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Event, Structure, History: July 1983, May 2009

(Photo by Chandragupta Amarasinghe)

The modern history of Sri Lanka is punctuated by two massive events that we are yet to fully understand; the civilian led anti-Tamil violence of July 1983, and the armed forces led destruction of LTTE in May, 2009. Other events that might claim to be such ruptures in temporality, events that structure both time and society, so that they are embedded in history; April 1971 or December 2004, don’t have the same weight. And weight it what matters, in this process I isolate, ‘Event, Structure, History.’

And yet, these ruptures that punctuate not just our modern history, but punch out its more somber, brutal, chilling episode, that drew us down what seemed to be an ever spiraling vortex of no return, are also so very different. July, 1983 was an event without parallel, a moment of ‘horror,’ that had many Sri Lankans throwing their hands up in disgust. Many of those worked against the tide, but many also went with the flow. People were killed, houses burnt, livelihoods destroyed. However, it was, for most, who remember it to this day, lived through, experienced. Even today, you can in a gathering of older people, Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, ask, what were you doing in July, 1983 and they will remember and reminisce.

Great contributions to the structure of society and history from the event also seemed to come from this lived experience. It happened. Some were killed; many were burnt down to nothing. They left. And we, who always lived in broken, fractured place we call home fighting over the house and garden, moved to other places, not to give up the fight, but to keep at it, long distance. The Sri Lankan Diaspora, no, the Sinhala and Tamil Diaspora, fractured in its own, special, unhappy way, was born. A Diaspora of patriots is not new. Indeed the very word comes from the old biblical idea of the scattering of the tribes of Israel, once mythical place, and now, real state, imagined origin of many more than it is lived home of. Or the Irish of Boston. Such is old, it predates the internet and inexpensive, shared video recordings. It makes for a distributed nation; a small country, that’s a huge challenge.

Perhaps this is a reason we are much less in agreement as what might have even happened, in May 2009, than July 1983. Of course, there are nay Sayers still, of that first event, those who say it never really happened, that no one was killed, they it was faked. Indeed. But I trust they are a small number, and more that their views have little authority. Not so with May 2009. Reasonable people, with considered views, seem to differ so dramatically on what happened and why. War crimes. Geneva. UNHRC. It is of course, no longer a private fight between two people in a bad arraigned marriage, who have to stay together for the sake of children and house and garden. It’s in the court of world opinion. Indeed it is a sign of how far we have traveled on new roads that we cannot map, far away from home.

Perhaps it is also because May 2009 is too complicated to boil down into a simple, ‘we did this that to them.’ It wasn’t 1983; it was the end point of one of the most complex, bitter and sophisticated wars the world as ever lived through. And so, yes, it would be hard to understand, let alone arrive at the shared understanding of it. And yet, we have not tried. I think this is where we have failed, failed ourselves and failed our children, failed our nation, and our country, and what left of it. We have not tried, to simply ask those who were there, to speak of what they remember. Not that they don’t remember of course. They do. But no one wants to listen. So the biggest difference between July 1983 and May 2009, is that the second exists in video on YouTube, and first really doesn’t. And it is the first, that was the simple event, indeed, it could be a 30min documentary. The second with all its complexity, is now understood by many, who were not there, who didn’t live through it, as a simple moral story of evil vs. good. Their ‘May, 2009’ is on YouTube; it’s a film. It is as if, July 1983 went to the movies, and came out a sequel. Yes, it is that simple and that convoluted.
I don’t know when we will get out of this mess we’ve made of things. But I do know that someday, we will be able to hear through the competing, contradictory, claims and counter claims of ‘I patriot, you terrorist,’ the unbearably sad, unspoken lament of our collective melancholia, for all we have lost and cannot name.

Published in print on the web, in the Nation on Sunday, 20th May, 2012


Thinking Through and Beyond the Sandahiru Saya

There is something to be said, as I’ve done before, for imagining a nation through death, without taking sides. Without trying to figure out, who was right and who was wrong, in an unending cycle of accusations and counter accusations. All we need to do is stretch our imaginations to encompass all those in our country who grieve.

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There is a view, very common internationally now, that ‘reconciliation’ in Sri Lanka will not come about, until there is ‘justice’ and ‘accountability.’ These arguments are well known now but it’s worth delving into the basic assumptions that underlie them. It is assumed, in the ‘reconciliation’ argument, that there were two sides which fought for a long time. That one side defeated the other side. Now, both sides must stand trial, so that charges, for which ‘credible evidence’ is available, can be proved. Once proved, the leaders or representatives of both sides must be punished. And then, all will be well. Really?

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A reply to "An American and an outsider"

While it is more than true that both the British colonial government that ruled the country, from 1815-1948, and the independent governments of Ceylon (1948-1972) and Sri Lanka (GoSL, 1972, onwards) are responsible for enormous atrocities – including pogroms, collective punishment, enforced disappearances, mass executions and torture-- some of which, in recent decades, the so called international community has been seriously implicated in several ways, there is not, on my view, at this juncture, a genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka or a will for such a project within the ranks of the GoSL.

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"Is the World Ignoring Sri Lanka’s Srebrenica?"

In any reasonable use of language, that is historically and politically sensitive, Srebrenica is a code word code for a deliberate civilian massacre, and has been deemed to be genocide, by the International Court of Justice. There were perpetrators and victims in that example; and justice was demanded and obtained. Surely this is not a word to thrown around, because Mackay and Sen Gupta are 'horrified.'

This is an extremely poor comparison, that holds no water or weight, and Macky's qualifications raise questions either about his judgment, or motives. Or is it just that the meaning of "Srebrenica" is being re-made here: it is now to mean, "oh the 'Horror, the Horror'" in the Heart of Darkness, every where, that natives have (re)made, half naked in loin clothes no doubt, after the good white folk left.

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