This week, the paradox of reality will crystallise in the Island of Sri Lanka, rising above the fog of war to reveal two contrasting tales left behind in the aftermath.
On May 18th 2010, for the island’s majority Sinhalese community, a week of victory festivities will culminate in a swelling of unity and national pride, as Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse celebrates 1 year since crushing the Tamil Tigers and ending three decades of armed conflict.
For every victory party, there must be a losing side, and the juxtaposition between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities of Sri Lanka illustrates the grim reality of war: there can be only one winner.
Tamils across the world will travel down a very different path, one bathed by the shadows of sorrow and grief as they pay respects to an estimated 100,000 Tamil civilians killed in the bloodshed, almost 40,000 who perished in the final days of the war according to the United Nations.
The outbreak of civil unrest that paralysed the island for almost half a century stemmed from the systemic oppression of the islands minority Tamil community by successive administrations, dominated by the majority Sinhalese.
With the legitimate grievances of the islands Tamils largely ignored, a groundswell of support calling for self determination emerged, giving birth to the militant outfit the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who, for over 30 years engaged in high intensify war fare with the Sri Lankan armed forces in their quest for an independent homeland in the North and Eastern provinces of the island.
Although the guns are silent, the Government’s insistence that the nation is now a unified melting pot of ethnic and cultural harmony, standing under one flag and one identity, remains questionable.
Amid a web of post-war idealism lies a continual underbelly of violence, corruption and prejudice feeding the current regime, the same bad eggs that unleashed a plague of civil war years ago.
That almost 90,0000 Tamil refugees, who by definition of the very word embody the ugly misfortunes of war, remain imprisoned in military camps according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) isn’t a surprise to anyone with an iota of knowledge regarding the Sri Lankan establishment’s approach to internal affairs, no matter how inhumane or illegal.
That Sri Lanka remains one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world, fearful of the swift arm of sedition and censorship by a Government adamant on hiding the reality behind victory isn’t news to the families of dozens of news workers killed during the war and the aftermath.
It is the failing of international instruments of justice and democracy, bodies like the United Nations and the entire Western World, to decry the fact that an entire population languishes in incarceration based solely on their ethnicity and place of residence, or diagnose the symptoms of dictatorship illustrated by bouts of media suppression, that should raise the alarm of the conscious and socially aware.
Then again, to acknowledge and to act, once must be paying attention in the first place.
Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel popularised a phrase for the current global attitude towards Tamils in Sri Lanka in his landmark White House address in 1992, “The perils of Indifference”, i.e. when no one gives a damn.
“Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.”
After being forsaken by the world for decades, their cries met with a deafening silence, anyone that survived the onslaught of war awoke to a world encaged in barbed wire and an international community singing the praises of their enslavers.
A year to the day and the lack of genuine interest towards Sri Lanka’s deteriorating social fabric continues to mask the stench of its decline into the pits of totalitarianism.
Global leaders refusing to acknowledge the ground realities and unable to accept their complicity in the genocide ease the burden of guilt by heralding the utopian ideals of “unity” and “reconciliation” they believe will sweep the island like a magic wand, turning streams of flesh and blood into rivers teeming with hope and virtue.
To think that time and empty condolences can heal the wounds of war, and erase the memories of sorrow and loss burned within the corneas of a generation of Tamils, many who have lost almost everything and everyone, merely reflects the inability of most of God’s creatures to fathom the magnitude of loss endured by those who now have nothing left.
For all the tragedy that indifference has bought upon the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, the policies of divide, of “us” and “them” that set the war machine in motion remains the most haunting.
To see the Australian Government in recent months adopt this xenophobic mindset by rejecting asylum claims of Tamil nationals to stem the apparent “flood” of “boat people” only serves to illuminate the daunting reality faced by Sri Lanka’s victims of war:
Your incarceration is inevitable, be it as 2nd rate citizens at the hands of your vanquishers, or herded into offshore Australian detention facilities like sacrificial lambs for Kevin Rudd to appease the Gods in return for a popularity boost.
To have the audacity to console them with the argument that their very survival is a gift in itself is an insult, however for the thousands that remain incarcerated across the world, genuine refugees with unquestionable grievances; this fact may be the only “spark of hope” that remains for them, unless of course the Tamil Diaspora have anything to say about it.
The fighting formations of the Tamil Tigers may have been annihilated in the final days of the war, but the yearning for freedom and equality, which fostered a generation of militancy and fuelled its rise up the ladder of infamy, continues to consume the hearts and minds of the Diaspora.
When the Sri Lankan Government chose to forego its opportunity of a dignified victory by enslaving the vanquished, it succeeded only in opening up a new war front, different enemy, different theatre, same struggle.
On a day of reflection, the next generation of Tamils will light a candle in remembrance, their silhouettes stretched across landscapes a gentle reminder to the architects of their brethrens demise that the rumblings of agitation and desire for freedom remains steadfast, so to, their thirst for vengeance.