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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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