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The dangers of denial

Published Mar 04, 2012 08:41pm


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ALONG the way to the Bandarnaike International Airport on the outskirts of Colombo, I saw several large banners, placed over the road by the local council, imploring the USA not to “support terrorism”.

Over the emigration counter was a printed sign issued by the Immigration and Emigration Officers Union condemning meddling western countries for supporting separatism in Sri Lanka. In a local daily in the departure lounge, the cartoon on the op-ed page showed a unified island under the title of ‘No Devolution’; in the next panel, the country was fragmented into a dozen parts with the legend of ‘Devolution’ under the illustration.

So what’s going on? Why have so many fears about the unity and security of the country been raised simultaneously after the stunning victory over the Tamil Tigers nearly three years ago? One would have thought that after a long, bloody civil war and its brutally conclusive end, the ghost of separatism would have been laid to rest forever.

Clearly, the current campaign is officially inspired and choreographed, and has nothing to do with any real threats or fears. For the foreseeable future, the crushed and demoralised Tamils pose no danger whatsoever to the Sri Lankan state or its unity. This crude propaganda exercise is aimed entirely at the ongoing proceedings at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Currently, the 47-member body is considering a draft resolution circulated by the United States demanding that the Sri Lankan government properly investigate the many allegations of atrocities and flagrant abuses that were widely reported at the end of the civil war.

This is a very sore point with President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government. In its view, it won a hard-fought victory against an extremely violent terrorist group, the LTTE, or the Tamil Tigers, to use its better-known label. Instead of getting credit for defeating a separatist group that had caused mayhem across the country for 25 years, the government feels it is being unfairly targeted by western countries. The infamous ‘hidden hand’ often pops up in newspaper articles and editorials. Government supporters in the media – and there is no shortage of this breed – cite the many atrocities committed by the Tigers.

This is certainly true. The LTTE pioneered the use of suicide bombers as a tactical weapon, and carried out a string of terrorist attacks across the country that claimed thousands of lives. At the end of the war when it faced certain defeat, it used large numbers of Tamil civilians as human shields. Those attempting to escape the crossfire were ruthlessly shot in the back.While such brutal acts figure in a UN report, the document focuses mainly on the government’s final assault that sought to wipe out LTTE resistance, no matter how many innocent civilians were killed. One allegation relates to the shelling of makeshift hospitals that had been declared ‘no-fire zones’; apparently, aircraft and artillery pounded these areas, killing thousands of civilians in the process.

In their defence, government spokesmen have pointed out to the placement of LTTE mortars in the close proximity of these medical facilities. From here, they were shelling advancing Sri Lankan troops, and causing heavy casualties.

The reason the official position has been virtually ignored by the outside world is that no foreign observers or journalists were permitted in the war zone when this campaign reached its climax. Thus, the government narrative has been widely dismissed as propaganda. For many outsiders, the army’s tactics were best illustrated by its cold-blooded killing of LTTE leader Prabahkran as he and his lieutenants apparently tried to surrender.

Many gruesome images of the final moments of captured LTTE fighters being gunned down have surfaced, most notably in several Channel 4 documentaries. Others show civilian victims of the army’s final push to victory.

The government has always claimed that these digital images – often captured on cellphone cameras by Sri Lankan soldiers – have been doctored. But the UK-based TV channel insists that they have been verified by computer experts. Ordinary Sri Lankans mostly believe the official version, but we should remember that for decades, they suffered due to the hardships imposed by the war. Almost all majority Sinhala Sri Lankans consider the LTTE demands to be unreasonable, and the war unnecessary. Thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed and maimed. So to expect a sympathetic Sinhala audience for the UN proceedings is somewhat unreasonable.

I have often been struck by the parallels between the civil wars in Sri Lanka and Pakistan in 1971. Our army was accused of far worse atrocities in the erstwhile East Pakistan than any allegedly committed by Sri Lankan forces. And just as Sri Lanka does today, we simply refused to admit to the horrors our troops had inflicted on Bengalis 40 years ago. We were in deep denial, and continue to bury our heads in the sand to this day.

The big difference between then and now is that information is not so easy to control. In 1971, the military junta in Pakistan could censor the press at will, and had a monopoly on the electronic media. To a great extent, the Sri Lankan administration exercises similar restrictions, but it cannot control the Internet or satellite TV. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Sri Lankans prefer to swallow the official line. Ultimately, we all believe what we choose to, and in Sri Lanka, there is still a huge feeling of relief over the end of the country’s long nightmare. So most people do not wish to look too closely at the methods used to achieve victory.

The big difference between the two cases is that the Pakistan army was defeated after Indian intervention, and Bangladesh was born. People in West Pakistan could put the whole bloody episode behind them, and army generals could seek feeble excuses for the military disaster they had brought upon all of us.

The opposite has happened in Sri Lanka: the army won, but the Tamils are still there. There is thus an urgent need for reconciliation to avoid future ethnic conflict. Unfortunately, there are few signs of this happening any time soon.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (4) Closed

Bala Mar 06, 2012 12:24am
It's obvious that the srilankan army at the behest of govt. of sri lanka has committed cirmes against humanity. Sometimes I wonder whether it's just the government or if the majority of the public tacitly supports such inhumane actions. It could also be that the Rajapakse govt. is becoming such a fascistic regime that no one dares to speak reason. Too bad for a beautiful place.
Sinnan Mar 06, 2012 01:12pm
Welldipicted the present situation. Author has clear idea. Not only at present, denial is a constant factor and that is why frustrated tamil youths took up to arms. Even they have committed some terror surely they are nothing when compared to the atrocities committed by GOVERNMENT forces as well as singala people (RIOTS AND POGROMS IN 1956,58 63 ,77,83 )through these six decads after independance(only to singalese?). I hope now the voice for a NATION for tamil is getting more loud , and int. situation and expecting new world order would lead to such solution. Tamils cannot be made slaves any more in the new world. As they are spread their presence all over the world and they are only asking and demanding their lost rights in the accepted way of democracy , they will be supported by peace loving democratic countries to have a future balance of power in indian ocean. As the author have predicted THE OPPOSITE HAS HAPPEND IN SRILANKA and will continue till SEPERATION anyhow it is INEVITABLE!
DEMALA HUTHTHA Mar 10, 2012 08:25am
Western countries and NATO must do negotiations, peace talks, power sharing, power devolution and reconciliation with Taliban and Al Qaeda without lecturing Sri Lanka to talk to the LTTE who are a billion times worse than the Taliban and AL Qaeda! NATO never had any peace talks with Osama Bin Laden at all! All mere double standards. Great to see Iran defying this mythical fantasy super power USA! Long live Iran, the brave ANTI USA NATION!
DEMALA HUTHTHA Mar 10, 2012 08:27am
It is a fact that Tamil diaspora is a pure subservient slave of USA! USA is the worse violator of human rights responsible for illegally invading nations like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama and killing citizens of other nations when no one has permitted it! USA must be subject to severe punishment and international isolation! Pakistan must go on the all out assault of USA because USA is not licensed to use drones to kill innocent Pakistanis!