By Jude Fernando –
Mobility, Humanitrianism and Security
The second major question is how Tamil and Sinhalese value post-war government interventions in development, rehabilitation and security, and why is it that there are tensions between the two community’s encounters with these projects, despite the fact that they share similar apprehensions about the outcomes of these projects.
The war’s end brought stability to the North-East and expanded people’s mobility in the North and East and between the North-East and rest of the country. North-South tourism expanded, as southern tourists preferred northern sites. Tourists’ visits to the North and East evoked nostalgia for the ancient Sinhala kings’ unifying the country against the invading Tamil kings. Framing the war victory as the triumph of independence was inevitable in a society that had never experienced a struggle for independence and which believes war against the LTTE was also a war against neocolonialism and imperialism.
The government invested heavily in the development of historical and religious sites and mega development projects in the North and East, particularly in infrastructure and commercial tourist and agriculture projects. Foreign and southern investments flowed into the North and East to take advantage of natural resources, beaches, land and forests restricted to market-based investors during the war. In the midst of increasing economic activity, the neoliberal institutions jettisoned its pressure on the government to improve the human rights conditions in the North and East.
Security forces have expanded their role in humanitarian aid and development by providing assistance to relevant government projects and investing in commercially viable projects the military managed. They increased their visibility in the religious, social, and cultural rituals and functions of the North East. Expanded civilian role of the military, however, stood in contradiction to Tamil media representations as an occupying and neo-colonial force, and militarization of the north and east.
The government carried out elaborate programs to rehabilitate the displaced populations and the former LTTE carders. In fact, it used these programs as evidence against the international community’s accusations of human rights violations. Expanded interactions between the Sinhala and Tamil populations, the visible and tangible results of development and rehabilitation and the military’s image as a humanitarian and development force, together, enhanced the government’s political and humanitarian credentials of spearheading peace and prosperity in a unified country. Against this backdrop of governmental achievements, how do we explain the crisis of this political culture and dissent against the regime? How do we explain the continuing polarization of the political culture that presents challenges for the opposition candidate to increase Tamil votes?
Many naïve tourists believed that the Tamils’ smiling faces and their hospitality towards southern tourists demonstrated the Tamils celebrated the end of the war in the same way the tourists did. Perhaps the culture of fear and their preoccupation with rebuilding their lives after the war precluded the public display of the Tamils’ resentment towards the southern tourists’ lack of sensitivity to the Tamil culture and their post-war feelings and vulnerabilities. Tourists’ interpreted the silence of the locals as them subsuming their political and cultural aspirations under the official narrative of national interests. Not having a critical perspective of official nationalist history made them oblivious to how the local population contested the post-war reconfigured appearances and meanings of historical, cultural and religious sites in the North East.
The political and cultural meanings of government’s post-war humanitarian projects have mostly embodied the political and cultural aspirations of the majority community. Being top-down interventions and controlled by the centre, these projects have undermined the potential for devolution, and, instead, they have enhanced the powers of the centre and of those Tamil politicians generally disliked by the majority Tamil community. Locals were hardly consulted as to what they wanted. People’s participation in decision making on these matters was hampered by the constraints on freedom of expression under the prevailing and perceived culture of fear and people’s suspicion of the potential for their political project to be co-opted by these development projects.
The regime’s concentration of power and dismantling of democratic institutions heavily relied on history and the cultural and political aspirations of the Sinhalese embodied in the symbolic representations of the government’s post-war achievements as well as in the ‘new meanings’ attached to the cultural and archaeological sites in the North East. Perverse nationalism has undercut the solidarity between the Tamils and Sinhalese who resented the regime’s exploits, particularly with those Sinhala-Buddhist groups that organized resistance to government policies that negatively impinged upon culture and religion in the same way the Tamils resisted.
The influx of foreign capital and investors simply exacerbated the Tamil community’s anxieties about their economic and political vulnerabilities. The farmers, fishermen and local businesses hardly benefited from these development projects. Instead, they faced displacement due to the extraction of natural resources, land development, commercial farming and fishing and increasing control of the tourist industry over beaches and natural and archaeological sites in the new post-war economy in the North East. Although the Tamil community’s experiences of dispossession and marginalization of post-war development projects are in many ways no different from those of the Sinhalese, lack of Sinhalese empathy how these projects impacted the democratic political aspirations of the Tamil’s militate against solidarity between the two communities. The lack of solidarity, in turn, provided ample space for the ruling regime to concentrate it’s power with a colonial policy of divide, rule and conquer, a policy that explains the current popular dissent against the ruling regime.
Post-war security, stability and freedom of mobility in the North also failed to free the space for democratic politics from culture of fear and anxiety. The regime countered the allegations of suppressing freedom of expression and human rights abuses in the North and East by claiming that they are made by those hostile to the countries interests and jealous of its post-war rebuilding successes. There have been widespread discrepancies between the national and international media reports regarding the human rights abuses in the north and east. These media stories did little to verify the human rights allegations made by the international media. Many media stories provided credibility to the government’s position that the allegations of human rights abuses are sinister plots by external forces. The government escaped public criticism for justifying its concentration of power and dismantling of democratic institutions in the name of protecting the country against these external forces. These circumstances prevented or distorted the Sinhalese people’s knowledge of human rights conditions in the North East.
Widespread reporting in the Tamil media fed into the politicization of the diaspora and international criticism of the ruling regime, which, in turn, became a reason for the government to suppress the connections between the Tamils in Sri Lanka and international forces. The government’s vilification of the Tamil diaspora failed to recognize the diversity of political opinion among Tamils and acknowledge that the reasons for their exile had less to do with the LTTE and more to do with the decades of ethnocentric government policies and ethnic riots. The international social media stories on Tamil perspectives of the reconfiguration of their physical and cultural landscape through development and human rights abuses in the North East were either absent or significantly different in the Sri Lankan mainstream media. Preoccupation of Mainstream media’s preoccupation with dismissing international media as hostile to national interests helped the regime suppress freedom of expression, even in matters unrelated to the Tamil community, in the name of protecting national security.
The post-war period saw the convergence of national security establishments and civilian institutions in charge of social, economic and political affairs. The security forces saw its post-war role as creating security and stability to complementing the government’s post-war programs. Tamils often contested the expanded role of the military in civilian as curtailment of their freedoms of speech and participation in discussion making. Minister Champika Ranawaka, after defecting to the opposition, accused the Ministry of Defence of intimidating local politicians, and social media outlets continuously made allegations of the military’s dabbling in politics. The two communities shared experiences with militarization of civilian affairs, however, did not lead to solidarity between them. Sinhalese view the increasing role of the military in the north and east as a humanitarian and national security imperative, and it’s culture of fear and respect for military for ending war prevented them from challenging military’s post war roles. Tamils view militarization within the context of their struggle for democracy against the state.
Until the highly securitized political culture and the ruling family’s concentration of political power began to constrain democratic freedoms, many in the South, including politicians in the current opposition, helped the regime to brand criticism of militarization as dishonouring war heroes and aiding external conspiracies. Another crossover politician, Prof Rajiva Wijesingha, claimed, “Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s determination to defend his forces from any criticism, regardless of what they might have done, may in the end prove decisive in ensuring the success of the campaign to denigrate Sri Lanka and its government. This in turn will set the seal on the failure of the Rajapaksha government to promote reconciliation within the country and thus build sustainable peace following its military victory” (CT, 3/12). However, these criticisms do not necessarily entail empathy for the Tamil community’s criticisms of government’s post-war role in the North and East. Many Sinhalese and Tamils view these criticisms with a great deal of cynicism and as opportunistic self-confessions.
The Tamils have rejected the successes of the reconciliation projects, labelling the projects as ‘materialistic’, and as attempts by the regime to pave the way for the hegemonic enthonationalist narrative to take control over the reconciliation process. These projects have also failed to capture the psychosocial dimensions of the problems and to create a space for victims and perpetrators to seek and come to terms with the truth. Intellectuals conflated the search for truth with learning lessons from the war, and the government half-heartedly implemented the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). They were too naïve or ideologically inhibited to realize that Tamils are not “babies” who do not realize the implications of these interventions for their political aspirations and ways the ruling regime could exploit them to enhance its power.
These intellectuals failed to realize, educate the public, and advice the government on how the ethnonationalist and national security framings of government interventions in post-war development, rehabilitation and security generate political and material capital for the regime’s concentration of power and for the consolidation of the “Rajapaksha Dynasty” (CT, 18/12). They were not attentive to how these interventions shaped the political culture that now they are critical of. These intellectuals, while in positions of authority, have failed to challenge the political opportunism and ideological reasons for the government’s failure to fully implement the LLRC recommendations and other policies for reconciliation, rehabilitation and the protection of human rights.
The barriers for meaningful reconciliation with justice that the post-war government interventions erected were far more impenetrable than those before and during the war. The necessity of devolution and addressing human rights concerns ceased to be priorities in the Sinhala political consciousness, as the government claimed that the ostensible successes of its post-war interventions justified delaying it’s response to minority concerns. The regime’s strategy of delaying its pledges to honour the concerns of the Tamil community was successful until these political exploits of its post-war policies became unbearable for the majority community.
The pertinacious ethnoreligious nationalism alienated the two communities from each other and has undercut the potential for shared political consciousness against the regime’s political and economic exploits of its post-war interventions. Both communities share similar experiences of dispossession, marginalization, and oppression, both are resentful of the minority who control the country’s wealth. The opposition protests against these injustices often used the language of freedom of expression, democracy, militarization, neo-colonialism, dictatorship and autocracy. Unfortunately opposition or mainstream media rarely use the same language to explain the experiences of the Tamil community. The manufactured history of the conflict and war has deprived the two communities of a space for empathizing with the fundamental differences in the political and cultural implications of the regime’s post-war interventions for the two communities. Opposition cannot take for granted Tamil and Sinhala votes against the regime, despite their shared apprehensions about it.
Perhaps, the most enduring cause of polarized political consciousness between the two communities, that the opposition has to grapple with, is the ways in which different communities permitted the government to memorialize and commemorate the war.
Politics of Memorialization
The third major question is what space the government allows Sinhala and Tamil communities to commemorate the war and the losses and trauma associated with it, and what are it’s implications for political consciousness of Sinhalese and Tamils.
The post-war political consciousness coalesced around how meanings of sacrifice and trauma are memorialized and represented. War memorials and commemorative events provide familiarity and tangibility with the past and keep alive the ways people remember the past and the ways the past informs their present and future political consciousness. In a multicultural society with contested group identities, ways in which different groups wish to remember the losses and benefits and heroism and betrayals of war are not always similar. They are informed by their respective cultures and political aspirations, which extend beyond the war and uneven spaces provided for them to memorialize war. Yet the space for culturally sensitive memorialization for all stakeholders in the conflict is indispensable for meaningful reconciliation. To understand the implications of memorials and commemorations in post-war situations, we need to ask several questions. Do these memorials/monuments explode the myth of a “unified” Sri Lankan society? Are the notions of heroism, loss and trauma in the memorial/monument space racialized? Whose history is remembered and suppressed through memorials and commemorations? How are particular visions of history constructed, while others are marginalized?
Sincere engagement with these questions reveals the uneven space provided for Tamil and Sinhala communities to memorialize and commemorate loss, trauma, and heroism. The available space was not equally sensitivity enough to the respective cultures and political histories of these communities, and disregarded how memorializations are typically used as means of meaningful reconciliation in other post-war situations. The politics of this space is both utilitarian and ideological and centres on managing the past and present memories of the war to increase the regime’s hold on power, rather than improving the wellbeing of all those affected. Such space is about creating paranoia about the recurrence of the traumatic experiences of war without the leadership of the ruling regime. This formulation precludes the creation of a space for people to express feelings and anxieties together—to reduce feelings of being disposed of, isolated and vulnerable and to bring closure and healing. This is typically practised in post-conflict societies.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is permitted to monumentalize and commemorate its fallen heroes, who symbolize sacrifice for the struggle against injustice and inequalities, despite the fact that it committed violence against innocent civilians, just as the LTTE did. Furthermore, unequal space for commemoration ignores an important personal element in the post-war political consciousness of the Sinhalese and Tamils. Fallen heroes are first sons and daughters for their parents, prior to joining militant groups and the military. The history and reasons that led them to the war are not entirely of the making of their sons and daughters. Some of them were forced into the war. And Sinhala and Tamil parents justify the loss of their sons and daughters as sacrifices made for the good of their respective communities.
The point here is not to justify the memorialization of the LTTE’s terror, the alleged human rights abuses by security forces or the violence that traumatized all ethnic groups or to disrespect sacrifices of those who ended the war. Rather, the point is that polarization of political consciousness is inevitable when different ethnic groups are deprived of equal space to memorialize the different histories and individual and collective memories of a conflict. The challenge for the opposition is to win the Tamil vote without losing Sinhala votes by tactically engaging with these psychological aspects of war, which the regime is widely mobilizing.
Certainly, the Tamil political consciousness, too, is complex and riddled with contradictions and crises, as it is subject to a variety of forces trying to take control. These forces are not necessarily free of all the criticisms I made of the major political parties, which the Sinhalese dominate. The point I emphasize here is that not recognizing reasons for the Tamils’ alienation from the Sinhala-dominated political parties and entirely denying their political aspirations contradict many of the reasons for the opposition’s dissension against the regime and the basic properties of the new political culture the opposition promised.
All about Votes!
Winning the election is about making public opinion that stands in opposition to public mindset of the conflict and the war that the current regime has established, which has a history much longer than that of the opposition’s manifesto. Presenting people with the truth is the surest way of ‘conscientizing’ them to manage their past and inspire them to make choices for a more humane and just future. Politicians should not be surprised when people aren’t persuaded by words that embody truth because people’s feelings and daily and historically informed experiences attribute meaning to words.
The opposition’s message in reaching out to the Tamils should be more nuanced from that of the regime. It need not remind the Tamils that boycotting elections or not explicitly endorsing the opposition’s agenda would render them complicit with the regime. The current political culture has not seduced the Tamil community as it did the majority community. The opposition campaign should emphasize how the regime’s current policies allow external forces to diminish the wellbeing of all communities while also displaying a great deal of sensitivity to the history of the conflict and uneven distribution of war dividends between the different ethnic groups and the lack of concern granted the Tamils’ political aspirations. Following that, the opposition can draw on a narrative where the injustices faced by the Sinhalese and the Tamils are not that different and demonstrate how the national government the opposition promises would consolidate this common ground and sell it to the public so that it can gain traction.
Rather than making concrete promises to the Tamils (e.g., devolution of powers), the opposition should invite the Tamils to actively participate in the new political culture it hopes to create, which will treat each person, each individual and member of a ‘collective’ with distinct cultural and territorial identities as equal in worth and dignity. It should recognize the role of Tamil civil society and political parties in their efforts to address the grievances of the Tamil community and give assurance that the new national government will create a framework for these groups to participate in nation building without being fearful of persecution and of their culturally specific democratic space’s being co-opted. The opposition must empathize with the Tamils’ history of struggle for democracy without making them feel like passive victims, but rather as those capable of making a difference.
Finally, a shared political consciousness against anti-democratic regimes will not emerge in multicultural societies organically. Nor could consciousness be created under the conditions that are entirely controlled by those who desire it. Existing conditions have to be strategically managed and new ones created to combat risks and uncertainties. This is especially true in societies where democratic institutions are dysfunctional. Such societies are polarized, and a culture of fear reins for a prolonged period. In these situations, the recurrence of an Arab Spring-type scenario is unavoidable. One good reason to support the opposition in this election is the hope that the reforms it proposed in its manifesto will pre-empt the society’s plunging into the chaos, violence and instability that could follow if an Arab Spring indeed occurred in Sri Lanka. One would hope people’s choice at forthcoming elections will be informed by maitrī (in Sanskrit (मैत्री), meaning benevolence, friendliness, amity, friendship, goodwill, kindness and active interest in others), so that as Jimmy Carter noted, “We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different Beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams”.