True or False? Can anyone know?

July 8, 2009

Multiple versions of variously experienced realities appear to characterize the political experience, not just in Sri Lanka, the subject of this post, but everywhere.


A few weeks ago, we were discussing the Sri Lankan debate about bodycounts and refugees in this blog. Now here’s a twist in the tale.

Yesterday, a group of five doctors serving in the conflict areas and charged with assisting the LTTE held a press conference and admitted to exaggerating the impact of government operations on the civilians in the area under pressure from the LTTE.

To the victor, go not just the spoils but the chance to write history on different terms. There are two parts to what the doctors are saying. First, that the LTTE forced them to lie. Second, sustained military operations for almost one and a half years had limited impact on the lives and health of area civilians. The first is not hard to believe; the second is. This brings us back to the question of numbers. What is an acceptable casualty and what is not, in these circumstances, is a political and a humanitarian issue.

The doctors’ account is also at variance with accounts from interested and disinterested parties working in the IDP camps. Chennai’s social sector is awash with anecdotes. For instance, full-term pregnant women arrive at a camp and deliver their babies, but the camps are so poorly-equipped there are no rags to clean the new-born. How do you reconcile this with what the doctors say and what is also being said in expert circles about a well-planned military operation? If the operation was so well-prepared, why were the camps so inadequate to take in the numbers they did, and why are they so poorly equipped? Indeed, if they were well-planned and executed, why was the process of demining not taking place simultaneously as the clearing operations, when it was known there would be large-scale displacement? Landmines everywhere is now the excuse for continued incarceration in camps. Every story yields more questions than answers.

In this climate of confusion and scepticism, the Hindu published an interview with the Sri Lankan president: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3. At a seminar organized by a local think-tank, the editor of the Hindu said he had visited camps on the invitation of the government and found them to be very clean and very well-provided.

Who is to say what the truth is? The problem of knowing is a practical one in such contexts, not an epistemological one. The Sri Lankan situation is like a head of hair full of tangles, where someone smooths down the top vigorously and says with confidence and vehemence, “All done!” And because no one else is allowed to approach the head, no one else can truthfully claim to be sure that is a false assertion. To be fair, all post-conflict situations are a little bit like this.

But if people could go and find out for themselves, how much more confidence we would all have in each others’ words! Darini Rajasingham Senanayake, one of Sri Lanka’s leading scholars, expresses the concern that many feel on two counts. First, it is clear that a continued and growing military presence is going to underpin the post-operation peace in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, even if elections are held. This is a point Indian military experts are also making. Second, the government has been very ruthless about curbing Sri Lanka’s independent media, quelling dissent even to the point now of arresting an astrologer who made an unfavourable prediction. This is the other security dilemma: security appears to mandate constraints on freedom that ultimately undermine security. In the presence of a continued force that can and will be seen as an occupying force and in the absence of free access to information, how can there be peace? Thus, for the Sri Lankan government, it is not merely ‘sanitation’ and rehabilitation that are immediately imperative, but a return to the truly democratic norms and the commitment to social investment that have long made Sri Lanka exceptional by any standards.

In a situation where truth and fiction are indistinguishable, who can honestly claim expertise or foresight? No one really. In the spirit of my previous post, maybe we should just wait for literatteurs and artistes to speak to us.

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