Two events in two days, and between them the 2600th Sri Sambuddathva Jayanthi of Lord Buddha and second anniversary of the conclusion of the ‘ethnic war’ brought out the inherent contradictions in contemporary Sri Lanka as none else could have. Lord Buddha stood for peace and harmony, and here we have a nation celebrating war’s victory almost alongside.
The contradiction does not stop there. It stands out even more. In a way, it is a part of the personality of the man who sent Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Yet, Emperor Ashoka having drunk war and victory to the brim gave them up wholly and whole-heartedly in favour of peace and piety. War was not an end in itself, as he discovered for himself. Peace was not a pit-stop, either. You cannot marry both.
In the global order that we are all part of, no nation can afford to lower its guard. One can predict where war could end and peace commence. No one can predict where peace could end and war begins. The situation in Sri Lanka may be no different, theoretically at the very least. Celebrations cannot substitute for preparations. It’s like crying for wolf.
There was no triumphalism when it all concluded in May 2009. There cannot be aftershocks two or more years hence. Human memory being what it is, scarred and confused, such occasions trigger a process where justification is sought to be found for the Drausman Report and like – and from within, too. Both tendencies need to be eschewed.
It is one thing, likewise, for the Tamils to mourn their dead. They did not die in the last stage of ‘Eelam War IV’. There were unclaimed bodies and unattended funerals, where the departed would have to be propitiated year after year, whatever the religion. If the sentiments are only religious and personal, one does not go by the Gregorian calendar. Customs and traditions demand otherwise.
A country in celebration and a community in continuing mourning make trust-deficit between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil community that much more difficult to achieve. Inherent to the issue is also the decades of misunderstanding and mis-trust that had ruled and ruined their political interactions.
Ask anyone from either community, they have friends and well-wishers in each other, and for generations. Ask them as communities, they are not so sure. Even the patronising attitude some Sinhalese have had for their faceless Tamil brethren at the violent conclusion of the war is being replaced by the cares and worries of the day – where socio-political compulsions play their own role, as in the pre-war past.
It is no different in the case of the Tamils. There is unlikely to be anyone from the distant past who is still around and who can say that all was well with ethnic relations in the country. The new generation in either community has been born into an era of mis-trust and fought it out in terror camps and improvised battle-fields. The suspicions will linger for a long time.
This is now a reality that the two sides need to battle with, for them to overcome the prejudices from the past. At least from the commencement of the 20th century and long before Independence, this ethnic wound had festered. Even if surgically removed, as some may liken ‘Eelam War IV’, the wounds were so deep and so wide-spread that the scars will remain for a long, long time to come.
Development may be a panacea, and devolution a soother. They are not substitutes for each other.
The nation and its people cannot (be asked to) wait endlessly, holding their breath all along, for a day to arrive when that trust-deficiency had been negated. Symbolisms do substitution work, and signal a changing mind – if not any immediate change of mind-set. Issues of power-devolution, re-merger and the like comprise those symbols. Development is in the long term, instead.
The question is whether the Sri Lankan States want to integrate, or alienate the Tamils still. If the answer is in the affirmative for the first, then it has to act with the kind of self-confidence that the end of ethnic war has bestowed. It needs to repace the peripheral signs of triumphalism that are beginning to put their heads out. ‘Magnanimity in victory’ is not an empty phrase. It means this and more.
The Tamils face a problem in their leadership. Unlike the State and the Sinhala polity, most moderate players from the violence-torn past remain at the helm. Their memories are saddening. The memories about them are worse for the Sinhala polity and society.
The Tamils, particularly the TNA, need to acknowledge that they too have hurt the Sinhalese for long. It goes beyond the physical wounds inflicted by the LTTE or any other militant group before it. They need to acknowledge their deficiencies and apply correctives as much as they want the Sinhalese to ‘correct’ themselves. That is the way to true reconciliation.
The fact still remains that the present-day TNA leadership has not been associated with any Government for any length of time to appreciate the difficulties that attend on any party or person in power. Yet, they too are stymied by their own circumstances outside the Government, some of which are real.
There cannot be one-way streets. But to expect the man on the smaller and at times cheaper vehicle to give way is about inequity. Both have their use and the Sri Lankan State, as different from individuals and parties in power, have to strike that equity. The absence of which was at the root-cause not only of ethnic strife and war, but also the previous ethnic anger possibly of the Sinhalese under the colonial masters.
Both sides need to be realistic and more – to be able to do business. Their situations are real and their assessments should be realistic. Yet, they need to be more than real and more than realistic to be able to walk that extra mile, to be able to address the wounds that they need to heal in their times, and not allow to fester. Father Time may have patience but Sri Lanka may not have any left.