Beautiful but tragic places make for good poetry. This is Ondaatje country in Colombo’s Welawatte neighbourhood, where a small river meets the sea, where Pablo Neruda stayed for a while during his journey across the world as a young Chilean diplomat, and where he wrote the saddest lines. Re-reading the verse, there is a near-Latin American sense of tragic drama in Sri Lanka these days.
Flying in at midnight on one of the first few flights into Colombo after the daring airport raid of 24 July, the plane came to a stop on the taxiway and the pilot shut off the engines. Passengers rushed to the windows to look at the wreckage of dead planes outside. In the ghostly yellow light, the Airbuses looked like whales that had been slaughtered on a beach. The planes’ fuselages were twisted and charred. Their broken wings were still pointing at the sky while the dismembered tail fins with their stylised peacocks had collapsed on the tarmac. The pilot came in to ask everyone to return to their seats: the plane still had to be towed to the parking slot near the terminal.
Even in a country that has been numbed by the carnage of an unending war, terrorist attacks and the murder of moderates, the airport raid was the psychological equivalent of a hard blow in the stomach. It was designed to kill hope and sustain the fatalistic rage that has kept this war going for the past 12 years at a cost of 60,000 lives. The world has got used to this war, so the media networks have moved to other theatres like Macedonia and Mindanao. And they only take notice when dramatic footage of burning airliners can be flashed across the world. Even then, the interest dies out in a few days. In Colombo itself, within a few days of the event the headlines are back to the dissolution of parliament and the political skirmishes over President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s call for a referendum.
The airport attack came in the week of the second anniversary of the assassination of the visionary Tamil politician, Neelan Tiruchelvam, by a Tiger suicide bomber on the streets of Colombo. In a tribute to Neelan, his Indian friend and colleague Ashish Nandy wrote: “War reverses the normal order of things, instead of the young burying the old, the old bury the young. Perhaps we in South Asia will have to get used to the idea of living in a state of perpetual war”. The region is sinking into this heart of darkness, from Afghanistan to Kashmir, from Nepal to Tripura, and in other flashpoints of extremism across the Subcontinent. Minority rights are trampled, the underprivileged are not allowed to rise, grievances are allowed to pile up by callous and apathetic rulers. Victims, as the Indian social-psychologist Ashish Nandy says, make excellent killers. The centre does not hold, and those, like Neelan, who try to resolve conflict are eliminated one by one, often by their own people, who think restraint is treachery. Those who span ethnic, political and cultural divides, who can understand the madness of their own assassins, who show compassion for both sides, have to be eliminated because they stand against compromise and the dead-ended winner-takes-all ideology that propels these violent movements.
The airport attack was timed for another anniversary: the horrific anti-Tamil pogroms by organised death squads belonging to Sinhala extremist groups. These were the massacres that gave birth to this terrible war, but the real seeds were planted soon after Sri Lanka’s Independence when the majority community passed successive laws to take it all. Others will go even further back to trace the origins of this conflict to the British colonial rulers’ favouritism towards the minority community. Today, half-a-century later, it almost does not matter what the root cause was. There has been so much bad blood that there will be no peace as long as people look back at avenging historical wrongs. Any peace process must look to the future. The only thing to do with history is not to repeat it.
Malaysia and Singapore are two other countries in the world with sizeable Tamil minorities and similar ethno-cultural polarisations. The lesson from their success is to find strength in diversity, to respect this richness in spirit and deed, provide a level playing field for all communities—and never to let grievances pile up. And looking out at the rest of South Asia from the perspective of this tear-drop island, the moral of the story is clear: it is never too late to stop a war, but it is a much better idea to nurture and protect an existing peace.
All this we traded for power and wealth from the eight compass points of vengeance . from the two levels of envy – Michael Ondaatje