THE SOUTHERN SCENE
It is generally agreed by observers in the south that the support for the current war comes mainly from the upper, middle and lower middle classes. Below, there is simmering resentment against the state and the forces, for what they did to thousands of their sons and daughters. The classes supportive of the war are basically those who do not question the established order. During the state's campaign of counter-terror against the JVP, this support for the state waned for two reasons. Many had serious moral qualms against the campaign. The other was the JVP's terror, then ubiquitous in Colombo itself. Even permanent secretaries stayed at home when told to do so by the JAP. No one dared to support the state publicly. The state and the forces complained of isolation. The fight against a Tamil foe restored the armed forces to their legitimate `Mahavamsa' role. This is based on a semi-mythical ancient battle between the Tamil king Elara and his victorious rival Dutugemunu. Through school history text books in particular, it has become a part of the living culture of the South. It was natural that these classes should jump on the present war as a festival of reconciliation with the state. The excess shown in this rush to support the state can be seen as partly an apology for their silence when the JVP was around. An opportunity for such gestures was provided by the president's National Defence Fund, given much fanfare by film stars and school children handing over their tills to the president on television.
To our knowledge it was left to one left wing political party, the NSSP and a small group of university dons in the south to give the lead in combatting this trend of militarism, by separately launching alternative funds for all victims of violence. Smaller groups within the church followed a similar course independently of the leadership. Through canvassing for these funds people came understand the real feelings of ordinary people. Quite often factory workers and minor employees responded readily to this alternative fund. Sometimes union leaders and party activists who canvassed for the alternative fund were threatened by persons in uniform. A number of persons in the lower categories expressed feelings of resentment against state forces and said that they knew that what was being done to the Tamils is not different from what was done to them.
A feeling common to many Sinhalese and Tamils at this time is that issue of freedom are real, but the use of violence counter-productive. The legacy of the violence of the JVP and of the Tamil militant groups has led to a state of exhaustion and collapse of freedom as well as social life itself. The JVP's initial campaign in 1987 was aimed at hitting at persons close to the state who were resented and hence had some popular support. The use of violence often leads to a feeling of absolute power and this violence of the JVP soon went out of control in gruesome killings of anyone whose ideas were a threat to them - such as leading figures of the left. When the JVP closed hospitals, killed several tens of van drivers to enforce a transport stoppage and threatened and sometimes killed relatives of security men, it, in the eyes many, legitimised the state's counter terror.
Having grown accustomed to unrestrained killing, the dangerous illusion of absolute power now rests with the state. When the state becomes insensitive to the law and loses the capacity and will to discipline its agents, it comes close to disintegration. This is the greatest threat to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. A very large share of the blame for this process must be laid on the shoulders of ex-President J.R. Jayawardene who established the tradition of casually tinkering with laws to have his way. Once this process begins, foreign involvement is only incidental and often fills a vacuum created by the state itself. Thus Indian involvement was a symptom and not the problem. The illusion of absolute power can also be seen at work in the tragic history of the Tamil militant groups.
In the south, more than 300 university students are counted amongst the disappeared. The students community at large is in a state of terrified apathy. In a number of cases, the university authorities have not been able to persuade students to put them selves forward for elections to student bodies. Where students have come forward, it is often because there are staff members and unions whom they trust and are confident, will fight for their rights. A comparable situation exists in the Tamil areas.
At places of work, an under-paid employee who asks for a wage rise can be branded a subversive and handed over to the police. In the present state of lawlessness no one can guarantee the fate of such a person, whether man or woman. Disappearances and burning bodies are an established institution in national life.
Many of the students who disappeared or were killed by rival groups were, in terms of ability and commitment to justice, among the finest of that generation. Those who judge persons by their associations must keep in mind that, in a phase of our history characterised by a chronic state of violence, any well meaning person who associates with a group or person, whose affiliations he imperfectly understood, could become an unwitting accomplice in even acts of murder. In the North, this happened to members of citizens' committees, members of political parties and quite often to members of militant groups. Many of those who were killed are ordinary, decent, sensitive persons, whose offence was their effectiveness at promoting ideas which posed a political threat. Many others today live in hiding, fearing for their lives, and yet eager to understand and take stands on issues of justice and on minority issues.
As the conflict proceeds, its true nature is being blacked out in the South. The army is paying a heavy price in casualties. One surgeon in Trincomalee said that he alone had performed 50 foot amputations in a month. The triumphalistic coverage fails to bring the cost home.To those better off, casualities are just numbers. Only a handful of persons is questioning the cause for which poor young men are being asked to pay the price. It serves the state now to black out killings of Tamil civilians, while publicising the equally dastardly and inexcusable killings of Sinhalese ands Muslim civilians.
Economic and Social problems have been swept under the carpet. But the truth will seep in and a mood of disillusionment will set in. the competence of statement, the intellectuals and the intelligentsia will be questioned. Whether it will come with foreign intervention as in 1987 or in some other form, only time will tell. [Top]
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