30 October 2013

Re-loading does not help reconciliation

People have multiple identities based on ethnicity, religious faith, gender, age, location, citizenship, vocation and ideological preference among other things.  Thus it is that a journalist or a human rights advocate can also be a terrorist, a facilitator or approver of terrorist activity.  If a terrorist has some journalistic credentials and if that individual is arrested or killed in battle, who is it that dies, the terrorist or the journalist?

Similarly, if a priest is now in cassock and now in military fatigues or in some way supports activity that causes or threatens to cause security breach or worse, and is arrested for this very reason, is he who is incarcerated a priest or a terrorist/terrorist-suspect? It all depends on what tag is privileged. Privileging is not politically innocent; it is eminently a political exercise. 

It is not easy for those mandated to provide security to all.  Arrest a terrorist-journo and one can be ripped for ‘gagging the media’; arrest a Catholic priest and it’s called ‘violating religious freedom’. 
Let us consider ‘journalists’ first.  An outfit calling itself ‘Committee for the Protection of Journalists’ (CPJ) has released a list of 19 ‘journalists’ it claims to have been killed since 1992 in Sri Lanka.  Ten in the list are confirmed to have either been members of the LTTE or else killed by that organization.  Eleven ‘journalists’ have been killed since President Mahinda Rajapaksa first took office.  Of them 7 are confirmed as members of the LTTE or else to have been killed by the LTTE.  Of the other 4, two were attached to the Uthayan newspaper, which, according to the CPJ has ‘come under attack by both LTTE and anti-LTTE forces’. 

The deaths of the last two, Subash Chandrabose (Editor of a small Tamil-language monthly magazine,Nilam’) and Lasantha Wickramatunga (Editor of ‘Sunday Leader’), remain unsolved which while being a matter for serious concern does not warrant the wild extrapolations and shrieks one hears from self-labeled protectors of media freedom whose ‘journalist’ credentials are compromised by irresponsibility, error, speculation and inflation.  Indeed, this kind of  politicking makes it harder for genuine campaigners for media freedom to button-hole the Government for investigative-sloth.

Let’s consider priests.  Clergy hanky-panky is not the preserve of the Catholic Church of course, but in Sri Lanka’s long struggle to eradicate the terrorism menace, that religious body has not exactly ‘helped’. The leadership of the Catholic Church has been notoriously silent on the complicity of its priests in LTTE activity, Father Emmanuel of Global Tamil Forum fame is but one.  The ‘flock’ is not made of saints, sure, and priests are mandated to administer to ‘all god’s children’, but they cannot plead innocence by god-reference when some children murder others.  Even if they object to a policy that determined to eliminate the LTTE through military means, they cannot side with one set of armed men over another. 

Today, with the LTTE militarily defeated, there’s little harm that the cassock-clad mischievous can do.  They can sow seeds, though, and can wreck the arduous task of inter-communal reconciliation and harmony.    

On October 22, 2013, Fr. Yogeswaran of Trincomalee, who operates an outfit called ‘Centre for Promotion and Protection of Human Rights outfit and functions as a legal advisor, had summoned some rehabilitated LTTE cadres and the families of those currently under rehabilitation.  The attendees at this meeting were required to bring photocopies of identity cards, letters from the Rehabilitation Department and submit letters attesting that they had not received any assistance from the Government.  They were later offered money and a bag of goodies each with the promise of more to come.  The assistance is courtesy the USAID and ‘two priests from Negombo’ according to Yogeswaran. 

There is nothing wrong in helping the needy.  What is wrong is the insistence on placing signature to a lie.  The Government has gone out of the way to give some kind of skills-training to former combatants.  Counseling is part of the program. A lot has been done to enable these young men and women to reintegrate into society and lead normal lives. 

The Government has not just done everything possible for ex-combatants to obtain marketable skills; it has encouraged and helped them become self-employed.  Special loan schemes have been designed to help these people get on their feet. No government can be expected to mollycoddle anyone forever and certainly not ex-combatants.  That would be rewarding readiness to kill. That kind of kindness is not typically extended to others who have been incarcerated for lesser crimes.  The United States of America, with all its wealth, tortures terrorist suspects; they won’t hear of reintegration, so you can forget about providing marketable skills and such. 

Fr. Yogeswaran is of course a babe and an innocent compared to Fr Emannuel and other Catholic priests like Fr. Rayappu Joseph.  A small lie perhaps is a small transgression and lord-forgivable considering the intention of helping the needy, he may have reasoned.  But that small lie is eminently amenable to distortion and inflation, two things that are bread and butter to pro-LTTE activists and the ‘journalists’ they’ve cultivated with lie and other means.       

These are ‘little things’ compared to the biggies that this country has seen, but when little things add up, perceptions harden. That does not help reconciliation.  The Chief Minister of the North, C.V. Wigneswaran has given mixed signals, now speaking the language of reconciliation and now sabre-rattling or in the very least feeding well-established anxieties of the Sinhalese regarding Tamil expansionism and land-theft intent.  It is not an easy task for him.  He has more urgent things to attend to than handling Fr. Yogeswaran’s misdemeanors.  He would do well, however, to take note that such antics are not going unnoticed and that in the long run, whatever he wants to extract for the Tamil community requires agreement from Sinhala counterparts.  Such agreement needs trust.  These antics wreck trust. 

Sadly, Fr. Yogeswaran’s little operation is reminiscent of what other Catholic priests have done throughout the decades long conflict.  In this regard, a small observation made in a different context (Republican intransigence in the USA) would be worth reflecting on.  Larry Summers, economist, said, ‘Even the most foolish of people, having shot themselves in the foot, rarely reload.’   

Most importantly, it has to be acknowledged that Fr. Yogeswaran has company among Sinhalese and Buddhists.  We know what loaded guns did and whose feet got shot.  Wisdom is not anyone’s preserve and it is acquirable by all, journalists and priests as well those disguised as such.  Fools, likewise, can be found in all ethnicities, religious communities, all ages, all places, all professions and among subscribers to all manner of ideologies.  We are treading on egg-shells.  That much is certain. 



Anonymous said...

This is a very important article about an issue that most people who are 'FOR' reconciliation but engage in blame-game politics don't get. Kind request is to translate this into Sinhala as well and publish. I believe this message must go to those Sinhalese who blame Sinhalese for every historical misdeed and read and write Sinhala mostly.