Rising from the July embers

I can still remember vividly that fateful day in July 1983 when a Nation’s hopes for peace literally went up in smoke. My schoolmates and I were halfway to school when we saw buildings burning in Colombo and the driver of the school bus turned back because it was not possible to continue the journey. On the way home, we saw mobs armed with knives, swords, clubs and machetes going from house to house. Some of them were carrying petrol cans.

The destruction was incomprehensible to my young mind. I asked my mother and father what it was all about and with tears in her eyes, mother told me that some bad people were attacking Tamil people. By then I was well aware that there was some trouble in the North but it was so distant physically and metaphorically. “They can’t do this, this must stop”, my father was saying, with anger in his voice. I knew what he meant. Some of his best friends in the Colombo Municipal Council, his employer, were Tamils. My mother, being a principal, counted many Tamils among her friends as well. I too had many Tamil friends.

I was a shortwave radio fan then, so I immediately switched on one of the foreign stations. What the announcer described surprised me: “In communal riots in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese mobs are attacking Tamil-owned shops and Tamil civilians following the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna”. Somehow, I could not think this was happening. Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims had lived together in harmony for centuries. There was no way that the Sinhalese would attack Tamils spontaneously even if a tragic incident had happened in the North. It was many years later that I learned the truth with regard to the “riots” that day – that the mobs had been manipulated by unseen elements.

As the embers died down and the country regained a semblance of normality, we learned that most Sinhalese had risked their own lives to save their Tamil neighbours. We learned that many religious dignitaries across religious lines had come together to protect the innocent victims. Humanity had once again triumphed in the face of evil adversity. But I knew that even worse things could lie ahead. One needed no high IQ to realize that the conflict in the North would escalate from then onwards.

Negative impression of Sri Lanka

Even as a 13-year-old, I immediately realized one thing back then: Sri Lanka would never be the same again. Judging from the comments on the shortwave stations I realized even back then that other countries would have a very negative impression of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. It would be decades before Sri Lanka extricated itself out of this predicament. And thousands of lives would be lost over the course of the next 30 years as the conflict raged on in the North, the East and yes, in other areas too. It was a conflict that pitted brother against brother and sister in against sister. Sri Lanka lost its innocence in July 1983.

Black July had implications on many fronts. Sri Lanka became an international outcast. Black July itself and the conflict that followed dragged our economy back by at least 30 years. Tourists stayed away in droves and investors took their investments elsewhere. The conflict virtually devastated the Northern and Eastern provinces. A whole generation in the North grew up without any notion of what education meant. Above all, it helped to drive a wedge among the different communities in Sri Lanka, which was exactly what the extremist politicians on all sides wanted. Unfortunately for the country, Black July was manna from heaven for many of them.

Still, there are extremists who hope for another Black July in this country to further their own ends. This is the one lesson we still have not learned from those sordid events of July 1983. Moreover, the end of the war in 2009 presented the country with a golden opportunity to bring everyone together under the concept of “one nation, one people” but this too was spurned. Nine years later, there still seem to be many who seem to thrive on spreading ethnic and religious division and hatred. This is the only way they can apparently survive, be it in the North or the South.

Unlike in 1983 or even 2009, today’s world is highly connected. One unfortunate consequence of this ultra-connectivity is the possibility of lies and misinformation gaining the upper hand over the truth and reality. One inflammatory post on Facebook, one irresponsible tweet on Twitter and one made-up photo on Instagram can instantly be shared around the world. The same material can be forwarded instantly via What’sApp and Viber. Indeed, extremists made ample use of these platforms to spread hatred during recent incidents in Digana, Ampara and Ginthota and to mobilize mobs.

It is heartening to see Government authorities and social media companies working together to prevent a repetition of such incidents in the future. “There are certain forms of misinformation that have contributed to physical harm, and we are making a policy change which will enable us to take that type of content down,” Facebook said in a recent statement. “We will begin implementing the policy during the coming months.” In fact, Sri Lanka is the first country where the changes will be implemented.

Ethnic and religious conflict

The Internet cannot be censored or regulated in that sense of the word, but there should be some mechanism to stop the use of these platforms to sow the seeds of ethnic and religious conflict. Another ethnic and/or religious conflict is the last thing Sri Lanka needs as it emerges out of decades of strife. We simply cannot afford to go back on that path again, just when efforts are underway for serious reconciliation and lasting peace all over the island. Yet, some recent statements by communal-minded politicians in the North and the South have set off alarm bells in the minds of all right-thinking citizens. The future of the country can be secured only by defeating their violent ideology.

Ethnic and religious harmony must necessarily spring in our minds first. As they say, peace begins at home. Get to know your neighbours who are from different communities or profess different religious beliefs. Regardless of your religion, go to the nearby temple, church, mosque and kovil and have a discussion with the religious leaders and the faithful. We must truly embrace our multiculturalism to emerge victorious in the quest for reconciliation. Indeed, a generation from now, there will possibly be no one who has communal ideas as all children are learning Sinhala, Tamil and English. They will be able to talk to each other and understand each other perfectly. There will be no place in their hearts for division and hatred.

The next logical step is to think of ourselves as Sri Lankans first and foremost. Sadly, even many Government forms still insist on seeking our ethnicity. What we need is a truly Sri Lankan identity. A Singaporean does not identify himself or herself as Chinese, Malay, Tamil or Eurasian. We should aspire to reach the same goal. There will be no reason for division or strife if we all think as Sri Lankans whilst still cherish our lineage. That will be the foundation of a prosperous, peaceful Sri Lanka.