Midweek Review
Alternate Space
Peace as a victim: Consequences of not learning from history

army.jpg (23475 bytes)by Sasanka Perera
If one has read "Freedom at Midnight" by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, an extensive narrative of the destruction and pain that followed the partition of India and Pakistan, it is not difficult to get a sense of the destructive consequences of parochial nationalist forces as well as the repercussions of militant ethnic and religious exclusiveness. If one listens to the news from India these days it is clear that the potential to ignite uncontrolled violence still exists among sections of Muslim and Hindu populations. Despite the well-documented carnage and pain of sectarian violence in India since the partition, it does not appear that some of its leaders have ever learnt from their own collective experiences of pain. Unfortunately, it would also appear that across the Palk Straits, some of us are also incapable of learning from the violence and the pain of our own immediate past or that of others.

The politics and poetics of the ‘Thamil engal uyir: auyir Pirapakaran’ (Tamil is our spirit; that spirit is Prabhakaran) celebration on February 6th this year at Muttharipputhurai near Murunkan places in context our own inability to learn from history. Other than local individuals and community groups, multi purposes cooperative societies, TNA politicians and government officials in the area helped put together the event, which according to some reports attracted at least 20,000 people.

As the name of the celebration itself clearly indicates, its key theme was not merely a celebration of Tamilness, but to link that sense of feeling directly with the personality of the leader of the LTTE. This gave it a very clear political dimension vested in the personality cult of Prabhakaran, which the organization had nurtured in areas under its influence since its inception.

The issue however is not the celebration itself. After all, how a group of people decides to celebrate their ethnic and cultural pride is a matter for them. But two other dimensions that clearly emerged from the celebration constitute a disturbing trend, particularly at a time that peace negotiations between the government and the LTTE are supposed to get underway to which many individuals and groups are also giving considerable support. One of the demands made at the celebration through leaflets was the insistence that the military and Sinhala people must withdraw from areas perceived as Tamil homelands. The second was the insistence that the LTTE be recognized as the sole representative of the Tamil people.

Surely, in a time of peace there will be no need for a military presence in the northeast or elsewhere in the country. In fact in such times, the demobilization of redundant military units and the downscaling of the preeminence of the military would be a necessity. But the other related demand that Sinhala civilians in areas considered Tamil homelands leave such areas is an issue that needs to be seriously placed in perspective. For its part, the LTTE has over time demonstrated through its actions, that ethnic cleansing was simply a matter of operational strategy and policy. It is thorough such action that the Muslims in Jaffna were told to quit their homes in 1991 and Sinhalas in other parts of the northeast who had lived there for years were expelled or killed. It is surprising that even an ideologically inflexible organization such as the LTTE and its supporters did not have sense to act in a more politically sophisticated fashion given the political importance of the present moment. It is a pity that after all these years of killing, destruction and pain, exclusivist nationalist sentiments have grown rather than diminished — at least in this particular context. One wonders whether the 20,000 people who attended the celebrations collectively shared these views or whether this was simply the slogan of visionless leaders where the people became mere spectators of a political spectacle.

Even then, the repercussions of ethnic cleansing has to be understood in its proper context. In the recent past, we have seen some of the most horrific examples of its practice from the carnage in the Balkans and Rwanda. The idea of an exclusive homeland for any ethnic or religious group in Sri Lanka cannot be seriously entertained due to the practical dangers it entails. If such an exclusive Tamil only homeland is the vision of the LTTE and the TNA even in a time many people are hopeful of peace, we also have to assume that the nationalist forces in the south could also come up with similar notions of ethnic cleansing. For us, as a collective of people linked by a painful recent history, that would be the beginning of the end. If put into practice, such a parochial policy would result in enormous uprooting of populations and an involuntary exodus in both directions that the visionless leaders who espouse such ideas would not be able to stem.

On the other hand, the insistence on LTTE being the sole representatives of the Tamil people also has clear anti-democratic features. Commonsense as well as a cursory sociological investigation would indicate that Tamil society is not a homogenous entity at geographical, cultural, demographic and political levels. In such a context, the demand of dominance for the LTTE is a very clear negation of both the plurality of ideas and what is left of democratic sentiments in Tamil society. Why do the LTTE and its vocal supporters insist on something that has yet to emerge naturally and convincingly from among Tamil people? Is the organization so unsure of its future in a society with no war where people can make real political choices? This is something that the peace negotiators should look at very seriously. Will we accept such an undemocratic demand as one of the foundations of the peace process?

On the other hand, it is perfectly possible that a vast majority of Tamil people truly believe that the LTTE should be their sole representative and would not mind giving up their democratic rights and privileges to ensure that the LTTE occupies that position. This position can be easily established in a referendum, which the Tamil people in this country can take part in. If they vote for the LTTE, the rest of the country would have no choice but to accept their collective verdict. After all, if an entire population insists on what may amount to political, intellectual and social suicide, we would have to respect their choice.

The question we have to ask is why are such anti-democratic and ultra nationalist sentiments being expressed at a time people should have learnt better from the collective history of pain that binds them together? Part of the problem is that the parochial ultra nationalism that is expressed in the ‘expel the Sinhalas’ kind of demand is possible in a context where the unpractical and unsustainable nature of this streak of nationalism has never been seriously critiqued in Tamil society.

Given the rather virulent ways, in which the LTTE dealt with dissent in Tamil society over the last two decades, such an effort also would have been very dangerous for anyone who attempted it. Comparatively however, in Sinhala society an intellectual enterprise aimed at critiquing the polemical manifestations of Sinhala nationalism, identity and historiography was initiated in the 1970s. Even though that initiative was not capable of halting similar sentiments in Sinhala society, it created a political space where a number of potent political issues linked to notions of nationalism, ethnicity and religion could at least be debated and allow alternate points of view to emerge. In other words, despite limitations, this initiative democratized the space for opposing political ideas in Sinhala society.

The insistence on giving the LTTE the preeminence in Tamil politics is directly linked to this same streak of dangerous nationalism. That is, the LTTE itself has over the years created the notion that to critique the organization or its preeminence in Tamil society and politics would amount to an act of treason committed against the Tamil people. However, the blind acceptance of such notions means that the foundations for possible post conflict rebuilding of Tamil society as well as peace building across ethnic boundaries would be based on fundamentally anti-democratic principles. On the other hand, if through democratic practices the LTTE in a future conflict free atmosphere achieves such preeminence, that would be an acceptable outcome. After all, despite all the gruesome violence perpetrated in the south by the JVP and the UNP in the late 1980s, the people have voted many of their representatives into Parliament.

It would appear that the long overdue intellectual enterprise of contextualizing and critiquing dangerous manifestations of nationalism and democratizing the political terrain of Tamil society should be the most important intellectual exercise in Tamil society at the present moment.

If it is not possible, we would have learnt nothing from our recent collective history of pain and suffering, and the peace that everyone is hoping for, would simply remain an illusion within a mirage.