By Vihanga Perera –
Rajan Hoole’s Palmyra Fallen – a twofold critical investigation into (a) the immediate political context in which the Rajani Thiranagama assassination took place in September 1989 and (b) the run up to the military crushing of the LTTE and the aftermath of the state “war victory” of May 2009 – is published at a crucial time. In the book, Hoole suggests that the text serves as a twenty fifth year death anniversary commemoration to the slain academic-rights activist Rajani Thiranagama, but, more crucially, Palmyra Fallen provides a very insightful (in-sightful) engagement with the “War Crimes” debate – a forum that has been a pivot of the Lankan fate in both national and global politics over the past six years or so.
As such, Hoole contributes to a trans-national literature which includes works such as The Cage by Gordon Weiss (2011), Still Counting the Dead by Frances Harrison (2012); and Lanka’s own home-grown state propagandist counter-thrust to the former, in the likes of the “Engage Sri Lanka” publication, Corrupted Journalism. Channel 4 and Sri Lanka. Another source that takes an decidedly establishmentarian stance in this issue is Paul Moorcraft’s Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers (2014). The state patroned respondents have, in particular “Engage Sri Lanka”, taken meticulous measures to address Weiss and Harrison in their “damage controlling” role in defense of the state militia, while making Channel 4 and three documentary films they launched causing global controversy the main point of assault.
The “war crimes” debate has not abated. Through the above kind of channeling and counter-channeling of views through media, much revelation and uproar has been caused. But, these opinions have hardly worked in the way of facilitating reconciliation or education. The main reason for this is that the state has failed the nation in being a reconciliatory agent both during the war years, as well as in its aftermath. The failure of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime to address the aspirations, anxieties and insecurities of the East and the North – and its inability to “speak” to that demographic distribution in a “common language” – was amply demonstrated in the January 8th Presidential Election results. Condemnably, Rajapaksa – in a bid to follow his narrow chauvinistic henchmen, while upon returning to his home in the deep South – submitted his own election analysis in a disgusting “communal dialect”: he, in the face of the deep Southern Sinhala mass, attributed (through very strong implication) Maithripala Sirisena’s victory to be a win gained upon the “Northern and Eastern Tamil vote”. This has since been the xenophobic ember the pro-Rajapaksa faction is decisively in the process of rekindling with a bid to return to high-stakes politics.
Why Hoole’s text is crucial, therefore, is because Hoole – along with his fellow activists – engages in a tangibly “ground level” analysis of the North and the East in the war years and the post-war aftermath. On the surface, Palmyra Fallen may take the guise of a sequel to Broken Palmyra (1990), written by Hoole, Rajani Thiranagama, Daya Somasundaram and K. Sritharan; but, in my opinion, the book has a more broader perimeter and project in view: possibly because it is written at the “conclusion” of the military tussle between the state and the LTTE – which, one may assume, allows for a broader vision to structure a study of this sort – even though the “militarization” of the North is by no means over. In this essay I do not wish to engage in a critical analysis or breakdown of Hoole’s text, for it would be a bigger project than a blog entry, but I would like to call to attention why Palmyra Fallen becomes a beacon in the current moment of our post war debate.
For reasons hinted at the outset – for Hoole’s entry being one from within the Northern and Eastern community, and for it being a political project born of the soil – Palmyra Fallen has an irrefutable organic relation to the people, the geography and the culture which it subjects to analysis. Hoole, in other words, brings into his project his position of being an “authentic” role player of the political chess board which he measures. He has moved across the 64 squares, and he is a part of that matrix in the broadest sense. This simultaneous subject-object status is a strength Hoole has, which the likes of Weiss, Harrison, Moorcraft or any other apologist for the Mahinda Raj cannot use as a foundation. The scientific, objective nature of Hoole’s interrogation is another key aspect. Hoole argues with statistics, parallels, projections and formulae. He strives to stand outside the perimeter of history and reconstruct historical moments through careful examination of meticulously culled evidence. In fact, the vast range of Hoole’s evidence – both in geographic and demographic terms as well as in the way they represent a wide spectrum of history – is a decisive strength of the case he presents. Even the evidence is well measured, highlighting ambiguity, lack of corroboration and such, through which the discursive quality of his reading is enhanced.
Hoole documents many horrendous crimes committed by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan forces during and in the aftermath of the war. Chapters 7, 9 and 10 – and relevant sections from the supplementary notes – in particular are oriented at probing into systematic crimes against humanity committed by the above-mentioned agents of terror. Hoole’s analysis condemns the Lankan state – under Rajapaksa and his inner circle – of lacking a basic reconciliatory incentive that would have addressed the grievances of the ordinary masses of the war torn area. It is without a doubt the mass response to this lack of empathy or consideration that was expressed in the penury vote Rajapaksa managed to pull out of these regions: the ill harvest which his propaganda unit now threshes out as the voice of Eelamism.
The second half of the eighth chapter submits a formula through which people losses and demographic erosions over the war period – and their short and long term implications – can be sustained. I found this chapter quite intriguing for it tables a statistical analysis of what we otherwise gloss over as numbers and categories. Hoole’s formula gives the process through which the numericals are formed, while locating the changes / depreciations in a historical perspective. This is one chapter any student of the conflict should not bypass.
The populist Southern Sinhala extremist cannot simply lash out at Hoole as being “pro-LTTE” in his writing, as Hoole’s work – as of members of the UTHR – is a strong statement against the LTTE for almost three decades. The likes of Sritharan, Hoole and Somasundaram have barely escaped persecution. Some of their colleagues have not been that lucky. The objective balance of the study and the holistic approach to different factors which he streamlines through a broader perspective makes the Palmyra Fallen primary reading for any foot-board traveler of the chauvinistic bandwagon of Sinhala populism. Chapter 9 (“Whose Country?”) and 10 (“A Barren Field: Colonisation and its Costs”) submit valuable reading in de-sanitizing the blindfold cast on the Southern masses by Sinhala extremist rhetoric: an ideologically poor judgment-meting on a community and culture that is not one’s “own”, and who’s problems and issues are disregarded as non-existent. For such handicapped, Hoole documents the complex and complexities of warring agents and of conflict cultures (in their plural forms). Chapters 9 and 10 constitute an extensive 79 page section attributed to this end.
As a closing note to this brief appraisal of Rajan Hoole’s compelling investigation, I would quote the following lines which summarize the failure of the Rajapaksa regime in being a nation-uniting force after a three decade war. Perhaps, this is only too apt as that gentleman, from what we see in a new spree of child-hugging posters pasted across small townships, seems to be busy re-tying his napkin for a further serve of a further slice:
“Inclusive anniversary commemorations could have been a unifying force for the country, but this was entirely lost on the Government. Its embrace of the Military as the Sinhalese pillory in which to set the minorities has inured the Government to glaring instances of crass vulgarity. For example, in the Vanni, war-affected Tamil survivors starve or are severely malnourished for want of aid. Nevertheless, the Government offers cash rewards to the Military, which occupies lands stolen from these survivors, to produce more off-spring. Far from championing the Sinhalese, however, the regime will bring them an equal measure of ruin. The Government is developing the Military as a shield against public anger stirred by the use of external borrowing for wasteful projects that destroy our environment and reward the rulers with commissions. What the Sinhalese poor, like the rest, need most is social justice that includes better quality education for social advancement – and not to be made part of a destructive scheme of colonization in the North-East” (318-319).