Any conflagration and especially one marked by the clash of arms that lasts over several decades can be defined in multiple ways. For some, the conflict in Sri Lanka, was a matter between the Sinhalese and Tamils. They call it ‘Ethnic Conflict’. Others could say that it was a battle between state entities and a terrorist outfit or one between democracy and insurgency.
Portrayal is naturally informed by ideological bent and of course, since identity is involved, the play of communal angst often decides the issue of definition. Emotion typically bests reason in the process. To the extent that the protagonists were to a large extent identifiable in terms of a particular community and since the conflict was framed emphatically (at least by one party and often by the other) in communal terms, the ‘ethnic’ label is not without logic, although the complexity of it all rebels against such convenient descriptions.
There could be one area where there was agreement. It was a tragedy. Lives were lost. Properties were destroyed. An economy was strangled, development arrested. People were maimed and displaced. There was despair and gloom, fear and foreboding.
Only the obdurate afflicted with strong identity fetishes would claim absolute innocence on behalf of his or her community. Even if that weren’t the case afflictions such nature do inform exercises in ‘rational’ apportionment of blame.
One thing that has been left out of the entire ‘in retrospect’ business is the self-inflicted. Just the other day, Lord Justice Sales, one of Britain’s most senior judges, in what could be a landmark 22,000-word appeal ruling, has observed that a Sri Lankan had allowed himself to be tortured with iron bars to support his bid to stay in that country. The court ruled that the man probably consented to the torture as part of a ruse called “Self-infliction by proxy” or SIBP to buttress a case for asylum.
KV, as the claimant is identified, is not a one-off asylum-seeking Tamil from Sri Lanka and neither is Britain the only country where his ilk have applied for asylum. Asylum seekers are required to submit solid evidence and in a world where the visual dominates testimony inscribed on body can be quite compelling. There’s enough evidence to prove that ‘torture-marking’ is a lucrative business, run of course by ‘well-meaning’ Tamil expatriates. There are agencies that ‘take care of things’. For a price. And part of that price can be self-inflicting torture.
An investigation launched by the Sri Lankan military a few years ago unearthed a lot of information regarding the process. One woman who was asked to follow a ‘rape-script’ to secure asylum in Britain, refused to do so because the objective was outweighed by the shame of ‘admitting’ to having been raped even if it was just theatre. Self-respect counted. In the course of that investigation, it was found that a veritable army of operators were involved in the ‘asylum business’. There were torture-artistes, lawyers who argued ‘torture,’ physicians who would affirm ‘torture’ and handlers who had profiled courts and judges and figured out which were ‘easy’.
All this could be dismissed as ‘constructed propaganda by the Sri Lankan government’. At the time, for reasons that had nothing to do with immigration policy or upholding the dignity of judicial processes, the submissions from Sri Lanka were ignored. Lord Justice Sales, however, is not ‘in the pay of the Rajapaksas’ (as has been the excuse for summary dismissal of such claims). Britain’s Home Office will have to act, sooner or later, especially in a context where terrorism (a menace selectively spawned, nurtured and apologized for) has secured a kind of residency that was unanticipated but impossible to ignore.
The relevant question here is this: ‘Why would anyone suffer the shame of lying about being raped or submit him/herself to being torture-inscribed unless he/she believes it is a better option than living in their home country?’ One could argue that the truth or otherwise of torture-claims, submission to such pain is a superior choice to suffering the ‘hurt’ of discrimination.
The key issue is that once a certain threshold of escalation has been crossed the claim is legitimate regardless of who did what to whom and when. People flee conflict for a reason, to put it simply. What’s important is to understand that the true self-infliction of torture preceded cases such as the one on which Lord Justice Sales deliberated.
Let’s ask ourselves some questions to drive home the point. Who wanted a 50-50 split for a community that made just over one tenth of a total population? Who created and/or played on the nationless-angst of a particular community, drawing inter alia, a nation-map traced on the arbitrary exercises in cartography indulged in by the British? Who interchanged (often inflated) grievance and (ridiculous) aspirations easily and frequently enough to legitimate a demand unsupported by history, archaeology and demography? When such sentiments as were generated found articulation in an election result in 1977, why did not the Government of the time call for a historical audit? When extremism reared its ugly head why did successive governments respond with utmost brutality that conflated ‘Tamil’ with ‘Terrorist,’ especially in the 1980s? Who dropped parippu and effectively postponed by twenty years the eradication of the terrorist menace and therefore paved the way for tens of thousands of deaths and other destruction? Why did those who claimed to stand for a negotiated settlement give credence to that conflation (which had been un-tangled to a large extent) by legitimating terrorism ’conceding’ that the LTTE was indeed the sole representative of the Tamils? Why wasn’t what was essentially a hostage-rescue operation named as such? Why (let us ask again) is no one calling the Tamil nationalist bluff by commissioning a historical audit?
There was a turning point in 2009. History however is not rolled out in a bell curve. There can be other twists. Tragedy is a visitor who does not require a formal invitation. Escalation is easily orchestrated. In all this there’s self-inflicted torture. ‘KV’ is, in this sense, an embarrassment to Tamil chauvinists but all things considered, nothing more than a distraction. This country has let itself become a classic case of self-inflicted national torture. A re-definition is needed not just for national dignity but national survival.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com. Twitter: malindasene