Are you listening, President Rajapakse?

By Pushpa Iyer

There was a time when, in the Sri Lankan Diaspora, the voices of the Sinhalese were subdued amongst the strong voices of the LTTE supporters and in the infighting between the Tamils. How much has changed since then.

This past Saturday, I heard the loud voices of the Sinhalese Diaspora at an Amnesty International sponsored event in Palo Alto, California. Amnesty had decided to screen the UK Channel 4 documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’. As someone very familiar with the conflict in Sri Lanka, I am certain that both the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE committed atrocities against the Tamil population during the final stages of the war in May 2009. However, the point of this film was to show how much and how disproportionately the Tamil population, mostly innocent civilians, had suffered at the hands of the Sri Lankan military during those hot summer days. The film does refer to the LTTE using Tamil civilians as human shields and shooting them for trying to flee.

Amnesty officials repeatedly stated that the film was only intended to generate conversation. They stressed that they condemned all acts of violence and human rights abuses committed by all parties, including the LTTE, and explained that they hoped for an impartial inquiry into all human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Their approach, they said, was to pressure the international community, especially the US, to force the Sri Lankan government to accept an international war crimes inquiry.

Barring some occasional snickering, the hall was very quiet while the documentary was being screened. But at the end of the film, the Sinhalese community in the audience erupted. They discredited the speakers, accused Channel 4 and Amnesty of taking sides, and insisted that we, the audience, watch the counter-film prepared by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence. They threatened, intimidated, or silenced Tamils and others in the audience who spoke up asking for space to express their opinions. The film has brutal, heart wrenching footage. It is impossible to imagine that fellow human beings would be unmoved by what they saw. However, that seemed to be the case on Saturday evening.

I heard one Sinhalese woman yell, “I lost half my family in this war,” followed by fits of giggles with her friends on having successfully played a role in disrupting the meeting. I really listened to her, because yes, I am sure she and her side have suffered a lot in the years of violence. However, my question to her is: after you lose half the members of your family in a war, are you pleased when you see and know that many from the ‘other’ side (innocents like you) lost half their family because of ‘your’ side’s acts of violence? Do you really believe that an horrific end was what the Tamil people deserved? Would you explain it as Tamils facing their karma? Do you feel justice has been served? Do you sleep better now? Are you able to celebrate ‘your victory’? I sat there wondering if it was possible for any woman to not be outraged upon seeing the naked bodies of women who had been gang raped being tossed irreverently into trucks while the soldiers made crude comments. Apparently, some women can.

I am convinced that empathy is a skill with which most of us are not born, and I strongly believe that it is important that we all work hard to acquire it in order to qualify as a decent human being. Empathy is what teaches you that a ‘tit-for-tat’ strategy is a doomed strategy. I am also certain that empathy alone can play a huge role in ending violence.

The Sinhalese in the crowd succeeded in their mission to disrupt the meeting. The police were called, and over fifteen of them descended into the hall and made us leave the premises in less than ten minutes.

So, Mr. Rajapakse, let me be honest. I have never been impressed with your approach or your actions and now having witnessed the boisterous and belligerent behaviour of your country’s citizens (read: Sinhalese) last Saturday, it is obvious to me that you have failed. Your strategy to militarily wipe out the LTTE at great human (read: Tamil) cost has failed to “resolve” the conflict that has plagued your country for over forty years. The divide between the Sinhalese and Tamils is as wide as ever.

Force is never the solution. It is a simple lesson, Mr. Rajapakse.

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