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Unravelling Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka Unravelling? 2013

19 December 2013

Talking to tigers and taxi drivers,  soldiers and social workers

Pan’s artistic director, with other artists, has been using theatre for development to work for post conflict rebuilding and understanding for the last four years in Sri Lanka but finds that while people eagerly want to rebuild their lives and move on, the failure to resolve core accusations, could also prevent lasting peace.
 
Has Sri Lanka fallen out of the news? Before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) last month the media were full of heads of government boycotting it and the UK’s David Cameron raising human rights issues with the Sri Lankan president. Channel 4’s revelatory documentary “No Fire Zone” was refuted by the local government, journalists reported being bullied and threatened and some Tamils were prohibited from entering the capital to protest about their missing family members.
 
Without a doubt CHOGM was not the public relations success the government wanted and for a while it seemed that important questions could be under such scrutiny that answers might be found. No such luck and the blaze has again become a smoulder. If you look very carefully in the media you might still find accusations and refutations of abductions, killings of NGO workers and reports of demonstrations on the recent Human Rights Day. But you have to look hard.
 
I was in Sri Lanka during CHOGM and had the chance to talk to many different people about the ongoing situation. I talked to ex Tamil Tigers who endured the rehabilitation camps, to serving army officers, to social workers in the Tamil north and to Sinhalese artists working for resolution of the problems, to say nothing of the countless unprompted and unpublishable opinions of taxi and rickshaw drivers (is this a worldwide phenomenon?).
 
What became clear was the polarised ways of understanding the current (and perhaps past) situation. Whether these are fuelled by different experiences or by opposing propaganda mechanisms is unclear. We should remember that even during the Civil War life in the capital, Colombo, went on as if there were no war. Only the security checkpoints and occasional incidents in the city interrupted business, education and leisure. The war was only a few hours away but it could have been in another country.
 
Those I met from the south (the Sinhalese area), however concerned to re-establish a harmonious country, have two obsessions:
 
1) Why is the world only talking about government atrocities and not those of the Tamil Tigers (the LTTE)?
To which my answer would be: the “world” does talk about the LTTE’s atrocities, they were considerable. All reports and even Channel 4’s documentary acknowledges that they were far from being angels and their record is as a terrorist organisation, but (a big ‘but’) the LTTE is finished, those who are accused of ordering the crimes were killed in the last days of the war along with thousands of others. There is, simply, nobody to put on trial.
2) “the LTTE is still alive in the Tamil diaspora and threatens Sri Lanka’s future”. I heard this time and time again. There seems to be no evidence for it. Nobody is claiming to be the LTTE but the protestors’ placards accused Channel 4 of being paid by them and government representatives justified absences from CHOGM as being driven by the need to please the Tamil vote bank in their countries.  It is hard to prove something does not exist but there seems to be no evidence that it does. It has become almost a paranoia that the diaspora wants the return of the Tigers and one explanation is that this is driven by government media.
 
In the Tamil majority north of Sri Lanka I heard quite different opinions. There are many general feelings that the post conflict promises to invest in the area have been limited to roads and mobile phone networks and do not include opportunities and freedoms. People told me they felt oppressed. They complain of the military presence blocking their lives. Social workers complained of the soldiers posted in each area over-reacting. When starting a childrens’ arts workshop, soldiers heard the noise and thought it was an illicit screening of the Channel 4 documentary. Everyone was searched and the event not allowed.
 
Others blamed the military for forcing Tamil men onto boats which would try the perilous crossing to Australia to claim asylum. There has certainly been a spike in such journeys since the war ended but such claims are difficult to substantiate, and there are certainly many other reasons why people set out on such journeys, which end either in disaster or in a detention camp awaiting repatriation.
 
Most telling was a female social worker who, having talked of the obstacles to carrying out their work, simply said “They want to kill all Tamils , get rid of us for ever”
 
I heard these opposing views time and time again and their polarity affords almost no middle ground for reconciliation.
 
An almost Alice in Wonderland experience was visiting a “Harmony Centre” run by the military in the city which was the Tamil Tigers’ headquarters. Most soldiers don’t wear uniforms but are recognisable a hundred metres away. They had to bus people from out of town to the performance on the day I was there. They wonder why it is difficult to get people into the centre.  The army, accused of atrocities, playing the role of social workers, for which they are totally unsuitable! It was hard to believe.
 
I was asked what I thought of the army’s attempts at rehabilitation and at establishing trust. I knew too little to give an informed answer but it is clear that there will only be harmony when the army, almost entirely Sinhala speaking and Buddhist, leaves the Tamil speaking and Hindu/Christian area.
 
I saw incredibly positive groups of people, artists and volunteers, working feverishly to rebuild the broken fabric of Sri Lankan society, asking difficult questions of themselves and their communities,  but until there is a genuine examination of what happened, an admission of faults and a reduction of triumphalist, accusatory or paranoid rhetoric, the much needed change cannot happen.
 
It could be solved internally, it may have to be addressed externally, as the UK prime minister has stated, but perhaps everybody would benefit from stepping back at this sad and reflective time and asking;
 
“what would a Nelson Mandela have done?”

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