Sri Lanka’s ‘Untermenschen’http://asiantribune.com/node/22392
by Tisaranee Gunasekara
Tisaranee Gunasekara - The rains are falling, washing away whatever residual belief Tamils may have had in a Sri Lankan future. The influx of monsoon rains is exposing much more than the abhorrent character of the Northern internment camps. It is revealing the unwillingness of the Lankan state and the Sinhala society to treat Tamils as human beings, let alone citizens with equal rights. It is revealing that we, the Sinhalese, are willing to countenance collective punishment for the Tamils, even without the excuse of a war. It is revealing that the mindset which enabled the Black July, not so much the evil of an active minority as the indifference of a silent majority, is alive and well in the South.
By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“The moral debacle of a whole nation…”
Hannah Arendt (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil)
The rains are falling, washing away whatever residual belief Tamils may have had in a Sri Lankan future. The influx of monsoon rains is exposing much more than the abhorrent character of the Northern internment camps. It is revealing the unwillingness of the Lankan state and the Sinhala society to treat Tamils as human beings, let alone citizens with equal rights. It is revealing that we, the Sinhalese, are willing to countenance collective punishment for the Tamils, even without the excuse of a war. It is revealing that the mindset which enabled the Black July, not so much the evil of an active minority as the indifference of a silent majority, is alive and well in the South.
The timing of the monsoon season was no secret. And the regime should have known how the rains would impact on the Northern internment camps and the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children imprisoned in them. Now the predictable is happening - with the camps deluged by rain water, every basic facility, from cooking to sanitation, is beyond the reach of their unjustifiably and illegally imprisoned inmates. Since they are unfree, these Tamils cannot do what free people do in such situations – flee in search of better shelter and drier ground. Surrounded by barbed wire fences and gun toting soldiers, the IDPs have no choice but to bear this horror just as they have borne the other horrors, with sullen silence and resentful patience.
What if the two hundred and fifty thousand people incarcerated in the Northern internment camps are Sinhala Buddhists and the camps became flooded, depriving their wretched inmates of even the marginal facilities they had had? Would the South have ignored their plight? Would the Southern media have permitted the government to gloss over their tragedy? The answer is no. There would have been an outcry in the South, from the media and the public, compelling the government to act. Our current silence is the best indication that we, the Sinhalese, can be persuaded to act in a manner antithetical to our natural sense of kindness and decency, towards non-Sinhalese, in the interests of ‘national security’.
Are ‘They’ really ‘Our’ People?
The regime knows of the abysmal conditions of the IDPs, yet it does nothing. And it does nothing because it does not want to do anything. Occasional rhetoric apart, the Rajapakse administration never concerned itself with the safety and wellbeing of civilian Tamils in the North and the East during the war. Whenever the government made some tactical concession (such as ceasing/limiting the use of bombing and shelling in the last phase of the war), it was due to Indian or international pressure. After the victorious end of the war, the capacity of India and the world to make a real impact on the Rajapakses has lessened considerably. With the Tigers out of the way, the regime obviously feels it can behave towards Tamils with near total impunity. The country had a glimpse of what abusive authorities do to free Sinhalese in the South (not to mention baby elephants), when they think they can get away with it. Imagine what could be happening in the camps, to unfree Tamils, devoid of any rights, penned like animals, with no media to record their wrongs.
In the last weeks, several incidents of abuse of power by the police in the Sooth came to light. At least in two of the cases justice is being done, due to media criticisms and popular pressure. But Southern media and Southern society is largely silent about the plight of the Northern displaced, due to the general belief think that there is nothing essentially wrong in holding hundreds of thousands of Tamils captive, so long as some Tigers can be caught. Since the media does not have free access to the camps, there are hardly any visuals or eye witness accounts of the human tragedy that is unfolding daily and hourly there. Without such pictorial or verbal evidence it is easy for most ordinary, decent Sinhalese to remain in ignorance of the crass injustices that are being perpetrated in their name. The Tamils outside the camps are too cowed to protest about the plight of their brethren since any such protest is likely to be labelled ‘terrorist’ and treated accordingly - imagine how an ‘Angulana type’ popular protest in Wellawatte would be reacted to by this administration. Given the Sinhala supremacist ethos currently dominant in state and society, being branded a Tiger is the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of every Tamil.
The internment camps are a function of the Rajapakse approach to war and peace, just as child conscription, suicide killings and the murdering of political opponents were a function of the Tiger approach to ‘national liberation’. The Rajapakses waged the war on a Sinhala supremacist platform. This enabled them to perceive, depict and treat most Tamils as real or potential enemy aliens and, consequently, to justify (or at least gloss over) any atrocity against civilian Tamils. It was this politico-psychological approach which enabled the regime to adopt a strategy of counter-terror – particularly the excessive use of heavy weaponry (including constant and pervasive shelling and bombing) to drive the civilian population out of Tiger controlled areas into government controlled areas.
This ‘attitude’ not only dictated the regime’s approach to civilians during the war; it also underlies the regime’s approach to civilians, post-war. If any Tamil can be a Tiger, it makes sense to incarcerate every resident of those Northern districts once under LTTE control, in order to capture a handful of Tigers. If most Tamils are prone to Tiger sympathies, trying to win them over makes no sense; it is better to be suspicious of them and to keep them silent and inactive out of fear. Blinded by such fallacies, it is natural for the regime to eschew a political solution to the ethnic problem or even development in favour of more soldiers and more weapons, as the best path peace and stability.
According to a recent statement by the Chief of Defence Staff, General Sarath Fonseka, ‘in the period when the Sri Lankan forces were engaging in the war with the LTTE terrorists, only 15.000 of forces personnel had been deployed in the Jaffna peninsula but now the number has been increased up to 35,000’ (Asian Tribune – 18.8.2009). Obviously the plan is to rule the North as if it is an occupied territory, with the emphasis not on winning over the people but on cowing them into compliance. The peace that the regime is envisioning is not a peace based on consent but a peace based on force. Consequently, though the war is over, the armed forces will continue to expand and military expenditure will continue at the current, unbearably high, levels (US$1.6 billion). According to Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, "I don't see an immediate need to reduce the defence spending next year… We have cut down on our ammunition purchases. But we need to bring in new technology to upgrade our military capacity” (AFP – 19.8.2009).
The monsoons will continue for a couple of months, bringing in their wake more misery for the wretched inmates of the Northern internment camps. Surrounded by ruthless rulers and an indifferent public, these Tamils are fated to rot indefinitely in this living hell, subject to the elements, diseases (which will come with the rains) and the sheer inhumanity of fellow man. These camps, which epitomise injustice and discrimination, will provide an ideal breeding ground for the next generation of Tamil separatists.
The Need for War Mentality
The outcome of the municipal elections in Jaffna and Vavuniya would have come as a surprise only for those who either believed in the apocryphal tales of humanitarian operations and welfare camps or thought that the Tamils have been cowed into total and utter submission. The voters of Jaffna and Vavuniya put paid to both misconceptions. They also indicated, in no uncertain terms, their unhappiness with the status quo. Hopefully, the regime will take this hint and implement the necessary political and economic measures to win over Tamils. Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely, given the Sinhala supremacist bent of the Rajapakses and their unwillingness to antagonise their Sinhala base for both electoral and politico-ideological reasons – the aim of the regime is to win a two thirds majority at the upcoming parliamentary poll, as a prelude to replacing the Jayewardene Constitution with a Rajapakse one.
According to a document tabled in the last week by Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Bhaila, “President Mahinda Rajapaksa had assured former Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee that his intention was to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution quickly as possible and explore the possibility of moving beyond the 13th Amendment…. This assurance had been given on January 27 to the then Foreign Minister when he visited Sri Lanka on an invitation by the Sri Lankan government” (Daily Mirror – 21.8.2009). In other words, the President promised expeditious and extensive devolution in an effort win Indian backing for the final offensive – a promise never meant to be honoured, a promise made to be broken, once its aim was achieved. With the Tigers defeated and the war won, the Rajapakses would see very little reason to devolve power to the Tamils, even if the Indians renew their pressure. Instead there will be another promise (complete with a time frame) made to be broken, the moment the pressure is off.
The Rajapakse administration touted its war effort as an attempt to liberate the Tamils from the clutches of the LTTE. That the Tamils needed to be liberated from the Tigers was indubitable. Though saved from the yoke of the Tiger, they are by no means liberated. Instead they have fallen under another, older, oppression. As the state and the government succumb increasingly to the malady of Sinhala supremacism, the Tamils will find themselves more and more relegated to second class status. The only kind of peace that can result from a Sinhala Supremacist victory is a Sinhala supremacist peace. The Northern internment camps are symbolic and symptomatic of such a peace, a peace premised on inequality and discrimination.
The end of the war has brought little freedom or relief to the Tamils. Ironically it may not bring any peace dividend to the Sinhalese either. Maintaining defence expenditure at the current astronomical level will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the regime to provide much needed economic relief for the Southern masses. This will be compounded by rampant waste and corruption. Since the Rajapakses cannot deliver the peace dividend to the South, they will justify this inability by magnifying the security needs of the North. The expansion of the armed forces and gargantuan military spending cannot be justified in the absence of a potent enemy. Consequently the threat posed by Tiger remnants here and abroad will be magnified; and political demands by Tamils for more devolution will be depicted as manifestations of separatism, and treated with according harshness. The regime will need to stoke Sinhala fears about Tiger revival and Tamil expansionism in order to justify not only the treatment of Tamils as Untermenschen’ but also the continuation of measures designed for war in peace time.