A strange element in Sri Lanka´s long-drawn civil war, now in its fourteenth year, is that despite the blood that has been shed and the limbs that have been lost on both sides of the lines, there has been little in the form of protest. The country has not seen angry demonstrations with ordinary people taking to the streets, refusing to offer their sons as cannon fodder. Despite the yearning for peace among people of all classes and communities, the carnage continues to be accepted with stoicism. Why? There are two reasons. On the Tamil side, there is fanatical motivation. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), has been able to inspire his fighters in a way that few guerrilla leaders in contemporary world history have been able to. The glass cyanide capsule that LTTE cadres wear round their necks and bite if captured, tells its own story. So also the numerous suicide killers who have blown themselves up for the Liberation Tigers.
On the other side of the bloodied fence, the young men fighting the war for the Colombo government most often do so because they have nothing else to do. Unemployment has long been the country´s biggest problem and although most politicians and, indeed, many other Sri Lankans would like to think that patriotism inspires most of the soldiers (and sailors, airmen and policemen) at the front, the reality is that they are fighting for their pay.
The money, by prevailing standards in the country, is good. A frontline serviceman of the lowest rank earns a minimum of SLR 6000. Besides, he is fed, barracked and clothed and gets many perks such as free cigarettes – which non-smokers sell in the open market. All this makes up for much more than what the soldier can expect in the lower rungs of the job market, assuming that a job can be found. Even with the good pay and perks, however, there are desertions by the thousands.
But that is not the whole story. Despite the poor state of its economy and the billions being guzzled up by the never-ending war, Sri Lanka looks after its war dead and disabled much better than do most richer countries. The family of a soldier dying in the fighting is immediately paid SLR 100,000 compensation. He is promoted one rank immediately and his pay continues till the time he would have reached the retiring age of 55 years. After that, a pension begins.
Many of the young men fighting an intractable enemy on the government side are not married. If they die, therefore, it is the parents who get the compensation. Every month in this way, the cash flows into thousands of village homes. This is no small amount in the poor hinterland, and hence helps take the edge off much of the resentment that arises at the death of a son or husband. To say so is not to imply that the loss of a loved one in a useless war in which over 10,000 servicemen and many thousands, including civilians, on the Tamil side have been killed, is of no consequence to the families that have lost a member. Far from it. Grief is very much a factor. But the economic cushioning has without doubt helped temper the anger.
Then there are the ceremonial funerals in hundreds of villages dotting the countryside. When the body of a serviceman killed in the fighting is recovered, it is returned to his family and interred with what the forces call “full military honours”. An honour guard, band, gun salute, flag-draped coffin and all the panoply of a moving military ceremony – it is all provided. Such an event draws big crowds from the surrounding countryside and there is hardly a dry eye when a comrade-in-arms presents the folded national flag to the next-of-kin at the end of the ceremony. Senior officers have said that bereaved families often offer another son to the fighting forces.
These, then, are the reasons why the massive loss of lives in a civil war that has cost Sri Lanka so much in blood and treasure has not driven people to the streets in anger. Where the LTTE is concerned, families of conscripted young men and women made to fight and die by Mr Prabhakaran are undoubtedly resentful about the loss of their loved ones. But open rebellion is not possible given the ´fascist´ methods used by the Tigers to run the territory they control. But a day of reckoning will come and this is one reality that the LTTE will have to live through when the war ends.
The Tigers, too, honour their dead, especially the “martyrs” going out on suicide missions. But the rebels cannot do it quite in the style of the national forces. And though there is less monetary featherbedding for families of dead Tigers, the rebels, too, provide special rations and other facilities for the families of their dead.
And so the war goes on and on, and with it the bloodshed. There are private tears for the dead and disabled. But no protests.