திங்கள், 22 ஜூன், 2009

- How can a durable peace be forged in Sri Lanka?

In the autumn of 2001, I spent several weeks travelling through Switzerland, meeting representatives of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. Some exiles I spoke to were ambivalent about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Others were actively hostile. However, I found that an overwhelming majority of the 50,000 or so Swiss Tamils were die-hard supporters of the Tigers. For them, only Prabhakaran’s men had stood uncompromisingly for the rights of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka; and only they had fought consistently to uphold the dignity and self-respect of a people crushed by the long arm of Sinhala majoritarianism.

Among the many interesting (and often moving) conversations I had was one with a man called Mathialakan. ‘Mathi’ was, among other things, the organizer of an annual sports festival for the diaspora. Held in a large meadow outside the Swiss capital, Bern, this festival drew thousands of Tamil footballers, athletes, cricketers, and wrestlers from all over Europe and North America. Beyond the sport, the jamboree was motivated by two ideals — renewing the community spirit of the Tamils in exile, and raising money for the Tamil Tigers.

I attended the festival and, some days later, called on its moving spirit. In his native Jaffna, Mathialakan had been a brilliant student as well as a fine footballer. He had hoped to qualify as a chartered accountant, but the civil war put paid to those dreams. Forced into exile, he now made a modest living as a restaurant chef, and spent his spare time working for his fellow Tamils.

Mathi and I spoke for upwards of three hours, in his home in the town of Adliswil. Although Tamil by birth, I know but a few hundred words of that language, while my host knew little English. So we made ourselves mutually comprehensible through the medium of an interpreter, a Japanese girl studying in Zürich. She translated from his Swiss German into English, and from my English back into Swiss German. It was an encounter emblematic of the early 21st century — two Tamils, one deracinated, the other in forced exile, communicating through two European tongues known to a Japanese intermediary.

Mathi was wholeheartedly committed to a Tamil homeland. As he put it, “Five hundred years ago, we Tamils had our own country, our own government, our own state. Colonization by the Europeans and oppression by the Sinhalese destroyed it. Now we are struggling for the reclamation of our land. Even while we are here, we must prepare to go back to Eelam. Eventually that will be our home, not Switzerland. Here we can never escape being foreign.”

Mathi hoped for the creation of an independent state for his people. For himself, he had a more limited ambition, which was to promote a Tamil-only team in the Swiss football league. When I asked whether this dream conflicted with the desire to return, he answered that “our boys should be proud of our culture and history. They can be Swiss by nationality, but they must still be Tamil in spirit”. A Tamil football team in Switzerland was also an insurance policy, a sort of last resort if the Tigers lost the war in Sri Lanka. As Mathi remarked, “If the war gets worse, and there are no Tamils left in Sri Lanka, they will at least be here, with their culture intact.’

Now, with the war in Sri Lanka actually at an end, what can or might be done with the sentiments of people like Mathi? Their dream of an independent Eelam has turned out to be a bloody fantasy. But even if their faith in the Tigers was misconceived, one must pay proper respect to their own personal sufferings. The conflict in Sri Lanka pitted two unforgiving and brutal combatants. The Tigers murdered many innocent people and, against all the norms and mores of war, recruited child soldiers and used civilians as human shields. They assassinated Tamils who dared question their methods. At the same time, the hands of the Sri Lankan state and military are not exactly clean either. They were guilty of the most horrific human rights abuses, bombarding and shelling villages and towns with impunity.

Having won the war, how can the government of Sri Lanka win the peace? To begin with, it must refresh its memory as to how it all began. The conflict in Sri Lanka has its origins in the attempt, during the 1950s, to make Sinhala the sole official language of the island. The decision to privilege Sinhala over Tamil was compounded by the further decision, in 1972, to declare Buddhism the ‘official’ religion of Sri Lanka. This act also deeply hurt the Tamils, who were themselves adherents of the Hindu, Muslim or Christian faiths. These legal acts of discrimination were followed by two illegal manifestations of Sinhala chauvinism — namely, the burning of the great Tamil library in Jaffna in 1981, and the pogrom against Tamils in Colombo two years later.

Through the 1960s and ’70s, Tamil politicians had used non-violent, constitutional methods to protest their being treated as second-class citizens. However, after the burning of the Jaffna library and the Colombo pogrom, the younger Tamils lost patience with these incremental methods. They came to believe that only through the establishment, through armed struggle, of an independent Eelam, would they be able to live with dignity and honour in their own land.

That dream lies in tatters. The war has been fought, and lost. The future of that lovely island now rests crucially on the attitude of the victorious Sinhalese. Are they ready and willing to acknowledge that in the making of this very bloody conflict they too played a part? Or will they simply take the outcome of the war as a vindication of their policies?

It appears that the government now in power in Colombo, led by Mahinda Rajapakse, believes that with the Tigers now vanquished, the Tamils will act as obedient and loyal citizens of the Sri Lankan nation. Those hopes may be belied, unless there is some gesture of magnanimity on the part of the victors. This could take the form of a proclamation officially withdrawing the edict of 1972 that made Buddhism the sole official language of the nation. That act made the Tamils doubly second-class — for, simply by virtue of the accident of history, they had come to speak a language and to practise faiths that were now deemed inferior to Sinhalese and Buddhism respectively.

With the war ended, there is talk of a ‘federal solution’, of making the Tamil areas more autonomous in terms of policy and administration. However, these legal changes by themselves will be inadequate to reassure the Tamils. It is crucial that the most visible symbolic signs of majoritarianism — the privileged place of the Sinhalese language and of the Buddhist faith — must be abandoned, demolished, buried. Only then can a durable peace be forged in Sri Lanka.

My friend Mathi, the accountant-turned-chef of Adliswil, had poignantly observed that in Switzerland the Tamils “can never escape being foreign”. He had previously indicated that in their own homeland, they could not, as things stood, escape being second-class. To eradicate the basis of that discrimination is the only way to a long-lasting peace in Sri Lanka. The Rajapakse government must summon up the courage to undo the injustices of the past by officially and legally placing all citizens of Sri Lanka on the same plane, regardless of language or faith.


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