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Deadly Gap Between Hype and Reality is a Staple of Rajapaksa Governance

pic courtesy of AFP

“By Tisaranee Gunasekara

People who cannot find their way out of history are lost, and so are their nations”. – Elias Canetti (The Human Province)

May, according to the government, is the ‘Month of War-Heroes’.

May began with a soldier killing another soldier and turning the gun on himself. Days later a navy-man committed suicide after shooting a female colleague. The latest murder-suicide incident is the third in three months.

On Sinhala and Tamil New Year’s Day, in Galle, a soldier on leave assaulted a Tamil youth for not calling him ‘sir’; that incident ended with nine Tamil houses being looted and burnt.

These violent outbursts are indicative of a serious psychological malaise plaguing the armed forces. We can afford to ignore these signs of painful discontent turning into raging despair only at our collective peril.

A deadly gap between hype and reality is a staple of Rajapaksa-governance.

There is the idea of the ‘war-hero’ and there is the reality. The veneration accorded to the abstract notion is in stark contrast to the manner in which the concrete is treated.

For instance, the economic difficulties faced by flesh and blood ‘war-heroes’ and their families are in stark contrast to the billions spent on honouring the ‘war-hero’ in the abstract. Many of the lower ranking members of the armed forces (and police) would belong to families at the lower end of the economic totem-pole, the ones hardest hit by the non-appearance of the peace dividend and by the recent price tsunami.

The Rajapaksa insistence of a compulsive peace, a peace-at-gun-point, means that the armed forces have to control the North and parts of the East as if these are occupied territories. In other words they have to continue to do their job in an atmosphere redolent of suspicion and fear, amidst people they regard as aliens and who in turn perceive them as interlopers.

Some hints of the insalubrious psychological climate emerged during the recent visit by a group of Indian parliamentarians. “‘They come to birthday parties uninvited or enter temples,’ Tamils told the delegation members (Ceylon Today – 19.4.2012). “….Congress MP M. Krishnaswamy said he could see fear on the faces of the refugees when they talked… According to T. K. Rangarajan of the CPM, some of the refugees in fact mustered the courage and told them that they were being harassed by the Sri Lankan military, whose permission was required for every activity— even to have a wedding reception” (CNN/IBN – 24.4.2012).

Is there a connection between this noxious psychological landscape and the fact that many – if not most – of the recent incidents of suicide-murder happened in the North and the East?The honour accorded to the ‘war-hero’ in the abstract is diametrical opposite to the uses to which really existing ‘war-heroes’ are put.

For instance, because of the Defence Ministry’s decision to swallow the Urban Development Authority and usurp many properties and functions of elected local councils, soldiers are compelled to fill in for municipal labourers, cutting grass, sweeping sidewalks and carrying trash, in full view of an indifferent public.

Moreover, if the Kolonnawa and Villachchiya stories are accurate, it is possible that some members of the forces are compelled to engage in civil-crimes such as abduction and robbery. Two private television stations carried visuals of the hurried departure of STF men alleged to have engaged in treasure hunting in Villachchiya.

Most of the men and the officer believed to be their leader left with their heads down and faces averted, their demeanour starkly reminiscent of the shameful behaviour of criminal-suspects leaving court premises.

All of this cannot but contribute to the psychological malaise affecting members of the armed forces.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a new name for an eternal problem. This condition (the symptoms of which include hyper-reaction, nightmares and emotional numbing) cannot but affect the Lankan Armed Forces which engaged in a three decade war – and a counterinsurgency in between.

Dr. Neil Fernando and Dr. Ruwan M. Jayatunga carried out probably the only study of PTSD in Lankan armed forces. According to Dr. Jayatunga, this study indicates that “8% to 12% of combatants are severely affected by combat stress and many of them are not under any type of treatment… This may be the tip of the iceberg… A traumatized soldier can transform his stresses to his family and to the community.

Hence, in the long run the whole country is affected by the repercussions of combat stress… The authorities have not identified combat stress as a vital factor that should be dealt with effectively.

Lack of experts in military psychology as well as the lack of funds has
made psychological trauma management painstakingly difficult…” (The Island – 2.1.2010; emphasis mine).

Expensively celebrating the ‘war-hero’ in the abstract and ignoring the psychological malaises affecting real ‘war-heroes’ – can anything be more ignoble or more foolhardy?

Asoka, Dutugemunu and PTSD

After their successful wars, Emperor Asoka and King Dutugemunu experienced what today’s experts call PTSD. Both sovereigns were appalled by the carnage which paved the way to their victories, a display of humanism which places them far above many of today’s leaders.

A repentant Asoka faced the problem head on. He did not try to deny the carnage, gloss over it or justify it. “…After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas…by the killing, dying and deportation…” (13th Rock Edict).

In sharp contrast, a remorseful Dutugemunu was assured by a group of monks that the killing of ‘millions’ would not impede his path to heaven because “Only one and a half human beings have been slain here by… The one had come unto the (three) refuges, the other had taken on himself the five precepts. Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts” (Mahawamsa). This is the defining moment in the transformation of Buddhism of Siddhartha Gautama into Sinhala Buddhism, a religion which mandates the use of violence in combating unbelievers and protecting Lanka as the sole refuge of Dhamma.

The Asokan edict abhors war; Mahawamsa defends and justifies wars waged against ‘unbelievers’ by dehumanising the enemy. Encapsulated are two ways in which PTSD was dealt with. Asoka accepted the horrors he caused and sought redress in non-violence and acts of outstanding humanism. Dutugemunu felt the horror but was persuaded to resort to effacement and denial. Naturally it is Dutugemunu’s path we have opted for. Just as the monks resolved Dutugemunu’s dilemma by declaring the non-Sinhala Buddhist dead to be ‘beasts’, the regime transformed the Fourth Eelam War into a humanitarian operation with zero-civilian casualties by turning every dead Tamil into a Tiger. Killing Tigers is both patriotic and meritorious.

According to President Rajapaksa, Lankan soldiers fought with the Declaration of Human Rights in one hand and a rice packet for refugees over one shoulder. How can such an expression of loving-kindness cause something as unwholesome as PTSD? How can a soldier feel anything but joy in remembering such meritorious deeds?

Can real ‘war-heroes’ feel war-trauma? Is that not for cowards and anti-patriots?

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