Thursday, 21 February 2013

Binding Up A Nation's Wounds - What Sri Lanka Should Learn From Lincoln

This last week has seen new and dramatic evidence of war crimes that occurred towards the end of the 30-year Sri Lankan civil war, but the more dangerous and disturbing problem for the country is the rise of a culture of triumphalism. It signals that the country's government, army and sections of its society have learnt nothing from its long and debilitating internal conflict, and we are witnessing a return to the attitudes that led to that war in the first place. If measured by its potential impact on the country's fortunes, such stupidity is positively treasonous.

Who could have imagined that Buddhists could be violent?

The LTTE was a terror outfit that had to be crushed, but with the luxury of peace, the root cause behind the rise of such an outfit (i.e., the calculated disenfranchisement of the Tamil minority) deserves to be investigated and addressed. That is the only way for the country to move on rather than set in motion a fresh cycle of injustice, resentment and conflict.

When Singapore became independent in 1965, about 20 years after many other former European colonies, its leaders had the great advantage of observing which of their predecessors failed and why. Lee Kuan Yew explicitly mentions Sri Lanka as one of those that served as a warning to the fledgling nation of Singapore. 

[...] the advantage we had was that we became independent late. In 1965, we had 20 years of examples of failed states. So, we knew what to avoid - racial conflict, linguistic strife, religious conflict. We saw Ceylon.
Had we chosen Chinese, which was our majority language, we would have perished, economically and politically. [...] Riots - we've seen Sri Lanka, when they switched from English to Sinhala and disenfranchised the Tamils and so strife ever after. We chose - we didn't say it was our national language - we said it was our working language, that everybody learns English whatever language medium school you go to. Which means nobody needs interpretation to read English.

Even after a crippling war, Sri Lanka is fortunate enough to remain the best-positioned country in South Asia to become the next Singapore. But that entails learning lessons from its past self-destructive policies and taking steps to ensure that such conflict is never again allowed to come in the way of its citizens' progress. Disappointingly, this kind of mature soul-searching doesn't seem to be happening in the public sphere except for a few lone voices here and there.

I am by no means an expert on Sri Lanka, its culture, history or politics. I have visited the capital, Colombo (and was vastly impressed, by the way). In some ways, my Indian background gives me a unique window into this neighbouring country, and in other ways, it may actually hamper my understanding. I'm aware of these limitations. Yet this is what I see.

1. Sri Lanka has not treated its Tamil citizens as equals, and today, with the Tamil independence movement crushed, the temptation to ignore even the legitimate demands of the Tamils seems to have won out. Now a new front seems to have opened up between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority. Regardless of who started this latest round of confrontation, it shows that the seeds of internal strife continue to be sown, and that the popular leaders and groups of the majority community are not taking the long view or a statesmanlike pro-national position but are reverting to narrow identity politics. An important lesson of history, as Lee's Singapore was quick to learn, is that a society must carry its minorities along as equal citizens if the country is to be peaceful and prosperous. At the very least, it must avoid actively alienating its minorities. 

2. Organised religions have a lot of power over the minds of people who do not rely on reason and empathy to provide their moral compass. Allowing the clergy to influence politics is a really bad idea. Saudi Arabia and Iran stand as stark warnings to the world. It is difficult to imagine such a phenomenon occurring in a democratic country, or with a religion like Buddhism (which is generally considered peaceful), but the world is full of surprises. It would appear that Sri Lanka's monks are Buddhist only in name. They seem to be little better than militants in pious robes. As far back as 1959, prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk who carried a revolver hidden in his yellow robes. So much for being an exemplar of non-violence. The influence of the clergy on the Sinhalese Buddhist electorate, and through them, on elected governments, is a chilling confirmation of Ayn Rand's warning that democracy is nothing but mob rule that threatens the rights of individuals. The important lesson from history, as Western nations learnt over a period of 500 bloody years, is that religion, when taken out of the purely personal sphere, becomes a political philosophy as ruthless as any other. Church and state must stay in their separate spheres.

3. I have a deep and abiding suspicion of men in uniform. Give a man a uniform and a gun, wrap him up in the national flag so no "patriot" dares to criticise him, exonerate him from all accountability, and watch the human rights abuses begin. This is nothing specific to Sri Lanka. Virtually every army in history has been guilty of it. In spite of the tight clamp that exists on the media in conflict areas (often augmented by willing self-censorship), stories do get out. We do hear of My Lai and Abu Ghraib, and (thanks to Wikileaks) of the Apache helicopter shooting of civilians in Iraq. We do hear about the Indian army and paramilitary forces, protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and the things they have been up to in Kashmir, Manipur, and the Naxalite belt. We do hear about Pakistan's Frontier Corps and what is happening in Balochistan. So the photographic evidence of the Sri Lankan army killing a 12-year old boy in cold blood is shocking, but in a larger sense not really surprising. This is exactly what armed men with no accountability tend to do. The lesson is that we must insist on accountability from our armed forces, and treat accusations of rights violations as true unless proven otherwise. When the onus of establishing innocence falls on the generals, transparency will follow. Otherwise, with soldiers like these, who needs terrorists?

One of the things I was struck by when watching Steven Spielberg's "Abraham Lincoln" a few days ago was Lincoln's attitude to the South after the war was won. Southerners were not treated as a conquered people. There were no treason trials of former confederate leaders and no mass executions. In one of the final scenes of the movie, he tells General Ulysses Grant that since the war is now over, there should be "no more corpses".

Lincoln's second inaugural address is world-famous, especially this part:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln's assassination robbed the South of a friend, and his successors were perhaps not as generous in their treatment of the South as Lincoln might have been, and Southern resentment lingers on, even to this day.

It should be clear by now that any nation coming out of civil war needs healing, which only a wise leadership can provide.

The American Civil War lasted just 4 years. The warring factions were virtually identical on racial, religious and linguistic grounds, and the only differences between them were cultural and ideological. Even a rift as narrow as this has not yet fully healed.

US civil war soldiers - virtually identical but for ideology

Sri Lanka has endured a generation of civil war, and there are deep ethnic, religious and linguistic divisions between the victorious majority and the defeated minority. Healing Sri Lanka will be a far harder task.

Unfortunately, President Rajapaksa is no Lincoln. And that is why I fear Sri Lanka will never become the next Singapore.

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