Publication: Times of India;
Date: May 10, 2009;
Section: Mind Over Matter;
Don’t cry for us, Sri Lanka
The teardrop isle’s dirty war has resulted in the psychological brutalization of its Tamil minority at home and abroad
This war is no cricket match and, even if it were, both sides have lost while the civilian spectators have become chief victims. Images of refugees — black skins with raging, red wounds, bones popping out, a mob raising hands and fists for a box of biscuits, while leaving fields of dead — are now the subject of daily contemplation for their cousins abroad, the ones who have made it out.
We left the burning island many decades ago, after cataclysms such as attacks on our people, houses and businesses in 1958 and 1983, the dirty war in Sri Lanka’s south in the late 1980s and the tsunami of 2004. Can you imagine a 26-year-long intense civil war and a natural disaster, the mother of all waves, splintering the same spit of land?
Now we read about emissaries from our Western refuges and the United Nations failing to convince the Sri Lankan government about the merits of entering the so-called ‘no fire zone' to ensure that civilians have food, water and medicine. We read about the visa denial to the Swedish foreign minister and about Lasantha Wickrematunga being shot in broad daylight at an intersection. Lasantha’s last words, his posthumously published editorial “And Then They Came For Me” remind us of the power of his engagement in trying to preserve civil discourse, a democratic space where dissent would not cause the summoning of a death squad.
Don’t cry for us, Sri Lanka. The island’s dirty war has seared all of us. Meanwhile, we wander past the protest outside the Houses of Parliament in London, or Parliament Hill in Ottawa, or the Sri Lankan Consulate General in New York. We see our faces in young people handing out leaflets, born in the diaspora — polite, educated in civic manners. We see the flags of the Tigers and wonder, do we subscribe to the bloody history the emblem implies? Did we blow up Neelan Tiruchelvam at the junction of Kynsey Road and Rosmead Place or garland Rajiv at his last campaign rally?
Yet, we go on emboldened quietly, proud of the sacrifices of our boys and girls. And we have become tired of the grudging respect and jokes of our new fellow citizens, whether English, Germans, Canadians, Australians. Are you a Tiger? Where did you learn such savagery? We learned it when we were advised that our language would be considered a minor key in the island symphony. That was in 1956 when Sinhala became legislated into the pole position in the formula one race to Armageddon.
The leader who championed that fine bill in the parliament died later from an assassin’s bullet, fired by a monk. The prime minister did not go far enough in asserting majority rights, it seemed. He wanted to step back from the demons he unleashed. The robes in which we dress do not preclude savage impulses in the island where the poet said ‘only Man is vile.’
We learned it in 1958 and 1983, years when we became subject to organized lynch mobs, armed with voter lists, thugs who came to burn us out, to help us move to where we live now, in Scarborough, London, Geneva, consoled by new sets of social services, local government support, our community networks, to keep Tamils thriving, to educate our children, to bless their marriages in marriage halls.
We have moved out of Jaffna, out of Kayts, out of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, out of the Vanni. Some of us have moved into armed camps behind barbed wire where we cannot meet friends or relatives. The rest of us, who left before the current flare-up, are now hyphenated into thriving, consoling societies full of immigrants from war-ravaged countries. Yet we are shocked, numbed, without sleep, as we stare at the faces of our people, hungry, wounded, caught in a vise between two implacable, blind, pitiless and careless foes.
Charges of war crimes do not seem to bother the warring parties. And we are not clamouring to return to the now “liberated” East Coast and the soon-to-be-“free” Northern province. We know that our fellow citizens in these regions live in fear as they do throughout the island. The white van visits our sleep, the vehicle without license plates that comes at night and takes away our young.
We would be pleased to return white to snow, or temple flowers, or our shirts as we ride the bus to work in a quiet, democratic, multicultural and thriving democracy. We recall fondly days when our Ceylon mosaic gave us friends who brought us sweetmeats, Dutch sweets, when we would wander over to the Pettah for a Muslim feast. We regret that Ceylon has disappeared. Yet, we think still, in fevered dreams, that we can wake up renewed to palaver with our neighbours, our fellow islanders. (The writer’s name has been changed for security reasons)