The World

The View From Ground Zero With Sri-Lanka’s Vanquished Tamils

By Revati Laul

First published in Tehelka magazine on 27th April 2013, re-printed with the permission of the publication

There is a risk reporters run when we step into the zone where hate crimes have been committed. We could end up over-emphasizing the plight of the victims and not presenting layers that may exits on the other side. However, there are circumstances in which one side may be completely suppressed. It’s voice silenced by defeat, fear and a continuing structural genocide that lives on long after the ostensible `war’ is over. This is what I found when I entered Sri Lanka’s ground zero. Four years after the war was over and the Tamil terrorists with suicide squads made up of thirteen year old children, was defeated by the Sri Lankan government and Lonely Planet listed the country as the Number One tourist destination, I found myself telling the story of the side that was no longer being heard. The Tamils. I am re-printing it here because I believe that on a website that is attempting to look at genocides and hate crimes wherever they have occurred, the predicament of the Tamils has a universal resonance. 

THE IDEA OF A SEPARATE TAMIL NATION IS NOT DEAD IN SRI LANKA.

There was a time when this was espoused with brutal violence by the dreaded LTTE. The Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam. That violence has been leached out now to be replaced by a kind of limitless — and perhaps more potent — despair. There are reasons why the idea of a separate Tamil nation refuses to die. The chilling story of the LTTE and its lethal suicide bombers is well-known. The horrific retaliatory killing of its cadres and thousands of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan Army towards the end of the war is also now an emerging story. But this is a report on the silent war that continues till this day against the Tamils, an insidious and systematic violence they call a “structural genocide”.

There are two overriding images that greet you when you drive from the peacock-blue-themed Bandaranaike International Airport into Colombo city. Giant cutouts of president Mahinda Rajapaksa, beaming, arms outstretched to bless the people; and statues of Buddha. For tourists, who are pouring in swelling numbers into Sri Lanka, the 30-year civil war was definitively finished in 2009. Sri Lanka is back to being an idyllic island of peace; the LTTE has been exterminated. There is, in fact, a shiny triumphalism in the air to match the new Buddhist statues smiling at the people from every street corner. However, at the other end, far away from Colombo, the army is still out on every street.

Four years after the civil war ended, the Vanni — a small forested stretch of land in the north, held by the LTTE till their chief – V Prabhakaran was killed by the army in 2009 — is nothing but a slice of scarred earth. A smooth post-war spruced-up highway from Jaffna town speeds to the four districts in the Vanni: Mannar, Mullaitivu,Vavuniya and Kilinochchi. The military presence here rises sharply. Uniformed men, covered waist-high in plastic sheets, are clearing landmines on either side of the road. Red skull and crossbow signs everywhere ask you to be careful. The silence of the Tamils is deafening as you reach the last mile of the war — a village called Mullivaikal in Mullaitivu. In 2009, as the LTTE was pushed back by an advancing Sri Lankan Army, 3 lakh Tamils collected in this village to escape the mortar shells and bullets raining from the sky.

This is the village where Channel 4 videos show Sri Lankan soldiers stomping on the naked breasts of a dead LTTE woman; where carcasses were piled in heaps as Tamil civilians were caught in the crossfire of the Sri Lankan Army and a dwindling but still combative LTTE guerrilla force. Journalists are still not welcome in these parts; we are there masquerading as tourists. Although the heaped bodies are now gone, the hollowed-out sand bunkers where people ducked the bullets and mortars are still there. The torn remains of what was once a purple sari. The plastic remains of a TV set. An open suitcase. Even a bunch of white plastic roses. And in the midst of these torn-out buildings, pockmarked with bullet holes, the odd family, trying to live in the land of the dead. It is impossible to speak with them. As we step out of our van, we are ordered out of the area by two men in military uniform. They follow us on their bike for some distance. Nearby, a ship that was once carrying 2,000 tonnes of paddy, lies rusted on a beach. The date of its capture by the Sri Lankan Army is painted on its body in Sinhala to drive home the point. It’s now a tourist spot for a busload of visiting Buddhist monks in bright orange robes.

With the war over, things have gone back to usual. Contrary to Rajapaksa’s famed 13th amendment, promising autonomy to the provincial councils in the north for the Tamils, this means a return to State policies from the 1950s that systematically and deliberately excluded them from cultivable farmland and prime fishing waters. The exclusion that sparked the Tamil resistance and war in the first place is back with a bang. In Mullaitivu, a few streets away from the rubble, 53 year old Thurairasa Ravikaran — once the head of the district fishermen’s union — points proudly at his chocolate-and-yellow-tiled house. Before the eruption of hostilities, the north was so good for fishing he had built his entire brick house for LKR 400000; earned from the catch of just two prawn seasons. But those days are long gone. The Sri Lankan government, he said, had snatched the sea from the Tamils. This phenomenon has manifested itself in waves.

The first trigger came in 1983 with the anti-Tamil riots called Black July. The fishermen of his village had to leave overnight because of the violence. The exodus led to 300 Sinhalese fishing families moving into the area. According to Sri Lankan law, fishing permits are only given to permanent residents. But the rules were overlooked for the Sinhala fishermen. These fishermen used large trawlers with high-voltage search methods that Ravikaran claims are illegal to employ in the shallow waters of the north. This turned the fishing economy on its head. The Sinhalese fishermen with their big trawlers scooped out all the fish, leaving practically nothing for the Tamil fishermen. It reduced their income from an average of LKR 5,000 a day to LKR 500. The LTTE domination of the area provided some reprieve. But now, according to Ravikaran, the area domination by Sinhalese fishermen has begun again. “Coming back here is like living in a cemetery,” he says. “Our livelihood is completely destroyed.”

It seems this phenomenon is repeating in fishing villages across the region. As journalists are not officially welcome, it is impossible to independently verify Ravikaran’s claims. Ground Views, a Colombo-based civil society group, however, published a report in March 2012 that said, “the fishing industry, one of the main sources of livelihood of a large number of people in the Jaffna peninsula, was severely affected by 30 years of ethnic civil war.” According to this report, before the war, Jaffna was the largest fishing production district in Sri Lanka. prior to 1983, it contributed about 48,000 metric tonnes per year, one fourth of total national production. By the end of the third Eelam war, this was reduced to 3-5 percent. The report goes on to say, “Severe restrictions have been placed on members of the Tamil fishing communities, resulting in a drastic impact on their means of livelihood…” Disturbingly, it adds, “several Sinhala fishermen in the area have received direct permission to fish in this area from the Ministry of Defence.”

Trincomalee in the east, a long and beautiful stretch of coastline once held by the LTTE, is now back on the tourist map after it was recaptured by the army in 2006. But Trincomalee is overrun with soldiers at every street corner. Every passenger on every incoming bus to the north and east is checked by the military. Every time you board a bus, you have to write your contact numbers, purpose of visit and passport details. A report in the Economic and Political Weekly on 14 July 2012 claimed the ratio of army to civilians in these parts is as high as 1:5. If that’s true, it’s at least four times more than the troops on ground in Afghanistan where a war is still on. Sri Lankan Army spokesperson Brigadier Ruwan Wannigasooriya calls the figures preposterous. According to him, not more than 6,000 personnel are deployed in Trincomalee. For instance, the reason they check each bus, he says, is “in case former LTTE cadre are carrying weapons on them.”

In Thennavanmarapuady, an ancient Tamil village in Trincomalee, the underlying reasons for the seemingly irreparable hostility between Tamils and Sinhalese becomes even more apparent. the village traces its antecedents to the 9th century, when a Pandian king conquered the area. the Pandian dynasty ruled large parts of Tamil territory in ancient India and northern Sri Lanka. In the 1980s, this land became the theatre of conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. Its people, therefore, fled to a camp in Mullaitivu in the north. From here too, they moved many times; some fled to India. After the civil war ended in 2009, these farmers wanted to return to their homes and the 1,200 acres of paddy fields they had left two decades earlier.

After many difficult rounds of negotiation with the local government, families began to get permits to come back in batches. But they returned to find their land overrun by the army. Nearly 150 families are back in the area now but they live in temporary camps built by the UNHRC in 2011. Instead of 1,200 acres, they are now collectively left with a mere 150 acres to cultivate. An additional 150 acres is now occupied by Sinhalese farmers. Complaints to the police have led nowhere. the head of the society they have formed has written directly to president Rajapaksa as well as every bureaucrat in between, to no avail. A farming community that, at the time of fleeing their land in 1984, made the equivalent of LKR 50,000 a month now earns not more than LKR 2,000, which for a war-inflated economy is barely subsistence level.

In another camp in the east — local guides did not wish it to be identified — a frail 53 year old woman stepped out of her mud hut to greet us. She dashed her daughter off to get us a sweet red drink from a store nearby as her eyes slowly shifted to a faraway place. She now lives entirely in the past. every waking moment is spent thinking of the home they fled in 2006; the two cows she had to sell, named Neeum or water and Neeruppu or fire. “Even if I don’t get back my farmland, I will live with that. All I want, even if it’s just a small hut, is to get back to my homeland,” she said wistfully.

At yet another camp in the north, a fisherman’s eyes brimmed over. Living in a camp for more than 22 years is no life, he said. In the 1990s, he left the camp to live in Vanni, the LTTE heartland, where he felt protected and thought the Tamils would have a future. Now, at the age of 60, with that dream getting more and more blurred, he confessed, “I think I should just end it all now and walk into the sea.”

The refusal to be named or identified is commonplace among the Tamils. their fear is palpable. The Sinhala-Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka makes up 75 percent of the population; the Tamil minority — 32 lakh people — make for 11 percent. According to the government, most Tamils dislocated by decades of civil war — and the last devastating push by the Sri Lankan Army — have been resettled. But an NGO working with displaced people explains what “resettled” really means. Farmers who once had one acre plots are “resettled” on pint-sized slices of land measuring 0.125 acres. “It’s part of a State-sponsored design to resettle Tamils at below subsistence levels so they can never regroup and fight,” the NGO explains.

Reliable figures for the thousands of people displaced by war and still living in camps are hard to come by. Tamils here say, like everything else, the flow of information is tightly controlled by the government and scripted to suit the story they want the world to hear. the scale of displacement and dispossession, therefore, can only be hazarded from reports like this one, based on patchwork anecdotes from the ground. The real scale may be missing, but the architecture is clear. Tamil MP Gajendra Ponnambalam describes why the north and the east became the land of the Tamil Eelam; why Tamils in Sri Lanka almost universally supported the idea of a separate nation. his own family history makes for a telling account.

Gajendra’s grandfather, G.G Ponnambalam, was an Oxford-educated lawyer and a liberal who, till the 1950s, believed in the idea of a syncretic nation where Tamils and Sinhalese could co-exist. he founded the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. By 1976, however, he had begun to back the idea of a separate nation for the Tamils. things had begun to curdle as far back as 1956 with the Sinhala only Act. this re-placed English with Sinhala as the State language, to the exclusion of Tamil. This was further exacerbated by tussles over land, fishing rights and proportion of government jobs. In the 1970s, when it became officially mandatory for Tamil students to get 15 marks more than Sinhalese to qualify for university, the ground was laid for the rise of the LTTE. Gajendra’s grandfather eventually lived his last days abroad, broken by the idea of a Lankan nation whose identity was solely Sinhala and Buddhist.

Gajendra’s father, Kumar Ponnambalam or G.G Junior as he was known, was educated at Cambridge. he became a lawyer and took on the State for its anti-Tamil stance. He paid for that by being assassinated in 2000. Gajendra — the third generation lawyer to be educated in England — finally returned to Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. he feels Prabhakaran, despite the many mistakes he made, was the most effective leader the Tamils ever had. The time for political reconciliation with the Sri Lankan government is long over, he says. In 2010, he broke away from the Tamil National Alliance — an umbrella body of Tamil parties over this issue. “When you face such blatant oppression, you end up focussing fundamentally on what you need to do to keep your identity alive,” he said.

Despite the contemporary devastations the Tamils have faced, the tragic story of chauvinism and racial domination in Sri Lanka is not one-sided. In keeping with the imperial games it played elsewhere, while Sri Lanka was a part of the British empire, the British clearly favoured and nurtured the Tamils over the Sinhalese. this meant the Tamils ended up better-educated, often returning with degrees from abroad; they had a greater share of the few plum jobs in the colonial civil services; they bought the biggest properties in Colombo.

Rajiva Wijesinha, whose Liberal party is an integral part of the Sri Lankan government, articulates this alternative side of the history of Sri Lankan discontent. the discriminatory politics that began in the 1950s with the Sinhala only Act, he says, was really an attempt by the Sri Lankan government to unshackle the country from its colonial past. this is why English was replaced by Sinhala as the official language. “It’s unfortunate that this eventually took on the colour of majoritarianism in the years that followed.” It was corrected, he pointed out, in 1987, when Tamil was included as an official language. But by then, of course, the LTTE had already emerged as a guerilla force to assuage the anger of the Tamils.

Back in the north and east, this historical perspective offers no comforts. Sureka (name changed), 31, sits in a quiet backyard overlooking the sea. her bright yellow frock with its frills and silver buckle contrasted painfully with her adult face and puffy eyes. “I don’t want to live anymore,” she said. “But if I kill myself, people will think I’m ending it all because I have been raped by the CID or the army and I don’t want that to be the story people carry around after me. So I’m in limbo. I can’t live and I can’t die.”

Sureka was once a regular young girl in a village in the east, but the war between the LTTE and the army caught up with her. It killed her mother, leaving her orphaned. She had no siblings; her father had died a few years earlier. Soon after, soldiers began to turn up at her house regularly to torment her. they poured boiling water on her head once and hit her on the back with sticks. It’s what drove her to join the LTTE in 2000. Prabhakaran was someone she looked up to like an elder brother, she says. For the nine years she was in the LTTE, she was happy. then in 2009, the war was over. She was back to living alone, but now in a land where the State and army was even more hostile, especially with former members of the LTTE.

A week before we met her, an unknown Sinhalese man had entered Sureka’s home in the dead of night. She shouted and fought and called the police. they took three hours to come and refused to register a complaint. Since she was a former LTTE member, she was just a troublemaker, they allegedly told her. She wonders each night if the man will return.

We met our next contact ducking in a paddy field to avoid his being seen by the rest of his village, potential informers or the army, Easwaran (name changed) displayed his right wrist with two round blotches of raw skin. Evidence, he said, of electrodes inserted to torture him after the war. Like Sureka, Easwaran was orphaned in the 1990s when his parents were killed by the Sri Lankan Army. his father, an electrician, had dared to refuse to work for free for the soldiers. they paid him back by entering his house some days later and killing him and his wife. Easwaran was eight when he saw this happen. he and his two siblings screamed for help but fear had paralysed the neighbours into silence. he joined the LTTE to avenge his parents’ death, he says.

When the LTTE was pushed back from Trincomalee, Easwaran’s past caught up with him and he was arrested. the night-mares from the time he was tortured still continue. “All I wanted is a safe place for Tamils to live,” he now says, fear spreading across his face. he once had three acres; but now he has been living in a refugee camp for the past eight years.

For still others like Vengadesh (name changed), the horror has visited him many times over. He had provided logistics sup-port to the LTTE in the early 1990s. he was picked up by the Sri Lankan Army for this and sent to the infamous Fourth Floor, their version of Abu Ghraib. According to Vengadesh, his head was immersed in petrol fumes; he was strung upside down and suspended from just his two thumbs. he was released eight months later. he married, had children and began what he thought was a regular middle-class life. But when the civil war ended, he was picked up by the military and sent to the Fourth Floor again. The torture, however, has not taken the idea of the Tamil nation out of him. even as he spoke with us, he smiled as he looked back on what he calls his “contribution to the Tamil cause”. he would do it again, he says. For now though, he lives with the constant fear that torture may revisit him any time.

Looking at these stories of torture as merely a humanitarian crisis, however, is to miss the big picture. It makes activist-lawyer K Guruparan very angry. “A simple human rights discourse doesn’t help,” he explains. It merely forces people to weigh one set of atrocities against another — those by the Sri Lankan Army in 2009 against those carried out over the past 30 years by the LTTE, which had one of the deadliest guerrilla armies and suicide squads in contemporary history. “Without the history of Tamil oppression and the ongoing structural genocide, the story of the Tamils has almost no meaning,” says Guruparan. “You have to look at the long-standing process of disenfranchisement from which the LTTE emerged.”

The language of terror paints absolutist pictures that remove the possibility of con-text and history. Despite the barbaric scale of Tamil civilian killings — 40,000 in the last six months of the army push in 2009 is the official estimate — it allows the Sinhalese majority to revere president Rajapaksa. It also allows international actors like the UNHRC, the US and Indian governments to take ambivalent positions on what happened. Consider the UN’s pussyfooting on the war, for instance. In March 2011, a report from the UN Secretary General’s office said: “Between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lankan Army advanced its campaign into the Vanni where the army used large-scale and widespread shelling, causing a large numbers of civilian deaths.” the report further spelled out how the army had shelled no-fire zones, UN hubs and hospitals and internally-displaced Tamils.

Two years later, however, on 19 March this year, when the UNHRC drafted a resolution on Sri Lanka, it seemed to have developed amnesia about this report. The resolution was gentle in its censure of the government for what happened in 2009 and even praised it for the work done since — “welcoming and acknowledging the progress made by the government of Sri Lanka in rebuilding infrastructure, de-mining, and resettling the majority of internally displaced persons.” It is this refusal to take in the whole narrative that allows Rajapaksa to tell the world all is well now with the Tamils in his country.

In 2011, a document called ‘The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Report’ was published. It was deemed independent but conducted by people appointed by the Sri Lankan government. It listed that the security forces had lost 5,556 personnel between July 2006 and May 2009 and 28,414 were injured. the LTTE, on the other hand, had lost 22,247 of its cadre. It spoke of the “principle of proportionality” and cited instances of war crimes from the Bosnian war to make the point that the blame for atrocities against Tamils in the war was a relative question.

Among all the Sri Lanka’s living dead that this reporter met, perhaps the most difficult to face were those whose families have gone missing since the end of the war. the war over statistics and narratives is even starker when it comes to the missing. For instance, a group of pastors sent a report to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that put the figure of those missing from two districts in the north, where most of the Tamils had converged at the end of the war, at 1,46,679. they said they had used government data to arrive at this number, based on the population count in October 2008 and May 2009.

Not surprisingly, the army spokesperson rubbished the figures. he cited figures compiled by government schoolteachers and village-level officials. this report puts the figures of “those untraceable” across four districts of the north from 2005 to 2009 at 4,156.

Neither statistic comforts Ponamma Kandasamy and her husband. They are searching for their daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, all of whom are missing. Her son-in-law was an LTTE member who, after the war, joined the ranks of thousands of surrendered militants. Since then, they have disappeared into a void; putting Ponamma and her husband’s life permanently on hold.

Around the same time, the husband of Bawani (name changed) also surrendered as a member of the LTTE’s political wing. She has tried everything to trace him and says all she wants from life is to see her husband – a pastor, who is actively working to help Tamils find their missing relatives, says the plight of women like Bawani is particularly bleak.  His effort is to gently break it to them that four years on, they cannot sit by the door waiting endlessly. They have to try and start working and paying attention to their children that are still living. Catholic priests in the north and east are faced with the fact that their church is divided straight down the middle. With Catholic Tamils on one side – the victims. And the Sinhalese Catholics on the other  – who have thrown their weight behind the rest of the Sinhalese – the victors.  Another priest revealed how many of the parish are losing their minds. One family’s story was particularly chilling. The couple saw their two young girls die in army shelling. And a third child – their boy — lose both his arms. While the daughters lay dead and the son’s arms were bleeding, the father went mad. He just kept running round and round in circles, unable to deal with the situation. The boy has since then been sent to India to have two prosthetic arms fitted and is currently undergoing training in computers.

Priests have stepped in to help victims walk with fear every day. They take different routes while travelling, delete call history from their cell phones and despite that, receive regular calls and threats from the Central Intelligence Department.The Tamil media is equally under threat. At the crack of dawn on 3 April, Aramugham Ponaraja, the office manager at Udayan newspaper in Kilinochchi, was getting ready to distribute the first batch of newspapers when six masked goons attacked him 17 times with cricket stumps. Tamil MP Sivagnanam Sritharan’s office was attacked just a few days before that by similarly masked goons. Under normal circumstances, the string of attacks may have been completely unconnected. In the times Tamils live in now, all attacks point only to one place — Sinhalese mobs asserting power over the vanquished.

Liberal party leader Wijesinha says one must not read too much into the activities of the fringe mobs. “The majority of the Sinhalese want a political solution to the Tamil problem,” he insists. “However, there are some bad elements within the government that are causing trouble.” It’s the kind of perspective that almost deletes the history of Tamil oppression leading up to the LTTE. It’s the view that paints them as an aberration, as if terror suddenly arrived in the 1980s out of nowhere. However, every single Tamil we met has exactly the opposite story to tell. If you were a Tamil in Sri Lanka and lived through the 1980s and ’90s, they say, you were either in the LTTE or a supporter.

The collective memory of injustice is what made Suvendran (name changed) join the LTTE in 1991. He is now missing one leg from laying grenades. After surrendering, he is left with nothing to say or feel. Just like him, his comrade had no particular trigger for joining the LTTE or for that matter for leaving it. It’s just what Tamils did in the 1990s. He also has an injured leg. The north is full of people with missing limbs and no will to live. Thivagar (name changed) was just 15 when he joined the LTTE. It was an atmosphere charged with the possibility of a new beginning for Tamil youth. That’s when he fell in love with a fellow comrade. “We had to meet clandestinely since men and women lived in separate camps. It was a typical romance where we snatched five minutes to share an ice-cream together,” he recalled. Like many LTTE romances, it didn’t last. Thivagar left the LTTE in 2005 but his lover stayed on with them. After the war, he has a regular middle-class job, but has to be silent about much of what he saw and experienced. As a surrendered LTTE cadre, he has to constantly watch his step and live in fear.

The final days of the war are firmly embedded in ghoulish detail in the minds of fleeing Tamils — tigers and others. Indrakumar (name changed) was in the LTTE’s publicity division and continued reporting right until the end, even while he and his family were on the run. In one such attack in August 2007, 13 schoolchildren were killed and many others injured. there were no vehicles to take them to hospitals. Indrakumar remembers lifting two bleeding kids onto his bike to take them to the nearest hospital 16 km away. he was riding as fast as he could when he saw the head of one of the kids roll off. Neither survived. As this reporter drove through stretches of former war country with former LTTE members in tow, the horrors were relived. Thivagar’s face went white when at one point we were chased away by the army. He was silent for a long time and then remarked absently: “the government has wiped out all evidence of the atrocities.”

Indrakumar had one final nightmare to share. He was running from one area of attack to relative safety and then when that became the new theatre of war, he fled again with his wife and child. And then his nine-month-old baby died. It was 9 April, the day of the Tamil New Year. The boy had severe pneumonia. No medicine was available, which Indrakumar claimed was part of the Sri Lankan government’s strategy to flush out the LTTE. The UN report in 2011 described similar situations, but this reporter had no way of independently verifying this claim. Either way, what is indisputable is that Indrakumar’s son died. At this point he and his wife contemplated suicide. That’s when they arrived at the camp populated with 3 lakh Tamils.Suddenly they were in a sea of horrors. Everyone had lost a child or two. It brought a macabre sense of brotherhood and made Indrakumar and his wife stay alive.

Not everyone in Tamil country was equally smitten by Prabhakaran and the LTTE. Especially not people like Thiruneelakandan Saroja in Kilinochchi. Under the dim light of a lantern in a tiny hut, Saroja spoke bitterly of how her 22-year-old son was forcibly taken by the LTTE as cadre. He is now missing. “We live with our mouths shut,” she said in anger. Silenced by the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE and the loss of her son. But even her individual anger is subsumed by the larger sea of collective Tamil anguish. She added paradoxically that despite everything, she supported the cause of a separate Tamil nation. It’s a sea inside that with all its repression and terror the State has been unable to obliterate.

Soon after the war, President Rajapaksa had declared to the Tamils that he would forge a political reconciliation by providing administrative autonomy to the provincial councils in the north. The news was celebrated in India and announced by all political parties as sign that India had put pressure on Sri Lanka to arrive at a political settlement for the Tamils. Two years later, Rajapaksa publicly went back on his word. While addressing the people on Independence Day (4 February 2013), he took back that promise, saying that Sri Lanka was a nation with “no racial or religious differences” and therefore there was no need for greater autonomy in the Tamil majority provinces. The speech was delivered in former LTTE-held Trincomalee and the semantics of it were all too clear. The Tamils are a people without a nation, much like the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Tamil activists and MPs say there is reason for the rest of the world and India, in particular, to sit up and pay attention. Activists like Guruparan point out that the Tamil predicament is shared by many ethnic groups across the world. Whose only hope has survived in the support generated from the Tamil diaspora. The Tamil diaspora is large, well-funded and spread across Europe, North America and Australia. Much of the lobbying and publicity for the cause and help for displaced Tamils come from these quarters. They are now saying their long-term vision is to be able to put pressure on the international community to force Sri Lanka to carve out territory for the Tamils that is administered internationally. Like how East Timor separated out of Indonesia in 2002, after the intervention of the UN, to become Timor Leste. The intervention was the result of incessant  lobbying by the East Timorese and a truth and reconciliation commission. The territory was administered by the UN from 1999 until 2012, when it was finally handed over to an independent government. The Tamils are  now trying to get their version of the truth out. And given the history of violence and broken promises, most say, reconciliation is not an option.

They say their window of hope for now is twofold: India and the US — two countries that should be scared at the increasing proximity of the Sri  Lankan government with China and Pakistan. Does India want the strong presence of Pakistan and China less than 5 km away from its southern coast, they ask. And they hope that the US will have similar fears and decide to back their cause. For now, that is their only recourse. Former Tamil MP Ponnambalam puts it simply: “I think it’s dangerous for us to think about what is possible. If we start thinking about that, it only means assimilation. We must stop talking Tamil, we must give up our religion. We must be Sinhalese and Buddhist.”

Over and above the geopolitics and domestic Tamil politics that directly affects India, the Sri Lankan Tamils’ story raises a disturbing question. Can the desperate and continuing plight of a people be explained away by  terrorism alone? For now, more than 22 lakh tamils within Sri Lanka and an estimated 10 lakh in the diaspora, are asking this universally perplexing question. As their story also serves as a warning to other displaced people without a nation — while the world and the UN plays a double game, your idea of nationhood could be the next to disappear. But even in the aftermath of the terror and genocide, the Tamil idea of nationhood has not disappeared. If India does not want another cycle of violence at its doorstep, it cannot afford to be indifferent to the voices of the Lankan Tamils.

 

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How I Faced the Armenian Genocide

A Turkish writer reveals how he faced up to mass killings by `his’ community and the essential turmoil it caused him

First published in Al Jazeera English on April 23rd, 2014
Re-printed with the author’s permission

By Rasim Ozan Kutahyali

Contributor,  Turkey Pulse

Rasim Ozan Kutahyali has been a columnist for Sabah since 2011 after writing for Taraf from 2008 to 2011. He is a popular political commentator on various TV programs, having started at CNN Turk and now appearing on Beyaz TV. Kutahyali is known for his anti-militarist and liberal political views. He can be reached at rasim.ozan@hotmail.com

Another April 24 is coming around. A landmark in Middle Eastern history, the date this year will mark the 99th anniversary of the catastrophe of 1915. Ninety-nine years ago, one of the region’s Christian peoples, the Armenians, fell victim to a great tragedy they call Metz Yeghern, or genocide. A deep, insurmountable enmity has haunted Turks and Armenians ever since, with tensions bound to reach a crescendo next year, the centenary of the genocide. This year, like those that went before, the spokespeople of various countries will repeat their cliches. The annoying nonsense will go on.

Today, I tell of my own mental journey and the transformation of conscience I experienced on this issue as a Turk. I speak of how I faced up to the massacres of Armenians and Christians and how the truth scarred my inner being. The road to acceptance was definitely hard, but I eventually came to terms with the truth. The Armenians were uprooted from the lands where I lived. Hundreds of thousands of them were slain brutally on the orders of Talaat Pasha’s Young Turk government. In the ensuing Kemalist era, Turkey’s Christians and Jews were again expelled from their homeland. It was an unmistakable act of ethnic cleansing, which the state I belonged to denied. Such denial, on top of everything else, is shameful.

I was in high school when I first became curious about the events of 1915. Our Kemalist teachers spoke of “Armenian allegations” and “Armenian lies.” The Kemalist education we had received in earlier grades had already instilled in me and my classmates an anti-Armenian sentiment. Then, we were shown a government-sponsored documentary according to which Turks, in fact, were the victims of genocide at the hands of the Armenians.

The documentary was a ridiculous production, devoid of quality and intellectual insight. I wasn’t convinced. On the other hand, being the child of a Turkish family, I did not want to believe that “we” slaughtered the Armenians. Turkey’s current official position — `it was not a massacre, but mutual killings,’ was in its fledgling stages in the 1990s. To allay my own conscience, I endorsed this thesis as the most credible one.

I began to read studies that supported the government’s version of the events. Whenever the issue popped up, I insisted that there had been no massacre, only mutual killing. During my university years, I continued to read up on the issue, as it occasionally became a topic of discussion and whetted my appetite to read more. Frankly, however, I didn’t bother to read material from both sides, try to be objective or fully seek the truth. To me, the truth was already in my mind: An Armenian genocide never took place. The two peoples slaughtered each other. Thus, my only purpose in reading was to reinforce the “truth” I had already come to accept.

As the late Armenian luminary Hrant Dink used to point out, as a Turk I was simply incapable of coming to terms with anything like genocide. I could not bring myself to say, “Yes, we Turks slaughtered the Armenians.” Dink argued that the urge toward denial was in fact a natural human reaction. While on other political issues my thinking matured into libertarian and democratic outlooks, on the Armenian question I remained conditioned to insist that “It was mutual,” that “Apologies should be extended on both sides,” that “It was a time of war and there was no massacre, but mutual killings.”

Although I never read a study affirming the genocide, I gradually began to sense that something was wrong with the pro-Turkish arguments. The Turkish literature on the subject varied from “Nothing happened” to “The killings were mutual” and ultimately to “Yes, it did happen, but it was necessary.” At this point, I had a change of heart. As a Turk, I might have felt the urge to delude myself, but to endorse an argument that was more or less saying, “Yes, we did it, and we were right to do so” seemed to me cruel and simply immoral.

The American scholar Justin McCarthy, whose work I read extensively at the time, was a leading foreign supporter of the Turkish version. He had the strong backing of the Turkish state and often visited Turkey at Ankara’s invitation to make speeches here and there.

McCarthy did not deny the huge number of atrocities that resulted from deportations, but concluded that if the deportations had not taken place, the Turks would have lost eastern Anatolia. Therefore, their actions were justified. This argument offered easy vindication for Turks, most of whom might have been relieved to think it was the right thing to do, after all.

As Dink also said, denying what happened or not believing in it was, in a sense, a noble reaction. Most Turks probably harbor this sentiment today. Yet, a large number of people tend to embrace the theory that the Turks were in the right. This is terrible and truly shameful, because it points to a cruel and immoral mindset that legitimizes murder and mass killings.

In my case, even the pro-Turkish writings I read to delude myself and relieve my conscience led me to eventually conclude that what happened was a crime against humanity. Yet, at the same time, I came to realize that labeling an entire nation as the butcher of another is no less intellectual nonsense than the perspective of seeing an enemy in each and every member of another nation. This holds true not only in the Turkish-Armenian context, but also in the German-Jewish and Serbian-Bosnian cases.

The real murderer is the mindset, not a nation, that justifies the extermination of ethnic or religious groups from an allegedly lofty purpose. It is such a revolting, results-oriented mindset that has made possible all massacres and genocides, deeming all means legitimate in achieving a purported sacred end. In regard to the events of 1915, this morality- and conscience-deprived mindset emerged in the avatar of the Young Turks ideology, embodied in Talaat, a man who saw people as mere objects in his population-engineering designs.

So, that’s my personal story. I no longer deceive myself. What happened in these lands in 1915 was a great tragedy, a genocide against Armenians, a crime against humanity. Every “but …” argument about this crime makes me nauseous.