“What has gone wrong?” (Ben Bavinck)
By chance, different strands came together in my mind, the first two leading to the third and most important, namely, Sri Lanka’s poor placing in the UN’s ranking of nations according to the degree of happiness experienced by its peoples. There are many factors which explain this uncomplimentary and unfortunate positioning, and I focus on the willingness to deny the full humanity of the other. Specialists with far better knowledge of political, economic and sociological factors, will explain better and more comprehensively.
These are days when Callum Macrae’s ‘No-fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka’ is very much in the news. The savagery of those final days must horrify and move to pity any and all possessed of even a modicum of humanity. Apart from the mass-killing, why were the helpless victims first humiliated and tortured? Here and elsewhere, Tamil Tigers about to be executed are shown to have been stripped naked. Perhaps, an explanation is there in Into That Darkness, the book resulting from Gitta Sereny’s interview with Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka, largest of the five Nazi extermination camps. At these camps, it was not only the mass killing but that the camps were so organized as to achieve the maximum humiliation and dehumanization of the victims before they died. But why, Sereny asked him, if they were going to kill them anyway? What was the point of all the humiliation? Why the cruelty? Stangl’s simple but chilling explanation was: “To condition those who actually had to carry out the policies. To make it possible for them to do what they did” (emphasis added).
The second strand is Ernest Macintyre’s play ‘Irangani’, based on the ancient Greek tragedy, ‘Antigone’, by Sophocles. (I thank the playwright for sending me a copy of the text.) I quote from a note by Macintyre at the end of the text. During the 1971 JVP insurrection, “Kataragama was a centre of insurgent activity. On April 16 the Sri Lanka Army crushed the insurgents and brought the town under their control. That day several girls, including Premawathi , who were believed to be involved with the rebels were arrested.” Premawathi Mannamperi was tortured, stripped naked and then forced to “walk across the town […] Finally, stopping near a post office, the officers opened fire on the girl and buried her alive (emphasis added). They returned on two separate occasions to finish her off. She ultimately died from a bullet to the head. The account of her suffering and death in the play follows closely the real events.”
Premawathi was stripped naked and paraded publicly in a country claiming to be fundamentally traditional, conservative and, above all Buddhist: the religion par excellence of compassion, morality and self-discipline. If a young Sinhalese Buddhist woman could be so treated; if thousands of young Sinhalese Buddhist JVP members and (alleged) supporters could be killed by a Sinhalese Buddhist army, then the treatment of Tamils is not an aberration but an extension. Dutch Christian priest Ben Bavinck in his diary records that a number of youth have been beheaded in Kandy, and their heads displayed with the sign, “Coconuts for sale”. The question Bavinck asks himself should be pondered by all Sri Lankans: “What has gone wrong?” (See, Sarvan. Sunday Leader, online edition, 6 November 2011.)
Thomas Hardy, in a poem titled ‘The man he killed’, imagines a soldier thinking that war is very strange: you kill a man with whom, in peace time, you might have had a drink and a chat; even lent a bit of money to help him out. In other words, both being human, he could be me, and I could be he. But Stangl at Treblinka; 22-year old beauty queen Premawathi at Kataragama, and the manner of the killing of Tamil civilians and of Tiger combatants who had surrendered, all point to what I think is the crucial, the most deadly and tragic, first step. The word “dehumanize” means to deny or take away the human identity of a human being: for mass slaughter; extreme and gratuitous cruelty; torture, degradation and humiliation the first and crucial step is to deny that the enemy is equally human – unlike the ‘voice’ in Hardy’s poem. They are different and, being different, can be treated differently; not being human as “we” are human, they can be treated inhumanely. In The Mahavamsa, Dutugemmunu grieving over the thousands of deaths he has caused is comforted by Buddhist monks: You have killed only one and a half men. The one was a Buddhist; the other on the way to becoming a believer in the teaching of the compassionate Buddha. The rest, not being Buddhists, were but animals and don’t matter. The Tigers may have had human form but they were veritable demons. Being demons, they should be exorcised, the more inhumanely, the better. Torture and degradation, as Stangl explained, makes it possible for mass and indiscriminate (civilians; women and children) killing to be unleashed. They are, in fact, an essential prerequisite. Sadism of this extreme kind makes the perpetrators callous, and frees them of the weight of conscience so that they can repeat the ghastly act again and again without compunction, even take pride in it. One remembers US soldiers and the pictures they took of their treatment of Iraqi prisoners, proud of themselves and proud to show others.
These two strands lead me to the third. In the UN General Assembly’s second ‘World Happiness Report’, 2013, out of a total of 156 countries, Sri Lanka is ranked near the bottom at 137. Leading the list are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Sweden, Canada and Finland. Nor is it a case of power (the USA is 17th) or wealth (Saudi Arabia is 33). One can react to this ranking of Sri Lanka with an enraged “We don’t care”; with denial, “It’s simply not true” or by challenging the validity of both criteria and methodology. Easiest of all, and playing the player rather than the ball, the present writer can be sneered at and abused. But taking into account Callum Macrae’s report and what Ernest Macintyre presents in dramaturgical terms (that the play hasn’t been staged in Sri Lanka is indicative) the constructive reaction would be to undertake an honest self-examination, and to ask two questions: Why is Sri Lanka’s ranking so low? How can it be changed for the better?
In July 1995, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered in what is known as the Srebrenica massacre. Now (September 2013) the Dutch Supreme Court has ruled that since these Bosnians happened to be under the protection of Dutch UN troops at the time of the mass killings, the Dutch government will accept responsibility. There is no suggestion that the Dutch soldiers carried out this massacre. Nor was there great pressure from the international community on Holland – unlike with Sri Lanka – and yet the country carried out an investigation; accepted, with deep regret, full responsibility, and will pay compensation. (This is one of several, and varied, factors why Holland, small in size and not extraordinarily rich, is ranked fourth. Germany comes 26th.) Such a reaction is unthinkable in present-day Sri Lanka, given its culture – culture in the widest sense. Of course, one could distract attention and point to crimes during the Dutch colonial period, but what matters is not the past but the present state of a country and its people.
Sir Thomas More in his Utopia (1516) observed that the successful working of a system depends finally not on the system but on the people who run it. It’s the people who determine how a system or structure, be it political, economic or social – indeed, a country as a whole – works. They are the decisive factor, and it is their mind-set and behaviour that needs to be changed: what I have inclusively, if vaguely, referred to as their “culture”. The ideal and the aim must be to bring about a decent and just society (one which, among other things, doesn’t forget that enemies are also fully human beings) and so increase the degree of happiness in ‘the Paradise Isle’ for all its citizens.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way… (From Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’)