Sri Lanka's time of reckoning


COLOMBO, May 19 — I am in the lobby of a hospital in Colombo when the breaking news flashes across a television screen. Doctors, nurses, patients and visitors forget their social barriers and obligations and crowd together below the mounted television, their eyes fixed on the moving image. The initial footage, released by Sri Lankan security forces, lasts about seven seconds but is looped continuously. It is impossible to look away.

The corpse, bloated, stiff and stained with blood, looks as surprised as everyone else — its eyes wide open. Hours later, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a victory speech to Parliament, would declare the end of an era and pledge to protect the Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka. Since independence, the country had never seen so many flags raised in celebration as on this day, when the government declared the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Signs of celebration fill Colombo. Crowds of masked men and children sing and dance in the streets. Sri Lankan flags wave in the ocean breeze on Marine Drive. Trucks and three-wheelers, with placards of the president’s face, rush by with youth singing loudly in Sinhala. Elderly women dish out kiribath (traditional milk rice) from large pots on the side of the road. Near the market in Wellawatte, the very place that was doused in petrol and burnt to the ground during the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots, firecrackers hiss and explode on the pavement. Yet in shop corners, locked homes and hushed conversations, people in Sri Lanka speculate and remain anxious. What next? Is the movement really dead? When will the prevailing gun culture and state of emergency cease? How will Sri Lankans assess the damage of allegedly winning the “war against terror”? How will they address their blood-filled present and past?

Terrorism and fear in Sri Lanka cannot end with Prabhakaran’s death. Fear lies outside the physical body and breathes in collective histories of suffering, violence and loss. Terrorism has been said to grow in the minds and hands of the aggrieved. But its course is also determined by a government’s willingness and ability to produce a political settlement that addresses the grievances of those who have faced discrimination. A terrorist may be dead, but violence, which breeds hatred, remains.

Moving forward and alongside speculation, Sri Lanka has much to reckon with. One hundred and fifty miles north of the jubilant celebrations in Colombo, displaced Tamils face the likelihood of abduction, starvation and death. Tamil paramilitaries have been neither disarmed nor held accountable for their transgressions. Throughout the island and in the diaspora, kith and kin of civilians, soldiers, journalists and activists continue to mourn the loss of life and limbs. Post-traumatic stress disorder, burnt skin and shelled-out buildings serve as testaments to a postcolonial and national history mired in collective violence. Sri Lanka must reckon with this.

In his victory speech, President Rajapaksa declared that no longer would there be minorities in Sri Lanka, but only two types of persons: those who love their country and those who do not. Can patriotism deny the right to express cultural difference and political dissent? Is the love of one’s country or the art of politics, for that matter, so simple? What is the fate of those whose loves are complicated by past trauma and present fear?

I have lived beyond Sri Lanka's borders throughout my life. My knowledge is continually destabilized by redefinitions, questions and recantations. This leaves me in a perpetual state of not knowing what to believe. Alongside others of my generation, I do not know a Sri Lanka without violence, injustice and fear. I only know a Sri Lanka where children are forced to fire guns and schools become camps for the internally displaced. My knowledge may be filled with more distortions than truths, but this knowledge is all that I have.

My love of Sri Lanka is complicated. Therefore, I write anonymously. For although the death of a terrorist and the end of a bloody civil war have been declared and despite political proclamations of heterogeneity and pledges to end violence, critics and minorities are still at risk. When I can claim my difference and share my history without fear, I know that Sri Lanka will be capable of committing to a political solution that reconciles with its past and assures dignity for all citizens. In the meantime, I watch the celebrations as speculations unfold.

More on Sri Lanka:

Opinion: Sri Lanka needs reconciliation

The Tamil diaspora's responsibility

East offers glimpse of post-war Sri Lanka

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Marine Drive.