22 February 2012

Let’s all observe 2 minutes of silence today…

Twenty four years ago, i.e. February 22, 1987, around 3.00 pm, I got a call from a batchmate at Peradeniya.  Prabath Sahabandu, now the Editor of The Island newspaper, mentioned a name and followed it with two words: ‘Rohana gange giya’ (Rohana went down the river, meaning that he had drowned). 

Rohana Kalyanaratne was my roommate.  For thirteen years since that sorrowful day, I sent my thoughts back to that time, that moment and that beautiful man.  Then came February 22, 2001 and finally I was unburdened of that lingering sense of loss.  The weight of that death was erased by the lightness of a life, my daughter Mithsandi.  She’ll be 10 as you read this and for 10 years I’ve remembered Rohana, not with sadness but with a smile. I can’t help it and I am not apologetic about it either.  Life is like that.

The 22nd of February was then about death and later about life.  But life is cunning. It gives, it takes.  For 6 years, i.e. from 2002 to 2007 a certain blackness cut through birthday cake and candles, voices singing ‘Happy birthday’ and the toy-joy time of a little girl.  I don’t know if others noticed, but this other darkness denied me the privilege of full celebration.  That blackness was initialed.  CFA.  ‘Ceasefire Agreement’ between the then Government of Sri Lanka and the world’s most ruthless terrorist organization, the LTTE.

There were some who cheered, some who feared.  Among those who cheered, some genuinely believed that a respite from the fighting would be good (no dispute there of course) and moreover it would create a platform for discussions on core issues.  Such people were clearly myopic.  The wording of the CFA showed intellectual sloth and complicity in the LTTE’s designs with respect to the Sri Lankan state. 

It also indicated a manifest naiveté about the LTTE.  That organization always looked at negotiations and ceasefires through a strictly military lens and anyone who had even the most basic familiarity with their history would have known from Day One that the Ceasefire Agreement was doomed.  And yet the CFA was treated like some holy cow issued from some kind of immaculate conception, so sacred that journalists and commentators were asked not to touch the precious little angel and those who dared desecrate with comment or objection were called ‘war mongers’ and ‘racists’ (usually with the tag ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’). 

February 22, 2002 was a landmark in that it implied that the Sri Lankan Government had acknowledged the following: a) the LTTE is the sole-representative of the Tamil people, b) the LTTE deserved and got parity of status vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan Government, c) the conceding of territories seized, d) violence is a legitimate means of securing political gains and e) a willingness to let a pro-LTTE entity (Norway) to stand as Chief Arbiter in processes related to the CFA.   

The inevitable happened. The LTTE used the CFA to a) re-arm, b) recuperate from the heavy losses suffered at the hands of the Army’s ‘deep penetration’ units, c) recruit (thousands of children were forcibly recruited during the time the CFA was in operation), d) eliminate political irritants, e) assassinate key members of the Army’s intelligence units, f) expand operations to areas hitherto inaccessible. 

The Government, not enjoying the privileges that a law-unto-themselves terrorist outfit could benefit from, was essentially hand-tied during this time.  Happily so, one might add, given the kind of statements we heard from Ranil Wickremesinghe and his principal confidantes/advisors at the time.    

It was doomed to end with a bang and this is exactly what happened.  The LTTE upped the ante as expected and when it felt confident to unleash another round of violence.  That ill-conceived and poorly worded piece of paper quickly lost relevance except for LTTE-friendly sections of the international community to wave at the Sri Lankan Government like a yellow or red card.  On January 8, 2008, it was proclaimed dead.  I remember helping author a book on the CFA around that time, titled ‘It is customary to bury the dead’.  This is the 4th February 22nd since the CFA was abrogated.  Much violence and dispossession could have been avoided if successive governments were not hoodwinked into believing the tall tales of rabidly anti-Sinhala, anti-Buddhist and guardedly pro-LTTE elements masquerading as academics, political analysts and sundry pundits and instead listened to the likes of Dr. Nalin De Silva, who argued that the LTTE needed to be militarily engaged and that victory was not impossible.  ‘It is customary to bury the dead’ contains useful information relevant to the CFA, how it came about, its principal backers, the assumptions it was based on and how it gradually slipped into full scale arms-clash courtesy the LTTE.  

The CFA must be remembered for it is a classic example of how not to deal with intransigent thugs. 

On February 22, 1988 I wrote a few lines for my friend. This was as the country was quickly moving towards the UNP-JVY bheeshanaya (period of terror).

One more victorious year
stamped on the pages of their history,
turbulent rivers flow through ours….
….[with] this era at an end,
there is little to tell.
just the subdued rain on fallen leaves
and silent beads of sweat,
and hope buried in the past.

Twenty three years later I would tell him that the skies are not exactly blue all day and full of stars at night.  I would say that there are clouds but they are not all dark and foreboding.  I would tell him that part of the reason is something beautiful that came into my life exactly 14 years after her exited it.  I would say ‘that’s not the only reason, brother.’  And I would say all this with a smile that does not indicate absence of sorrow. Life is never clear-cut and neither is death. 

I will spend two minutes in complete silence.  That’s personal.  I will remain silent for two additional minutes.  That’s collective.  You can join if you like. 

[First published exactly one year ago in the Daily News, i.e. February 22, 2011]


Anonymous said...

Until 2001, February 22 must have been a load on your mind that was one-sided. Nature has a way of balancing things, hence the joyous birth of your child. Nature balances things in the wide world too. The only superpower USA inflicts crimes unopposed on whoever it chooses. E.g. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and now teetering over Iran. There is no one the fair minded can appeal to except perhaps God, but I have been an atheist all my adult life. But, I am convinced, this is where nature steps in to redress the imbalance. I was once told by a Buddhist that "Everything that happens, happens for the good". As a human being you have to feel sorry for the suffering by the innocents but is no coincidence the constant hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, storms and other natural causes visited in the USA.

Anonymous said...

Anon you do realize don't you that proportionately to the population all the deaths you referred to from those natural disasters pale in comparison to the number of deaths arising from road accidents in Sri Lanka.

In SL 20+ deaths annually on road accidents per 100,000 population