Guns, war and a dove – Sri Lanka looks for a new life

February 4, 2015

As Sri Lanka looks beyond Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in the presidential elections, the island nation’s history of a bloody war has been retold as a reminder of a past that exists today.

In “The Seasons of Trouble”, Indian journalist Rohini Mohan tells the story of Mugil, once a member of separatist group LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), and her failed attempts to rebuild the lives of her family caught in the war. Then there is Sarva, a seaman, who ends up in a detention centre because he is suspected to be a “Tiger”. It is also the story of his mother, who eventually helps him leave the country illegally.

In another book, Samanth Subramanian, also an Indian journalist, examines the way lives of many Sri Lankans – whether living in the country or exiled – have been altered because of a three-decade war that attempted to carve out a Tamil state.

“There had been many top-down books on the politics of the country, the big historical themes, military books in the sense of how the war played out and the strategy of that. But I didn’t think there had ever been a bottom-up book, a book that told the lives of very regular people,” Subramanian said in an interview.

The war, the book points out, was fuelled by a sense of fear among the Sinhalese of being captured by the Tamils one day. The Sinhalese Buddhists comprise roughly two-thirds of the island’s population of 21 million. And yet nobody can say for sure whether the Sinhalese civilisation in Sri Lanka “predates” the Tamil one.

“There was now no other Sri Lanka for me but the Sri Lanka of its war,” Subramanian, himself a Tamil from the Indian city of Chennai, writes as he chronicles stories of people touched by the war.

You hear of the war in stories of retired army men who talk about the discrimination against Tamils in the forces. Dr Chelliah Thurairaja, for instance, had to learn Sinhalese to get promoted in the army. Ravi Paramanathan, now living in Toronto, mentioned officers being trained to “pick a Tamil and kill him.”

Living in London, former LTTE member Raghavan recalls being disillusioned with the state as well as the separatists, “because of the way they had conducted the war.” In the same city, Subramanian meets a former guerilla, who is nostalgic about the near-utopia of the then LTTE-administered areas in Sri Lanka. “You never needed to lock your house when you went out, and women could walk the streets safely even after midnight.”

A family lost one daughter, Rajini, to Tiger bullets for speaking against violence. Her sister, Nirmala, spent a few years in prison for sheltering injured Tigers in her home. She never went back to her home in Sri Lanka’s Jaffna, and later settled in England.

Vasanthi narrated an incident in which “Tamils beat up Tamils” as Tigers dragged many young boys and girls into the war, including herself. She was 21.

In small town Baddegama, the author met Sri Lanka’s “first monk to serve in the national parliament”, who supported dialogue with Sri Lankan Tamils. You get a fair idea of the nation’s right-wing Buddhist nationalism when you read about Omalpe Sobitha, a self-confessed “racist”, “religious fanatic” monk and a hater of the minorities.

Muslims aren’t any better off in Sri Lanka. In Anuradhapura, Buddhist protesters destroyed the shrine of a Muslim saint in the presence of the police.

“In the new Sri Lanka, demolition was a vital tool of nation building,” Subramanian writes, referring to an army base constructed on “top of the bones of bygone Tigers.”

The writer tells of another “minority” group – the Sri Lankan journalists, also at the receiving end of a culture of fear, suppression and the looming threat of disappearance.

Now that the regime of Rajapaksa, accused of corruption, partisan politics, censorship, persecution of minorities and war crimes, is over, what lies ahead?

The new president, Mithripala Sirisena, who defeated Rajapaksa in the Jan. 8 election, has promised a tolerant era of peace and freedom, including amending the constitution to make the parliament more powerful than the president.

The new government is also planning a fresh investigation into allegations of human rights abuses in final stages of the civil war. About 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final weeks of the war, most of them by the Sri Lankan army, a UN report has estimated.

The country’s new prime minister has said his government will implement the 13th amendment, backed by India, to achieve reconciliation with Tamils.

But what about the cultural landscape of Sri Lanka which has been significantly altered to represent an overwhelmingly Buddhist character? Or the presence of the army that guarded many Buddhist installations?

It is not surprising then that Subramanian ends his book by writing about a victory monument in the country’s north-east, once a battlefield pitting the Tigers against the army. A statue of a helmeted soldier is seen with an AK-47 and a dove sitting on it. “Peace was won with the gun, and Sri Lanka would never let anybody forget it,” a line in the last chapter reads.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow him on Twitter @bobbymacReports and Ankush @Ankush_patrakar | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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