Monday, July 11, 2011

Sri Lanka’s War Burden: Two years on

Rounded view

During the last couple of months, the former UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka – Mr Gordon Weiss has been promoting his book titled “The Cage” and making his case in support of allegations of war crimes committed in the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The Channel 4, film titled “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” being broadcast around the world and accessible on YouTube has added raw emotional visuals, adding much momentum to those claims.

These two features offer glimpses into the recently concluded brutal conflict in Sri Lanka to the wider world that is already saturated with images of an inflamed middle east and Lady Gaga. Our thirty year civil war is a subject that audiences across the world have rarely had to think about, except fleetingly as a piece in the puzzle about ‘boat people’ from Sri Lanka landing on the tightly guarded shores of Australia and Canada. “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields in particular, has slightly shifted the boundaries of an interesting dichotomy however; one that is mostly visible from outside of Sri Lanka. While it seems to those living in the island that the whole world is out to get us, ordinary people outside of Sri Lanka have largely been unaware of what’s going on to be interested or concerned.

Perhaps it is a testimony of the pervasiveness of violence in our world; that over hundred thousand lives could sink in the quicksands of a country’s history, in a brutal conflict spanning over three decades, without the world taking much notice. Two years after its bitter end however, images from the final battles have found a fleeting time slot in the 24-hour news cycle. They have confronted and mildly traumatised ordinary people who would struggle to find us on the world map even now. Perhaps the terrible images they are being exposed to, will even cause a minor stir in them before slipping out of their collective memory to be replaced by concerns about rising fuel prices and a weekend’s football scores.

I feel Sri Lankans however, must welcome the world’s attention on the conflict even though it comes two years after the cessation of hostilities. As a Sri Lankan living in outside the country and someone who grew up with the conflict, it would be a disservice on my part if a more enduring footnote is not added to the narrative – for the sake of the more discerning citizens of the world among whom I now mostly spend my time.

Even though my interest in the Sri Lankan conflict is not merely academic, I admit there’s a historical value to the account that Gordon Weiss records in his book. It is based on information to which he would have had access in his capacity as a resident UN spokesman during the last stages of the conflict. He truthfully admits however, that no independent observers were allowed to witness the final battles.

Rather surprisingly, I as an ordinary citizen had a more intimate experience of the conflict while growing up. The nightly news had a daily death-toll of terrorists vs. soldiers and everyone sub-consciously cheered when their side had won on any given day. I argued with anyone who bought lottery tickets that they had a better chance of dying in suicide attack on the streets of Colombo than wining the jackpot! Until 2009, I had no memory of the country not being at war.

Now, two years after the end of a three decade long conflict, I find it strange to find serious journalists accusing ‘both parties’ of the Sri Lankan conflict, of failing to protect civilians. I knew that as a naive 16-year old child! Even though Colombo gained infamy for countless suicide attacks, it was the remote villages bordering the conflict zones that actually bore the brunt of the LTTE’s wrath. There are a large number of orphans – now teens and young adults from those villages in orphanages all over the country – who bear the unmistakable scars of war on their faces and disfigured limbs. Their most painful wounds lie deeper – bloody memories etched in three or five year old minds – of watching their parents being hacked and themselves being left for dead.

The first civilian casualty of the conflict however, was Alfred Duraiappa; a Tamil politician and Mayor of Jaffna. The year was 1975 and the assassin Velupillai Prabhakaran, who founded the now infamous and extinct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). Subsequently, as communal violence escalated, the Sri Lankan government was accused not only of failing to protect its Tamil citizens from Sinhalese mob violence in 1983, but also of being complicit in those attacks.

As the civil war raged, the number of civilian casualties inevitably increased not only due to the callous disregard of combatants for the safety of their unarmed brethren, but also due to them being deliberately targeted – that is definitively what terrorism is and the LTTE was an internationally designated terrorist organisation credited for pioneering suicide attacks. Among their civilian victims were, politicians – including an Indian Prime Minister, priests, commuters, pilgrims and shoppers.

Apart from the civil war, Sri Lanka faced a violent youth insurrection in the majority Sinhalese south during the late 80s. Tens of thousands of uncounted civilians – mostly youth – died in the ensuing conflict which the Government of the day brutally suppressed. All these civilians mostly lived and died in widely accessible, populated cities; in full view of the world’s media and diplomatic community, but out of their memory. Indeed I am sure the many thousands of western tourists who visited the island over the past few decades would mostly remember Sri Lanka for its beautiful landscapes, delightful tea and the alluring, sincere smiles on her people’s faces. That her people managed to preserve those smiles and continue to toil for the fruits of her rich soil is perhaps the greatest testament of their resilience. That must be why the island is now promoted as a “Small Miracle”… which the poet W. S. Senior at the turn of the 20th century called “This peerless land of beauty’s plenitude”.

But Gordon Weiss appearing on Australian TV remembered a totally different picture. He even made repeated allusions that what happened in Sri Lanka was similar to the genocide in Sudan. That claim is dishonest and blatantly false. Given how he packaged the fictional claim with carefully chosen facts, it may have seemed credible to a majority of his audience who may not have followed the Sri Lankan conflict. Mr Weiss cleverly pointed out that governments of both Sri Lanka and Sudan were able to commit these alleged crimes with diplomatic cover provided by the Chinese government.

The tacit claim that China is a complicit partner in crimes being committed by despotic governments World Wide is rarely questioned by citizens of the Global West – because to them, it sounds reasonable enough to be true. China’s involvement in Sri Lanka must be the subject of a more detailed analysis, but it suffices to point out for the record that Sri Lanka’s closest and most powerful neighbour India was the primary influence in the conflict from its inception and escalation to bloody end. It was the political climate in India that dictated the time-line and tactics that brought about a swift end to the conflict in May 2009 and it was India’s diplomatic cover – equally, if not more than that of China and Russia – that has prevented any international intervention so far. Mr Weiss mislead the audience with a distorted view of China’s involvement in the conflict and such lapses cast doubts about the credibility of his voice and the sincerity of his motivations.

However, anyone who has experienced war as intimately as Sri Lankans (or Iraqis and Afghans) have in recent years would agree that ‘war’ invariably extracts civilian casualties. That is what war is, and that is why War itself is the crime. The LTTE cadres and Government soldiers who died also had loved ones and friends who were civilians. They also had dreams and ambitions like all of us. If the fact that combatants bear arms and is therefore in a position to better protect themselves than civilians is sufficient reason to legitimise their deaths and criminalise the death of civilians, what logic would prevent someone from attacking anyone who bears arms – which includes almost half the United States population – with impunity?

Those who have lived through war realise more readily than those who haven’t, that laws legitimising the deaths of combatants and criminalise the deaths of others is based on corrupt and immoral logic. Those who have seen the brutality of war can speak with more authority for all of humanity – without posturing behind dubious notions that the humanity of combatants is in some way different or inferior to that of their civilian brethren. The thought of it is ironic, but it is by no means a stretch of the imagination to think about how the youth of Sri Lanka who were called to unleash so much violence – on each other and themselves – may have even intermarried had they not been born into the tragic conflict and conscripted by poverty, lack of opportunity and violence!

More specifically with regards to allegations of civilian casualties during the last phase of war, no one with sound mind and integrity can stand by the claim of “zero civilian casualties” as made by the government of Sri Lanka. Yet, anyone who has lived through the conflict in Sri Lanka and even those outside the island who understands its background in more depth would have noticed critical gaps in the narrative that both Mr Weiss in his book and Channel 4 in its film portray. Their naive commentary about civilian casualties in Sri Lanka is both misleading and patronising because It is a war that was sparked off with civilian casualties and raged on a furnace fuelled by a vicious cycle of civilian casualties. It would take the most incompetent journalists and diplomats to wake up and take notice of that fact; only two years after the thirty year conflict had ended.

The story lines of both Mr Weiss and the producers of “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” do not provide a holistic reading of the issue and fail to sufficiently grasp its complexity. Perhaps it is no fault of theirs because they are both looking at the problem as outsiders; without any emotional attachments to the place and its people, and without any real stake in the conflict itself, its outcome, or the shared destiny that the warring parties now share. I don’t think it is fair to accuse them of imperialist motivations and racist prejudices because they seem to be driven more by their job descriptions, to think it incumbent on them to selectively pass judgement and seek to punish sovereign nations whose actions and conduct they find offencive to their Western ideals.

On the other hand, Sri Lankans who have had a stake in the fate of their country has failed to articulate the broader narrative intelligently. Surprisingly, an ancient culture steeped in peaceful and tolerant Buddhist traditions have not nurtured enough moderate voices that can accommodate all communities. Sri Lanka’s leaders lack the self awareness and humility to look inwards. They understand the fears and anxieties of the most vulnerable communities that form the bedrock of their constituencies sufficiently to manipulate and exploit them, but not deeply enough to be able to empathise with them. Hope on the ground for the poor and exploited people is thinning. An emergence of a moral leadership that can inspire a humanist approach to the problem and able to bridge the deep emotional divide – particularly between the long estranged elements in the Tamil community in the Diaspora – does not even make-up the most fragile dreams of the hopelessly optimistic.

Yet, the reality is; Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka do not have the luxury of being able to pass judgement on each other and prosecute each other because their destinies are tightly intertwined. Those who failed to realise it and chose violence and war to settle historical grievances have already sacrificed an unborn generation in their failed cause. The challenge before the Sri Lankan people is to rise up from the ashes of war and try more amicably to make our shared history and common future richer and more meaningful – for our recent history and living memories provide bitter lessons on the consequences of failing to do so.

Any astute historian reading into Sri Lanka’s historical narrative will easily notice an undertone of insecurity; of a people who have been under constant threat of invasion and colonisation for over two thousand years and are now very weary of it. Therefore, any ‘external’ diplomatic threat of International intervention in post conflict Sri Lanka is perceived by Sri Lankans with hostility and justifiably as an attack on their sovereignty.

The Rural masses which form the support base of the current government – whose sons and daughters made up the military rank and file – perceive it as a direct threat to their children. Therefore external pressure for investigations, only serve to solidify internal popular support for what is a corrupt and dictatorial regime.

The common denominator in most drawn out conflicts – Sri Lanka, Iraq or Afghanistan being cases in point – is that populations that sustain the war effort on either side grow tired of war proportional to the cost of life and limb and the drain on their treasuries. However as much as opposition to war increases, every General, foot soldier and military operation that is carried out with the promise of a dignified end to violence gain tremendous public support. The present state of Sri Lankan society is a product of that evolutionary process and everyone – especially the survivors of its most intense violence – welcome the end of hostilities unreservedly. Here, the fact that any residual dissatisfaction in the Tamil population is about the significant shortcomings in the rehabilitation and rebuilding process and not a about the end to violence, is an important distinction to make. It follows therefore that those Generals who won the war are revered as popular heroes by a vast majority of the population – across all communities – who opposed the war.

It is ironic that the terrorism of the LTTE was sustained by a steady flow of funds from industrialised nations. The same government who did little to curb the flow of funds and armaments that intensified and perpetuated the conflict in Sri Lanka, are now alleging war crimes; and that irony is not lost on the people of Sri Lanka. During the last stages of the conflict in early 2009, the Sri Lankan army was accused of using cluster munitions – which the government vehemently denied. The voices of those who championed that allegation are silent now – perhaps after the public revelation that it was none other that the world’s biggest banks that are based in their countries, who had invested close forty billion dollars in eight cluster munitions manufacturers since 2008. Therefore, the credibility of allegations against Sri Lanka – for better or for worse – has been tainted by the lack of credibility on the part of those making them. As a result, the West is widely perceived by Sri Lankans as being duplicitous and complicit in extending and escalating the conflict. Continued diplomatic pressure and blatant hypocrisy is driving Sri Lankan foreign policy ever further from its historical ties with the West and closer to its Asian allies.

The popular war victory and perceived external diplomatic threat has been perfectly exploited by the incumbent government of Sri Lanka to entrench itself in power – aided by an impotent opposition. Any honest, intelligent and inspired political leadership will take time to evolve in the current political climate in Sri Lanka where the narrowing definition of her ‘national identity’ remains a cause for concern and an impediment to reconciliation. Space for liberal and pluralist ideas is hard-fought and shrinking in the self-censored local media which has itself been rendered ineffective by a widely popular government’s intolerance of dissent. The decline is perhaps most evident by the lack of any significant public protest against the killing of a dissenting newspaper editor in early 2009 and the incarceration and disappearances of others like him.

That is why any threat of international investigations could actually be a catalyst for reigniting the fires of violence in a population whose majority is already feeling insecure and under attack. The ultimate objectives of any externally imposed or forced investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka is not only poorly thought through, but will jeopardise the safety of the most vulnerable sections of society including the rural poor. Though well-meaning proponents of such an investigation may seek to achieve justice and reconciliation, it would achieve exactly the opposite with dreadful consequences for the people of Sri Lanka.

Indeed, Sri Lankans desperately need uninhibited access to truth, opportunity and justice – and they have for two thousand and five hundred years of its recorded history. What most advocates of social justice in the fast paced world of today fail to understand, is that such societal changes are not going to manifest over-night in a country that is still bleeding from the wounds of war. The present generation of Sri Lankans and perhaps even the next, will have to wonder through the desert, for a generation not yet concieved, to reach the ideals of their promised land. The future of their country is not a matter for those outside to impose on. It is for the people within to embrace and be empowered by the values on which their future and the inheritance of their children will be founded on. They must understand by now, that they alone will also have to bear the consequences of their choices. The population is highly literate; and though timid in nature, Sri Lankans are intelligent and innovative people. Given time and the right incentives, truth can manifest and justice can and will emerge.

Fortunately, there is still a semblance of a democratic process left in Asia’s oldest democracy, and it inspires hope. However, recent constitutional changes (the 18th Amendment to the constitution) have removed vital checks and balances on the already dominant executive and removed its term limits. They were far more damaging to the long term peace in the country and the well being of its citizens. Any genuine and well-meant efforts aimed at promoting truth, reconciliation and peace in Sri Lanka have to focus on strengthening the democratic institutions of the country and empowering its people, rather than disenfranchising them of choices that they alone have the right and privilege to make.

Originally published on Groundviews

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