Colombo Telegraph

‘Twined With The Dead Boughs That Winter Still Must Bind’: Can Sri Lanka Be Helped?

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Present Realities and Precarious Options – XI

The stake of the Tamils in a united Sri Lanka in nothing less than a struggle for civilised life. Though externally a successful people, barbarousness has invaded the hearts and minds. Some living in the LTTE- controlled Vanni put it discreetly, “It is true that there are human rights violations under the Sri Lankan government. But here we have no shadow of human rights.”

St. Augustine (see beginning of the book) observed that while many surrounding nations saw the fall of Rome as a public calamity, the Roman ruling class by their licentiousness and indiscipline seemed unable to avert it. Though a Roman citizen, Augustine was from North Africa. His region came within the empire after the capture of Carthage five centuries earlier. His interest in the Roman Empire was that it stood between public order and civilised life on the one hand, and public calamity on the other. His city of Hippo was overrun by barbarians in 430 AD. Likewise today, the success of the LTTE and the collapse of Sri Lanka would be a public calamity here and far beyond. Many would like to help this country if it would take the few steps in its power to help itself. But where do we stand today?

The UNP’s refusal to make a public reckoning of its malign record in government has helped to perpetuate that legacy. Thismalignancy is exemplified by its premeditated violence against the Tamils. Having promised to abolish the executive presidency, President Kumaratunge has used it to entrench herself, showing little sensitivity to the utterly detrimental abuses it permits. The situation today evokes pessimism, after the hopes raised in 1994.

The PA government has tried to use the findings of presidential commissions to write a slanted history of the JVP era for propaganda against the UNP. To this end, police and court proceedings have been blatantly selective and the JVP has been allowed to look clean. C.A. Chandraprema for example was taken in for questioning by the Police, but not PA ministers, MPs and MPCs who were linked to paramilitary groups. It is a dangerous game to put all the blame on the UNP. While the UNP’s gross abuses gave opportunity for the JVP’s murderous putsch, the SLFP too was culpably unprincipled and dishonourable.

The people voted in 1994 for justice, not for what is going on now. The JVP era’s history needs to be placed on record impartially and come to terms with, but in a careful and sensitive manner. Even the hands of many who did not touch a gun were stained with blood. For the party in power to approach that history in a one- sided manner would render peace a distant prospect. The role of the major parties is again a reflection of what afflicts various segments of society.

Today’s peace lobby comprises a varied spectrum. In it are church groups, Christian and Buddhist leaders and Dr. Ariyaratne’s Sarvodaya. Among advocates of a political solution to the ‘National Question’ from the 1970s are several smaller left parties, the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) and other open-minded individuals. This second group may today be found in the MIRJE, the National Peace Council, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Free Media Movement and several democratic movements. These groups had been consistent in their opposition to Sinhalese chauvinism. Their weakness stemmed from one crucial area.

Little was heard forthrightly from this second group on the enormity of government policy as a whole during the mid-1980s – particularly the policy of depopulating whole villages in the East. The information was available in human rights circles, but it was difficult then for anyone in Colombo to charge the Government with genocide. Further, no comprehensive account of the July 1983 violence was attempted in this country. These compromises could be explained, but they were to lead them into a cul de sac where, in the long run, their opposition to chauvinism and commitment to democracy became questionable. Some left-groups voiced maximalist Tamil positions, but with no serious interest in concrete issues of justice.

The first group, church leaders etc., were clear neither about political accommodation nor in their opposition to chauvinism. This was manifest during the July 1983 violence (see Chapter 13). They also knew about military atrocities in the North-East, but hardly said a word. By contrast, leaders from the main churches presided over Army Day service in late 1986, singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. In December 1986, a large group of Christian leaders arrived in Jaffna on a goodwill mission. A trap was being set.

Just then, the LTTE had banned all other militant groups, killing hundreds of them. Also, Bishop Ambalavanar of the JDCSI, a late convert to Tamil nationalism, had placed himself firmly in the LTTE camp. He and members of the Jaffna elite played on the guilt feelings of the visitors. Of course, they were wilfully blind to the skeletons overflowing from their own cupboard. Those in Jaffna could not have missed the fratricide on their streets during May, while the average Southerner may not have known the extent of the State’s depredations in the North- East.

The Southern visitors were taken to meet LTTE dignitaries – Kittu would have appropriately impressed them – and were given hopes of a peace-making role. This was congenial for those who relish high level contacts – which several church leaders had with senior cabinet ministers – while being averse to taking inconvenient moral positions that may result in loss of those contacts. They felt thrilled and flattered by the LTTE and again disregarded the Tamil people. This meant taking aboard a measure of arrogance. The model for the future was in place.

Prabhakaran then took direct control and nothing came out of this effort. Later, the second group (left organisations etc.) supported the Indo-Lanka Accord (July 1987) and were threatened by the JVP. Having survived the anarchy, they emerged in 1990 compromised with the State in varying degrees. Inevitably a new cynicism had crept in, and in view of the attention focussed on the country, several of them were thrust into international NGO politics. Consequently, there was a market place for positions and the old spontaneity was gone.
With the renewal of war in June 1990, the Sri Lankan forces went berserk. Both groups evinced reluctance to be forthright on the Government’s atrocities. Fear was one reason. Also,

Premadasa’s crushing of the JVP enjoyed quiet approval and the LTTE had misbehaved. Further, it was generally opined that the LTTE would not last. The Churches knew about Army and STF atrocities in the East, but one would be hard put to pick out any meaningful statement. Sarvodaya was then obliging the Army in settlement projects. During 1991, the LTTE nearly overran Elephant Pass and the war reached a stalemate.

Once more, the Churches and Sarvodaya took on a peace-making role. Those like Bishop Ambalavanar played on their guilt and got Southern church leaders to esteem the LTTE as the spokesmen for the Tamil people. This significantly neutralised tendencies at the World Council of Churches to look at the LTTE and its versions critically. By this time the LTTE had tortured and killed thousands of Tamils and Tamil churchmen helped to suppress this outrage. In general, both Southern groups referred to lost the moral initiative.

In the eyes of the world both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE had become unpleasant realities and the interest shifted from human rights to peace-making, with emphasis on stability. Consequently, there was a congenial, and yet elusive, emphasis on Southern groups opening a line to the LTTE, implicitly accepting its exclusive claims over the Tamil people. The drift was towards appeasement of the LTTE camouflaged by slogans of peace. The rights of the Tamil people were buried along with all the awkward questions of this country’s recent history.

Whence, any other voice among the Tamil people came to be treated as inconsequential, since, it was argued, whatever the nature of the LTTE, it was the force to be reckoned with. By a perverse logic, it was held that because the LTTE had repeatedly shown by obdurate violence that peace for the Tamils was complete anathema to them, they were the only viable road to peace!

*To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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