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.

The Human Cost of War and Peace: Sri Lanka

May 27, 2009

A generation raised in the shadow of war is the generation which is going to have to build the peace in Sri Lanka.


Cliched reportage on the Sri Lankan conflict begins by stating that the conflict has waged for over three decades and ends with a death-toll statistic. The statistic varies from 25000 to 35000 to 65000 and we are told that the last Sri Lankan military campaign resulted in the displacement of 100,000-200,000 and the death of over 70,000. The numbers don’t add up but that is not important. Protracted conflict waged over generations is a humanitarian tragedy regardless of numbers.

Take a look at this one. It begins with young people, raised in one of the best human development environments of the 1960s, but unable to communicate beyond their community, unable to access education, unable to find jobs and witness to a history of decreasing political accommodation.

At its end, the cost-benefit analysis of the conflict must look beyond the loss of life and property. It must take into account how the lives of survivors have been irreversibly altered. Displacement, separated families, war injuries and resulting disabilities and environmental degradation are some of the better-documented costs.

A new human resources challenge now awaits Sri Lanka. Where schooling has been frequently disrupted or child soldiers recruited, society is left with a generation of young people many of whose childhoods ended abruptly, who may not be skilled and who have possibly faced considerable trauma. Even away from the war-zone, there are now two generations of young Sri Lankans whose earliest memories are not of a united Sri Lanka at peace. They have grown up in separate worlds—separated first by medium of instruction and then by the social circles of their families. These are the people to whom reconciliation must be sold as an ideal and as a feasible plan of action. These are the people whose energies are required for the physical rebuilding that is today’s priority. What skills and what attitudes will they have to bring to this moment?

Members of the ruling generation grew up in a different Ceylon/ Sri Lanka. Many hung out in each others’ homes, intermarried and found ways of communicating and connecting even during the conflict. The raw material they are left with for the task of reconciliation is poor—distrust, fear, anxiety, triumphalism, nationalism, trauma, bloodshed and too much bereavement for an island that small. And a lost generation that has had none of their advantages.