Peace Frame-Poongkothai Chandrahasan in conversation
Poongkothai Chandrahasan learnt the meaning
of resilience while making films involving war-affected people. In conversation with Papri Sri Raman
Peace is the dividend Harvard-trained filmmaker Poongkothai Chandrahasan, 28, seeks after 25 years of the conflict between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government which recently came to a gory end in her homeland. Poongkothai, who hails from an illustrious family of lawyers and peace activists, is a woman with a vision for her war-torn nation.
A refugee in Tamil Nadu, India, since the age of three, Poongkothai was in the heart of the Sinhalese area in the north when LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran was declared dead. The LTTE had waged a violent war for over 25 years against the Sri Lankan government seeking to create an independent Tamil state in north and east Sri Lanka.
It admitted defeat on 17 May 2009, when the government finally took over the entire LTTE-controlled area.
Prabhakaran was shot dead while he was trying to flee from the Sri Lankan Army the following morning.
Recounting her memories of that day, Poongkothai says, “When the celebrations began, I was on the streets walking along with the people, taking it all in, and just watching their expressions of joy. The ladies were cooking ‘kiribath’ (a milk and rice dish made on auspicious occasions), the children were waving flags, hundreds of people took to the streets in a matter of an hour. The roads were choked with men and women waving the yellow Sri Lankan flag. Trucks with army personnel were stopped by civilians who hugged the soldiers. Effigies of Prabhakaran were burnt at various spots, with thousands gathered to watch this spectacle. Many families fed me ‘kiribath’, as I made my way through processions of village people, with women dressed in white, children with white flowers in their hands...”
She elaborates, “What touched me the most that day was that these were Sinhalese villagers ~ poor people with no agenda ~ wearing their feelings on their sleeves. Every single person I spoke to said to me, ‘The war is over, we are so happy.’ They were not celebrating the defeat of the Tamils. They were celebrating the fact that now there would be peace in Sri Lanka!
“Today, Sri Lanka stands testimony to the futility of violence. Tamils can only regain their rights through peaceful negotiation and, if not, then a non-violent struggle.”
Poongkothai was in north Lanka all through the period of negotiated peace, from 2003 to 2006, filming her people’s misery through a conflict that has uprooted 600,000 people, disrupted livelihoods, and created a surreal, pock-marked landscape, known in fairytales as the emerald island.
Recollecting the day of celebration, she states, “I wondered what it must be like in the Tamil areas. Are the people there happy? Are they sad? Are they in just too much pain to care?”
To get a feel of their response, she telephoned people in Vavuniya, in the Northern Province, which used to be a front line town during the war. “Standing on the second floor terrace of a dilapidated building, tired from walking for hours, I called up acquaintances in Vavuniya and asked them whether people there were celebrating too. I was told that there was a more muted expression of relief there. From this, I gathered that perhaps the Tamils too were happy that the war is over. But for them the future still remains uncertain.”
Then again, how many of the ‘quarter of a million’ living in the welfare camps are even in a position to celebrate, wonders Poongkothai. She elaborates, “The situation in the camps is gut-wrenchingly sad.” As a filmmaker, she was working with veteran journalist Walter Cronkite ~ who passed away just recently ~ to bring to the world the plight of her war-torn nation. Her earlier films have been shown at various peace and conflict foras, while her lastest venture is presently on the editing table.
She also plans to return to north Sri Lanka in August to assist in the relief work in the camps of internally displaced persons (IDP), where her brother, a lawyer, is project coordinator of the humanitarian agency ZOA, that has been working with war victims for years. Their mother, Dr Nirmala Chandrahasan, an international law expert, was one of the four Tamils on the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) experts committee. The aim of the APRC was to draft a set of constitutional reforms in the interest of stability and growth.
Poongkothai is not sure if at the end of war there will be real peace. Her skepticism stems from being born into a political family, where political discussions were a regular occurrence. “I guess politics is in my blood,” says Poongkothai, whose father S.C. Chandrahasan is former legal secretary of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and founder of the refugee care organisation, OfERR. Chandrahasan has escaped three assassination bids. “Both my father’s father, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam; and my mother’s father Dr E.M.V. Naganathan are Tamil leaders of the non-violent struggle in Sri Lanka,” she says.
Little wonder then that she places a premium on peace. “Peace has to be looked at holistically from the point of view of the whole country. While the north and east have been badly affected, the Sinhalese part of the country has also suffered from the fallout of the war and the high cost of living. As a peace activist, my priority would be to bring the different communities together and build a common Sri Lankan identity.
“Post-LTTE, Sri Lanka will require many years of rebuilding,” believes the young activist. She also talks about equality for all. “There must be just treatment of the IDPs, who must be allowed to relocate to their original villages and get compensation for the loss of livelihood. Furthermore, these areas will have to be demilitarised. For the people to feel secure, the military and police forces must include a good proportion of Tamils and Muslims, and there should be greater recruitment of women of all ethnicities,” she says.
“Even the aid that flows must not just be for the north and east but must also be distributed to those Sinhalese areas which are economically deprived. The international community has to exercise responsibility in the dissemination of aid, so as not to cause resentment among the Sinhalese,” she adds.
Sri Lanka has to be a place where all people feel that they are equal citizens, not subject to arbitrary arrest and detention by the forces; and all have the opportunity to elect their own representatives to local and parliamentary bodies without harassment and intimidation.
So far, Tamil politicians have been identified only as Tamils, she points out. “I see it slightly differently. I believe Tamil politics has to change. If I were a Tamil politician, my identity would be that of a Sri Lankan and the issues I would lobby for would be for the betterment of the country as a whole.”
According to Poongkothai, the one thing she has learnt from the war-affected people is the meaning of the word ‘resilience’. “One could be negative and say that the wounds will remain. But I like to believe that when people can go back to the land, their crops will be abundant, their children will be educated and a prosperous future beckons them. It’s only then that the wounds of the war will heal,” concludes this young refugee with a peace agenda.
Women’s Feature Service