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Sri Lanka- Easter Sunday

Paper No: 6532 .   Dated 26-April-2019

By Prof. Charles Sarvan   

   “I, a stranger…  / In a world I never made” (Housman, 1859-1936)

 A contact of mine, while regretting the death of nearly 300, pointed out that the number of Tamils killed during the last stages of the Eelam war was in the tens of thousands but there was no national sense of shock, no great outpouring of grief and sympathy, except by those directly affected. (Martin Luther King said that more painful than the words of their enemies was the silence of their friends.) However, John Donne, 1572-1631, famously said: Any one's death diminishes me because I am involved in humanity. Therefore don’t send to ask for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for you. (These are not his exact words.) Still, my contact’s point is worth pausing over, and I do so in the next paragraph.

Terrorists kill “only” in their tens or hundreds while governments kill in the tens of thousands. It’s estimated that during the First Wold War, more soldiers than civilians were killed but by the Second, the numbers had changed: civilian deaths are estimated at 50 million; soldiers at half that number. Just one bomb (dropped not by terrorists but by a government) on Hiroshima instantly killed 80,000 with the final death-count being in the region of 135,000. Yet these deaths remain distant, cold statistics and it is terrorist attacks that create horror and outrage in us, even when carried out in a foreign country. I’ll not digress to suggest explanations. “Terrorists” is the word of political abuse today, and in conflict each side labels the other as terrorists but we must not let terrorist crimes distract us from the far worse crimes perpetrated by governments.

            Sri Lanka’s Christians are said to form less than 8 per cent of the population. If it is finally established that an extremist Moslem group carried out these attacks, one can’t help but wonder why. Was the Island seen as a soft target? Did those individuals see themselves as being part of a world-wide Jihad? At random, New Zealand, Canada, the Scandinavian countries have actively sought to be inclusive, to make others feel that while retaining their “otherness”, they are an equal part of the whole. (Admittedly, the influx of migrants in the tens of thousands has put a strain on this, leading to a rise in right-wing populism.) In Sri Lanka, attitude and practice have been opposite: not inclusion but exclusion; not equality but domination based on ‘race’ and religion. Since the war against the Tamil Tigers ended, there have been several instances of harassment and attacks on Muslims, their homes and places of business. This must breed resentment and a sense of alienation. If there’s some measure of truth in what I suggest, it still leaves the question unanswered: Why Christians and not aggressive Buddhists?

            All foreign, and some local, commentators on the atrocity glibly state that Sri Lanka has enjoyed peace since the war against the Tamil Tigers was brought to an end. If superficial, this is understandable: if there’s no more darkness, then there must be light: presence is predicated on absence. But, one wonders, peace for whom? Further, peace can signify merely the ABSENCE of war or the PRESENCE of harmony which, in turn, is the product of justice. Though the war is over, I gather there are about 130,000 Sinhalese soldiers stationed in the North and East. According to the Irish Peace Forum, in the Mullaitheevu District there are 60,000 Sinhalese troops for a Tamil population of 12,000. They run business ventures, expropriate land without compensation, on the pretext of security; build statues of the Buddha even in areas where there are no Buddhists and generally treat the local population with arrogant insensitivity: The daily hardships of the ordinary folk are borne with stoic silence. Unseen and unheard by the outside world, their suffering is unknown and, being unknown, is assumed not to exist. “Vae victis!”  (Woe to the vanquished).

Another optimistic piety repeated is that “the majority” is innocent but, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, if in a situation of injustice you remain silent and inactive, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor. The majority then in effect has   made itself a part of injustice.