By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“…for a myth does not analyse or solve problems. It represents them as already analysed and solved…” -Edward Said (Orientalism)
In the collective memory of the Sinhala South, the past was a happy country, a place where all Lankans lived in amity and harmony. Vellupillai Pirapaharan spoilt it all by igniting a war out of nothing.
S.W.R.D Bandaranaike At a mass rally during the General election campaign – 1956-pic courtesy of: S.W.R.D Bandaranaike Museum
Three years after the victorious ending of the Eelam War, Sri Lanka is busy returning to that mythical past. The lessons a people learn from history depends on the history they remember and believe in.
For many Sinhalese, 1956 was not when the Pandora’s Box was opened; it was a moment of liberation. Believing this, we see no need to ask ourselves why we clamoured for ‘Sinhala Only’, if our objective was to enhance our independence by ousting the language of the colonial-oppressor from its place of primacy.
The ‘Sinhala Only’ demand was propelled by the power-hunger and opportunism of politicians. But it became hegemonic because a Sinhala majority did believe that Ceylon/Lanka was a Sinhala-Buddhist country and that racial/religious minorities were guests without inalienable rights. Sinhala failure to understand that Tamils too can feel passionately about their language and that no one likes to be a second class citizen in his/her motherland exacerbated matters.
‘Sinhala Only’ sowed the first seeds of the long Eelam War. It also deprived many Sinhalese of an opportunity of learning an international language. Mired in parochialism, they became an easy prey for right and left extremisms. Now, more than 50 years later, the political legatees of 1956 are sending the crème de crème of the descendents of the Pancha Maha Balavegaya to military camps to learn English and table etiquette!
Extremism can be self-defeating and ludicrously so.
The past we hasten to return to was a country which made its Tamils feel like undesirable-aliens. Some tried to fit in, some migrated and others protested, peacefully, democratically and legally.
The Sinhala establishment, drunk on political triumphalism, responded with indifference, ridicule and violence. Our idealised past was the country which taught Tamils that peaceful methods do not work and convinced them to take up arms. And turned Vellupillai Pirapaharan from a boy who killed birds into a history-making leader.
If the past was the happy country of our memory, the LTTE would not have come into being; and Mr. Pirapaharan would have ended his days as a smuggler (or some other social-misfit) unknown to history.
Vellupillai Pirapaharan was a true child of the political culture of incomprehension and intolerance. He began with ‘Tamil Only’, thereby marginalising and antagonising the other component of the ‘Tamil speaking people’ the Muslims; instead of creating Tamil-Muslim unity, he opted for ethnic cleansing, presenting the embattled Lankan state with a valuable ally.
He followed this with a ‘North First’ policy which led to an unprecedented schism in the Tiger monolith. He also launched murderous attacks on non/anti-Tiger Tamils; the victims of his bloody drive for domination included the best minds and the most courageous fighters produced by his community.
If the LTTE did not resort to murdering political opponents, suicide bombings and child proscription, the Tiger would not have become a banned species in so many Western countries. If the LTTE did not kill Rajiv Gandhi, it would not have earned for itself the costly enmity of Delhi.
Like Sinhala Supremacists, pro-LTTE Tamils (especially of the Diaspora) dream of returning to their own version of a glorious past, when the Tiger reigned supreme. But for Tamils too, a retrogressive project will be a self-defeating one. The Tiger country may be a place littered with many triumphs, but its eventual end was on the shores of the Nandikadal lagoon.
The past was not a good place, for any of us. If we return to it, we will find neither peace nor harmony; only mistrust, fear and renewed conflict.
Three years ago, the triumvirate consisting of Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa and General Sarath Fonseka led the Lankan Forces to an outstanding victory. Equating Tamils with Tigers was the premise on which the government fought the war.
Equating Tamils with the LTTE is the basis on which it is building peace.
So, almost 300,000 Tamils were incarcerated in open prisons, masquerading as welfare villages. So, the North and parts of the East are being run like de facto occupied territoriesPerhaps nothing symbolises this iniquitous peace than the criminalising of mourning for the Tamil war-dead.
Had that ban been limited to Mr. Pirpaharan and a few other leading Tigers, it would have made political sense; but it is a universal prohibition and applies to all Tamils except those killed by the LTTE.
Most civilian Tamils would have a family member or a friend one who belonged to the LTTE and died in its service.
Many civilian Tamils were also killed during the war. Imposing a universal ban on mourning the Tamil war-dead is an act of psychological cruelty and political inanity which cannot but obstruct reconciliation. If the ethnic conflict had a casus belli, it was the imposition of the Sinhala language on Tamils. According to TNA parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran, Tamil Government Agents (GA) are being transferred out of the North and East to be replaced by Sinhala nationals who do not know Tamil.
For instance, the GA of Vavuniya has been transferred. “This follows the appointment of the GA Mannar. We protested. We have consistently protested that the GA Trincomalee is a person who has no proficiency in Tamil…”
The critical absence of a political solution plus petty-minded attempts to impose the majority language and religion on the minorities: the past is almost here.
The 13th and the 17th Amendments were the most important progressive-democratic constitutional measures since Independence. The former was imposed on us by India while the latter was a home-grown measure. Today the 17th Amendment has been turned into a dead-letter by its anti-democratic antithesis, the 18th Amendment. The 13th Amendment is alive simply because of Rajapaksa’s fears about Indian/Western reactions.
So, grandstanding apart, home-grown solutions are non-starters. After all the Rajapaksas belong to the Sinhala supremacist camp which wrecked every attempt at a ‘home-grown solution’ from 1956 to 1987, thereby paving the way for the birth and predominance of the Tiger.
The Tiger in turn helped resurrect the Sinhala supremacist project by ensuring the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa via its boycott of the 2005 Presidential polls. The Rajapaksa determination to impose a Sinhala peace on the Tamils can cause a reactive-revival of Tamil extremism.
By providing the Ruling Siblings with a handy enemy/scapegoat, it will help the Dynastic Project.
Last week several state agencies announced, in rapid succession, the implementation of various pro-democratic measures. These were obviously aimed at the crucial Washington meeting between the Lankan Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State. If Gen. Fonseka receives the presidential pardon he was denied repeatedly, that too will be in part due to the Rajapaksa need to pacify the Americans politically and, if possible, to win a counter-concessions on Iranian oil purchases.
In the absence of a broad Sinhala-Tamil-Muslim unity (which is pro devolution /democratic/poor) in the oppositional space, is foreign pressure the only really-existing-impediment to our heedless march to a deadly past?