Sounds of anger or, paper lions and
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
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
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
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,