by Michael Patrick O'Leary
Nationalism is the culprit
One of the comments on my previous article on Sri Lanka for Le Monde diplomatique’s blog was: “Please write objectively on other conflicts too.”
So here I’d like to discuss the concept of revenge, and reflect on how the legitimate fight for human rights can transmute into terrorism when tainted by perverted fantasies of nationalism.
The non-violent civil-rights protests in Northern Ireland were hi-jacked by the Provisional IRA who appointed themselves protectors of the Catholic community and hitched the issue to their own nationalist agenda of a united Ireland.
Is there an inevitable regression from Northern Irish Catholics suffering discrimination, to innocent English (and Irish) people being blown to giblets while enjoying a drink with friends?
In Sri Lanka, militant separatism gained strength and developed into terrorism when Tamils’ grievances were not addressed through the normal democratic process. Inaction by successive governments led to action by militants which led to reaction from the ill-disciplined and ineffective security forces. Like the Black and Tans in Ireland, who burned villages in reprisal for rebel actions, Sri Lankan soldiers responded to the killing of comrades by killing innocents. The horrific anti-Tamil violence of July 1983 accelerated the emigration of Tamils from Sri Lanka, which in turn strengthened the position of the LTTE against other Tamil groups because of diaspora funding.
Where is the proportionality between unfair university admission quotas and a 30-year war and 100,000 dead? What was the connection between discrimination against Tamils and extortion and drug trading? How did the Sinhala-only policy lead to the assassination of Tamil politicians and the maiming of small children? How can a recurrence of such conflict be prevented?
“Revenge doesn’t know how to choose between the guilty and the innocent”. Slavko Goldstein wrote that in his book, 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning. Goldstein is a Croatian Jew and describes the ethnic tensions during the second world war in former Yugoslavia. Goldstein’s father, who was a communist as well as a Jew, was taken away by the Ustashi, the ruling elite of the Nazi puppet state of Croatia, and never seen again.
The Ustashi began rounding up Serbs in April 1941. Extermination camps were set up in the woods and ravines of the Velebit Mountains. One camp at Jadnovno lasted 55 days and held 4,000 Serbs and Jews. Of those, 3,999 were killed (one escaped) by taking them to the edge of a pit where they were bludgeoned with sledgehammers and axes. These events were remembered in the 1990s when Milosevic, in his push for a Greater Serbia, massacred Muslims and Croats.
The poet, Charles Simic comments: “Once more, the culprit was nationalism, that madness of identifying with a single ethnic group to a point where one recognises no other duty other than furthering its interests even if it means placing its actions beyond good and evil. Many the world over believe this is the only way; that the survival of their people justifies any crime they commit. They find the scruples of those who cringe at the shedding of innocent blood in pursuit of some noble cause naive and repugnant”.
Benedict Anderson wrote: “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny”. Nations “loom out of an immemorial past” and “glide into a limitless future.” Or, in the words of Ernest Gellner: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.” Paul Ignotus, meanwhile, wrote of Hungary: “A nation is born when a few people decide that it should be.”
Irish historians like Roy Foster have deconstructed their nation’s foundation myths: “The construction of ‘advanced’ Irish nationalism at home relied on buttressing from abroad, and so did the creation of Irish identity.” As large and influential Irish communities were established in the US and Britain, the Irish diaspora kept alive the fairy tales. Sinister men rattled collection boxes in north London pubs “for the boys”. Americans dreamed about their romantic Irish roots and gave money to Noraid for IRA arms.
Nationalists in Ceylon such as AE Goonesinha were stimulated by accounts of Parnell, Davitt and the Irish freedom movement and closely followed Irish events in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Sinhalese Buddhist thinkers such as Ratmalane Sri Dharmarama thero and the Tamil disciple of William Morris, Ananda Coomaraswamy, wrote of an ancient, highly developed Lankan civilisation. Another Sinhalese, Anagarika Dharmapala, wistfully dreamed of a dazzling past: “We must wake from our slumber… We were a great people”. The Tamil political leader, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, wrote in his diary: “Thought much of the unhappy conditions of our country and what a glorious thing it would be for Ceylon to emulate and excel her great past.”
Modern-day Sri Lankans might echo Adamantios Koraes’s 1803 remarks about his contemporary Greeks’ relation to their classical ancestors. He said: “We must either try to become again worthy of this name, or we must not bear it.”
Sinhalese and Tamils, just like the Irish and countless other “nationalities”, delude themselves with the false memory syndrome of ancient glories and rights, which, unfortunately, are too often defined by hatred of “the other”.
The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in movies. One of the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. Filmmakers’ answer seems to be to return harm to those who harmed. Movies seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence. Armchair warriors get some satisfaction by keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie, the pain of the wounded and incarcerated a matter relevant to their own egos. Action and reaction – will the cycle never be broken?
Debates on blogs often generate more heat than light. One despairs about reconciliation in Sri Lanka when one reads comments like this: “While you are at the praying mood also pray that the Transnational Tamils will be merciful on the Sinhalese when they are done with the ground work for a bigger and more deadlier struggle against you, your racist Sinhalese sisters and brothers led by your majesty the King Mahinda”. Tough guy at the keyboard without even good grammar!
On the other side there are many expressions by bloggers of distasteful Sinhalese triumphalism.
In 1938 the Irish nationalist, Stephen Gwynn, wrote: “We know in Ireland, and probably they know in Poland, in Slovakia and in Russia, and in a score of other countries where revolution has succeeded, what is the cost of victorious hate.”
There comes a time when truth and reconciliation has to take the place of endlessly rehearsing grievances from centuries back, as the Irish were prone to do. Sectarian killings in Northern Ireland sporadically continued long after the IRA gave up their arms, but peace now seems the norm. Only this week loyalist paramilitaries announced that they had renounced violence (tell that to the Roma that they terrorised into leaving Ireland).
In Sri Lanka, the grievances are still present and sharp and will take skilful and sensitive action by the victorious and currently popular government to manage.
Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of the kind of thing France needed to forget in order to be a nation. Will Sri Lankans be able to forget the many horrors of recent decades and forge a new nation combining all cultural histories as successfully as the Sri Lankan cricket team?