Wednesday, 25 February 2009
For Peace in Sri Lanka, Remember Bandaranaike
The war is almost over in Sri Lanka, the papers announced.
What war? People asked me.
The war that has been going on so long, many in the West have forgotten it hasn’t actually ended. The war that has claimed thousands of lives, caused hundreds of thousands of people to lose their homes and livelihoods. The war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. That war.
When did this war start?
Was it 1983 as many official histories claim? Was it 1976, when the Tamil Tigers first came into being? Was it even earlier, when the Tamils clashed with government forces in opposition to the ‘Sinhala only’ legalisation?
The legislation marginalized non-Sinhalese speakers – ostensibly to distance Ceylon from its former colonial masters but also actively reversing the ethno-linguistic make-up of the civil service (from predominantly Tamil to almost 100% Sinhalese) in under a generation and effectively marginalising the Tamil population.
But marginalisation leads to discontent and discontent leads to resistance. Those are the mathematics of conflict.
For now, the Tamil Tigers are still fighting. And although they are evidently losing, no amnesty has been declared, no foundation for peace has yet been laid. When the Tigers called on the international community – that inscrutable animal – to broker a truce, Colombo resisted and anonymous government sources said that this will end as it started: fighting.
So the beginning of the end for this war may actually be less of a promise and more of a statement of fact: the war will be over soon, because there will be no one left to fight against.
But not yet. For now, the Tigers are still fighting and the military are preparing for at least one more, final, showdown before the curtain falls on this conflict. Meanwhile the rest of the world had forgotten there was a war going on still. And if we forgot the war, what are the chances of remembering Bandaranaike?
PM Solomon Bandaranaike was the man behind the ‘Sinhala only movement’. Obviously this did not start the war. Obviously he did not start the war. But he is where the story starts. And now that the story is about to come to an end, the beginning is of the utmost importance. Now, when people least want to think back, is when the past needs to be re-examined.
Healing is what matters now, I hear you say. Rebuilding, not rehashing.
But when the time comes to rebuild, will anyone remember Bandaranaike?
Will anyone remember that the young Sri Lanka had a beautiful, pristine, Westminster-style democracy, upon independence?
That was the fruit of ‘rebuilding’ as well.
But in doing so, the new system did not protect itself against ethnic take-over. It did not create structures and systems that could protect minorities, ensuring that they could not be disenfranchised, that the tyranny of the majority would not occur.
Mistakes were made.
The system was abused.
’Sinhala only’ was launched and although opposition and some negotiation took place, Bandaranaike’s legacy held firm – in the shape of laws and a political dynasty: his wife Sirimavo Bandaranaike was three times prime mister, his daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga president and son Anura Bandaranaike many times minister and speaker of the house.
Don't get me wrong.
I don’t want to reduce the legacy of a political dynasty to two words. But those two words, ‘Sinhala Only’, stand for the mind-set of an entire state apparatus - the apparatus that the Tamil Tigers rose to fight against. So all I’m saying is, remember Bandaranaike. Remember where democracy was weakest, and when rebuilding, build up there first.
If government forces crush the Tigers, defeating them completely and irrevocably, there will be victorious swagger where quiet reflection is necessary.
Of course, the victors will celebrate, the vanquished will nurse their wounds, families will heave a sigh of relief and no one will want to think back.
But if nobody remembers Bandaranaike, what are the chances of a lasting peace?
Bandaranaike demonstrated how easily democracy can crumble. How can we rebuild, without remembering Bandaranaike?
To end this, we have to go back to the beginning, to the structures that made ethnic politics possible in the first place. Now that victims and perpetrators have swapped places a number of times and every home has a personal tragedy in Sri Lanka, it’s time to go back to the beginning. Amends can’t be made. But amendments can, and the whole political machinery needs to be re-jigged with two words in mind. Not ‘Sinhala only, but ‘never again’.
The war is almost over in Sri Lanka.
And it’s time to remember that history only goes round in circles when we forget the likes of Bandaranaike, when we forget how painful stories actually began.