka should not continue to celebrate the victory over the LTTE.
The long Eelam War was not a war between two sovereign states. It was not a war fought against a foreign enemy. The long Eelam War was essentially a civil war, a war in which all combatants, including Vellupillai Pirapaharan, were Lankan citizens. The war’s victors were Lankans; its vanquished were Lankans; its victims were Lankans; its survivors are Lankans.
So commemorate, yes. It is necessary to remember. But not celebrate. It is bad politics to keep on celebrating victory in a civil war, year after year. It prevents the closing of old wounds, creates new wounds and impedes the body-politic from healing and becoming whole.
Yet this simple basic fact is still incomprehensible to the regime. Commenting on Canada’s decision to boycott the ‘Victory celebration’ Army spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya “pointed out that Canada joined annual Allied victory celebrations over Nazism”[i]. The Second World War was precisely that – a World War. It was a war between two blocs of sovereign states and not a war within a sovereign state. The Soviet, American, French and British people who celebrated the defeat of Nazism were not faced with the task of building a common national future with the German people, in the same country.
The regime’s continuous (and logically befuddling) inability to comprehend the difference between a war against a foreign enemy and a civil war is rooted in the ‘Hosts and Guests’ concept of Lanka.
According to Mahawamsa, Lanka is the sole refuge of pristine Buddhism; (Sinhala) Buddhists are its exclusive owners. Everyone else, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, and Sinhala-Christians are not co-owners but eternal guests, the descendents of occupiers and traders. They are not true Lankans, but aliens and potential enemies.
In this Mahawamsa worldview the Eelam War ceases to be a civil war and becomes a war against an alien enemy.
The ‘Hosts and Guests’ concept helped create the language issue (‘Sinhala Only’ was premised on the perception of Tamil as a foreign language), the ethnic problem and the long Eelam War. There is also a direct correlation between this concept and the way Tamils continue to be treated, post-war. The incarceration of around 300,000 of civilian Tamils in open prison camps (not during the war, but post-war, after the LTTE was annihilated), the de facto military occupation of the North and parts of the East, the attempts to change Northern and Eastern demographics and the refusal to implement the 13th Amendment make sense if the ‘enemy’ is perceived not as fellow citizens who must be won over but as aliens who must be kept down.
In 2005, Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism in search of a suitable political project and the Rajapaksas in need of a suitable ideology encountered and merged. Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism became the guiding ideology of the Familial State. The lunatic-fringe found a home in the corridors of power.
The Fourth Eelam War was a Mahawamsa War fought with modern technology. The twin myths of Buddhist-holy land and Sinless War[ii] were used to inspire the Sinhala-Buddhist soldiery. Such a religio-racial war could not have led to a national peace, especially with the war-makers in charge of peace-building. Vellupillai Pirpaharan could have created a Tiger/Tamil Eelam but never a democratic, pluralist and socialist Eelam.
Five years after 2009, the country continues to meander from crisis to unnecessary crisis. Tamils have not been reconciled and Muslims and Christian are being alienated. The military is being politicised and civil society militarised. Apart from the foreign-funded glitzy (and often unproductive) infrastructure projects, the only development strategy is turning the island into a haven for the global rich (in actuality Chinese and Middle Eastern rich). The ordinary needs of ordinary people, such as affordable essentials, decent educational, health and transportation facilities and safety from crime, are being neglected. The rule of law is replaced with the law of the rulers. Sri Lanka is more isolated internationally than she has been since 1987; her unhealthy dependence on China has placed her in a position which may be perceived as ‘anti-Indian’ by Delhi’s new ‘insular and distrustful’[iii] ruler. An extractive and oppressive familial state is being created from within the bowels of an imperfect democracy.
The Mahawamsa myths provide the sword, the shield and the rationale for this monstrous transformation.
In Mahawamsa, Prince Gemunu, when asked by his mother about his foetal sleeping position, replies: “Over there beyond the Ganga are the Damilas, here on this side is the Gotha-ocean, how can I lie with outstretched arms?”[iv]
This early exposition of ‘Lebensraum’ together with the myths of Consecration and Sinless war form the fundamentals of the Sinhala-Buddhist version of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’. According to this rendering, Lankan history is the history of the struggle between pristine Buddhism’s sole refuge and the invading/encroaching ‘Hindu, Christian and Islamic worlds’. And under Rajapaksa rule, this psychotic worldview informs and shapes ‘nation/peace-building’.
How can there be a lasting peace or a Lankan nation, if the guiding ideology of the state sees an enemy in every non-Sinhala-Buddhist? Imagine the harm which can be done when this perception is diffused through the ideological state apparatuses to the coming generations and becomes rooted as the new commonsense.
Our school-system, marred by de facto segregation, is structurally incapable of creating Lankans. Many schools are ethnically/religiously uniform; as jealous preserves of a single community they reinforce our primordial identities. Consequently, many children spend their formative years without any association with their ethnically/religiously different compatriots. Most of them would carry their ignorance and its offspring, prejudice, into adulthood. The teaching of history as a Sinhala-Buddhist narrative has wiped out the role played by non-Buddhists in building and protecting this island and its civilisation[v]. Monorail religious education has prevented Lankans from understanding the basics of each other’s faiths.
How can a Lankan identity be built in such an ignorant and prejudiced social-soil? How can a Lankan unity be created without a Lankan identity? Can a country be kept together by the force of arms alone? Can a genuine reconciliation be achieved without a measured understanding of the war, including its political genesis? Can peace be built in a pluralist country by alternating mind-numbing fear with triumphalistic sabre-rattling (of ‘the enemy is everywhere and we will defeat the enemy every time’ sort)?
The mounting ethno-religious discontents in the South are paralleled by increasing socio-economic problems in the North. For instance, five years after winning the war, more children are dropping out of Northern schools. “Most of the dropouts are from poor families who find it difficult to make ends meet as humanitarian assistance dries up…. The situation is being aggravated by an acute lack of job opportunities and rising cost of living.” [vi]
A new generation of war-scarred, uneducated, unemployed and unemployable youth is not a recipe for peace or development. With such a legacy, only the blind can celebrate victory.
[ii] Sourced in the Mahawamsa theology which states that unbelievers are of a lower order than even beasts and killing them is not a sin.
[iv] Mahawamsa p164
[v] The hidden facts include the non-Sinhala origins of such celebrated monarchs as Nissankamalla and Kirti Sri Rajaisngha, the role played by Muslims in resisting European invasions and the contribution made by non-Buddhist Sinhalese to the struggle for independence. The list is long and requires a separate article, at least.