24 May 2012

We can now look back without anger….

‘Victory’ is made of names.  It comes to claimants.  It has many fathers.  Collective remembrance is selective, because there is a political economy of memory.  Personal recollection rarely leaves individuals out, they die and live thereafter in the vast territories of personal loss, desolate landscapes scattered with unanswerable questions across which sweep the indescribable sighs of could-have-been.
The commanders are not forgotten and should not be either.   Less frequently mentioned but more resistant to forgetting than the vast majority who died, are the exceptionally brave.  Among them, of course, is Corporal Gamini Kularatne of Hasalaka, better known as Hasalaka Gamini, who single-handedly thwarted an LTTE assault on Elephant Pass by jumping into an advancing attack vehicle and blowing himself up. 

There was Captain Saliya Upul Aladeniya, who stopped an entire armoury falling into the hands of the terrorists by exploding it and himself.  Colonel Fazli Lafeer, Major Jayanath Ginimelage, Lieutenant Thilak Nissanka and others who saw death in the face and embraced it without a second thought in order to save their fellow fighting men, are still recalled when the word ‘hero’ is mentioned.

They did not win it all for the nation by themselves.  Every man and woman who went to the frontlines, defended villages and villagers, patrolled the seas and supported from the skies, contributed.  So too all those who countered the myths about the LTTE’s invincibility, those who placed faith in a political leadership that was determined to fight the good fight to the end, and everyone who with word or deed boosted troop morale  must be counted among those who contributed. 

On the other hand, heroism is not the preserve of the victors.  If the LTTE proved hard to defeat for thirty years, it is not only because of political machinations by outside forces, treachery on the part of various key military and political figures and relentless myth-making about LTTE-invincibility by vile academics, NGO personalities and so-called ‘peace-activists’.  It was also because there was heroism among the LTTE cadres.  Whether the struggle was justified or not, whether they were brainwashed or not, whether they were maniacal or not, the fact remains that the courage and sacrifice some of the LTTE cadres demonstrated is equal to that demonstrated by the best in the Sri Lankan fighting forces.  Heroism, then, has no caste, creed, race, ethnicity or religious affiliation. Hero is hero; heroine is heroine. 

Wars are made of heroes.  They are made of victims.  People died.  Close to a hundred thousand perished, either in combat or as victims of suicide attacks, bomb explosions, assassinations, deliberate fire while fleeing, crossfire and indiscriminate attacks, the last especially in the early years of the conflict.

They were all citizens of this country, even if some of them denounced ‘nation’ and demanded and fought for a separate country.  They all looked like you and I.  They all had families, friends and loved ones.  They were all imperfect, but there’s nothing to say that they were all unworthy of remembrance, undeserving of empathy or sympathy or even admiration, if not for the cause, but the sacrifice and bravery demonstrated in fighting for it. 

It is three years now since the fighting ceased.  In the three years that have passed, those who did not envisage nor wanted the war-end outcome, those whose economic and political interests are not served by a stable political climate and other spoilers have spared no pains to misrepresent what happened and how it happened.  They’ve played down the miseries forced upon Tamil civilians by an intransigent LTTE and by Prabhakaran’s inflated ego.  They’ve deliberately fudged numbers.  They’ve taken out context.  They’ve forgotten the immense sacrifices made by the security forces in order to bring to safety some 300,000 civilians held hostage by the LTTE.  They have no eyes for exemplary humanism demonstrated by these same forces during and after the final days of the conflict.  They have retired their intelligence and ability to compare and contrast, i.e. the Sri Lankan situation with that of other conflicts, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. 

The displaced have been resettled.  They’ve not moved back into mansions.  They are not without problems.  But then again, they can step out without fear of losing leg and life to landmine.  Parents can send their children to school without wondering if the LTTE would or would not abduct them and push them into a war they don’t want or are ready to be in.  They have roads.  Hospitals.  Schools.  Medicine. They have hope.  And, if it matters, their situation is better than that of certain Sinhalese and Muslims in other areas unaffected by the clash of arms but not spared by a political economy of development skewed against certain regions. 

There was a time when politics was gun-made and elections mere exercises in dictate-following, if voting was allowed at all by the LTTE, that is. Today there is representation.  Elected representation.  Back then, there was silent acquiescence.  Now there is vocal protest.  Back then, a monologue. Today, a dialogue.  Back then, one man’s voice; today, conversations.  Back then, there was darkness; today a determined electrification effort that has brought light and other benefits to thousands of homes.  Back then, there were ‘combatants’ deprived of schooling, childhood and a future, forced to learn how to shoot and kill, made to shoot and kill; today the vast majority of them have reintegrated into their communities as civilians, empowered with education and marketable skills. 

There was a time when Colombo was a besieged city, a time when the entire country was paralyzed by threat of terrorist attack.  That was a time when the barricades and checkpoints that dotted the cityscape were mirrored in the consciousness of being, sorry, surviving. 

That’s all gone now.

Today, we are not yet the reconciled polity that we would all like to be, but we are far more closer to that place than we were in May 2009.  Today we can ask for ‘grievance without the frills of political expedience’ and the aggrieved cannot say ‘first let’s have a ceasefire’.  Today the aggrieved can say ‘let’s talk’, and the Government cannot say ‘get your boys to stop attacks on civilian targets’.  Today there is space. Back then, there was not. 

Today, there is one place that no citizen with any desire for peace and life would want to revisit: the 30 or so years that came before May 18, 2009.   And that, I believe, ladies and gentlemen, is something that we can be happy about, something we can and perhaps should celebrate.  In the name of all those who died, all those who suffered, all those who did not arrive at this ‘today’ and those who must inhabit the long ‘tomorrow’ of post May 18, 2009 Sri Lanka. 

[First published in 'The Nation' on May 22, 2012]