Looking for a silverlining

Next week marks the 25th anniversary of the watershed riots that were to change the course of the contemporary history of this country. An entire generation of Sri Lankans has grown up, in this country and in many other countries, torn apart - and kept apart from each other, little knowing the benevolent spirit of tolerance and acceptance that prevailed in their parents' and grandparents' days when differences of race and religion were not seen as a barrier to friendship and mutual respect. For centuries, our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society was viewed as Sri Lanka's strength as seen in the actions of our leaders of pre-Independence.

In retrospect, one of the aspects little remembered about the 1983 riots was the number of Sinhalese and Muslims who came to the rescue of their Tamil friends and neighbours, took them into their homes and sheltered them from the mobs at great risk to their own lives. These were not the rich and powerful but ordinary citizens who abhorred what was happening in their once-harmonious land. Many Tamils bear this eternal debt of gratitude though such heroic humane acts by ordinary people and the many public servants went unsung and unreported while the Sinhalese were internationally branded for the atrocities committed by a few and the callous apathy of the Government of the day.

Unfortunately, what followed the riots of July 1983 did not help in unifying the country. The 13th Amendment that was forced down the throat of the Sri Lankan polity at the time by an Indian Government that nurtured the northern insurgency in its infancy has only led to further divisions and setting in motion a thought process at the highest levels of Government only on the lines of creating ethnic enclaves. The Sri Lankan political parties that howled at the time against the 13th Amendment later embraced the system through unadulterated political opportunism, and are today even advocating it as the panacea for the country's problems.

The politics of the sub-continent and especially Indo-Lanka relations, have also turned topsy- turvy since 1983. India, which once viewed her southern neighbour as a pro-free market economy sprinting ahead in the region and leaning too heavily on the United States of America and the West at the time, has itself done an about-turn in its domestic and foreign policies. It is so ironical, that on the 25th anniversary of these riots, the incumbent Indian Government, the successors to the Indira Gandhi dynasty that ruled India back in 1983, is to face a vote of confidence in Parliament because it has signed a nuclear pact with the US.

The face of Lankan society too changed with '83. While some Tamils felt that come what may, they would not leave their motherland, many of the affected Tamils went abroad either as economic refugees or in genuine fear. And the fact is, most of them have done well for themselves, economically.

Some -- and one refers to those who have done so willingly -- have proceeded to finance the separatist insurgency in Sri Lanka all these years, partly as revenge, partly because they probably believe in the 'promised land'. But by now, they - sometimes referred to as the 'globally scattered Sri Lankans' must realise the futility of this insurgency; that this is not a winnable option for those who believe in winning their independence by the force of arms.

The net result has been decades of hardship for the people who stayed behind, or could not leave, especially those living in the North and Eastern provinces - no regular food supplies, no electricity, no petrol, broken houses, bombs from the air and forced recruitment of their children, disrupted education, no medicines - basically, a lost, forgotten generation going through living hell while the diaspora live in relative comfort professing bleeding hearts.
The insurgency has become an industry for arms dealers and those in the terrorist movement abroad. Others must ask themselves 'what have they gained?' And what will they see in the years to come other than more pain for 'their people'. Their inner conscience will surely give them the answer.

If they get a vicarious satisfaction that the country is sinking, they must realise that everyone living here will sink together. But there is also an onus on the majority to heal the wounds inflicted 25 years ago. A national consciousness that failed to transcend ethnic, sectarian, and regional lines must be reversed.

Devolution of power is not necessarily the only answer, as many overseas players seem to believe. So much can be done, and yet so little has been attempted in other areas such as integration and exchanges at school and youth level. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be otherwise. Polarisation, suspicion, and almost apartheid-like segregation seem to be the order of the day. There's a dirty war to be won, no doubt, and a dirty enemy to be defeated, but there's no purpose in winning the war and losing the hearts and minds of a people.

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