This article is taken from the FOR THE RECORD section of the Reconciliation Website, www.peaceinsrilanka.org which subsumes the old site www.peaceinsrilanka.lk used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP). The articles in FOR THE RECORD are intended to counter those who promote division.  Though problems should be raised, and addressed, there must be balance, so as to avoid the perpetuation of bitterness.

The Periclean scholar, who had begun by thinking that there were possible comparisons between Hitler’s Germany and Sri Lanka, did show some acumen in suggesting that, given the distance between facts and allegations, there was need to explore why the allegations came so thick and fast, with such untenable comparisons. I thought it best to answer this through questions, which led her to exclaim, while wracking her brains for the answers, that she was not used to answering questions. Her research had evidently involved just asking questions, the Socratic method evidently not part of the stock in trade of her intellectual training.

The first question to answer was, who was raising the questions, and she realized pretty smartly that the principal driving force was the Tamil diaspora. We then went into the history of that diaspora, and I realized that she was aware of the violence that had driven many of them away in the early eighties. And it was necessary to note that there had been political decisions too in the period before that, which had also led Tamils to feel they would be better off abroad.

That is true however of others as well, since the English speaking and the middle classes emigrated while a monolingual statist socialist paradise was being constructed. But those emigrants are not bitter as many of the Tamils are. The reason for the difference, one assumes then, is the viciousness of the physical attacks against them in the eighties, attacks which were purely destructive. Whilst the other measures had unfortunate effects, it could have been argued that they were idealistic in conception, albeit ham-fisted in implementation. Someone else worse off was supposed to benefit, even though the benefits proved less than the deprivation of those who were done down. But the spate of attacks between 1977 and 1983, which seemed increasingly to be committed with government indulgence if not support, was qualitatively different, and contributed to a mindset of unremitting hostility.

Such hostility is understandable[1]. Sadly we have done little to assuage it. For many years we did not push ahead with mechanisms to integrate people more effectively, to ensure bilingualism so that people can communicate with each other and Tamils can deal with government departments in a language they can understand, to promote recruitment of minorities into the bureaucracy and in particular the armed forces. This government is in fact the first to move forward concertedly in this regard[2], but its programmes are not well known, and it has been slow to fast forward them when there was no longer need for the restrictions necessary when hostilities were in progress. Thus the targeted recruitment of Tamil policemen which commenced a few years back was hardly publicized, nor was attention drawn to the paucity of recruits while the Tigers continued to threaten. The fact that, following the destruction of the Tigers in Sri Lanka, there were mass applications to the police also needs to be conveyed to the diaspora. And surely we ought to do better now about recruitment to the regular armed forces too, following on the initial effort to recruit minorities as English teachers to the Cadet Corps a few years back.

Government has also been inefficient in another particular, namely ensuring proper use of resources to promote multilingualism. For many years several Western donors contributed massive amounts of money to what they termed peace-building, but this went to organizations that presented themselves as being at odds with the government[3]. Instead of monitoring such funds carefully, and insisting, if they were not productive, that they be used on activities that would benefit the nation instead, government proved lackadaisical, with occasional bursts of irritation when particularly virulent attacks were launched on its policies.

So the diaspora continues to believe that things are just as they were back in 1983. The fact that there has never been violence of that sort again has not been asserted clearly, and is not even considered. Instead isolated incidents against the Tigers are presented as attacks on the Tamil people, with skilful disinformation that is then shored up by tame international commentators. Thus Alan Keenan, who has a particular axe to grind against the current government of the country in which he spent so many profitable years, managed to convince his boss Gareth Evans to insinuate that there was genocide and ethnic cleansing going on in Sri Lanka, though when pressed he had to explain to Gareth that he was talking about 1983[4] and what the LTTE had done to Muslims in 1990.

A Canadian of German Jewish descent, in commenting on how inefficient we had been about reconciliation, wondered why Sri Lanka had not done what the Germans did, in inviting the Jews of a new generation back, to apologize and show them the new pluralist Germany. I could see his point, but I also noted the differences between post-Nazi Germany and ourselves. The Nazis had lost, and the governments that followed had no difficulty about focusing on their abuses, because they themselves represented a clean break with the Nazi past. This was not the case in Sri Lanka and, though certainly there had been manifold abuses in the eighties, they had given rise to a terrorist movement that stood in an aggressive relation to the Sri Lankan state, quite unlike the Jews who had suffered under the Nazis. The new generation of Jews saw the new Germany as an important ally, and in fact needed its support for their own political imperatives, which were no threat to Germany at all.

And where we could not easily adopt the role of a disinterested new Germany, making amends to the Jews who had suffered (and who had also been sent away to a safe remove[5]), the Tamil diaspora has certainly adopted the technique of the Jews in ensuring relentless reminders of what they suffered[6]. Having coopted the Europeans also into the act, they make sure that the memory of what they suffered, when a minority in lands ruled by others, trumps any news of their own abuses of the Palestinians in the lands they managed to commandeer. So too the Tigers ensured that their aberrations were ignored, by simply drawing attention again and again to what they claimed were continuing abuses by the Sri Lankan state.

The comparison has made clearer to me both the brilliance of what Israel has achieved, and also its tragedy. What we used to think of as civilized Jewry has yielded now to Israeli fundamentalism, a mindset in which even Yitzhak Rabin will be soon forgotten. He is perhaps the most obvious example of the fact that terrorism does work, for the transformation of the Labour Party after his death has been depressing beyond words. Similar to that was the transformation of the former Tamil United Liberation Front, after the assassination of Neelan Tiruchelvam. Anyone prepared to compromise, to remember the past as it really was while trying to build a better, more inclusive future, must be destroyed when a polarizing juggernaut begins to roll.

So, in the Israeli case, the myth is developed that everyone else is intransigent, only Israel is flexible, even as the settlements proliferate. With regard to Sri Lanka the allegations of War Crimes proliferate, and indeed were used to draw attention away from problems in Gaza. But in both cases the stories spread because they are countenanced also by others with a veneer of disinterestedness. Israeli extremists have European apologists who are still riddled with guilt for what the Nazis, and several others in several other countrie did many years ago. In Sri Lanka we have an ambitious and greedy opposition. Their behavior however in perpetuating the War Crimes allegations needs to be addressed separately.


[1] It should certainly not be dismissed by cavalier assertions, such as I saw recently (admittedly in a work of fiction, as the comment of a particular character) that ‘Many say the ’83 riots were actually instigated by the Tigers, this was to involve the Tamils in Colombo as up until then they had not been included in the conflict’. This is plain nonsense but, given subsequent tactics by the Tigers, it could in time seem plausible. This is one reason why, long ago, I advocated a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with regard to 1983. President Kumaratunga finally established something of the kind but, far from seeking the Truth, it turned into yet another mechanism to distribute money to victims and supposed victims of the riots. Far from establishing what had actually happened, it became practically a rent seeking exercise.

Incidentally, the Commissions established by President Kumaratunga to look into disappearances under previous regimes also failed to establish accountability. Though more serious in conception than her 1983 Commission, they confined themselves to trying to trace missing individuals and issuing death certificates when appropriate. These are certainly tasks of great importance, but one purpose of such Commissions, to ensure that similar actions would be discouraged in the future, was not pursued. Whilst President Kumaratunga’s tenure saw much better training for the armed forces, and a political dispensation that was not as sanguine about excesses as in the preceding period, the possibility that rogue elements could count on impunity was not addressed. In this regard we could certainly have learnt from the South African model, and President Kumaratunga, who was seen, and thought of herself, as a new broom, should have swept clean more effectively.

[2] Bilingualism in schools, it should be noted, began under President Kumaratunga

[3] The British for instance ignored many requests to fund Tamil language training for policemen, the then High Commissioner instead informing me complacently that all British funds for peace-building went to agencies such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives. The European Union claimed it wanted to pursue such a project, but insisted it seems that this be implemented through a hand-picked agent who did not have the confidence of the security establishment with whom the work would have had to be done. Even now, though it is claimed that some projects are being implemented for public servants, their impact is not properly monitored and, though these are supposed to be in collaboration with the state, government is unable to discern or to count on an effective programme based on the priorities it has formulated.

[4] And, appalling as that episode was, it could hardly be called genocide

[5] Wicked though it was, one has to grant the sheer genius of the Europeans who had ill-treated the Jews in that they made amends at the expense of the Palestinians and transferred Jewish aggression to others. And though it is now too late to reverse that utterly Orientalist decision of the Western dominated United Nations in 1948, what is remarkable is the manner in which the Europeans have done nothing to ensure compliance with that decision and others since made by the UN, with regard to restoring to the Palestinians at least the lands they were intended to retain in 1948.

[6] Interestingly enough, while I was writing this I came across an exaggerated version of this assessment in a fictional account by the Canadian novelist Mordechai Richler, about how a wealthy businessman educates a neophyte about how to raise funds for Israel through a ‘United Jewish Appeal’ – ‘I’m against anti-Semitism. But every time some asshole daubs a swastika on a synagogue wall or knocks over a stone in one of our cemeteries, our guys get so nervous they phone me with pledges. So, things being how they are this year, what you’ve got to do is slam-dunk your target about the Holocaust. Shove Auschwitz at him, Buchenwald. War criminals thriving in Canada to this day. tell him, “Can you be sure it won’t happen again, even here, and then where will you go?” Israel is your insurance policy, you say.’

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