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Looking through the fire: Memories and landscapes

Rohana W

By V.I.S Jayapalan
 In 1970, when the leader of the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) Rohana Wijeweera was admitted in the Colombo general hospital, I met him with a friend. We requested him to adopt federalism as one of the main policies of JVP in order to open the door for Tamils.
He wanted us to join the movement and went onto talk about some other things – without answering our main question. When we insisted on an answer, he asked us to meet S.D. Bandaranayake (who was considered as a close confidant of JVP) and discuss with him.

We met S.D.Bandaranayake at his Kollupitiya residence. S.D.B, in a quite polite way, refused to accept federalism. He also said that a federal solution will weaken anti-imperialist struggle of the Sri Lankan people.

His argument was that JVP will solve the minority problem by adopting the Chinese model based on the commune system. According to him, the commune system is much more appropriate and acceptable for the ‘Sri Lankan people’ than federalism. He wanted us to join the JVP and take forward the revolution in the North-east. We refused to accept the unitary character of the state simply because we were convinced that it is an outright Sinhala chauvinist project. The conversation did not last long. That ended our short honeymoon with the JVP in 1970.

The story opens up the doors of long forgotten memories.

In those days almost all the notable mainstream left groups followed the stand of the Sinhalese chauvinists (with few exceptions) with regard to the national question by firmly opposing federalism and advocating a unitary system. This made things easier for them to join with the SLFP led governments as junior coalition partners. On the international level, the Soviet Union (USSR) existed as one of the two main world powers. The forces of the modern uni-polar globalization did not exist and the Tamils living in various countries were kept in isolation within the boundaries of the respective nation states where they lived. SLFP, with the support of the Left was able to close the Sri Lankan economy and thereby the country itself, to a certain extent. In a closed country the oppression of the isolated Tamils became a much easier task for Sinhala majoritarian chauvinist rulers.

Today the region we live is changing quite fast. The former superpower USSR is no more there to counterbalance the US hegemony, as it did in during the cold war. Therefore the political space that existed for small countries has almost vanished. The globalization is in a full swing and has made the boundaries of the nation states relatively weaker.

Century old isolation of the transnational Tamils is falling apart. The Sri Lankan government cannot keep the global Tamil communities/international community’s away and oppressed any more like they did with the Tamils in pre-globalization era. The concerns of the global Tamils such as Tamils of Tamilnadu, South Africa and Malaysia affected the hither to existed pro-Sri Lankan foreign policies of those countries, to a considerable extent. This may have also contributed to the defeat of the Sri Lanka in the recent human rights council in Geneva. This is a new, but at the same time an important phenomenon in understanding the changing dynamics of Sri Lankan politics.

Post Geneva politics: Cynicism at its best

But the Sinhalese government and many Sinhala intellectuals are still not prepared to recognize this post-globalization scenario. This was quite evident in the aftermath of the Geneva debacle, when the Sri Lankan government and its cohorts targeted UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – Navi Pillay. The Colombo based Sinhala media went even further by highlighting her Tamil identity, to insinuate that she was instrumental in getting Sri Lanka defeated – because she is TAMIL!

The Sinhalese establishment and many ‘official intellectuals’ are still living with the pre globalization mind set, in their wishful thinking that China is emerging as a ‘pro-Sri Lankan superpower’ while filling the vacuum created by the demise of the USSR. And therefore they hang onto the belief that China can be used as a diplomatic scarecrow against India and West. So for them, situation now is not much changed since 1970s. They seem to be thinking that they can open or close Sri Lanka as they wish and isolate the Tamils and deny their political rights. The Sinhalese establishment and some of their subservient intellectuals have become the victims of their own naive imagination.

Regardless of all these cynical-tendencies, I salute the few Sinhala journalists who risk their life to bring light to our Island. They accept self determination of the Tamil speaking people and I am happy to hear them speak in favour of socialist principals as well as of federalism positively. They also keep fighting against the ruthless Sinhala establishment against their war crimes. They are opening a new space for a, so far, non existing ‘Sri Lankan national dialog’. Their actions marked an important and a necessary break with the ruling class policies. Therefore, I welcome them.

While fighting with Sinhalese ruling establishment uncompromisingly, we as Tamils should start a new dialog with the Sinhala comrades who risk their life to bring the evidences of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan state. I see no contradiction in this historical task. The history will move forward on these two wheels.

Burning of Jaffna library : A fire across boundaries

A few days after the burning of the Jaffna library I realized the effects of globalized concerns. Unlike the burning of our belongings during 1958 and 77 anti-Tamil riots, the fire that was set to the library by Sinhala gangs, under the protection of gun waving military, ignited the conscience of the global Tamil communities in a significant manner. But this phenomenon did become more vivid and clear during 1983 anti-Tamil riots. The wave of sympathy spread like a wild fire from one country to another where Tamils lived. Apart from creating a spring-board that intensified our refugee migration to the west, it also functioned as a force multiplier in a political sense that promoted the armed struggle as a way of gaining freedom.

On the night of May 31st, 1981 the Jaffna Library was burned down by the Sinhalese armed forces along with the Sinhala mobs. This incident has dealt the death blow to our dreams of creating a federal socialistic unity in our Island. On that fateful night I stayed at my sister’s house at 4th Cross Street in Jaffna, which was closely located to the library. I remember looking out of the window in tears in the middle of the night, even without knowing what exactly going on shrouded in darkness. The bright glow of the fire rising high over Jaffna town reflected in clouds and illuminated that unforgettable night. Later my friend, Poet Cheran, described it in one of his most famous poems published later in Chennai: A ‘Second sunrise’.

When I saw the reflection of the fire in clouds, I first thought shops in Jaffna bazaar might have been set on fire by the military. It was a sleepless night. The next morning I remember people running around and shouting that the library has been burned down by the Army and the Police. Without changing the clothes or having my tea, I ran towards the library in total disbelief. Upon arriving I saw the body of my primordial mother raped and burned down by the Sinhala military, lying in front of me. As everyone, I was utterly shocked. I remember seeing hundreds of people who were gathered around and crying as if they were attending their mother’s funeral. I heard Sinhala ‘baila’ songs, and thought that someone was playing the radio without understanding the seriousness of the situation.

Then I saw the soldiers, about hundred yards away, singing, dancing, laughing near Duraiappa stadium like a victory celebration. We were booed and heckled. I was enraged and wanted to confront them and slap them in the face. But I couldn’t. Without becoming an equal who can stand up to them with an armed power that would match theirs, I realized this would be impossible.

In that very moment I decided, despite all my criticisms, to become a part of the armed struggle of the Tamils. We at least expected mass rallies and agitations against the library burning in the south lead by our Sinhala comrades. But we only heard sympathetic voices from the Tamils living in other countries including India. Nothing notable happened in South.

28 years later, after the genocidal killings committed against Tamils at Mullivaykal, I still cannot see any notable changes in the anti-Tamil attitude of the Sinhala establishment. Even two decades later, the absurd and brutal logic that worked behind the burning of Jaffna Library still exist inside the mind of the Sinhala armed forces and retired military officers who have virtually become rulers of the Northeast.

Re-enacting the past and a moment of pride

I keep reading in disgust the day today news that reaches me on a daily basis. In the island of Sri Lanka, like one said, ‘history does nothing but repeat itself.’

Retired Major General G.A Chandrasri, a well known Sinhala chauvinist and alleged war criminal is now the governor of the Northern Province. He is indulged in continuous violence against the Jaffna library in order to tell us that ‘you Tamils are a voiceless and subjugated people while we have reached the end as victors.’ (As reported recently, his latest display of triumphant chauvinism became shockingly visible when he attempted to close down the computer centre at the Jaffna library in order to convert the space into a public toilet for the Sinhala sight-seers arriving from south to see the land marks of their victory.)

The news coming from the Vanni and the Eastern Province is much worse. Our fishing grounds, water ways and fertile agricultural lands are colonized. This includes also my family farm in Vanni where my mother’s remains are buried. The land encroached upon by the Sinhala army while Buddha statues keep coming up in every nook and cranny. My family farm at Vadakadu (Mankulam) is now occupied by the military and my family deities’ shrine is occupied by a Buddha statue.

On September 9th, 2011 I received the prestigious Indian national award for my acting in the movie ‘Aadukalam’ – which was in fact my first film. After the felicitations – a Sri Lankan officer known to me – working at the Sri Lankan Embassy in New Delhi rushed to congratulate me. I politely thank them and simply asked them – as a matter of fact – how can I shake hands and accept their congratulations when their army occupy my ancestral land.

One of them wanted me to write a letter to the president through them so that he can arrange the withdrawal of the Sri Lankan military from our farm where my mother’s remains were buried. I refused to write letter begging the president. But I told him that I, being a poet and an artist, I have nothing other than the power of words. I said: “I curse your president who orders his men to occupy my mother’s grave and to install a Buddha statue in the shrine of our family deity.”

My words took him by surprise, since he belonged to the victors and I, to the defeated. When victors offer, the losers accept. But in that particular moment, the tables were turned around.

I, walked away with a feeling of regained pride and dignity.

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