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“Withering Hopes”: Book Review of PEARL- 2016

Paper No. 6193                                              Dated 07-Noc-2016

Guest Column by Prof. Charles Sarvan

The above booklet was published in 2016 by PEARL, an acronym for the USA-based, non-profit organisation, ‘People for Equality and Relief in Lanka.’ I thank Dr Karunyan Arulanatham for sending me a copy of this publication, an excellent summary of the present plight of Eelam (Sri Lankan) Tamils written after PEARL’s fact-finding visit to the East and North: “violence and harassment by members of the security forces, occupation of traditional Tamil lands acquired illegally, torture and sexual violence of Tamils, absence of answers for families of the ‘disappeared’, and the continued detention of Tamil political prisoners without charge” (p. 5). Those who make inquiries about the “disappeared” are harassed, humiliated or, at the extreme, themselves disappear.

Though there is no threat of violence, almost 200,000 soldiers are stationed in “the Tamil-majority North-East” (p. 13). The military is “prominently involved in public administration (such as schools), continues extensive surveillance of the population, and continues to harass and intimidate […] It also continues extensive commercial activities, including several large farms on occupied private land and a network of shops” (13). It’s not civilian enterprise but the Air Force which provides helicopter tours, while the Navy conducts whale-watching tours (p. 17). Over 90% of the newly-appointed research assistants sent by the Department of Agrarian Development to the North were Sinhalese unable to speak Tamil (p. 33). Briefly glancing elsewhere, the Northern Province Chief Minister, C.V.Wigneswaran, has complained that the Sri Lankan army is running hundreds of schools – as many as 344 primary schools - in his province when it has no right to do so under the 13th amendment of the constitution (Daily Mirror, Colombo, 3rd Nov 2016).  As I have written elsewhere (Colombo Telegraph, 24 October 2016), land is forcibly grabbed to build security camps, holiday resorts and farms. Those being settled in the North and East are the very people who have perpetrated crimes: their contempt and brutality continue. I quote from a recent letter of mine:

“Allow me to mention one aspect of a many-sided, total, onslaught. It is reported that the army and police are selling drugs in the North and East, targeting the young. They not only make money but create addicts, and so help to demoralise (de-moralise) a people. Lord Acton's famous saying - "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" - is usually read as meaning that those who possess and wield power get corrupted. True, but as I have written elsewhere, power also corrupts those who must exist under a harsh regime with absolute power - as is the case now in the North and East. And so we have Tamils cooperating with the armed forces, including in (forced or persuaded) prostitution. For a parallel from history, see those Jews who collaborated with the Nazis in the concentration and extermination camps. Power also tends to corrupt the powerless.” (End of quote).

PEARL cites (p. 34) a female social-worker: Even if we didn’t have electricity, we were safe. Now we have developed roads and street lights – and we feel unsafe: not only because of the military but also because our own boys are intoxicated and cause trouble. (Compare the high level of alcoholism among Native Americans and Aborigines – people who have lost hope and, with it, the will to live. They have given up on themselves.)

 I am neither a historian nor a political scientist but to my layman’s thinking, land is the sine qua non for the existence of a people as a people. Though the two terms are now sometimes used as synonyms, there is a significant difference between imperialism and colonialism: the former is temporary; the latter, permanent. We all have seen pictures of Germany, particularly Berlin, at the end of the Second World War, but the land remained German and the city was re-built. As I write (November 2016), there are harrowing pictures of the total destruction of Syria’s Aleppo, but the war will end and the land will be in Syrian hands, whichever group wins. Contrast this with, for example, the fate of the Native Americans or the Aborigines of Australia, not to mention the groups driven to total extinction: if I am not mistaken, all that remains of the Caribs, is the name “Caribbean”, while not even the name of the autochthonous of the Canary Islands survives.

Given this state of affairs, to urge reconciliation is false, a Machiavellian climbing onto the high horse of generosity, forgiveness and an elevated morality. How can the Palestinians opt for peace and reconciliation when their land is occupied (more and more, on an almost daily basis); their means of survival curtailed, and they themselves reduced to being second-class citizens? Wouldn’t “reconciliation” then, in fact, be surrender and defeatism? As Gandhi said, the weak cannot forgive: forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. It is (either through thoughtlessness or machination) not mentioned that Nelson Mandela could, and did, speak of reconciliation only after the struggle for equal rights and opportunity had been won. To speak of “reconciliation” before that is, in fact, to urge the acceptance of violence and discrimination; of injustice and exploitation; the abnormal as the new normal. True reconciliation cannot be built on continuing injustice. PEARL reports that military bases have been established on the sites of cemeteries. “Victory monuments and military bases dominate the landscape of the Tamil areas and serve as celebratory reminders of the annihilatory violence in which tens of thousands of Tamils lost their lives.” The victors’ monuments are intended as a “mockery of reconciliation” (p. 39). “They come to our schools and visit our functions. These are the soldiers that killed and raped. Every time we see them, every time we their monuments, we are reminded that we are a defeated people” (p. 23).

The title, ‘Withering Hopes’ reminds me of Stud Terkel’s book, ‘Hope Dies Last: Making a Difference in an Indifferent World’. What for Tamils is the “hope”? And if that hope is cruelly denied, what other hopes, are there? What options, if any? Afro-American Langston Hughes (1902-1967) in a short poem wondered what happens to a dream denied. Does it dry up or does it “fester like a sore”? Or does it explode?

While foreign countries are finally motivated by self-interest; by what they stand to gain and lose (see PEARL, p. 12), Eelam Tamils face the most desperate situation ever in their entire history. Particularly Tamils abroad carry a grave, a “sacred”, responsibility for on their intelligence and forethought; on their patience and determined commitment, depend the fate of their people.

 

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