31 January 2014

The reconciliation game and its discontents

It’s that time of year again when political discourse is reduced to a three syllable name. Geneva. That’s another name for the UN Human Rights Commission.  It is time to talk about roads walked and roads not taken, progress made and not made.  It is time to talk about reconciliation and its fallen-from-sky twin, ‘justice’. 

So we ask ourselves some questions, the same that we asked ourselves a year ago or rather were thrust in our faces.  The plural refers to Sri Lanka of course although this is less about nation and citizenry than it is about a president and a regime.  However, given that whatever the target of the punch is it falls on people and nation, independence and sovereignty, there’s nothing wrong in using ‘us’ and ‘we’.  We are digressing.  Let’s get back to the questions.

Are we reconciled or are we not?  Will we reconcile, ever, or will we not? 

Different people have different ideas of ‘reconciliation’.  Some thing, for example, that full reconciliation will only be obtained if Eelam (as per the LTTE map) is carved out of this island.  Others think that getting rid of the LTTE amounts to reconciliation: war ends, problem ends. 
Between these there are the doubters, the half-empty-glass seers and the goalpost-shifters.  The problem is that you can’t satisfy any one of these individuals.  They all need a little more or else they want a little less. 

There were people for example who wanted all those who fled the clutches of the LTTE to be allowed to go wherever they wanted the moment the bad news about Prabharakan was announced.  They didn’t give a hoot about landmines or the fact that the LTTE had effectively ensured they had nothing to go to; no homes, no livelihoods, no schools and no hospitals.  Some pooh-poohed the LLRC and later chided the government for not implementing the LLRC-recommendations (as per their preferred/slanted reading of the same). 

All these people forget one thing. No one in this world is happy.  The most powerful are besieged by security, the most wealthy are terrified of theft.  The poor want out of poverty, those who suffer from unrequited love pine for the beloved’s embrace.    As for goalpost shifters, the sky is the limit for them.

At some point someone will say wtf.  At some point someone will remember that reconciliation is not coterminous with concession and that it implies reciprocity, that it is a two-way street.  At some point someone will say, ‘hey, you’ve done me wrong, but I haven’t heard you say “sorry”.’  At some point someone will say, ‘You take what I give and you act as though I should thank for taking.’ 

There are two ways of looking at this.  First, we can go the ‘what if’ way.  What if it didn’t end in May 2009?  What if the LTTE was still around?  The answer could be something like this: ‘Do a quick recall of what happened in Sri Lanka from 1983 to 2009 and tell yourself “more of the same”.’   
That’s a lot of blood.  That’s also a lot of broken bodies, body-bags, bomb-explosions, children being abducted, assassinations and lots and lots of roadblocks.  It also requires a bit of erasing.  Take out all that’s nice in Colombo and bring back squalor.  Take out the roads, hospitals, schools, irrigation works, electricity projects, banks in the North and East. Take fishing out of the livelihood equation.  Take out much of agriculture.  Take out Vigneswaran and the Northern Provincial Council.  Toss in landmines.  Toss in all the military facilities that were withdrawn along with the soldiers.  Remember the ‘vehicle movements’?  Remember living in fear? Remember wondering if you’ll ever see your kids or parents or loved ones again after waving goodbye?  Remember being wary of everyone you encounter, every suspicious object that catches your eye?  Remember not being able to travel beyond Vavuniya? 

There’s another way.  We can assume, as some claim, that ours is a Sinhala-Buddhist state and this Government is likewise ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ with those ‘natural tags’ such as racist, chauvinist, extremist etc., etc.   The structures of the state are thus made for genocide.  The government is genocidal, as are the Sinhala-Buddhists.  What is the logical thing for these institutions, individuals and collectives to seek, then, if not the total elimination of Tamils from the island?  If that is the case, what we’ve seen during the conflict and afterwards should be hailed as the height of stupidity. 

Why should the Government send food, medicines and other supplies to ‘The Enemy’?  Why pay the salaries of principals, teachers, doctors, nurses, attendant and employees of state agencies?  Why on earth did the regime risk the lives of Sinhala-Buddhist soldiers to rescue 300,000 Tamils held hostage by the LTTE?  Was it unthinkable that the LTTE cadres captured and those who surrendered were actually rehabilitated using taxes collected from Sinhala Buddhists in the main?  Why did they bother to educate them, help them sit exams, teach them marketable skills etc., etc?  Why did they facilitate their marriages – after all marriage often results in pregnancies and helps swell the enemy numbers?  Why were more than 11,000 of these individuals who had been part of a terrorist organization released? And after May 2009, why channel funds to build infrastructure, resettle people, clear landmines, facilitate the revival of the fisheries industry? 

Perhaps one could argue that intent was there but fear of retribution in the form of censure from certain sections of the international community held the Government back. Those with genocidal intent don’t look that far, though, do they?     

And so, ladies and gentlemen, perhaps we have come to the point of reconciling to the fact of irreconcilability.  Perhaps we are now in that place where if the word reconciliation is uttered it prompts an F-word response.  Perhaps we are at a juncture where the justice-predicate provokes a stony stare followed by something like ‘Yeah, it’s the injustice that wrecked the R word just now’. 
Then again, maybe it is time to reconcile to the fact of reconciliation.  The ‘aggrieved,’ after all are not falling over each other to talk about their own crimes of omission and commission, are they?  The LTTE called itself ‘Sole Representative of the Tamil People’. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) concurred.  Very few Tamils objected.  Most of those who objected were killed by the ‘Sole-Reps’ while the TNA remained silent.  There’s then another aggrieved party here: those who were victims of Sole-Rep terror and, dare we say, by extension victims of Tamil Community terror?  If there’s no ‘sorry’ coming from the other end, is it not natural for the reconciliation hand at this end to be withdrawn? 

If shifting goalposts is the name of this game then there’s no point playing it.  It is far better to say ‘enough, we are done’. 

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of THE NATION and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com