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What Do We Do With Our Horrible Past?

2013 Jul 01

Namini Wijedasa

Dear friends,

Thank you for having me here. It is truly an honour. I must confess at the outset that I don’t have grandiose solutions to offer you; only small hints.

I am a journalist. I have covered the conflict for the most part of my career. And now I cover the absence of war. I don’t have any book learning in conflict resolution or in reconciliation. What I speak about today is what picked up on the field, from interacting for many years with fellow Sri Lankans. I have discovered one dominant truth. Reconciliation is not rocket science.

I want to start on a personal note. I spent part of my childhood in Bahrain in the Middle East. The Sri Lankan community there was large and diverse. We had Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims but there was no animosity towards one another. Although the war was in full swing at home, Sri Lankans in Bahrain organized events through the Sri Lanka Club and socialized without discrimination.

We didn’t categorise ourselves as Tamil diaspora or Sinhala diaspora. We were simply the Sri Lankan community in Bahrain, united against the world. Maybe I’m being naïve. Maybe this is how the child in me remembers it. But I think it’s true.

When I returned to Sri Lanka as a 14-year-old, I had no concept of race or ethnicity. For the longest time, I just called myself Sri Lankan. What are you? People would ask. Sri Lankan, I would reply. No, no, they would say, Sinhala or Tamil? Muslim?

Why was that even necessary?

Did you ever stop to think that today we ask each other what our race is even when that information is not necessary? Indeed, in day-to-day interactions, it really doesn’t matter. But if someone joins an office for the first time, we wonder what his race is. We check out surnames to decipher what a person’s race is. We even assess someone’s appearance to determine what his race is. And we often categorise shops and businesses by the ethnicity of the person who owns them. Muslim hotalayak, we say. Demala kadayak. Sinhala mudalali kenek.

Think about it. The majority of us first define each other by ethnicity and only later by other attributes.

What is my point? Don’t. Don’t do it. It is not right. My daughter entered school for the first time this year. I filled three separate set of standard forms that asked me what her race was. I couldn’t understand why my six-year-old’s race was relevant and in what context. This is not right.

Politics and history have destroyed the way we look at ourselves. As a journalist, I see and analyse it repeatedly. And do you know what worries me the most? What worries me most is that the more we do things the wrong way, the less we realize it is wrong.

Reconciliation is not rocket science. We Sri Lankans don’t need banners or books or flyers or academics to teach us about the benefits of reconciliation. In our hearts, we already know how to reconcile. We were born with the natural ability to mingle and to live in harmony. We know what to do.

We know to sit cordially with each other and to share a meal; we know to play sports with each other and not treat defeat as humiliation; we know to laugh and to smile through tears; we know to feel happiness for one another and to grieve with one another.  We all bleed red and we all feel pain and sorrow. So many things unite us. But the few people with the capacity to divide us are winning.

When LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran held a press conference in 2002 soon after the A9 road was reopened, I was among the many, many journalists who went to Wanni to cover it. We sat around a lot as the LTTE filmed us and spied on us. They were deeply suspicious of us.

Under a tree, on a widescreen, their propaganda films played continuously. There were scenes of wailing Tamil mothers and unspeakable destruction. There was footage of dead Tamil men, women and children, of shelling and bombing. Even without understanding Tamil, it was clear to me that the message was anti-Sinhalese and anti-Government.

The LTTE was overwhelmed by the numbers. That night, they struggled to find places for us to sleep.  A group of young female LTTE cadres was placed in charge of a group of female journalists including myself.

This was the first time that I had met members of the LTTE. In the beginning, the women were cold and distant. But it didn’t take long for the smiles to come out. Communicating without knowing each other’s language can be quite amusing.

We slept in what seemed like a small house. They gave me a bed. The place was teeming with insects attracted to generator-powered light bulbs. I was tired and fell asleep quickly but the insects kept bothering me. I tossed and turned and flapped away at the annoying little creatures.

Then, almost as if in a dream, I heard one LTTE cadre bend over me and tell another, “Pavam”.  I don’t know what happened but when I woke up the next morning I was under a mosquito net.

So you see, even in the most controlled of circumstances, humanity does triumph. We are first and foremost humans. Only afterwards are we everything else that they tell us we are. My earnest appeal to you, as young people, is to absorb and live that message.

But the Tamils among you might ask me, what do we do with our history? What do we do with those horrible last months of the war when so many of our loved ones were slaughtered by your people? What do we do with the last thirty years of war? What do we do with the deprivation of our rights? What do we do with the continuing triumphalism?

There is no easy answer. But I can tell you this. I have interviewed thousands of people throughout my life. Everyone has suffered at different levels.  Could you have guessed that I lost an aunt in the Central Bank bomb blast? Could you have guessed that my father was in the last bus that passed the Central Bank before that bomb exploded?  Just people don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean they were not affected.

I have been to Sinhala villages where families slept in the bushes at night for fear that the LTTE might kill them. One such family was later massacred by the Tigers in broad daylight as they made sweetmeats for the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. During the last stages of the war, I visited an impoverished Sinhala village where every family had a son at the front. Many were dead or missing. I have witnessed intense, gut-wrenching grief and heard harrowing sobs. I know for a fact that anguish has no caste, creed or colour.

The levels are different, I admit. Some people suffered infinitely more than others. But pause a moment and consider this. It is conservatively estimated that between 40,000 and 100,000 people were killed or disappeared during the JVP insurgency of the 1980s. Many were tortured and died in agony.

That was the JVP’s second insurgency. The first one was in 1971 when, within a space of five weeks, more than an estimated 20,000 were killed. This was Sinhalese killing Sinhalese.

Listen to this extract from a book on the insurgency by Rohan Gunaratna, an academic from the National University of Singapore:  After April 5, a single day did not pass without a hundred youth being killed. Some were hung, or beaten to death and displayed, while others were lined up and shot. For days mothers searched for their missing sons. Many of them were shot for pasting posters or following lectures. Most of the villagers had followed the lectures through mere curiosity. After all, the contents of the lectures were about problems, which were very relevant to them. Some were purposely disfigured or made permanently disabled and at times parents themselves were detained and often beaten until their children surrendered.”

Here was State terror against the Sinhalese. I have come to believe through personal experience that Sri Lankan Governments will brutally crush any person or group that threatens their survival, regardless of ethnicity.

But you and I are not the State. You and I are not politicians. So what do we do with this horrible past? We deal with it together. We empathise and understand. We accept that wrongs were committed on all sides. We admit that some wrongs were more grievous than others. We apologise. We make amends. We forge friendships and we move forward. And we never, ever repeat the same mistakes.

No Government wants to see the people unite, certainly not this one. That is why you see so much tolerance, even sponsorship, for hate speech. Governments can deal with pockets of people and divided communities. They are terrified of a strong, universal front. So that is what we must give them. We all have common dilemmas. Let’s join hands on those. Then it will become easier to arrive at solutions to our unique problems.

Toss the politicians and their divisive messages away. And watch how reconciliation takes care of itself. It really isn’t rocket science.

*Speech delivered at the Fifth Sri Lanka Unites Future Leaders’ Conference in Galle on 29 June 2013 by Journalist Namini Wijedasa.
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