Killing fields in serendib

Sasanka Perera says the conflicts of the last two decades will leave a long legacy of political violence.

Over the last two decades, Sri Lanka's traditions of civil society and democracy have been seriously subverted. Its claim to being an island paradise has been overtaken by the numbing reality of being a case study in conflict creation and state power abuse. The serendipitous haven is clearly no more, except in propaganda leaflets of the tourism industry.

There are two main manifestations of political violence in Sri Lanka. The first is the situation in the northern and eastern parts of the country, where Tamil youth groups have taken up arms against the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan state to fight perceived discriminatory practices against the Tamil community. The violence here is primarily the work of the state security forces and their proxies, the former Tamil guerrilla groups such as the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (plote), the Eelam People's Demo cratic Party (EPDP) and the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF).

The other major perpetrator of violence is the rebel ltte, whose targets include Sinhalese villagers, military personnel, members of Tamil groups cooperating with the state, and dissidents within the Tamil community opposed to the politics of the ltte. The organisation also carries out indiscriminate and spectacularly destructive bombing campaigns in areas outside the zones of combat, such as in Colombo.

The second manifestation of violence came in the Sinhalese-dominated South with the eruption in 1989 of the insurrection by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)- This was JVP's second attempt to topple the state, having tried once before in 1971. However, the human casualties and physical destruction were much greater in the period between 1989 and 1991, with the state as well as the JVP responsible for thousands of deaths and disappearances.

For the outside world, it is almost as if violence in Sri Lanka is 'normal'. In 1998, more people were killed in Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict than in the former Yugoslavia. But, other than the occasional bodybag stories, the killings in Sri Lanka made it neither to the other South Asian nor the international media. The destructive phases of the war over the last two decades has been largely ignored by the world, except when a massacre by one of the warring sides happens to be particularly gruesome or the number of corpses crosses a news agency's stipulated threshold. Meanwhile, the many facets of internal violence have received even less attention, due perhaps to their relative invisibility

This 'normalisation' of violence also seems to have been accepted by the Sri Lankans themselves. Had it not been for the check points, permanently closed roads, camouflage painted barrels and increasingly younger soldiers with automatic weapons loitering near road blocks, many people in the main towns would have completely forgotten the war. And why not? The war does not directly affect many of them. Colombo-based hoteliers reported a marked increase in tourist arrivals for January and February, a classic example of alternate realities operating in simultaneous time.

Means of coping

A decade after the worst fighting was over in the South, the question of the psychological health of the survivors has not even been raised. Recent research has indicated that the experiences of the that deadly past has scarred the lives of a significant proportion. And since they are no formal mental health and counselling services, many have resorted to traditional methods of coping and intervention. These include attempts to visit misfortune upon suspected culprits by appealing to deities in the Sinhala Buddhist pantheon such as Pattini and Suniyam, who are popularly propitiated for justice and revenge.

The situation is not much different in the North-East when it comes to the ordeal of survivors: Here too, the victims resort to the conventional means of coping. But there is a crucial difference. The thorough militarisation of the North-East's Tamil society has meant that violence has become glorified and ritualised. The LTTE has turned political violence into an art form, with a quasi-religious pantheon of deities and rituals.

The group's leadership has claimed on numerous occasions that the blood of patriotic Tamils spilt in battle in the North-East would purify the land. It is not life that is celebrated, but death, a canon that is is manifest in the great care with which the LTTE's main martyr cemetery is maintained, and in the manner in which the organisation sponsors wayside shrines for its fallen heroes. And, most significant, there is the solemn ceremony attended by LTTE supremo Prabhakaran himself just before suicide squads embark on a mission.

What does all this exposure to violence mean for Sri Lankans? What is their future? What would be the future of the children recruited into the fighting ranks of the LTTE? And what is the future of the children in the South who saw their fathers and brothers being dragged off by different agents of death? If, as a nation, Sri Lanka has hardly raised these questions, there is also a serious lack of formal knowledge that would help understand these issues and recommend viable means of intervention.

The violence in the North-East and in the South may be two extreme examples, but they are also extensions of the violence that had already become an accepted mechanism of governance in mainstream politics by the late 1970s. In a more general sense, it is this institutionalised political violence that threatens to tear Lankan society apart.

The politics of violence is not new to Sri Lanka and was present throughout the post-colonial period. But until the late 1970s, it did not enjoy the kind of state protection, and corresponding institutionalisation, that was established under presidents J.R. Jayawar dene and Ransinghe Premadasa, during whose tenures thugs linked to their United National Party operated with near impunity.

But things are no different with the Peoples Alliance now in power. The present government came into office promising to eliminate political violence in all its forms, but the killings, intimidations and other unsavoury forms of politics still continue. For all practical purposes, the change in regimes has merely meant that now a different set of thugs rule the roost.

Unfortunately, for the country, violence becomes an issue for political parties only when directed against them. Thus, the UNP, currently in the opposition after its brutal track record from 1977 to 1994, now organises rallies to protest political violence even though the politicos who orchestrated, and in fact mastered terror tactics in routine politics, still represent the party. At the same time, the UNP has never apologised for its assault on the nation and neither has the JVP. But what is telling is that the same absurd sense of amnesia also applies to the present ruling alliance, consisting of parties that were victimised by the JVP and the UNP not so long ago, and which are now the worst perpetrators of political violence. In the recent polls for the North Western Provincial Council, much of the election malpractices and political violence came courtesy the ruling People's Alliance. And when the election monitors published a damning report, rather than look into the allegations, senior ministers threatened to sue the authors.

Violence in some form or other is likely to be part of Sri Lankan politics for a long time to come. And unless this issue is addressed soon than later, the paradise shall stay lost.

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