Curse of the conflict junkies
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in The Nation on February 19 2012
Throughout Sri Lanka, many heart-strings will have been tugged; many a tear will have welled in many an eye, at the pictures of the wedding of EMD Sandaruwan and Chandrasekaran Sharmila at Kilinochchi on January 27, 2012. For my foreign readers, I should explain, that this particular wedding attracted attention because the groom was a former member of the Gajaba Regiment of the Sri Lankan Army. He had participated in the defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) which, in May 2009, ended a brutal 30-year war.
The bride was an ex-LTTE child soldier, who had since been a participant in a government rehabilitation programme. There are many such stories to tell. It is not easy to get the western media to listen to them. It has long been a cliché that bad news sells more papers than good news. My own experience has been that such positive stories are just too boring for western editors. They associate Sri Lanka with blood and guts and oppression of minorities. I have managed to get some positive stories under the net but at the cost of the editor inserting, to reflect the ‘editorial line’, ‘balancing’ material about Sri Lanka’s shortcomings.
The reluctance of western editors to deviate from the usual line on Sri Lanka is depressing enough. While not wishing to hide the difficulties still facing the country, it would be good to build on positive steps towards reconciliation. It is even more depressing to read through the comments from Sri Lankans on blogsites. Even on the newspaper report of that fairy-tale wedding, it was possible to encounter some curmudgeons. Some of the comments had a racist tinge.
I blogged for three years on a US-based site called Open Salon (OS). There was a good deal of civilised and erudite discussion, but there were also crazy trolls who grew courage behind a keyboard, probably fuelled by alcohol. One troll will stand as a specimen for the rest. When one woman disagreed with him, he said she had venereal disease. When the troll got into a dispute with a black, shaven-headed ex-marine, he accused his interlocutor of raping his own mother and said his head would make a good bowling ball.
The poor level of comments on Sri Lankan sites such as the Daily Mirror has drawn comparisons from one Sri Lankan journalist with the quality of comments on foreign websites. The Daily Beast can get infantile. Even the Internet Movie Database gets blood on its walls when a couple of nerds disagree about some obscure horror movie. One generally gets a decent level of debate on the Independent, the Guardian, the New Statesman in the UK and Slate, Salon, Huffington Post from the US. There is also much silly invective, but the sites do have a comments policy and are moderated. In Sri Lanka, the exchanges on Groundviews and the Colombo Telegraph can be lengthy, thoughtful and helpful. They can also be crass, in spite of the good intentions expressed in the comments policies of the two websites.
Crassness tends to be carried over into foreign websites when the subject of Sri Lanka comes up. On one hand, one might get Sinhalese triumphalism, on the other, threats of Tamil revenge. Too often commenters employ the scourge of anonymity to indulge in personal abuse and infantile ‘humour’.
Emanuel Croake wrote an article in the New Statesman titled Why Has the Left Neglected the Tamils of Sri Lanka?
This brought out the Sri Lanka diaspora in full force. Out of 79 comments we have, on one side Tamil commenters dredging up spurious history from many centuries ago. On the other side, Sinhalese commenters write about the horrors inflicted by the Tigers and dismiss Tamil grievances. I have long been an avid reader of the writings of DBS Jeyaraj. I was shocked to see the tone of the comments on a series of articles he wrote to counter the accusations of Michael Roberts that the book purporting to be a memoir of ‘Niromi de Soyza’s time as a Tiger was a hoax. While it is interesting to read different views on such a topic, it is depressing in the extreme to read so much sentimentality about the Tigers and so much nostalgic reminiscing about the ‘good old days of the armed struggle’.
I am not advocating censorship. Another, more civilised, OS blogger tried to tease out some ideas about blogging etiquette. “One way to think of etiquette is that it’s not a set of arbitrary rules about which fork to use and about who gets introduced to whom in which order; rather, the rules of etiquette are intended to facilitate social interaction, to reduce our uncertainty about inadvertently giving offense. (Or, alternatively, to know how to give offense if you want to.)” This drew a response from another blogger: “this is the wild west and each blogger sets the rules on their own page”.
Here, I am merely pointing out the ugliness of exchanges which seem to revel in the fostering of hatred. While genuine efforts at reconciliation are being made and being welcomed in Sri Lanka itself, conflict junkies living abroad wish to continue the battle from the safety of their keyboard barricades. What hope of reconciliation with such entrenched attitudes?