A reluctant Sinhalese asks when will Sri Lanka’s ‘week of shame’ end?
“I never want to believe anything bad about our country.” As Sri Lankan Tamils around the world commemorate ‘Black July’ this month, these words – spoken by David Cameron on the findings of the Saville inquiry – got me thinking.
Imagine for a moment an alternative Bloody Sunday: in the midst of growing tensions, members of the IRA ambush a British army patrol in Derry, ostensibly in retaliation for the rape of two Catholic girls. 13 soldiers are killed. Their comrades take to the streets of Derry and murder 51 innocent civilians. A few hours later, British special forces run riot in Belfast, burning down Catholic houses – the latest episode in a cycle of attacks and reprisals.
But somehow, only news of the 13 dead soldiers reaches London. A mass funeral for them is staged in Highgate cemetery the next day. Mourners turn into mobs, seamlessly it seems. They divert. Travel down to Camden and Tooting, where they attack Catholic homes and businesses and set them alight. Anti-Catholic violence spreads like wildfire across the capital and continues for three days until the Irish foreign minister is dispatched to London. 24 hours after his arrival, it flares up again as rumours of the IRA entering London begin to circulate.
Now imagine if the British Prime Minister, instead of trying to stop the mobs, said “I am not worried about the opinion of the Catholic people…now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion…if I starve the Catholics out, the Protestant people will be happy”. Imagine if it took international pressure to compel him to act, one whole week after the violence began.
This is what happened in Sri Lanka from 23 to 31 July 1983, when the country’s minority Tamils were massacred and driven from their homes by Sinhalese mobs. At least 1,000 were killed, 18,000 properties destroyed, a staggering 150,000 displaced, and the psyche of the Tamil community was scarred, perhaps irrevocably. All in seven days.
‘Black July’ was initially dismissed by the government of the day as a sudden surge of communal hatred. Some 20 years later, a ‘truth commission’ made official what had been known all along: that this was no spontaneous act of retaliation but an orchestrated pogrom with government goons and politicians guilty to varying degrees – from active participants in the violence, including those who dispersed electoral lists to help the mobs identify Tamil homes, to those who did nothing to stop it.
Many Sinhalese politicians now speak of ‘Black July’ as a ‘tragedy’, a ‘turning point’ and ‘Sri Lanka’s week of shame’. But this recognition does not appear to have translated into a change of heart, let alone policy. There has been no formal apology, no compensation for the families of the victims and no attempt to prosecute the guilty. The systematic oppression of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, meanwhile, has continued unabated: discrimination, torture, marginalisation, disappearances, rape, extrajudicial killings and – of course – the indiscriminate shelling of Tamil civilians during the final stages of the armed conflict last year and their mass incarceration in the months that followed.
Speaking to other Sinhalese – those who live in Sri Lanka and those who, like me, now live elsewhere – I get the sense that ‘Black July’ is seen by many as an horrific aberration. The phrase ‘week of shame’ corroborates this. It severs ‘Black July’ from its context, isolating it from past events like the riots of the 1950s and failing to grasp its impact on subsequent events, including what is going on in the country now. Several Sinhalese say that nothing like it has happened since. I disagree. ‘Black July’ – an expression of decades of structural violence – simply mutated into the formalised channels of armed conflict and continues to fester now, more than a year after the conflict ended.
And so my ‘week of shame’ continues too. Shame for being Sinhalese. It grows with every news report, every image of suffering I see and testimony I hear. Every time a past horror is exposed in the press I wonder how many new ones are being covered up. The only respite from this shame is anger, at the lies, deception and denial – unknowing, willing and enforced – by most Sinhalese of what has been and continues to be done in their name.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Sri Lanka and I care about all its people. But the things I love are not uniquely Sinhalese. The food, the hospitality, the warm greetings and close extended families, the readiness to smile and to dance, the passion for education and love of the written word, the concept of serendipity, the mysterious nod-shake that can mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – these are part of a culture that has been created through the joy and strife of different communities living together.
I want to feel proud of that. I want to tell people that Sri Lanka is a great place to visit. I want to look at the Sri Lankan flag without thinking of the thousands who died on the battlefields last year. I want to watch Murali take his 800th wicket without cringing when the President shakes his hand. Most of all, I want to be able to meet Tamils without feeling guilty, without wondering what this person might have had to endure.
In the eyes of many Sinhalese I am an LTTE sympathiser; the blanket label given to all who speak out. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I understand why the Tigers formed – decades of oppression coupled with fruitless political and peaceful resistance is a potent recipe for terrorism in any country – I cannot condone what they did, least of all to the people they claimed to be liberating. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t bring myself to participate in last year’s protests in Parliament Square because of all the flags with the tiger and the guns. Even though I am told it now signifies support for Eelam and not the LTTE, it still makes me queasy.
So here I am, suffering an identity displacement which, though of far lesser import than that which has been suffered by countless others, is nonetheless symbolic of our troubled island. I long for the day when the pleasure that surges through me when I discover another Sri Lankan abroad is not tinged with awkwardness when the inevitable question (which I never ask) arises: Tamil or Sinhala?
I’m not sure I will ever be able to answer ‘Sinhala’ with pride, but I hope that one day I will be proud to be Sri Lankan.