27 February 2014

And the battle down the alleyways of memory rages on and on

When do wars end?  Do they end with surrender, with military annihilation of protagonist, the recovery of livelihoods, reconstruction of houses, hospitals and schools, the return of the displaced, the erasing of things with military signature, free and fair elections and a shaking of hands all around?  Do wars end that way, ever, though?  Isn’t it true that the wars that have truly ‘ended’ for all practical purposes are those which are beyond recall and whose identity-ties have been smudged by the movement of people and dwarfed by event after earth-shattering event?  Thrishantha Nanayakkara makes a valid argument thus: ‘All wars have been fought twice; once in the battlefield and once down the alleys of memory’

Things certainly didn’t end in May 2009 in Sri Lanka.  There ‘thereafter’ of that ‘end’ has been full of allegation and counter-allegation.  There have been no gunshots heard but there’s no end to saber-rattling.  It is almost as though some would want Sri Lanka to return to the days of child abductions, suicide bombers, the exchange of fire, human shields and such, even as they vow that such a throw-back is not possible and even abhorred.  Perhaps this is because we are in throes of the battled down the alleys of memory.

As is typical, it is those who believe they ended on the losing side that shows signs of being in denial.  At best they seem to think that the victors should suffer one way or another.  The focus is less on addressing alleged grievances that are said to have sparked a three decade clash of arms than on getting some people on the other side hanged.  That’s revenge intent and could indeed yield closure on the memory-war to some. 

The past few weeks have seen a lot of memory-wars.  There’s the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) and its courtroom victory over Prof Rohan Gunaratne, the CTC’s considerable connections with the LTTE’s arms procurement, fund-raining and propaganda operations notwithstanding.  That decision will probably be appealed. 

There was also the deportation of a key ‘money-man’ of the Nediyavan Group, one of the key outfits that emerged in the post-LTTE break-up, Jeyakumaran Muneeswarakumar and the impending deportation of Tharmaratnam Arumaithurai a Tiger who went as Velu and was the last of the 492 MV Sun Sea ‘migrants’.  They, like others, plead harassment and discrimination, even though it is reported that more than 75% of Tamils who have used the war to obtain Canadian residency have visited Sri Lanka thereafter.  A ‘war’ or post-war ‘trauma’ of one kind or another is a ‘fact’ that needs to be constructed and sustained. The end of such a memory-war would rebel against the good-life aspirations of many.  This has to be understood.  Even if it were not understood it is a reality that feeds Sri Lankan politics, both in Sri Lanka and in the international arena.  

Last week also saw three condemned to death over the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi being granted the reprieve of a life sentence. The Tamil Nadu state government moved quickly to get the three offenders released. This is election year in India it must be remembered.  Be that as it may, the open snub of the Supreme Court underlines the fact that India is an artificial aggregate, ready to break into constituent parts or more. Tamil Nadu has a memory issue too, apparently and that’s a long recollect, going back to pre-India times, i.e. before the British conquered its many fiefdoms and gave the composite a name.   

The war we are talking about has an Indian element that goes beyond that country’s interference in the form of arming, training and funding terrorists. The Indian Peace Keeping Force is another element in the alleyways of memory.  The IPKF’s crimes against humanity constitute a ghost that will be made to fight in that narrow corridor of memory.

There’s another dimension to the memory narrative.  The play of the United States, Britain and Canada in post-war memory-wars, code-worded ‘Geneva’ shall we say?  What wars are they worried about here?  It cannot be some abstract love for humanity, considering these nations happen to be the worst violators of human rights over the past two centuries (and they are not done yet, let us not forget!). 

British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, John Rankin says he is noting ‘continued challenges’ and that he had heard about ‘problems faced by single women and women heads of households, including from sexual violence’.  This was after visiting Jaffna last week.  The man could have been speaking about any town or district or province in any part of Sri Lanka or in any member state of the United Nations.

What’s his problem?  He’s upset also about ‘military presence’ although ‘making the British military present’ in other countries that have no quarrel with him does not seem to bother him at all. 
Rankin talks of those other must-do things in post-conflict situations: accountability, reconciliation and respect for human rights.  He talks as though is not aware that politicians and defence officials in his country stand accused of war crimes.  He talks as though he is unaware that there are allegations that half the mosques in his country have been attacked, that religious-intolerance in Britian is a political fact that cannot be swept under the carpet, and compared to which, the inter-faith clashes in Sri Lanka are but kindergarten quarrels.

It is strange that Rankin doesn’t chide his Prime Minister (or Queen) and the President of the United States (and of course Harper of Canada) for crimes of omission and commission. The US and UK after all invaded Iraq on a lie (acknowledged by Rankin’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg). Asoka Weerasinghe puts it best:

‘The Yankees, to kill one man in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, invaded that country on a lie and dropped 88,500 tons of bombs by 2,800 fix-winged aircrafts during 109,000 sorties, as well as used 2,095 HARM missiles, 217 Walleye missiles, 5,276 guided anti-tank missiles., killing 1.2 million innocent Iraqis’.  He adds, ‘Canada has lacked the guts and gumption to ask the  mighty US  for accountability!’ Rankin is lacking too.

So what’s all this got to do with memory-alley battles?  This has nothing to do with Sri Lanka, one must conclude.  It’s about a memory-issue about a different war or let’s say different wars, for some are still being fought in Afghanistan, Pakistan and in proxy-manner in the Middle East.  It’s systematic memory-displacement.  A denial syndrome of a different kind.  It’s not about ostrich-like gaze-turning but a more sinister and let’s admit it more convenient and effective dealing with memory-angst.  It’s called ‘Let me not only not think about it, let me think about other things and make others also think about those very same ‘other things’.’

If it was only a matter of reconciling ourselves to our tumors, our handicaps, frailties and such, and therefor acquire for ourselves the power to see those incapacities in our self-named ‘others’, it would be so much easier, one feels.  But the second (and necessary or rather inevitable) war is dearly fought and in a sense more tenaciously than the first.  In Sri Lanka’s case, this land (read ‘territory, people, ideologies, cultures, histories and imaginations’) is battleground not just for Sinhalese and Tamils, but other identity collectives and, worse, for forces that have nothing ‘Sri Lankan’ in them. 

Some might say ‘let’s develop and that will sort it out’. Others say ‘devolve’.  Still others, as we pointed out, might say ‘hang the Rajapaksas’.  Then there would be those who say ‘let’s change the regime; that will get us to the finishing line fast’.  We would be naïve indeed to think that one or all of these would deliver us to a Sri Lanka that gets beyond post-war-memory-alley-war.  

Let us return to the questions we began with.

When do wars end?  Do they end with surrender, with military annihilation of protagonist, the recovery of livelihoods, reconstruction of houses, hospitals, schools, return of the displaced, erasing off things with military signature, free and fair elections and a shaking of hands all around?  Do wars end that way, ever, though?  Isn’t it true that the wars that have truly ‘ended’ for all practical purposes those which are beyond recall and whose identity-ties have been smudged by the movement of people and dwarfed by event after earth-shattering event? 

Let us be sober about the challenges ahead of us.

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