Shadows of Black July and post-war reconciliation

Tuesday, 31 July 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Frances Bulathsinghala

The July 1983 anti-Tamil riots is a watershed in the recent history of this country, and 35 years later, with a three-decade war over and thousands killed, we are still left asking ‘Quo Vadis Lanka?’ 

This writer was seven years old when Colombo went up in flames on a seemingly ordinary July day. As a child, I did not know that 13 members of the government military had been killed in an ambush by the then fledging rebel outfit, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Neither did I know then that, twenty years later, I will be covering Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict and the 2002 peace process as a journalist. All I knew was that I was travelling in a school van with four Tamil female teachers wedged in our midst. I remember that these teachers were shaking in fear and trying hard to look nondescript with their pottus removed from their forehead. 

To recall now the carnage of that afternoon is like bringing forth a horror movie. Our van was travelling to Panadura, about 25km outside Colombo. The driver drove through flames and often nearly lost his nerve every time mobs asked us to halt, demanding if there were any Tamils in the van. Several times along the way, the driver was asked for petrol. Thankfully, this petrol being used to burn people alive I did not see, as my mother forced me and the other children travelling in that vehicle to ‘sleep’.

Having in July 1983 mourned the deaths of 13 soldiers, by 2003, Sri Lanka had mourned thousands of its youth.

Covering the 2002 peace process for a national newspaper as a staff journalist and for a couple of South Asian publications as a correspondent, I recall the many interviews with parents of cadres, with female cadres and with rebels of diverse ranks, and being amazed at how some of them had grown up in the South and come to the North only after July 1983. 

One of the conversations with the then police head of the LTTE, Nadesan, was significant. He was preoccupied with sharing details on how he was a police constable in the ‘Sinhalese police’, as he put it, but which was supposed to be the Sri Lankan police.  He was married to a Sinhalese (who lived with him in the North). Speaking in fluent Sinhalese, and insisting that he speak in Sinhalese (and not in English), he began to talk of how earnestly he had served as a police constable officer in the ‘Sinhalese police’. Following is a part of his statement as I remember it:

“I was in the Narahenpita police and was proud of my job. My wife, a Sinhalese, was also working in the police. I would never have dreamed of coming to the North and joining the LTTE if I was not helpless from protection from rioters, even as a police personnel.”

The writer mentions these comments not to take away from the LTTE leadership the accountability they should bear towards the Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims for having unleashed unprecedented terror for over thirty years until the annihilation of their organisation by the Lankan military in 2009. But, the reason for recalling Nadesan’s words is to understand how a Tamil police constable, married to a Sinhalese police personnel, living an ordinary life in Colombo and until 1983,was a law abiding citizen who was responsible for instilling the law, was made to feel helpless on account of his ethnicity and thus driven to support a group resorting to terror.

How many questions spring up that we do not ask when we think of 1983? One of the primary questions that crop up is of the then political leaders using the Sinhalese people as a cover to arm goons with electoral lists around the country to set about vandalising property and destroying lives and passing off the catastrophe as a spontaneous reaction by the Sinhalese masses. As one veteran Tamil analyst put it,“If it was in actuality 70% of the Sinhalese against the Tamils who made about 12% of the population, there would not be any Tamils left in the island”.

It was the beginning of passing off a politically created problem initiated compounded by weak policymaking and inefficient strategies as a ‘Sinhala-Tamil’ problem. 

Many of those who held important positions in the LTTE were educated. Many of them had the suffix ‘Master’ after their name, indicating that they were teachers prior to joining the movement. Could not the country have benefited from them if we did not lose these Sri Lankan citizens to a rebel movement? Why were post-independence policymakers so short-sighted that they did not foresee that unrest would occur and such movements would crop up if sections of the populace were not made to feel equal as the rest? 

Did not Sri Lanka suffer its first massive brain drain when it lost the English-educated Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher intellectuals to the West after the Sinhala Only Act in 1956?  What can we say of political leaders who failed in governance in 1983 to prevent an entire ethnic group having to pay for the act of a few? Could not wise policymaking have made Tamil/Sinhala intellectuals rise to prevent Prabhakaran or any other like him from creating terror outfits for the purpose of dividing the nation? What was the need to impose a language-based apartheid where a Sinhala child studied in Sinhala and a Tamil child in Tamil and thereby consigned to language-divided segregation? Why was the folly of imposing in 1972 the standardisation of university admission based on ethnic representation that was discriminative of the Tamils not realised before the damage was done? 

Did we not lose a dedicated and committed workforce when we prevented the Tamils from entering the civil service by making the Sinhala language a pre-requisite for entering the public service?

I recall wondering at the LTTE Police Chief Nadesan, a ruthless leader who nevertheless sounded nostalgic as he patted the phone next to him and said in Sinhalese that he yearned to talk to his Sinhala friends from his ‘Sinhala police days’. He recalled how his Sinhala friends helped to save his life and the life of his Sinhala wife in 1983. 

A question I asked myself then and still do is: “How many more Tamils like Nadesan would have been ordinary law abiding citizens who ended up with the militants/LTTE?”

In July 1983, 371 Sri Lankans lay dead because they were Tamils. More than 100,000 Sri Lankans were made homeless because they were Tamils. Over 150,000 Sri Lankans were turned to paupers living in crowded and unhygienic refugee camps, their own homes and business establishments looted, torched and destroyed, because they were Tamils. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of others left the country of their birth, to return only as foreigners, erasing forever any dreams they would have had of using their skill and their professional expertise for their country. In just over a week in that deadly month of July, a motley group, calling themselves the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) became to the Tamil intellectuals, who would not have hitherto thought of supporting them, their only hope.

We still live in the long shadow of 1983. We have been propelled from 1983 to a drastic war which has ruined this country. And today, nine years after the end of this bloodshed, we have not been able to put the Buddhist philosophy into practice and transgress the misfortune of the past which pitted youth against youth as ‘terrorist’ or ‘war hero’. We have not, as Nelson Mandela did in his country after the end of the apartheid, terror, suspicion and victory, given trust a chance. 

We have failed to adequately act on the fact that, by May 2009, the LTTE was unpopular among the Tamil people who had to live under their leadership.  We have failed to use this comprehension to instil a trust in the Tamil people as opposed to a sense of high handedness by us, the Sinhalese, the victory bearers, and thereby, we have allowed the West to bulldoze us into a brand of reconciliation that has neither soul nor meaning. 

Speaking at opulent conference rooms about reconciliation, we have not spiritually or mentally progressed to a level where we bridge the ‘terrorist’ and ‘war hero’ labels to bring unequivocally a change of heart in a people who have been trained by politics, terror and war to think across these lines. 

For nine years, we have had events commemorating the war and our dead from each side of the divide. Government leaders have decried the events organised by the ‘terrorists’ to commemorate their war dead. We have then had State-sponsored events to commemorate the Lankan military, the ‘war heroes.’  Why have we not yet had a State-sponsored event to bring together Sinhalese,Tamils and Muslims who have lost their children to guns and terror? Provided such an event was handled with utmost sensitivity and empathy, would that not have been a move towards reconciliation that would have created human bonding irrespective of whatever side of the divide people may have mourned their dead? Why have we not progressed to the level of discussing with the military and the Tamil citizenry soon after 2009 the holding of one commemoration against bloodshed, and thereby begun the enormously difficult journey of healing? 

Poetry was an emotional outlet used by both the youth in the LTTE and the Lankan military to get through the mental trauma of war. Why have we missed the opportunity to have a collective poetry exhibition of the youth of our country who suffered in the war, regardless of what label they had, and thereby lead to the long and difficult path towards forgiveness and reconciliation? The question is have we even tried to give depth to the word ‘reconciliation’? If we had, would the nonsensical protesting arguments that ensued over the Sri Lankan National Anthem being sung in Tamil ever have occurred? If reconciliation was truly the aim, would not wisdom have propelled Sinhala politicians to use a well-coordinated consultative process with the Tamils to discuss issues pertaining to land, language and a post-war policy aimed at a people-oriented development in the North-East? Would not such a consultation have isolated from the Tamil masses any Tamil politician who did not give reconciliation a chance?

It is best that this article is ended with the narrative of a Major in the military. This writer was interviewing him for an academic research paper on reconciliation four years ago. He was from Polonnaruwa and his family, kith and kin had suffered inordinately at the hands of the LTTE, who used to invade their village in the night and kill at sight. Despite this, this youth, in his thirties, had no hate in his heart, a more of a trained trait alongside being from a practicing Buddhist family. He was doing an MA in peace studies and was interested in sharing his narrative for my research.

Here is his narrative verbatim:

“I will tell you a story. Stories like this, people won’t get to hear. There are so many accounts like this. This incident occurred around 2008, when I was leading my men and the fighting was bad. We knew there were female cadres who were shooting at us.  Somehow, after some time, the shooting from their side ceased. We thought there was no one living. Suddenly, we saw a young woman struggling to reach up to her neck. Her gun was not with her. I quickly instructed my men not to shoot. She was wounded. My conscience told me a wounded person without a weapon should not be shot. She was badly hurt and I could see she feared us and therefore, struggling to reach for the cyanide round her neck. I appealed to her not to do so and not to harm me as I wanted to give her first aid to stem her bleeding so that she could hold on until her people found her. She was very weak. As she collapsed, I gave her water and bandaged her arm and kept some water and other provisions with her. We waited for a while and left as we heard the rebels approach. I still think of that incident. I hope she had survived the war and that she is leading a normal life now.”

How many such stories may there be, living in the minds of Sri Lankan youth who became either members of the military or the LTTE. Would not State-sponsored opportunity for such voices to be heard have brought forth the truth of humanity that is so badly needed in this country? Would not action by the State these past nine years to expedite cases against those held without charge and being accused of LTTE activities have created a sense of normalcy as due in times of peace?  Would not the reconciliation process have been helped if, late as it is, the Government took initiative to mourn the 1983 catastrophe and took responsibility where needed? In this month of July, as we recall the heinous beginning of how we pushed the Tamils en masse to the arms of the LTTE, will we ever see policymaking that is based on Buddhist empathy, compassion and wisdom?