Does this Tunnel Have an End?

by Roy Ratnavel


"If you're going through hell, keep going." – Sir Winston Churchill


Almost six decades later, Churchill's statement is all too relevant to this moment for Sri Lankan Tamils. Ah, the things that could go wrong for Sri Lanka in 2003! A peace accord that could backfire. A war could break out in a big way. Sri Lanka’s overextended economy that could finally call it quits. And those are just the known risks. Other unimagined plagues, disasters and surprises may lurk in the offing.


No doubt this will be perceived as a knee-jerk, anti-peace, anti-Sri Lankan or war lover-type article. But that is far from the truth. Nonetheless, I have found myself continually amazed by the peace attempt – that is currently taking place in Sri Lanka –  which, like any decent person, I encourage.  I  want to respond to the arrogant, hawkish and self-righteous note I've been hearing in some quarters lately from the safety of their propaganda camp. It seems that with the peace talks at odds; the media herd is quickly moving on to the next quagmire.


The fervant attempt to catch the Tiger by the tail only left a serious scratch mark on the Sri Lankan economy. So the solution – ‘Peace talks’. It's a strange and subtle game, and it has produced many odd turns with no end in sight. Here's just one: Not so long ago, Sri Lanka and other skeptics were charging the Tigers of not being the true representatives of the Tamils. However, last year – with the signing of MOU – this position were exactly reversed – certainly unexpected.


Speaking of unexpected, perhaps, "Freedom for Tamils?" There, I typed it. It slipped off my fingers. Now, go ahead and say it. Rolls off the tongue, too, doesn't it? – Not to be so. Karl Marx observed that history plays itself out first as tragedy, then as farce. But only Groucho could have anticipated Sri Lanka, where tragedy and farce are often found playing alongside each other, within the bounds of the same political multiplex. Tamils wonder about the fragile ‘Peace talks’ that are aimed at giving them the power to determine their political fate.


If history is any guide, the political drama in Sri Lanka is far from over. In fact, we may not have even reached the intermission. Year 2000 was a particularly bad year for Sri Lanka.  The Sri Lankan economy – at best a one legged stool was struggling with lower than potential output and deepening external debt. According to the World Bank, the government's total debt was up from 97% of GDP in 2000 to 103% in 2001. That is a high level for a country with Sri Lanka's income. Not to mention a below investment grade government bond and the nagging political unrest, which caused lack of compelling reason for investment opportunities to attract ever-larger quantities of much needed foreign capital in this ever-increasing competitive world. The peace talks – a rabbit out of the hat, was a by-product of the chokehold that the Katunayake airport incident put on the Sri Lankan economy.


That brings up politics. In politics, it's said that six weeks is an eternity. How about sixty weeks, or more? If anything, having just been through an Armageddon, Sri Lankans will find peace comforting after the country’s tragedy associated with political unrest. If they don’t correct it this time, the political drama will not be a one-act play; it may well be the first act of a multi-act play.  But a policy of “neglect” – punishing the Tamils – probably suits the political needs of the South just fine, but not the economic needs.


The very party that swept into Colombo on a wave of patriotic fervor in 1995, with its leaders proclaiming the Sri Lankan army would be reborn in the Vanni region and those who thought otherwise were traitors, is now organizing and promoting anti-Tamil sentiments – while pontificating why Sri Lanka lost the battle for Vanni? In the meantime, conservative and cautious politicians such as Ranil Wickremesinghe, who belongs to the mainstream of Sri Lanka's elite and who once spoke in favour of a change in policy regarding Tamils, now it seems is changing his mind as well. As the apt cliché says, truth is the first casualty of war. However, another early casualty is conscience.


Next the grotesque self-deception of the politicians will begin by inventing and spreading cheap lies, putting the blame upon Tamils. And, every Western country will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, while refusing to examine any refutations of them. The Western world has a moral obligation to look beyond its own borders as well as to resolve internal strife, inequities and promote basic human rights for Tamils in Sri Lanka.  But as always, foreign policy operates at the intersection of politics, economics and anthropology. As a result, the Tamils' cry for help is generally ignored like traffic signs – thanks also to the Western journalistic rants.


Oscar Wild once observed that that “The difference between journalism and literature is journalism is unreadable and literature is Unread.” Couldn’t agree more. There are the suspenseful stories of paranoids, self-righteous nobodies who sit on their high throne and attack an entire race for trying to defend itself against aggressors. Do the nobodies offer any solution to the problem either – a problem, which could possibly eliminate Tamils from Sri Lanka, if it continues on forever? The twist in this plot is that these nobodies are probably looked after and financially cared for by the same nation that punishes Tamils. So they write novels in which conspiracies are dreamed up entirely in their heads – indeed great fiction writers.


Opponents of the Tamil freedom struggle sugarcoat their arguments in hazy, imprecise notions of "blindness." Their argument is based on the unspoken assumption that a peaceful society can exist under oppressive conditions, which places them in a situation that is hardly geared toward upward advancement. Strangely, though, while we all agree with them about the virtues of a peaceful society, I've found that many people doubt that it can exist under oppressive conditions. A peaceful society cannot exist until there is racial equality or at least a genuine attempt to address the central issues. When all else fails, armed struggle, as undesirable as it may seem, needs to be taken in order to begin addressing the situation.  


The bottom line is this: like it or not, we live in a universe that rewards power, and power flows from confidence. The winners of history are those who sound their barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world, while the losers are the ones who cannot express themselves without apology. And the one sure way to make your life a series of defeats, miseries, and misfortunes, is to constantly back away from even your most passionately held beliefs.


Tamils cause is absolute; it brooks no dissent or qualification. There is no law in life or nature that says a group may commit atrocities against another without impunity; whoever believes that, is by definition an ignorant, pompous, semi-literate unperson. My position is that, Sri Lanka took on a known enemy and screamed "foul" when it acted in character – against Sri Lanka. The pain Sri Lanka had to endure is appalling, but it doesn't make a martyr of Sri Lanka, nor – much as one would like it to – does it sweep away all argument about the ambiguities of Sri Lanka's participation in its own downfall.


The views from the Buddhist-land are always unique and, during this new round of peace talk, infuriatingly smug – by ‘claiming victory’. Sri Lankan authorities have claimed victories, not on the battlefield but on the foreign-propaganda front of this war. But these successes can't hide the fact that Sri Lanka has again lost the war. Firstly, it lost the war for the hearts and minds of the Tamils, trying to convince them they are Sri Lankan citizens by bombing them, murdering them, torturing them, abducting them and subjecting them to "cleansing" operations. Secondly by refusing to fulfill the moral responsibility to lift the perpetual political darkness over their future.


After two decades of tough times and false dawns, the foundations have been laid for a free Tamil nation. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka as well as Tamils abroad are utterly convinced of the need to smash the oppressive rule over them. Partly for that reason, many of us – in both Sri Lanka and outside its border – are not persuaded that it's wise to put down arms. Tigers are not the problem. They are happy to comply, but they are not willing to disarm all together –  not when all examples from the past shown that sacrifice to be ultimately fruitless. And this unfortunate point of departure perpetually clouds the Western world’s judgement of the Tigers.


In one year's time, if a pluralistic Tamil Eelam emerges from the rubble of Sri Lanka’s racist terror, the “war against terrorism” crowd will look ridiculous. It will be clear to them by then that Sri Lanka’s “war on terror” claim is not so much of an argument built on facts, rather a convenience to wage “war on Tamils.”  It is an empty catch phrase meant to marshal the sympathies of those who are already programmed to vilify the Tigers.


People make their decisions based on emotions, not logic. They embrace certain beliefs for personal reasons and then justify the belief with political and economic reasons – mostly political. In their rabid anti-terrorism outbursts, these critics have failed to realize that the Tigers have actually liberated Tamils from the brutal yoke of the Sri Lankan rule. Life is now slowly, but surely returning to normal in Vanni and elsewhere, with girls going to school without being harassed and flying killing machines has vanished from the clear sky.


The Tigers' actions, despite their flaws, play an important role in "leveling the playing field" for Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Western world's condemnation of the Tigers is overly simplistic in using the tired old "terrorist group" label.  As a Tamil, urban-dwelling and Tamil Eelam hopeful, I am very familiar with both the terrorism experts and the general public's Hollywood and news-based perception of the Tamil's struggle. Unless you can make a case as to why Tigers are a danger to the Western World, leave them alone.


Sri Lanka has a real chance at winning its war – the hearts of Tamils, perhaps for the first time. It appears Tamils suffered enough and are fed up with war and would accept a federal setup in the hope of seeing some order brought to their life and the republic. But, Colombo needs to do a lot more than just make promises to capitalize on the opportunity.


This much is beyond dispute: Tamils basic rights will be defended against the heaviest odds. We cannot countenance anymore bullying, or tolerate every mad adventure dreamed up in the bunkers of Colombo, in the pathetic hope of getting a break. War is evil, but sometimes submission also has all the right ingredients to achieve a giant cemetery that will be carved from the ashes of Tamils, and decorated with the remains of many innocent men, women and children who will give the ultimate sacrifice.


Throughout history, occupying forces have met violent resistance from indigenous populations, because it is human nature to resist occupation with all means available so that one can live with freedom and dignity. But the moral lesson that is lost on Sri Lanka and its friends is that, until Tamils are granted their basic human rights and treated like human beings, the violence will continue. Anyone who thinks otherwise need to reread their history books.


Trying to solve Sri Lanka's national question equitably is like trying to cut a water balloon in half with the back of a comb. There's no denying that bad stuff could happen. But just as a blithe disregard for Tamils' lives characterized the early 1980s, obsession with it seems to have taken hold in the early 2000s. That's too bad, because despite the scary talk by many, the most plausible political scenario for the year ahead is one that should inspire not trepidation, but modest optimism.


It is all-too familiar scenario for Tamils: years of deadly war, then a tiny ray of hope that peace and freedom may be at hand, followed by deception and then yet another wave of deadly conflict. We have had this struggle for almost half-a-century. How many more lives will it cost for the world to understand that Tamils deserve to live as equals in the land they inhabit? How long will they use the language difference as an excuse to kill, rape, maim and make hell on Earth for Tamils?  The time has come for the denial and ignorance to end.


Maybe, just maybe, it’s now time for a string of good luck?