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Economic and Political Weakly, India
January 4, 2003
Sri Lanka's Decades of Divide
Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power Myths, Decadence and Murder by Rajan Hoole; University Teachers for Human Rights, Jaffna, Colombo, 2001; pp 504, $ 32.
Lakshmanan Sabaratnam

Rajan Hoole's first book, The Broken Palmyrah, made a metaphorical reference to the stoic Palmyrah culture of the Jaffna Tamils. The term broken was meant to indicate that this culture is fractured because of the events that transpired in that small piece of land. This brokenness was due to the entry of new moral values, new sources of authority and the crises of legitimation found in the island as a whole. The book lays out, instead, the violations to human life and security carried out by several forces, including the Sri Lankan government forces. A partial result of this effort was the assassination of one of the co-authors, Rajani Tiranagama. Another partial consequence was that Rajan Hoole had to run for his life, before he could write more revelations from the troubled land. However, Hoole did produce a second piece, the book reviewed here, with less metaphor but a more plain and disturbing message. The new book has much to offer if one wants insight into the travails affecting a modern democracy in a developing country, if one wants to uncover the conversations in the corridors of power, and if one wants to glance at how a land of plenty could produce such putrid fruit.
In 'Imagined Communities', a Benedict Anderson argues that print capitalism furthered transformations of time and space and allowed the formation of a sense of community among literate persons who were reading the same material. Reading thus created a sense of belonging in an imagined community, since one of the ways in which the idea of a nation was created was through repeated narration of that reality in news reporting and in modern fiction.
It is possible, however to see many differences from this contention in the Sri Lankan case. First, early monastic and other literature suggests that long before the emergence of print capitalism there was the tradition of literary and oral cultures. This tradition among the Buddhists led to the formation of a cohesive body of believers who may not have been present in village or town but separated by miles and by natural barriers. In short, the idea of Sinhala nation in Sri Lanka was to be found before print capitalism appeared in the west. Second, it is also possible that the spread of Tamil poetry and literature, especially religious devotional material in medieval Tamil Nadu created a sense of nation bound by religious and, particularly, Tamil language ties in India. Again, the sense of imagined community may have appeared several centuries before its appearance in the west.
Hoole is not interested in these earlier beginnings. He is clearly interested in showing up the abuse of westernised power-holding and influence in the island without regard to ethnic community. What is relevant about print capitalism in Hoole's work is that the media today was often used to assert power, and transform truth.
While government controlled media will report what the governmental authorities generally want to be known by the public, private media is either controlled by Sinhala agents or Tamil agents and therefore, functions as mouthpieces for these conflicting groups. To state the obvious about print capitalism in Sri Lanka, what one read in papers was only little different from what one read in creative fiction, such as Ondatje's Anil's Ghost, because both are efforts at creating realities that are not always consonant with the world we live in. In the latter case this is expected, while in the former instance, one learns to beware of what is produced as news. Once political entities such as the Sinhala state or the Tamil Tigers learned how to manipulate the media, private or government owned, human rights violations could be buried under news about other supposedly important events or even given a political spin that diluted the grave impact of the violation. Killing could be justified by recourse to revising history, or mis-interpreting events. Since media is about representation through power, power was used to mis-represent truth, suggesting that there were many different sources of evidence and that one could come to very different realistic conclusions. For example, did the guards really stand and wait while Tamil prisoners were murdered at the Welikade Prison in 1983, or were they absent in another way, or were they participants? One's view depends on the print one reads and which form of capitalism, private or government, controls the print. And, of course, Hoole would rush to add, one's own beliefs, sometimes, but only sometimes, critically held beliefs.
Hoole, contends that fragmentary evidence, solid in some cases, not so solid in other cases, proves to be sufficient and necessary to convict those in power. But one of the problems I encounter in reading this book then is that I am not sure of two things in Hoole's practice. One, what kind of methodology does he use to make his varied cases? Two, is he consistent in pressing his cases to the same degree. The answer I receive for the first query, from the book, is that he has widely questioned sources and read much on these cases, but presents his evidence as if he was prosecuting a legal case; but as we know prosecuting legalistically, does not really lead to guilt, since verdicts can depend on how evidences have been compiled and presented, whether the law (here, I assume that law is not controlled by power) has been interpreted appropriately, and whether the jury or judge was influenced by trends or pressures in the society in which the case is held. Style in such an instance becomes more important than substance.
I have to ask, as a social scientist, whether the collection of evidence influenced by legalistic argument is sufficient enough to point to some being more arrogant about power-holding that others. Is there anyone whose position in power we can trust? Or, conversely, if the glove doesn't fit, do we acquit?
The answer to my second query is this. No, I do not think the cases presented are pressed to the same level in each case. There is indeed a lack of consistency. This is the problem that one faces when one pursues a case for law as against when one pursues a case for social scientific validity. Notice, I did not say 'truth' because for me this is the first casualty of pursuing evidence of any kind. Even scientists rest their findings on community (in their case, the professional community) norms and not on some 'truth'.
Let me, however, also come to Hoole's defence from a quarter that he is probably unaware of in his pursuit: Subaltern Studies in India. Many years ago a group of Indian historians chose to find the voice of the subordinated category that they called (after Gramsci) the subaltern. They believed, however, that evidence in the case of the varied subalterns (lower caste groups, workers, women, clerical servants, etc) was not always capable of being used in a rigorous way in which historians would like to use them. But one of the historians realised that this was all that was available and had to be used in any case. He thus felt that the fragmentary evidence was sufficient and had to be used. Considering violence, he pointed out that many writers in fact look for broader, historical forces in play such as differences in material interests, etc. His point is that while we may actually find some use in these major frames, that we must also take account of the human (the agent) and his belief. Thus he says that, "some of the most sophisticated writing in the social sciences" related the brutish lives of men and women to, 'large impersonal movements in economy and society in which human beings have no control' Gyan Pandey, 'In Defence of the Fragment', Representations, 1992, 37, pp 27-55).
What Hoole is saying, it seems to me, is that this is not good enough. People must be held to be accountable for their actions. Their feet must be drawn to the fires of anguish and pain they have caused others in the name of some unknown god or goddess of justice. Those in power must be shown that they cannot behave arrogantly. Nor must they be allowed to balance one killing against another. Riots in Colombo must not be balanced by killings in Jaffna, because a killing is a killing is a killing. Records go missing, a practice common in Sri Lanka, and India now, but also to be found as an earlier repeated practice by the British (ibid: 35). But Hoole asserts, records must be retained and copies made. We must search for evidence from all quarters if possible; but in doing so, and we must discount 'theoretical interpretations' from what was actually observed by witnesses.
One can admire such severe dedication to the truth, but one wonders, in one's scepticism, whether one ever gets to the truth at all through such dedication. How does one tell a convincing liar from a truth teller? How does one compensate for reconstructions of selective memory of events? Are these remembrances true or not? Do we defend a fragment?
Perhaps, another way to defend the position taken by the author is to ask 'what frame of reference does he use?' What I mean by this is as follows: Anyone writing 'objectively' about events is inevitably using a standard. This means that the material they are presenting is placed within a framework of thinking just like a picture or painting will be, and we know that frames can influence the presentation of a picture or a painting. It is important, when reading critically, to be aware of what the frame is, simply because then one can consider the evidence more appropriately.
Hoole appears to be writing from a sense of justice gone awry. In other words, he assumes there is a situation in which there is good justice. It seems that he claims that this standard of good justice is already present in the legal codes and in the general conduct of professionals in Sri Lanka. There are rules of evidence, there are witness depositions, there are recollections, patterns of examining witnesses, etc. All these can be used to report on events or actions in keeping with the sense of justice imbued in the code. But this frame is too idealistic and has been frequently broken by many of those who are expected to hold up the law, whether they be lawyers, judges, policeman or official enforcers of a different type. Thus Hoole says that even in the midst of a civil war, justice needs to be upheld by rational players.
While justice is upheld by rational players but the rationality of these players is dictated by more than professional conduct. They have to bring into their rational calculation costs and benefits for their family, for their relatives and friends, and, perhaps, for those whom they define as their community. Further, they must bring into the same calculus threats they may perceive or know of, and trust and risk. They may be rational beings but they could act in terms of their own interests and this could lead to being above or below the law.
I lived and grew up in Sri Lanka for several years, and have never experienced justice that was fair in the country, except in petty cases. I remember that the Kodeswaran case on the implications of the government's 'Sinhala Only' policy was decided not by a Sri Lankan panel of jurists but by a British privy council. The verdict was against the government, and soon after the decision, political power joined belated anti-colonial rhetoric and appeals to the privy council were disallowed. Again, there were judicial cases dealing with coups that were not necessarily as transparent as they appeared to be, because there seem to have been attempts to settle political accounts in these cases. Similarly, there is a current case brought by the parliamentary party on members of the former government. This pattern of vendetta and revenge is quite medieval and appeared in Europe long before any Enlightenment project on law.
When justice goes awry one is either using a standard that is not observed by those actually practising it, or one is trying to bend the rules of 'play' to serve a higher cause which reflects its own distribution of power. One would like to see every contest be decided by a sense of fair-play and sportsmanship, but most players play to win and to not lose. In my book then justice is another word for power play. Idealism, however, is important for those in Hoole's position because they have to see some light at the end of the tunnel, some hope for better justice. Living in the context in which he finds himself, Rajan Hoole would be insane not to have hope.
Five Topics
It would be advisable to consider some of the cases that Rajan Hoole has included in this hefty volume. These are not simple cases, nor fictional, they reside in considerable amount of hard work, and consist of copious legal evidence collected either by the author or by gifted persons like him.
The Embilipitiya Schoolboys' Affair (p 273 ff)
This is a multi-motivated event that resulted in the tragic loss of lives of youngsters who were doing nothing more than what youngsters might do. During the Premadasa regime 32 boys were abducted over a period of four months, 25 being taken in November and December. According to Hoole, the problem started with an interception of love letters written between the principal's son, who was an army officer, and a young woman. The boys who intercepted these letters apparently started using the phrases in the letters to let the listening public know that the expressions were not their own, but from the letter. Another such event seems to have occurred at a cricket match and the subsequent taking into custody of some boys who insulted the losing side. Based on this information, and the reading of the report by the chairman of the Human Rights Task Force, Justice Soza, Hoole forms a 'strong impression' based on the chairman's own convictions that the principal and some army officers were involved in the abduction, torture and killing of these students. The tale reads like a few pages of Ondatje's novel on Sri Lanka titled Anil's Ghost.
According to Hoole, the suppression of the JVP, a violent revolutionary movement, by the UNP government under Premadasa, led to a number of events where personal grudges were settled through arbitrary and unjustifiable killing. Apparently the opposition leaders and the UNP in power gave themselves a sufficient lease of rope to operate on these premises. Hoole's worry is that there were many killings like the killings of the schoolboys 'even if the results were not sensational' (p 276). In Hoole's view protectionist/patrogenous actions provided the killers with immunity so that they could kill off enemies (personal and those of the state and of the opposition) with impunity while playing upon the fears of most Sinhalese about Tamil predatoriness. In doing so Hoole, revealing a lack of historical depth reports a newspaper attack on the then government run by the PA (People's Alliance), and cites a quote from the report from Cromwell who said to the rulers of Britain, 'for God's sake go'. In doing this, Hoole is postulating that the report itself was biased, since it did not do the same for an earlier regime where the UNP held power. But we have all had our share of Cromwellian power-holders.
The Kobbekaduwe Commission
On the August 8, 1992, General Kobbekaduwe was murdered by a bomb blast. Soon after coming to power, Chandrika Kumaratunge, leader of the PA appointed a commission called the Kobbekaduwe Commission to investigate the killing. As Hoole points out, the commission issued a finding that this killing was not to be attributed to the Tamil Tigers as many believed but that there was an 'irresistible inference' that there was a military plot against the general. It led by suggestion to a conspiracy by the previous government leadership (i e, the Premadasa leadership of the UNP), in collusion with senior military officials to do away with the general.
Hoole's position is very interesting to many. First, many, especially those among the Sinhalese population, believed that since the general's vehicle had exploded in Jaffna that the Tamil Tigers were responsible. Hoole, suggests, however, that this was not possible because it would be unthinkable for the Tigers to have planted a landmine in a recently built diversionary track without planting a similar one on the main road from which the track took off, because no one could predict that the general and his coterie (including, some officers who were later accused of planning the killing) would take the lesser track (also, see Iqbal Athas' report in the Sunday Times, August 16, 1992). But Hoole does not stop at this point.
Hoole argues that the finding by the commission was weak. His own indictment, it appears, is against the police who appear to have botched up the evidence and sometimes deliberately misled the public. Why were the police not implicated in this mess-up? Hoole suggests again that this was because the PA government had strong bonds with the police higher-ups that led to certain findings and placating the new political leadership. In other words, this is yet another, of copious examples, that point to the arrogance of power, where the innocent or the somewhat guilty are heavily implicated and the guilty parties let go.
Hooly argues cogently, with little rhetoric and a good deal of reason, to show that biased newspaper reporting can be avoided by painstakingly considering the evidence on an issue, evidence that is available to the public in any practising democracy. Sri Lanka, revealing Hoole's own freedom for writing, is strangely enough still a democratic polity, with regular elections and political turnarounds, though Hoole, reconsidered, is correct in pointing out that power goes to the head and corrupts everything because of its tendency to be above the law. What we see in Sri Lanka is a mix of absolutist regimes styling themselves above the law, while also maintaining the law for trivial cases, for the lesser folk.
Welikade Jail Massacre July 1983
Anyone who has followed the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, knows about the Welikade jail massacres in July 1983, following the killing of soldiers in battle in Jaffna and almost concurrent with the attacks on Tamils in the south. The massacres were of Tamil prisoners, many of whom were to be released, though in the minds of many of the killers, both those who worked there and those who were prisoners, these Tamils were terrorists, a term not appropriate to be applied since they were awaiting trial. As it ensued, the only man who stayed for the trial, later, was father Singarayar, a priest, who was acquitted in 1987.
The evidence that is collated by Hoole (with help from others) is very supportive of the position that there was animosity against any Tamil, for the reason that he was a Tamil. The prison staff, especially those in lower positions, the prisoners, the police, and the military patrol set outside the prison to guard the Tamil prisoners did practically nothing to defend the weaponless Tamil prisoners against the murderous attacks. This was possible only because the institutional structure of the security system was oiled by the wheels of power, those who had proximity to those in power behaved with impunity. Those who were aware of those in power and were more distant, knew that might was right and took the side of interests against the Tamils. Instead of diffusing ethnic tension and animosity, those in power entrenched it more clearly in the minds of a scared public. A small reference to a nurse not giving one of the victims saline, in Hoole's account, makes very clear the state of mind of many professionals in July 1983; they were certainly, anti-Tamil, and came to this opinion on an essentialist basis. Those with a capacity to question this tendency, refused to do so en masse, while exceptions who did were singularly ineffective.
This illustrates for us not so much the arrogance of power but that power is capillary and held within rigid structures. It oozes upwards from the stream of voters but through already set channels to endow leaders with a capacity to represent. It reflects for us, a point made several generations ago by James Madison in the Federalist Papers, the problem of the tyranny of the majority. In a democracy as long as leaders are beholden to the masses for their own power they cannot step outside the currents that drive the voters. Bandaranaike found it to be so, and so did Jayawardene. This is a fundamental irritant in democratic processes anywhere: to what extent a representative is a representative, to what extent is s/he enabled to act on her/his own, if s/he believes in something different from those who have given her/him that power both through election within a party and at the general elections. Democracy cannot control the cultural waves, and the culprits are not only those who have power but also those who ordain this power as legitimate. It is true that in the latter pages of the book, there are important statements to ponder on with regard to the bankruptcy of a cultural system that cannot honour the sacredness of individuals but only some of the sacred views that individuals might hold.
Yet, what is quite disturbing in Hoole's work is that there is not a single indictment of the 'traditional' culture that promotes such violence, not a single accusation of the Buddhist monks who favour the killing of Tamils in order to save their own attachments to status, land and religious authority. Nor does Hoole, indict the caste system as it changes hue to fit the political landscape. Nor does he truly fault the practices of the Christian church overmuch.
Tamil Grievances
It is also important to note that the book contains several sections on Tamil grievances in the country. It describes the milestones through which a Tamil public was gradually marginalised in a new form of colonial rule, primarily Sinhala political control over the destinies of Tamils. First, there was the disenfranchisement of Indian Tamil workers who were in fact earning a considerable amount of foreign exchange for the Sri Lankan government through their labour in the tea plantations. Hoole points out at least two ironic comparisons in this the legislative effort at defining citizenship. One was that the United Nations had at about the same time created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights among its founding documents, which declared that everyone had a right to a nationality. Two, was the idea that whereas Sinhala peasants who did not possess any documentary verification for determining citizenship were allowed to become citizens, Indian Tamils who could or could not, had to furnish proof of their linkages to the island over two generations. It was the Indian Tamil worker, and not the Sinhala peasant, who was a target of this legerdemain, because s/he was suspected of 'going left'.
Second, there was the official language policy of the government, which made one and only one language, Sinhala, the official language of the public service in the country. Third, there was the issue of standardisation, where Tamils were penalised for writing and thinking in their own language, when they took university entrance examinations. As Hoole points out, this policy "required a student from the best Colombo schools to score a minimum of 227 marks to enter engineering at Peradeniya in 1971 while requiring a Tamil from a poor rural school to score 250 marks for the same course" (p 190). This is said in the context of many apologists for the standardisation procedure adopted by the state. Though Hoole does not refer to the more commonly cited work by C R de Silva on this issue, he does bring in several arguments that apologised for the practice of ethnic discrimination in education.
Hijacking of the Tamil Cause
To anyone who knows about the tendency to produce ethnic entitlements for the Sinhalese the state would have appeared to be the central target for angry and resentful ethnic groups. The attacks on the Sinhala state and its coercive powers, on Tamil collaborators with that state and its institutions, and even the call for a separate Tamil state would be seen as logically appropriate among many who saw the Sinhala state as veering away from fair practice. Into this opportunity to raise Tamil ire stepped in many Tamil liberation groups. Of these the Tamil Tigers have surely earned the adjective 'ruthless' to a greater extent than any other of the organised liberators. The first step taken by the Tigers was to get rid of rival Tamil groups, many of which were willing to compromise, though not collaborate, with the Sinhala state.
According to Hoole the Tigers pursued a two-track policy. On the one hand, among the Tamils they wanted to be seen as the sole saviour-agent and therefore, they vanquished, through stratagem and sleight, other Tamil groups. In one case Hoole records that, in May 1986, "the LTTE used the tactics of surprise and ruthlessness to wipe out the fraternal militant group TELO" (p 338). As a result of such behaviour many Tamils fashioned an acceptance of the Tigers (i e, the LTTE) as the protectors and avengers of Tamils against a violent and vengeful Sinhala government. Soon, the Tigers would begin to recruit children and practically state that parents had no rights over their children. On the other hand, the Tigers would also attack Sinhala military and police forces and also Sinhala civilians, because this group too, like the nursing professionals tending to wounded prisoners from Welkade, had essentialised the differences between Tamils and Sinhalese. In short, ethnic differences were not due to misguided policy or social construction of difference, but intrinsic to being born Tamil or Sinhalese or Muslim. As Hoole suggest, this led to a reverse of the Israeli Mossad inspired strategy, a mirror image of what the state was trying to do. I would add that this strategy of the Tigers also played into the hands of the Sinhala Buddhist Sangha, which also saw that those who were unbelievers could be killed with impunity by governments which had sworn to protect the Buddha Sasana. All these approaches, those of the LTTE, the Mossad, the Sinhala state, and the Buddhist Sangha were essentialist in perspective and in detail. Thus visiting domestic terror against Tamil rivals and the Tamil population, and employing external terror against the Sinhala population, the Tigers showed that they had, in fact, become not liberators but predatory animals in a Hobbesian state of nature.
Thus, argues Hoole, what we have in Sri Lanka is the contest of two powers that fight for power in the name of two peoples whom they have repeatedly betrayed by using their political positions in an almost capricious way. Whether Tamils or Sinhalese, again and again what one witnesses is that the electorate has been deprived of any will to power, except through resorting to organised collective violence on each side or by electing patronising politicians. One joins these combatants and gathers a modicum of clout through which assaults on enemies (personal or collective) can be made, or one becomes a mere spectator, and perhaps a victim.
The Uses of Democracy
It is only the naive idealist who would consider that democracy is a fine form of government. When people learn how to run for office and how to persuade voters, then democracy is a form of government that can be manipulated by those who possess different kinds of capital, such as positions of patronage (obtained through caste or material success), education, or religious status. As the world learns more and more about marketing ideas, and persuading people it is likely that those with the resources will also be able to utilise these ideas for office-holding. As I have mentioned earlier in this essay, those having power of office can also make rules not only about resources and entitlements, but also about morality, particularly if the issue of morality is closely tied to the issue of legitimacy. Let me extend this argument with regard to Sri Lanka in the next few paragraphs. Many ethnic conflicts in the world erupted after the second world war. In the case of Sri Lanka, I beg to differ because I think the critical decade was much earlier, in fact in the period 1911 to 1919.
In 1911, British rulers decided to allow for an elected educated Ceylonese seat, assuming that first 'Ceylon' was an indivisible physical entity (an illusion created by its insular nature), and that 'education' meant learning the European forms of knowledge. In any case, since the British had the power they had the capacity to create this seat. In running for it, however, an old form of legitimation, namely, that of caste was used to manipulate voters. The question of political fitness revolved around which caste was appropriate to hobnob with the British ruler, and wield a nominal modicum of power.
At the end of the decade, caste had been replaced by ethnicity, and the legitimation of power in multicultural Sri Lanka was extended to ethnic communities and reduced for caste. We moved from caste contests across ethnic groups to multi-caste single ethnic contests; from horisontal divisions to vertical ones. As a result of this emergence, noted in colonial correspondence between Colombo and London and in local political rhetoric, and in the Ceylon National Congress, the ethnic divide came to be an important way of manipulating political interests in the Ceylonese electorate. The Donoughmore Constitution came in too late, and prescribed too few constraints. Both Sinhalese and Tamils knew this very well. The Sinhalese leadership liked the idea of demographically based modern democracy; the Tamil leadership did not like it. The latter protested about it but with little appeal. Hence Jaffna voters carried out a boycott of the first state council elections and the Sinhalese eventually created a pan-Sinhala ministry. Despite comments to the contrary, the ethnic divide was here to stay. The newly implanted political institutions could not contain ethnic mobilisation. Political leaders appeared in the Sri Lankan electorate, who were willing to build intra-ethnic alliances in order to gain power and to make rules about access to resources and to authority.
By the 1950s, in the time after the war, the politics of conviction had arrived in the ostensibly independent country. D S Senanayake may have tried to resist it, but it was certainly a part of the political culture. Wijewardene's education commission argued for making Sinhala the official language; Vijayavardene's 'Revolt in the Temple' put Sinhala politicians on religious notice. Naive Tamil leaders thought that democracy was an expression of the will of the people, but Sinhala leaders knew better, that those who hold the will of the people could manipulate that will and be elected to power. This is how Sri Lanka came to be an exemplary Third World democracy, with Sinhala politicians riding the waves of popular conviction and the Tamil leaders naively clamouring for 'higher' ideals. In Sri Lanka, despite the western learning of many leaders the tyranny of the majority was implicit enough to be not clearly noted in parliamentary politics.
The 1950s, especially the latter years of that decade, revealed that there was a fundamental divide in Sri Lankan democratic politics. The electorate was severely divided on the basis of ethnic belonging. Electoral competition, party old-boy networks, coalition formations in Sinhala and Tamil areas, all these revealed that though class might have superficially bridged the deep divide, the majorities in each segment were totally for ethnic loyalty in politics. Both Chelvanayakam and Bandaranaike knew this well, and may have attempted to bridge the chasm but did not succeed, because their politics of unity was written in a language that was not to be found in the cultural institutions of the country. The Tamils could never be part of a government or an opposition unless they joined with Sinhala parties, and such joining queered the strident ethnic voice. One western way of suturing this sundered situation was to create a federal state. Unfortunately the wise idea of a federal state was tarred with the brush of ethnic loyalty and could never be; instead the tyranny of the majority continued to be the rule of the day.
For Rajan Hoole all this may be water under the bridge. But one can say that these were missed opportunities, and the growth of political arrogance in the island is, therefore, neither recent nor surprising. If legitimation of power is sought in ethnic loyalty, then it stands to reason that 'self and other' would always be present. It is in this sense, one may be cautious about the line that Hoole appears to take, that of pleading for a return to sanity, of returning to a strange Camelot of socialist corporatism that does not constitute the warp or the weave of the either the Sinhala or Tamil electorate. Further, from medieval times to the different forms of colonial rule in the country we see murderous practices in the past; an anthropological tendency to kill the other who threatens a way of life, common to many and continuing in some societies even today.
Such intrigues and activities Hoole describes have been constitutive of Tamil and Sinhala cultures; and that at the same time Hoole's work is also a critical expression of what has been going on in recent years. There were many criticisms of this sort made in the past, but these remain lost for us. In the past too there was an arrogance of power. What we need to do is to practically accept that things can be made better, and work towards that end. We do not need an eschatology or a cycle of rebirths. If as Hoole argues the Tamil liberators have become persecutors, it is all the more important that there be not only avenues of escape but, in addition, there should be external monitoring as in a family of south Asian states, the United Nations or even from within the country. As Hoole argues, implicitly, we need laws that protect the innocent, and interpreters and enforcers of the law who are compassionate and take their duty of protecting the innocent seriously. Further, I tend to believe that the best thing for Sri Lanka is a fundamental separation on the basis of ethnicity, though not necessarily a separate state . Third, taking Hoole at his word, we should not rely on the powerful, but we do need a critical and educated public whose voice can be heard. Habermas has argued, however, that modern European capitalism, and since then capitalism from the US, took over this independent public sphere in the west and co-opted it for its own purposes. Perhaps this is something we can learn from Europe, not to be Europe but to be Asian.

Original version could be accessed at EPW web site


Hounded but defiant

T N Gopalan

Whoever coined the term the Island of Serendipity for Sri Lanka could hardly have imagined what the future held in store for the country. Such is the viciousness of the conflict between an oppressive Sri Lankan government machinery and the murderous Tamil Tigers, that it is indeed a miracle that the country has not turned into another Afghanistan.

If the devastation has not been more acute than is actually the case, it is because the struggling Tamils constitute a pitiful 12 per cent of the total population and are concentrated in certain pockets. Incidentally, those regions are getting depopulated.

The Arrogance of Power by Rajan Hoole is a moving record of everything that has gone wrong in Sri Lanka. In this book, the publishers, the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), have sought to expose the actors on the Sinhalese side, from Junius Jayawardane to Premadasa to Gamini Dissanayake to Ranil Wickremasinghe.

Nobody comes out with his reputation unscathed in this book. If that old fox JR had melodramatically wondered who would impose a curfew when a mini-pogrom, orchestrated by his own henchmen, was carried out in Colombo in 1983, it was Gamini who is made out to be pro-Indian, and hence more reasonable, by some Indian writers, who had sought to evict Tamils from the Mahaveli region. The 'gentleman politician' Ranil engineered attacks on Tamil students in Peradeniya University and played a leading role during the JVP rebellion.

The hands of all of them are bloodied, it turns out, except for a few on the Left, who in any case, have been as impotent as the UTHR(J) itself.

The Arrogance of Power reads like some kind of an expiation by Rajan Hoole and his compatriots. The Eelam lobby had vilified them as stooges of the Sinhalese establishment.

Their Broken Palmyra, published in 1990, was a searing indictment of all the actors involved-the Lankan government, the Indian Peace Keeping Force, the Tamil militant groups and the separatist politicians.

The UTHR(J) mobilised, with some success, the academic community against the excesses of both the IPKF and the LTTE, but it faded out once the Tigers gained complete supremacy in the peninsula after the withdrawal of the IPKF.

Such was their reputation for objectivity, that Rajani Tiranagama, a co-author, was bumped off by the LTTE even before the book was out.

Subsequently Daya Somasundaram, another co-author and a noted psychiatrist, came out with his Scarred Minds, a path-breaking study of the psychological impact of the war on Lankan Tamils.

His accounts of the way children are traumatised and brutalised by the actions of the state and the rebels sent shock waves among observers.

Their periodical bulletins on some aspect or other of 'Somebody Else's War' have sought to explain lucidly the problems involved.

A common thread running through all their ventures has been their stubborn refusal to either shut up in the face of terror or cosy up to the powerful.

''A state of resignation envelops the community. The long shadow of the gun has not only been the source of power and glory, but also of fear and terror as well...,'' Rajini had written.

"How can you fault our boys who are fighting a brave battle against an unjust system? There will always be excesses in any liberation struggle. In any case, you seem to be more concerned with the Tigers than with what gave rise to such a phenomenon and is sustaining it?"-this has been a constant refrain of critics of the UTHR(J).

The Arrogance of Power - Myths, Decadence and Murder, is the work of several people, though the authorship is attributed to Rajan Hoole only. The book focuses on the atrocities in southern Sri Lanka, where the cunning and callous Sinhalese politicians wittingly or unwittingly stoked the chauvinistic fires in their pursuit of power, thus plunging the country into chaos.

One the one hand, there is Broken Palmyra, written ''in the context of the inner compulsions of a fascist polity, which turned the opportunity provided by the Indo-Lanka Accord into an orgy of death''. It offered a great many insights into the Tamil situation. On the other, this latest book seems to tread well-worn terrain, from the time of the disenfranchisement of the plantation Tamils of Indian origin to the vacillations and the ineptitude of President Chandrika who flattered briefly only to deceive her supporters.

But there are many interesting details. Take the violence in Jaffna in 1977, the mind-set of successive presidents from Jayewardene right up to Chandrika, and glimpses into the mind of JVP founder Rohana Wijeweera. He turns out to be a coward and a squealer. The book also details the cynical manipulation of the ethnic issue by Sinhalese politicians, the myopia of the mainline Sinhalese media and so on.

In a striking illustration of the way the Chandrika government let everyone down, Hoole refers to an incident during the North Western Provincial elections in January 1999. Thugs of the People's Alliance government invaded polling booths, frightened voters away, manhandled women, and stuffed ballot boxes. At one polling booth, an angry Sinhalese crowd shouted spontaneously, "Victory to Prabhakaran."

Thus, as Hoole observes repeatedly, the power of Prabhakaran comes from the helplessness of the people. The UTHR is firm in its belief that the LTTE can be defeated only by a 'moral' government that would clean up its act both in the South as well as the North East.

The book ends, almost pathetically, with that oft-quoted passage from the Psalms - ''But the meek spirited shall possess the earth and shall be refreshed in the multitude of peace''.

For all its excesses, the Sri Lankan government has at made promises to adhere to the law while crushing the rebels. Whether it makes good on them remains to be seen. However, Velupillai Prabhakaran's forces have no such constraint. Breathe a word against them, and that could be your last.

Even then, Hoole and his associates have spoken out loud, not wanting to be guilty of the appalling silence that Martin Luther King despaired of. It is a life fraught with danger, and the life that these brave men lead in Colombo must be seen to be believed. Only a serendipitous turn now could make the crusade of the UTHR(J) worth the trouble.

Original in Newindpress on sunday




An impassioned indictment of terror


SRI LANKA: The Arrogance of Power-Myths, Decadence and Murder, by Rajan Hoole. Colombo: University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), 2001, 504 pp., 8,000 rupees (cloth)

During the nearly two decades of Sri Lanka's civil war, more than 60,000 people have died or disappeared, leaving behind wounded families and communities, shrouded in grief and given to revenge. The endless cycle of attacks and reprisals, accusations and hoary justifications have fanned primordial hatreds, made a mockery of the rule of law and left civil society in tatters.
Under such horrific circumstances, where the unimaginable has become ordinary, it is not surprising that there has been a numbing down of political discourse. Does the current ceasefire offer more than a respite?
Given the high stakes of politics in Sri Lanka, where politically motivated killings are far too common, it is surprising that Rajan Hoole, of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), is still among us. This courageous effort to explain the origins of the ethnic and political cleavages that have ripped through this once peaceful island paradise with inhuman ferocity, and catalog the horrific consequences of sustained violence, will win him enemies across the political and ethnic spectrum. In this account there are no living heroes and those who dared to stand up for their principles have been ruthlessly cut down before their time.
Hoole presents his indictment with as much evidence as he has been able to gather under circumstances where perpetrators know no accountability and the victims can only bear silent witness to their crimes. The wealth of both grisly and mundane detail may be too much for general readers, but the author takes care to connect the minutiae with the larger picture, and in doing so lends credibility to his passionately argued analysis. He also honors the victims and their survivors by making sure that this history of injustice and suffering is not forgotten.
Readers unfamiliar with the political landscape may need to come up for air at intervals or risk drowning in acronyms, names and unexplained references, but this is a gripping tale of a society that has plumbed the depths. It is well worth reading for anyone interested in human rights, democracy, ethnic relations and collective psychotic behavior.
The main civil war fought between ethnic Tamils and the majority Sinhalese is traced to grievances stemming from legislative initiatives five decades ago that made many Tamils feel like second-class citizens, and in fact stripped many Tamils of all rights to citizenship. Discrimination against those without Sinhala language skills reinforced perceptions among Tamils that they were being denied equal rights. In the 1970s, the government moved to limit the number of university places for Tamils, who until then had been disproportionately represented in higher education, and followed this initiative by declaring a state of emergency in some Tamil regions. Actions there by the Sinhalese-dominated security forces, and the failure to hold accountable those who resorted to extrajudicial means, further exacerbated ethnic tensions.
It is worth noting that the Tamil community is divided by historical experience and caste; Tamils in the Jaffna Peninsula migrated from India centuries ago, while hill, or tea-estate Tamils were brought over as coolie labor by the British during the colonial era. In general, this latter group has not supported the Tamil insurgency.
Hoole is not a detached observer of events, and bears the scars of someone who has seen far too many friends and colleagues murdered. This is a man who has endured recurring affronts to a deep-felt need for justice in the chaotic purgatory he suddenly woke up in. He is often intemperate and takes no prisoners in presenting his case with the grim determination of a prosecutor. His inflammatory remarks are likely to fuel the flames of righteous indignation that have sustained mutual recriminations for so many years, and lessen the likelihood that target audiences will listen to his often perceptive insights. The powerful criticisms he makes about the government and the Tamil Tigers do not gain from drawing parallels to the Nazis or Idi Amin.
Even Sinhalese sympathetic to the Tamil cause and critical of their government's bungling of ethnic relations are likely to bridle at vituperative broadsides such as, "Thus Sinhalese-Buddhism shared with Nazi fascism a sense of victimhood amidst a sea of evil aliens . . . (this) ideology was thus instrumental in gravely impairing one of the most beneficial legacies of colonial rule -- the rule of law . . . The ideology molded in its shadow a group of politicians, businessmen and professionals who were singularly unimaginative and inept. It led to the debasement of national life at every level."
It is Hoole's contention that an authoritarian Sinhalese government sowed the seeds of polarization and conflict by undermining the basis for political dialogue. Moderate Tamils were shoved to the side in favor of radical and violent extremists precisely because moderates had nothing to show for their efforts. Unable to address their grievances through normal channels, Tamils took up arms to assert their rights and to avenge wrongs they had suffered at the hands of the government.
In this sense, Hoole argues that the Tamil Tigers are the stepchild of the government, brought into being by thuggish politicians disinclined to respect democracy and the rights of minorities. He argues that mob violence against Tamils in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983 enjoyed the sanction of those in power. The 1983 riots marked the beginning of the civil war and are thus subject to careful examination. He rejects the official version of events that contends that the riots were a spontaneous response of the Sinhalese public to a Tamil Tiger ambush of a military patrol. He presents evidence that indicates the riots were planned and organized by the government to provide a pretext for a general crackdown on Tamils. Pent-up tensions flared out of control and the "rules" of this war ensured that there has been no recognition of noncombatant status.
Lest readers think that Hoole is a propagandist for the Tamil cause, he repeatedly skewers the Tigers, too, for being a fascist organization that commits crimes against its own people on a par with those committed by the government. He expresses outrage at their hubris in wrapping themselves in the flag of liberation while viciously suppressing all dissent, kidnapping children from their families to use as suicide bombers and extorting contributions from overseas Tamils.
In his view, the Tigers have unalterably alienated their own community and cannot accept peace or democracy because it would mean accepting extinction. He opposes a homeland under the Tigers because it would condemn Tamils to a repressive and inhumane thugocracy.
An avowed Marxist, Hoole is equally scathing in his condemnation of the People's Liberation Front, or JVP. A one-time student leftist group, the JVP was suppressed in the early 1970s but re-emerged in the late 1980s to mount an antigovernment insurgency. This was brutally repressed by government forces who apparently settled scores with many other mainstream political opponents under the guise of quelling the insurgency. Some 17,000 people disappeared or were killed during this reign of terror, which, in the author's view, was provoked by shameless party leaders for no justifiable reason.
It is especially galling to Hoole that the JVP has now entered the political mainstream and attracts young voters disgusted by the cash-and-carry approach to democracy practiced by the dominant political parties. Like everyone else in this inferno, the JVP malefactors have not been held accountable for their crimes.
This tome seethes with outrage at the arrogance of myopic leaders more interested in personal agendas than the public interest. In condemning and exposing all of the main actors, Hoole makes a convincing case that the current ceasefire will not lead to a lasting peace. Too many key actors and institutions have a stake in continued war and have created significant obstacles to peace.
In his opinion, the most promising option is federalism with considerable devolution of authority to regional governments and a sincere commitment to enforcing the rule of law and equal rights. Yet, implementing such an arrangement would require a level of statesmanship and trust unimaginable after reading this book.
It seems far easier to descend into the abyss than to climb back out of it. Here's hoping those embracing the dance of death will come to their senses and seize this serendipitous moment to yet again make what seems unimaginable -- peace -- the ordinary reality.
Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.
Original appeard in The Japan Times: July 14, 2002
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