Saturday, October 18, 2008

SL:The Rewriting of History!

The re-writing of history and selective political memory in Sri Lanka

Reading the utterances of various politicians who, by virtue of the prominence given them by the local media are considered "important," one is left confused by the clash between one’s own recollection of times past, the recollections of those with no reason to prevaricate or distort and the claims made by these "VIPs" or "experts.".

One area that I am bemused by is the consistent line by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that, during the insurrection of the late eighties, it was only the government of the day that was guilty of atrocities of the most heinous kind. Conversations with those with no partisan political axe to grind reveal that the JVP and those acting under cover of that movement were guilty of decapitations, hangings from lamp posts and other acts that were bloodthirsty, cruel and inhuman, to say the least. That the pro-government forces may have been guilty of more instances of this kind of behaviour than the JVP does not take away from the bestial nature of the JVP’s conduct.

At the same time, the absolutely ruthless manner in which the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government put down the 1971 insurrection is never referred to by the JVP’s spokesmen. While the total numbers of those tortured and killed might not have been as high as in the late eighties, there was very substantial loss of life in the early seventies’ uprising. In fact, if memory serves me right, no accurate figures were ever published and there was speculation that, in the census subsequent to the 1971 insurrection, there were net population losses recorded in some areas.

Having been a witness to what happened in JVP Uprising No. 1, I can certainly vouch for the fact that the youth of that insurrection were not involved, to any great extent, in killings and cruelty intended to terrorize the population. Notwithstanding this fact, their movement was ruthlessly put down and there were "extra-judicial" killings which organizations such as Amnesty International (a very young organization at the time) and the international media reported on extensively.

Why then does the JVP persist in letting the SLFP off the hook while pillorying the UNP? Is it because it is inconvenient to accuse a party of serious human rights violations against one’s own movement/party subsequent to bringing the SLFP to power?

The Silver Jubilee of Black July (1983) has led to another attempt by apologists for fascism and xenophobia to indulge their skills in a similar manner. The strategy employed here is of a different hue, though not substantially so. They seek, more often than not, to completely ignore the pogrom against the Tamils of Sri Lanka, referring to the ambush and killing of thirteen soldiers and downplaying what followed. Any comparison of the unarmed civilian Tamils casualties with thirteen (armed) soldiers ambushed is beyond description. But this attempt to whitewash what the murderous racist hordes did with the implicit (and I am being charitable here in choosing not to use the word "explicit") support of the government of the day is nothing short of obscene.

One need not be surprised though, because this is essentially the same Sri Lankan media that maintained a deafening silence in 1983 at the behest of a (different) government. As was once said, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."

While on the subject of anniversaries, another similar pogrom appears to have been missed altogether: that of "Emergency 58" when the Tamils were subjected to abuse, assault and murder on a scale hitherto unheard of in Sri Lanka. This was, so to speak, the dress rehearsal for what followed a quarter century later. The ’58 "communal riots," as they were then known bore a couple of other similarities to those of 1983: the Prime Minister of the day, S.W.R.D.Bandranaike, was initially dismissive of the events of murder and mayhem as was J.R. Jayewardene in 1983, describing them "as a few isolated incidents."

The other similarity was that it took an Indian threat of direct intervention to galvanize the Sri Lankan government into action. Sri Lanka was fortunate that, at that point of time, a no-nonsense Governor General in the person of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke took command of the situation and, under his direction, the armed forces acted in a firm and even-handed manner to quell the rabble. Those around J.R.J in 1983 chose, essentially, to toe his line and throw the Tamil citizens of this country to the racist rabble that ruled the land.

That political parties and their spokesmen will try to get away with whatever they can, particularly in the area of re-writing history is a given. However, the more relevant question would be, "Why has the media not raised these historical facts with those spouting them when the opportunity has presented itself times without number?" Is it just plain laziness or is it that the media in this country is as much a victim of the general dumbing down that appears to have taken place over the last several years? Or, more frightening yet, is this yet another indication of the self-censorship that the media, hitherto critical of those in authority, now practice? The last explanation is certainly a frightening thought for anyone interested in Sri Lanka surviving as a democratic entity.

Old Pachyderm


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