Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Reconciliation and the politics of forgetting

Once in a while you come across amazing statements made by politicians and members of civil society that you just can’t pass up. Or let go. Just the other day, Chairman of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) C. V. K. Sivagnanam is reported to have said at a news conference that it is futile and meaningless to continue with the ban imposed on the LTTE within Sri Lanka. Since I am no speaker of Tamil, and since even my Sinhala is at best passable, I don’t know how much was lost in translation at the conference. But the thrust of his arguments is clear: continuing with the ban is useless because those who were being banned don’t exist. This argument, logical to some, provokes me to comment.

Words are made for scrambling. And unscrambling. Political rhetoric, on that count, is almost always malleable because it doesn’t require anyone to maintain neutrality: it’s always politically coloured, always covered in bias. Sivagnanam’s words can consequently be twisted and turned to obtain whatever meaning the harbingers of peace on the one hand and unyielding chauvinists on the other want to. Since I follow neither of these camps and since my issue with those words have nothing to do with the politics of war and peace in Sri Lanka, I will instead concentrate on what I feel to be the real implications of this statement, centring on the need for reconciliation.

It’s easy to forget and easy to forgive. All it takes is political willpower, which we in Sri Lanka, with the current government, don’t seem to lack as much as we did with the previous regime. But to forget and to forgive there must be a cause which compels memory and bitterness. I am not suggesting here that to “let go” we need to measure the political weight of each and every statement made by each and every politician, particularly those who come from political groups which were known at one point or the other to have spoken up for those causes provoking bitter memories, but I do appreciate the fact that this statement brings me to that difficult question as to whether, if reconciliation is premised on punishing the wrongdoer without letting him or her off the hook, selective amnesia can be the best antidote.

Sivagnanam states in no uncertain terms that the time has come to consider releasing all LTTE suspects in custody and to let them integrate into society. The truth is that for all its deficits when it came to the reconciliation process, the previous regime kick-started several programs did aim at integrating LTTE cadres into those very same societies that shirked them. (Which was natural, I suppose, given that many of those cadres were considered as traitors by the people who bred them, nourished them, and then sent them to war against the State.) You can argue that these programs were not conceived properly, that they were done more out of a need to obtain votes for the Mahinda Rajapaksa government from the North and the East (but then, of course, we can argue that even the TNA does this in every feel-good statement it issues), but at a time when every political act is committed with that end in view, you can also contend that the government at least tried to rehabilitate those cadres. Yes, at least they tried.

Isn’t it repeating the painfully obvious when we say that the LTTE was an outfit which was an undeserving of the praise and nostalgia it compels today as the “hegemonic” regimes it waged a war against? Isn’t it stating what everyone knows when we say that no government in the world has fast-tracked the processes of reconciliation and integration with respect to terrorist organisations proscribed by other countries if it was felt that fast-tracking those processes would be antithetical to the imperatives of sovereignty and autonomy that these countries privilege(d)? To be fair by Mr Sivagnanam, he does confess that the cadres should be integrated after taking the necessary legal precautions (he doesn’t elaborate on them), but then that’s followed by an outright absolutist remark: that the LTTE must no longer be banned.

Reconciliation has its pitfalls and no one can say with any certainty that it’s the perfect antidote to a country’s ills, particular a country like ours which emerged out of a catastrophic, disastrous war a paltry eight years ago. The North and the East today is not the North and the East that was there before those eight years, but recent events (especially those as of yet unsolved incidents of swordfights and murders in broad daylight, and that street-gang going under the name AAVA) do tend to worry. If one peruses history, one can easily ascertain that two broad things compelled the rise of extremism in both the North and South: the apathy of the government and the empowerment of alternative vigilante groups that sprang out of nowhere but proved to be stronger than the official arms of the State in the areas they operated in.

The NPC is asking us to forget. Well, I am all for forgetting. And so are a great many Sri Lankans I know, of whatever religious and racial affiliation. But what does forgetting and forgiving really entail? Does it entail forgetting and forgiving those horrendous crimes against humanity perpetrated by the LTTE, and if so, does that act of letting bygones be bygones apply to the Armed Forces, which the likes of the NPC and the TNA and, elsewhere, the Global Tamil Forum, are adamant on bringing to a foreign court, too? If one chooses to let go of the LTTE’s past, will one be as willing, in the interests of reconciliation, to let go of the Armed Forces? Would those documentaries and docudramas financed by news agencies abroad then have been to nothing, then? And if so, would all this political rhetoric over the Army being tried (even Mahesh Senanayake, a man I admire, has reiterated the need to try the bad egg soldiers who broke conventions while in the battlefield) be just that: empty rhetoric?