Northern Violence And Its National Relevance
“You fasten all the triggers, For the others to fire Then you sit back and watch When the death count gets higher.”
— Bob Dylan, Masters Of War
By Tisaranee Gunasekara
Forget justice and fair play; forget altruism; unadulterated selfishness alone should compel us of the South to pay attention to the wave of violence engulfing the North. After a period of relative quiet, murder and abduction are becoming rife in the North, despite the ubiquitous presence of heavily-armed troops and the rigorous implementation of the Emergency and the PTA.
Has the North, with its politically abandoned and disempowered populace, become the regime’s testing-ground, a place where the Rajapaksas experiment with new tactics of citizen-subjugation? Will the more successful methods then be re-employed in the South, whenever necessary?
Currently terror stalks unimpeded through towns and hamlets of the North; the people are numbed by fear and uncertainty while the official response varies from lackadaisical to risible. The regime either denies the existence of the terror-wave or belittles its potency. The police have issued two leaflets, advising citizens to be vigilant in their own safety and to apprehend would-be killers and abductors and hand them over to the authorities!
When asked about the terror-wave in the North, President Rajapaksa characteristically blamed negative reporting and enemy action: The President said that the alleged incidents in the North were not endemic to that part of the country and even in the other areas criminal activities took place…. “I learn that people are moving about freely even at night in Jaffna,” he said. When it was pointed out that what was reported in the media ran counter to his argument….a somewhat exasperated President Rajapaksa said that such stories were being propagated by certain frustrated elements.
He was critical of some of the Tamil language newspapers which he faulted for what he called “blowing the law and order situation in the North out of proportion to cast the country in a bad light” (The Island – 12.1.2011). The supremely pliant Minister G.L. Peiris remarked that the “situation in the North was not different from that in the South” (ibid). This cynically dismissive attitude indicates that the regime is as unconcerned about the safety and wellbeing of the Tamils now as it was during the Fourth Eelam War.
(A digression: During his recent Thaipongal visit, the President repeated his warning to the Jaffna media about the undesirability of ‘negative reportage’. Hopefully, ambitious underlings will not take these presidential remarks in the spirit that the four knights who murdered Thomas Beckett took the supposed comment by Henry II about the contentious prelate: ‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest’?).
If, as the regime opines, the North is experiencing a normal crime-wave (akin to rest of the island), then Sri Lanka has become a ‘Hub of Crime’ and the ‘Criminal Miracle of Asia’. Even as the President was enjoying himself riding sea-scooters, armed men on a motorbike opened fire on a Hindu priest in Manipay, injuring his 31 year old wife. If unidentified armed gangs can roam the North unimpeded, killing and kidnapping at will, why spend billions on perpetuating a blanket military presence? The army’s curious inability to clamp-down on the current wave of violence can have only one of two explanations: either the entity which defeated the LTTE has become transmuted into a company of bunglers (akin to say, the Thomson and Thompson duo in the Tin Tin books); or these are political crimes committed with official complicity.
A Dress Rehearsal?
The President’s much vaunted National Thaipongal Celebration in Jaffna contained an unmistakable indication about what ‘national’ means in the Rajapaksa parlance (and a subliminal hint to the Tamils about their ‘rightful’ place in post-war Sri Lanka). The National Anthem was sung not in Tamil but in Sinhala. During the President’s recent encounter with media heads, he was asked about the National Anthem controversy. “Rajapaksa said as far as he was concerned there was no issue. Hence he did not wish to talk about it. Though he did not say it, administratively government officials and departments have been told that the National Anthem would be sung only in Sinhala. Special arrangements have already got underway…to train school children on the use of the anthem” (The Sunday Times – 16.1.2011).
The reversion to a ‘Sinhala Only’ National Anthem comes in tandem with many significant absences, ranging from the non-appearance of a political solution to the non-implementation of a housing programme by the state for the displaced Tamils. President Premadasa, who understood the centrality of the housing issue to any economic strategy aimed at developing people (an insight unshared by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa) described shelter as a ‘necessity’ which “mobilises the social dynamic against the dynamite in society” (Address at the International Shelter Seminar – MIT).
Homelessness is arguably the most acute problem facing the Northern displaced. There are several laudable efforts by non-state entities at addressing this issue; but the only large-scale programme on the agenda is the Indian project to build 50,000 houses. It would fill a crying need, but that need should have been fulfilled by the Lankan state. The Lankan state building houses for Lankan Tamils would have amounted to a powerful message of friendship and reconciliation. Instead Northern Tamils are being sent a negative message. Not only has the Lankan state delegated the task of house-building to India; it is busy building army camps and cantonments, while its Tamil citizens suffer from homelessness.
The reversion to a ‘Sinhala Only’ National Anthem is thus symbolic of an official mindset characterised by insensitivity and indifference. The consequent neglect and discrimination cannot but cause discontent in the North. Though there is discontent in the South too, about unrealised promises, patriotism can still be used to prevent silent dissent from metamorphosing into active opposition. But in the North, given the Sinhala supremacism of the Rajapaksas, hegemony is a non-option. Dominance, achieved via force, is the only way to prevent discontent from progressing into democratic dissent. But the Rajapaksas would know that as economic woes accumulate, the capacity of patriotism to manufacture consent in the South would diminish and new measures of population subjugation would be needed. What better place to experiment with these tactics than the North, with its subject populace?
The Jaffna police, in its leaflet of instructions to the public, advised citizens that “if any member of defence forces comes for inspections, they should ask for their official identity cards before opening the door and ensure they are accompanied by a police officer from the area” (The Sunday Times – 9.1.2011). Is this a hint that some members of defence forces are involved in the wave of violence? Are political crimes being committed under the guise of ordinary crimes? A robbery gone wrong can get rid of dissenters in a manner which accords the state plausible deniability and minimises any political backlash. Suspected gangsters being killed in police custody, as they attempt to escape, has become a Lankan norm. Will the habit of dissenters being killed by armed robbers or disappeared by kidnappers become another Lankan norm? Is it the dress rehearsal of this new practice we see enacted in the North?