The North of Sri Lanka, or at least Jaffna, last week reverberated to the cries of demonstrating political activists and their followers articulating, firstly, the frustration over the slow progress of post-war recovery and, secondly, the yearning for the presumed dignity of self-rule – of greater autonomy, if not independence. Within days, the South heard angry voices protesting the perceived reawakening of secessionism in the North. The anger was clear in their harsh expressions of hostility to minority ethnicity and minority ethnic politics.
The protest in Jaffna was led by politicians, including the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, no less. The protest demonstration initiated in the South – and reaching Vavuniya, but no further – was led by clerics, the most notable being the leader of the Bodu Bala Sena.
The theme of the well-planned march in Jaffna, ‘Elugha Thamil’, echoed the theme of a similar annual event, ‘Pongu Thamil’, conducted by the now-defunct secessionist insurgent movement, the LTTE, a movement that struck terror in the hearts of many non-Tamils, and even some Tamils. Unsurprisingly, the responding Southern protest march in Vavuniya voiced threats of retaliation that echoed the raging threats associated with the terrifying attack on Muslim townships in Aluthgama. Indeed, some protestors openly invoked the tragedy of Aluthgama. It was the same organisation prominent in Vavuniya last week that was also prominent in Aluthgama during the racist pogrom there.
That violence begets violence, if the beings concerned fail to transcend baser instincts, is a truism well understood by the participants in both rival protests, most of whom were adherents of either Buddhism or Hinduism. This country has experienced that vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence many a time in its modern history.
More importantly, this country has learnt the lessons of failure to respond civilly, rather than violently, to civil expression of social and political frustration – whether ethnic community frustration or social class frustration. To the credit of Sri Lankan society overall – no thanks to those who persisted in the un-civility – there has been much regret over that failure in civility and corresponding huge efforts to redress that failure by constitutional and administrative reform. Partial regional autonomy, in the form of moderately empowered provincial councils, is already in place, although much after the calls for such devolution were first articulated.
Sadly, many years of strife and suppression of civilian political agitation by violent State action, followed by waves of armed insurgency against the violent State, had to pass before the nation undertook political reform that addressed the root causes of the conflict.
The bloodletting on all sides reached a crescendo in the past decade with events so gory that society would rather forget than recount. Forgiveness is needed but not forgetfulness.
The measure of civilisation is not so much in the non-occurrence of barbarity but in the transcending of barbarity and, in the creativity that can arise from the actual (and awful) experience and understanding of such extremities. It is when society successfully meets the test of evil and, overcomes it, that civilisation shines forth, lighting up the world.
The test, then, is for political leaderships to dig deep for understanding, inspiration, dialogue and, finally, consensual action to heal rather than wound, to unite and reconcile rather than divide and alienate.
The Tamil leadership has big challenges. It must deal intelligently with political immaturity and amateurish tactics by aspiring politicians on the one hand. On the other, it must retain the faith of the mass of Tamils by a dual strategy of close, empathetic interaction with its constituency that parallels its ongoing, if tortuous, negotiations with the other national political leaderships for a constitutional settlement of the ethnic problem. The mass base should not be forgotten in the course of top-level negotiations.
Those leftovers of the ‘guerilla’ struggle must learn that any progress towards future political success should not and cannot come through a resort to reviving old terrors. After all, their constituency seeks to move on towards stability and prosperity quickly, and are not likely to be nostalgic for much longer over past, short-lived and, bloodily-won, makeshift glories recalled, momentarily, with ‘Elugha Thamil’. Those diasporic remnants of a defeated insurgency need to be seen in their real form: remnants.
The national political leaderships also face complex challenges of riding such outbursts of impatience as last week’s demonstration in Jaffna while being firm with attempts by pseudo-nationalist has-beens to rig the political arena with paper tigers.
Certainly, the pace of ground level post-war recovery measures must be quickened. The speedy release of lands to former owners and support for the many poorer people of the North and East who have no capital at all is critical if the constituencies in the former war zone are to remain patient. And this will include putting an end to any illusions of empire-building and land grabbing via religious icons and installations. Since many of these implanted religious icons and installations have no sustaining community of adherents, it is only the illusion that stands in the way of firmly dealing with such patent pseudo-religion.
Those ‘paper lions’ who raise their voices must be seen as what they are so that they are not given a significance they cannot command.
Finally, the micro-politics of impending local elections should not deter or slow down national level actions on any side, north and south, for long term peace and prosperity.
‘In flesh by fire inflamed, nature may thoroughly heal the sore; in soul by tongue inflamed, the ulcer healeth never more.’ (Tirukkural, verse 129)