The bond of forgiveness

The tragedy of terrorism and conflict has served as a crucible for literary and artistic creativity throughout the ages and all over the world. So has it been in modern Sri Lanka – in poetry, plays, short stories and novels in Sinhala, Tamil and English. Rohini Hensman's novel Playing Lions & Tigers is a saga of the interlaced lives of 14 men, women and children caught up in the maelstrom of Sri Lanka's political violence. It unfolds through three generations against the larger canvas of the country's recent political history, and ends on a note of hope.

The book was first published in 2004, another period of 'no war, no peace' in Sri Lanka. At that time, the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002, controversial and flawed as it was, remained in force, monitored by a Scandinavian-staffed mission. On 26 December 2004, the elemental forces of nature unleashed a blow – the tsunami – affecting all ethnic and religious groups. In Aceh, the tragedy caused by the same storm pushed the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to conclude a peace agreement. In Sri Lanka, similar hopes sparkled and then faded.

Ironically, the second edition of Playing Lions & Tigers comes out at a time of renewed hope for a durable peace finally overcoming the toxic legacy of the immediate past. The decisive military defeat of the LTTE has led to widespread expectations of peace, the rule of law, an end to impunity and the full realisation of democracy and human rights for all citizens. However, the detention of approximately 250,000 internally displaced persons for months, persistent violations of human rights, and stringent restrictions on democratic liberties remain as obstacles. Meanwhile, power-sharing continues to be debated with undiminished virulence.

The 14 characters in Hensman's novel represent ordinary citizens of diverse ethnicities and religions. They want only that the democratic system they have known since independence continue to afford them the framework to pursue peaceful lives in freedom, equality and dignity. Political terrorism from the south and the north, and efforts to curb this by the security forces and the Indian Army, has a brutal impact on their lives. They are the people in between, in whose name political creeds are preached and practised. Emigration and death are the only escape routes. A macabre death dance has gone on with masks and stereotyped roles, from which education, development and new moral leadership are seen as the viable ways of the future.

At one point a character says, 'Hope is insidious. You can't live without it, yet it blurs your vision and clouds your judgment.' Indeed, there have been so many false dawns and missed opportunities that Sri Lankans are perhaps justified in feeling cynical about the current absence of conflict. Over three decades of fratricidal conflict have congealed hostile feelings. Not only has 'federalism' become inadmissible in the Sri Lankan political lexicon but 'devolution' is also suspect, as the two main parties now vie with each other as to which is more committed to the 'unitary' form – irrespective of the importance of being united.

The preamble of the constitution of the UN's cultural agency, UNESCO, famously states, 'Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.' Less well known is the continuation of the preamble, which notes that a peace based exclusively upon the political and economic arrangements of governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world, and that the peace must therefore be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.

It is that intellectual and moral solidarity of humankind that unites the 14 characters in Hensman's novel. The enlargement of that group in defiance of all forms of extremism is achievable, for they are the silent majority waiting for leadership. The 1955 manifesto written by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein carries the important message, 'We have to learn to think in a new way … Remember your Humanity, and forget the rest.' That human bond binds Hensman's characters – and it is a bond that can bind 20 million Sri Lankans into an indissoluble community with a glorious future.

The late Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, in apologising to the Tamil people on behalf of the Sinhalese for the atrocities that took place during the riots of July 1983, wrote 'The main point however is that the true basis of reconciliation is admission of wrong done and appeal for forgiveness. When forgiveness is given or a mutual apology is evoked, reconciliation begins to take effect, slowly but surely, hardened attitudes begin to change.' We should, then, begin by apologising to each other for the wrongs we have done to each other. This must be followed by forgiveness, since, as the Christian quote suggests, 'Forgiveness is the well from which we draw water to wash others' feet.'

The second publication of Playing Lions & Tigers at this time is a positive contribution to the process of healing of past wounds, of reconciliation, of rebuilding a country that has been torn apart from within and shedding the burden of history while learning its lessons. Sri Lanka can only be put together by its own people; we cannot wait for leaders to show us the way.

This is an edited version of the foreword to the new edition of Playing Lions & Tigers. Used with permission.

~ Jayantha Dhanapala is former UN under-secretary-general in charge of the Department of Disarmament, and president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

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