03 June 2016

Arantalawa is a temple called ‘Never Again’*

There are villages whose names are not known only by residents and a few others living in the neighbourhood.  Twenty four years ago, few or none in Colombo would have known of a village called Nuwaratenne.  Twenty four years ago, to the day, i.e. the 2nd of June, 1987, something happened which helped carry that name to most households across the country, via television, radio and newspapers.  The name was mentioned because an abduction took place close to this village.  The name was forgotten because those who were abducted were killed in cold blood in a different place.  That place had a name. Arantalawa.

A bus carrying 34 bikkhusaccompanied by 4 others was ambushed on that day near Nuwaratenne.  It was the LTTE, liberators to some, revolutionaries to others, called sole-representatives of the Tamil people by themselves and their lackeys, here and abroad, thought to be invincible then and right up to the end of 2008.  There were about 20 of them, armed with guns and swords.  The liberators ordered the driver to take the vehicle into the jungles of Arantalawa.The liberators did their work. At the end of it all, the 4 lay person. 30 young novice bikkhusand their mentor, the Chief Incumbent of the VidyanandaMahaPirivena, the Ven. Hegoda Sri IndrasaraThero, were liberated from their respective corporeal cages and sent swiftly along to their next sansaric destination. Four of the novice bikkhus or samaneras, wounded but trapped under the bodies of those who had been machine gunned or cut and slashed by the liberators, survived.  

Only one thing remained. A name.Arantalawa.

‘Arantalawa’ was not an isolated act of liberation.  The LTTE carried out hundreds of such liberation-attacks on unarmed civilians, mostly Sinhala and Muslim people living in areas the LTTE considered were the ‘historical and traditional homelands’ of the Tamil community.  This, ladies and gentlemen, was long before the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ entered the discourse of conflict resolution. 

‘Arantalawa’ is mentioned and remembered  not only because the name has a lyrical ring to it.  It is remembered also because it was a gruesome act.  It is remembered because it was, may I say, colourful.  Millions are familiar, after all, with the images from that massacre. A row of brutally murdered young bikkhus, their yellow robes drenched in blood makes an eye-catching portrait.

No Tamil with even a drop of humanity in him or her could identify with the LTTE and its project from this moment onwards, one would have thought.  Few among those who did, however, would claim they were lesser human beings, or lacked in humanity.  There is, after all, a human tendency to forgive such excesses if the general thrust of the objective is identified with. Humanity is framed, then, by convenience. 

‘Arantalawa’ was not a solitary act, not an outlier in the ‘overall’ that was the LTTE.  It was a leadership-call and a follower-execution.   It was not a ‘first’ for the LTTE and it was not the last. It was, indeed, a kind of beginning to a politics that embraced terrorism as the favoured methodology.  Such butchery became the political signature of the LTTE. Such acts have considerably lengthened the LTTE’s curriculum vitae, so to speak.

It was not only Sinhala Buddhists who earned the wrath of the LTTE and were executed thus.  Muslims were slaughtered in their hundred while at prayer inside mosques.  That’s how ‘Kattankudy’ became a familiar name.  And it was not only the LTTE that perpetrated such acts.  There have been many instances where soldiers, either under orders from superior officer or on account of indiscipline, have attacked villages where Tamil people resided.  Villages have fought one another, extracting eye for eye that was extracted, often by total outsiders in both cases.  Wars are terrible things. Guns don’t think.  Testosterone compromises reason.  

Twenty four years ago, saffron coloured robes turned chillie red.  Today, we can ask, ‘for what purpose?’  The LTTE did not win anything for the Tamil people. They only conferred disgrace on that community and were considerably supported in this by cowardly Tamil politicians and quack academics who went along with Eelam myth mongering because they were virulently anti-Sinhala or anti-Buddhist. 

Tamil people are not to be blamed for crimes against humanity perpetrated by a group or person who claims to represent then.  Neither are the Sinhalese to blame for the excesses of undisciplined troops, their sycophantic commanders. 

Today, ‘Arantalawa’ tells us only one thing: we cannot go back to that time.  All communities have been made to un-belong on this land, or else forced to inhabit characterizations that are either secondary or irrelevant to their lives.  They’ve not been allowed to speak. They’ve been spoken for and spoken for by demogogues and rogues. 

‘Arantalawa’ today is not just a gross reminder of the cloud that was hanging over this land for thirty years, raining bullets and dread, it is a symbol of what could happen again if certain paths known to lead to blood-letting are walked again.  ‘Arantalawa’ is a temple to the idea ‘Never Again’.  And this ‘never again’ must include claims that cannot be substantiated, insensitivity to one another’s doubts and suspicions, tendency to frill grievance and to ignore grievance in its true dimensions, the deference of resolving both specific and general citizenship anomalies in favour of eyewash and endless hair-splitting over things packed with rhetoric and poor in reason. 

On June 2, 1987, the earth in a then unknown piece of earth in a land whose blessings are ignored or vilified, saffron coloured robes turned chillie red.  Twenty four years later, we are as a people, have moved on.  Moving on, though, does not preclude going back.  If anything ‘Arantalawa’ should serve as a vivid and indelible image that makes us reject the pathways to madness and bloodletting.

*This article was first published on June 3, 2011 in the 'Daily News'.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writee.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene