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The cost of war: Brutalised people, bereaved cultures

The end of the war triggered unprecedented celebration

1) “Machang, mama nam daen goda.” (Friend, I am now saved.) A Sinhala soldier who had just stepped on a landmine which had destroyed his right leg.

2) “We let him die of starvation because we were terrified about what the authorities would do to us even if we gave him a little water.” A Tamil woman in the east, referring to an injured combatant who came to their village from the jungle seeking assistance.

3) “It is a curse to be born a Tamil in Sri Lanka today.” A Tamil youth describing the climate of suspicion and harassment that he encounters on a daily basis.

4) “Onna, puthe, koti enawa.” (There, son, the Tigers are coming.) A Sinhala mother singing her child to sleep.

The first two quotes are moving examples of the terrible toll exacted by more than 25 years of violent conflict in this country, demonstrating the devaluing of life and the brutalising of Lankan society. While the elites of all ethnicities frolic and fraternise in the metropolis, salving their consciences through paltry donations to the war effort or the humanitarian crises engendered by the war, ordinary people on all sides have suffered greatly, and continue to do so in its aftermath.

In the Sinhala south, young men (and some women) have joined the armed forces as it is the only available job within reach. Members of the “officer class” are from generally less disadvantaged sections of the Sinhala polity.

Harsh reality

The hype about protecting their motherland fools hardly anyone beyond the ever-shrinking initial training period, at which time the absenteeism begins and increases after the first combat experience. The harsh reality of conditions in the battle zone is a ruthless educator on the horrors of war, so much so that this recruit who loses a limb is thankful that he has escaped with his life because he knows he will be transferred out of the front.

In the Tamil East, civilians are terrified and traumatised by the government military and their paramilitary “support” groups as well as by the remnants of the LTTE, to the extent that they are denied access to their basic human responses to suffering and pain. The repercussions for providing a sip of water to a dying fellow human being are so deadly that no one dares to do so, thereby diminishing their humanity, and also suffering internally in the process.

Those who create the rules and enforce them with such ruthless efficiency have no such scruples because either they have internalised so much hatred as to obliterate their own humanity and/or have rationalised this cruelty in terms of patriotic mumbo-jumbo as being for the greater national good.

This process of devaluing of (underclass) life and the forced denial of our common humanity has led to a brutalisation of our societies and a diminution of our cultures. Over an extended period, this causes a kind of cultural loss that I can only compare to death and its resultant bereavement. Healthy cultures are able to cope with pain and suffering through a range of mechanisms that enable cathartic grieving and provide collective support to the bereaved.

No uniform way

There is no uniform or single correct way to do this, but it is clear that each culture has developed throughout the years appropriate and sensitive ways of minimising such loss.

However, protracted violent conflict creates burdens on cultures that cannot be easily repaired, and collectively the very cultural fabric becomes a victim of the violence and suffering. In a different context this collective trauma has been called cultural bereavement, an appropriate concept metaphor to describe the predicament of Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher, Adivasi and others in this country.

Each of our societies has become saturated with loss, in different ways and to different degrees, no doubt, but sharing a common central crisis. Non-state terrorism may be a thing of the past now, but the repercussions of our violent conflict may take decades to be overcome.

The huge task before us is, therefore, to address this problem within and across the multiple cultures that comprise the Lankan hierarchised mosaic. In this regard, the dominant Sinhala ethnicity needs to understand its own racism and discrimination against its other(s), and to find ways to provide meaningful redress. This requires not polemics and self-congratulation but serious reconsideration of mainstream religious and cultural discourse in order to question majoritarianism, special status claims and exclusion in all of its forms.

While the exact modality of such soul-searching cannot be formulaic and requires the widest possible participation, it is clear that the greatest obstacle to overcoming this brutalisation is unexamined jingoism which masquerades as patriotism.


Bertrand Russell was quite right when he suggested that “patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.” What he should have added was that it is also the discursive means by which people are manipulated and hoodwinked into doing things that are not in their best interests. Hence, as Samuel Johnson writes, it is also “the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

The scoundrels who continue to exhort others to be “patriotic” and threaten those who do not share the current hysteria with punishment and ostracism for being “unpatriotic” traitors to the cause are creating a dangerous climate of enforced conformity.

What we need now is not the same military rhetoric of “us” and “them,” where combating terrorism became the alibi to justify inter-ethnic distrust and suspicion, and where Sinhala hegemony has stifled every other discourse, including the obligation to respect, protect and fulfill human rights and to address humanitarian imperatives.

If we the Sinhalese have reason to be proud of ourselves, it is the best kept secret of our times. If we Sri Lankans have cause for celebration in the victory of our common humanity, this can only be demonstrated through the equal enjoyment of rights and opportunities of all citizens.

Charity is not only not enough, it is demeaning and discriminatory. As we seek to rebuild the north and east, as we urgently address the predicament of the IDPs, let us also collectively rehabilitate our cultures making them more open, egalitarian, gender-sensitive and equitable.









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