17 Jun 2009

The price of Sri Lanka's victory

Sinhalese Sri Lankans are so relieved their war is over that most appear blinded by patriotism, drunk on victory and deaf to the clamour from outside their island for investigations into possible war crimes.

The country’s pliant media speak with one voice, exhorting their loyal compatriots to celebrate this great triumph over terror.

But the only terror I saw there was in the eyes of vanquished Tamils. Those I met were terrified in case they were caught talking to us, constantly looking over their shoulders. A Tamil journalist pulled out of a meeting claiming he’d be killed were he caught.

And there was fear in the eyes of the handful of ethnic Sinhalese “traitorous” enough to question what they describe as an orgy of militant Sinhalese chauvinism. “Traitors” are what dissenters are branded in President Mahinda Rajapakse’s triumphalist brave new world, in which the press are compliant and the Buddhist monkhood complicit.

Working covertly in Sri Lanka, I saw first hand what military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam means to ordinary Tamil civilians, of whom there are more than two million on the island. A ruthless rebel movement – that never shrank from murdering civilians itself – has been defeated, but the Tamil people of Sri Lanka have also been crushed.

They are rudderless, paranoid, beaten and broken – and Sinhalese people and Tamils I interviewed confirmed this impression. Hopes of self-determination dashed, the Tamil minority have been left in no doubt about who’s in charge on the island.

And this, despite President Rajapakse’s assurances that they’d have equal rights. In his “victory speech” in parliament, he even spoke in the Tamil language and promised to take personal responsibility for protecting them. “Our heroic forces,” he said, “have sacrificed their lives to protect Tamil civilians.”

There’s no room for misty-eyed liberation mythology here: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were a vicious organisation, whose suicide bombs, assassinations and training of child soldiers were funded by extortion rackets among the Tamil diasporas worldwide. Listed as a terrorist group in 32 countries, they never hesitated to blow up or gun down civilians themselves. Even Buddhist monks and young novices.

There’s euphoria among the Sinhalese majority – it’s as though the pressure cooker lid’s been blown off. But Tamil civilians have been forced to pay a terrible price for Rajapakse’s great victory.

Now the civil war is over, Sri Lanka is busy touting itself as an international tourist nirvana again, with its “white sandy beaches, lush greenery, amazing wildlife and rich heritage. “The warm and friendly smiles of the people await you in the Isle of Sri Lanka.”

But tourists see a veneer of beauty and bravado. A capital city buzzing on the adrenaline of victory. There’s the normal stuff: the traffic jams, shopping malls, markets and streets festooned with banners and bunting. And then there are the billboards – everywhere glorifying the heroes who sacrificed their blood for the motherland and the sixty-foot high cardboard cut-out of the triumphant president. There are soldiers at checkpoints with fingers on triggers and a lurking fear that revenge could yet come.

A businessman on the plane back to Europe tried to persuade me that everything’s normal and that foreign journalists had got it all wrong. But it is not normal in Sri Lanka. Especially if you are a Tamil. And there are many things that the government does not want the tourists – or journalists – to see.

There’s a beautiful old name for this island: Serendip, from which the English word “serendipity” derives. Its meaning: “the lucky tendency to happen across desirable discoveries by chance.”

My dictionary lists no antonym for serendipity. But as the fog of war slowly lifts, the rulers of modern day Serendip might be advised to brace themselves. Slowly but surely, a suspicious world is developing what, for them, is the unlucky tendency of making undesirable discoveries.