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Saturday, 22 September 2018
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Sinhalese and Tamils, at the War’s End PDF Print E-mail
Tisaranee Gunasekara

 “We found that we were often very suspicious of one another and that it was not easy to develop real trust in one another. We realised only later that we were all victims of a potent conditioning which gave us ready made judgements of those who belonged to other groupings, although we would, most of us, have protested vehemently that we were not using stereotypes.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (No Future without Forgiveness)

This is a time of choice – for the Sinhalese and the Tamils, as individuals and as communities.  

In pluralist countries ruptured by divisive tendencies, osmosis is the only realistic path to nation building. Over a period of time, the different ethno-religious groups need to partially move away from their particularist thinking and parochial loyalties, and, in doing so, become the creators and the constituents of a new, broader and more inclusive identity. When the task of nation building has to be undertaken in the aftermath of a civil war (which had ended not in a compromise but in the decisive victory of one side over the other), it has to be preceded by a process of healing and reconciliation.

A Sri Lankan identity is impossible so long as Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims cling to their Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim identities, demanding that others abjure theirs. We must become little less Sinhala, little less Tamil and little less Muslim for us to become Sri Lankan. A post-war reconciliation will not happen, so long as Sinhalese and Tamils cling to their black and white version of the past and the present, each confined to critiquing the other instead of looking inwards. Both communities need to participate in an endeavour of understanding, accepting and mending, of reaching out. But before we start seeing each other as fellow citizens, with equal rights and responsibilities, we need to be able to see each other as fellow human beings. As the great Sufi poet Saadi said, “If you have no sympathy for human pain, the name of human you cannot retain” (Golestan).


The Sinhalese need to ask some basic questions from themselves, starting from whether they condone the internment of close to 300,000 civilian Tamils in camps just to catch a few thousand Tigers skulking amongst them. Some of these camps have better facilities than others, though all of them are likely to become a hell on earth once the monsoons begin (for a firsthand report on the conditions in the Menik Farm read ‘IDP Camps in Menik Farm – An Eyewitness Account’ in The crux of the matter, however, is not the presence or absence of adequate facilities in these camps, but the indisputable fact that their inmates are not free men and women. They do not have the right to leave these camps even if they want to, even if they have alternate accommodations with friends and relations (as many do). They do not have the right to go looking for their lost family members, even to an adjoining camp, just a barbed wire fence away. They often do not have the right to communicate with family and friends outside the camps. This total absence of freedoms, which form the fundament of human social existence, has turned these camps from ill equipped but necessary refuges into unacceptable open prisons. And it is this factor the Sinhalese need to focus on, because the camp system amounts to the extra-legal incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Tamils, for no crime.

The IDP camps are not comparable to Nazi death camps or even Nazi concentration camps. But they are illegal as hell and immoral as hell. Sri Lanka can do better, be more organised and more humane, as we showed in the aftermath of the tsunami. Hundreds of thousands of people lived in camps, but they were not detained; they had the freedom of movement, the right to live with a relative, the right to look for a family member. That did not create a state of anarchy, of chaos in the affected areas. Why cannot the regime adopt a similar policy here? The argument that these men and women are war displaced does not suffice. If we maintain that the war was not against Tamils but to liberate them from the clutches of the LTTE, how can we justify treating every displaced civilian Tamil as a real or potential Tiger or detain every single one of them simply to catch a few Tigers? Is this the liberation the Tamils were promised?

Even from a purely utilitarian point of view, the camps are a bad idea since their very nature sends the wrong signals to Tamils and the world. The camps are symbolic of inequality and discrimination, injustice and inhumanity; they stand for a Sri Lanka which is hierarchical and unfair, a country under Sinhala dominance where the minorities have no intrinsic, inalienable rights, and are subject to the will and dictats of the majority. These camps could not have been justified even in the midst of the war; they are an abomination now that the war is over. They are also the breeding grounds of anger and resentment, of seeds of hatred and revenge. They will keep the dream of a separate state alive, because, for their inmates, the camps represent Sri Lanka, an unequal and unjust land in which they can never be fully free or feel completely safe.

Most of the civilian inmates of the camps lived in their villages throughout the war, until they were driven away by the incessant bombing and shelling. There is no reason why they cannot go back now, since the war has ended and with it the bombing and the shelling. True, many of them would find their dwellings completely or partially destroyed, but, yet, many may prefer the rigours of ‘home’ to the dubious comforts of an internment camp. As for the safety argument, the landmines were placed by the Tigers and these civilians lived amidst them for years; most would know where the landmines are and how to avoid them. True, there would be a few accidents, perhaps even fatal ones, but is that any worse than dying of disease or killing oneself out of despair in the camps? At least the inmates must be given the choice, either to go back or to remain. So long as that choice is not accorded to them, the state is holding them against their will, an act that is as outrageous as it is illegal. By remaining silent, we Sinhalese are not only losing a chance to reach out to the Tamils; we are also becoming complicit in an act of infamy which is totally incompatible with our political and legal systems, our religious beliefs and cultural traditions, our very humanity.

It was our errors in the past which pushed the Tamils into taking up arms. If the Sinhala Only and the Standardisation did not happen, the LTTE may not have come into being; without the Black July, it would not have grown exponentially. All three acts are components of a politico-psychological whole; they denote a vision of a hierarchical Sri Lanka, a Sinhala First country, a country in which minorities are not co-owners but welcome or unwelcome guests. It was this attempt at equating national and Sri Lankan with Sinhala, which pushed a majority of Tamils into rebellion. Unless we do not want the future to be like the past, the mindset that gave rise to these legal/constitutional and violent inequities must be abjured.

The Sinhala hardliners seem to think that the defeat over the Tigers have given them a carte blanche vis-à-vis Tamils, to treat Tamils with manifest injustice with no fear of retribution. That belief is one of the main underpinnings of the camp system; it is also the premise of the hardline allies of the Rajapakses who argue that devolution is unnecessary now that the Tiger is no more (for them devolution was not about doing justice to Tamil demands but a way of bribing the LTTE). Unless a conscious effort is made to abandon this Sinhala supremacist project, we are likely to act in a way that would frighten and alienate the minorities, not just Tamils but also Muslims and perhaps even a segment of Sinhala Christians. A Sri Lankan identity would be impossible under such circumstances. And the only peace we will know is the uneasy and unsafe peace that comes from the barrel of the gun. This peace would be dependent on the North and the Tamil areas of the East being ruled, more or less, like occupied territories and on treating every Tamil as an alien and a potential traitor. Such a status quo would be disastrous both politically and economically; it would extract a heavy price not just from Tamils who live under it but also from Sinhalese in whose name it is perpetrated.


Many Tamils grieve for Vellupillai Pirapaharan on the grounds that he gave this once powerless community a voice. He did. That is indubitable. What the Tamils need to ask themselves is whether the voice he gave them helped them or damaged them.

Vellupillai Pirapaharan made a flaming mark in the world, but as a leader who excelled in the use of human bombs, conscripted children to man his war machine and murdered his political opponents. With his conduct, he made Tamil synonymous with Tigers, and, by extension, with suicide killings and child soldiers. It was because of his depredations, Western nations sympathetic to Tamil cause felt compelled to ban the LTTE. These are facts Tamils need to look at squarely, especially the Tamils in the Diaspora, who unlike their traumatised and terrified brethren in Sri Lanka, have the time, the space and the opportunity to engage in this necessary exercise of introspection.

The Tamils may mourn the passing of the LTTE; but if they do not want to be submerged in the Tiger’s abysmal fall, they need to move beyond the LTTE. The LTTE came into being at a time when armed national liberation movements were the vogue. But that period in history is over. If the Tamils want to work towards a future better than the present and the past, they need to change in consonance with the new Zeitgeist. They also need to benefit from hindsight and comprehend what went wrong; because something went wrong, very badly wrong, and it would be the acme of inanity to deny that. It is not so much the defeat of the Eelam dream; it is more what the LTTE did to Tamil spirit and reputation, Tamil lives and hopes, until the very last act of forcing 300,000 innocents to act as unwilling cannon-fodder. The Tigers always sought to justify the unjustifiable saying that they were protecting the Tamil people from the Lankan state. The tragicomic finale of the war exposed that claim for the lie it was. Instead of protecting the Tamils, the LTTE hid behind the Tamils, exposing them to Lankan bombing and shelling, refusing to let them flee for safety, shooting those did. As a result the Tigers went down not in a blaze of glory but in a manner that was as cowardly as it was indecent.

The Tamils must someday try to reckon with the LTTE’s use of violence against Sinhala civilians, just as the Sinhalese must confront the Lankan Forces’ deeds against civilian Tamils. But first of all, the Tamils need to frankly acknowledge and confront, as individuals, within the community and, eventually, without, the LTTE’s violence against fellow Tamils, particularly the abomination of child conscription. True Pirapaharan gave the Tamils a voice, but he also destroyed every other voice Tamils had or could have had, from Appapillai Amirthalingam to Rajini Thiranagama, from Mahattaya to Padmanabha, from Neelan Tiruchelvam to Lakshman Kadirgamar, even Rajiv Gandhi. Why did the Tigers act in such a barbarously intolerant manner and why did the Tamils, especially in the Diaspora, failed to see the danger and react to it?

Vellupillai Pirapaharan gave the Tamils a voice, but are they better-off or not, today, because of it? Should they persist in following that voice, trying to create weaker echoes of it, post-war? Or should they try a different path, always listening to many voices, picking and choosing from amongst them, to suit the prevailing circumstances? Gods, if they exist, may be infallible; human beings are definitely not. Pirapaharan failed his people, his cadres, his family and, ultimately, himself, because he believed He, and He alone, Knew. That path led not to Tamil Eelam but to carnage, displacement and despair and an utter defeat. If the Tamils continue to be guided by the spectre of the Tiger, if they continue to cling to intolerance, maximalism and extremism, they, as a community, will never emerge from the political hell Vellupillai Pirapaharan has led them into.
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