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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.