There are words and terms that lose all meaning simply due to overuse. Sometimes, in fact, the words/terms take on meanings diametrically opposed to their original meaning. Language, friends, as we all know and often forget, is political. Words are given meanings other than those agreed upon by convention or usage.
Take the word ‘peace’ for example. In the early years of the millennium when the federalist camp was strong, any proposal this side of the f-thing was vilified as evidence of Sinhala Buddhist extremism and even war-mongering. What was most interesting and was, in retrospect, a major reason for the defeat of the advocates.
Let me explain. When you equate something like peace to a preferred outcome, it is almost a given that process and relevant politics will be designed and engineered respectively to obtain what’s desired. It is also a given that neglecting realities will destroy the project.
That’s what happened to the ‘federal-peace’ project. It’s what is happening to ‘reconciliation’ too. ‘Federalist-reconciliation’ or, as they call it in reduced circumstances following the military defeat of the LTTE, ‘devolution-reconciliation’. Read any policy document on post-war reconciliation and you will inevitably encounter something about devolution of power.
But what is this ‘reconciliation’? It presupposes a quarrel or disagreement and naturally quarreling and disagreeing parties. Reconciliation then is about a restoration of pre-quarrel status, to obtain some kind of agreement or (and this is important) for one or more parties to resign itself/themselves to the incorrigibility of stand taken.
Now the conflict-resolution industry (also describable as ‘conflict management industry’) has various processual mechanisms (as opposed to the objective-driven thrusts we are familiar with in Sri Lanka and which we have alluded to above) to get disagreeing parties to a point of agreement. Focusing on commonalities is a commonsensical approach.
But no, our worthies are fixated on what they call ‘transitional justice’ and ‘accountability’. Now ‘transitional justice’ as the word ‘transition’ implies is some half-way measure with a predetermined end in mind. That predetermined end, in Sri Lanka’s case draws from the only-devolution-gives-reconciliation thesis.
So the entire discourse is about war crimes and mechanisms that can allow the aggrieved to obtain closure about the fate of loved ones. ‘Closure’ is also an interesting term, as is grief and of course the ‘fate’.
Let us repeat the oft-repeated and equally often ignored truths about this affair: a) it was a 30 year long conflict and NOT something that began in January 2009 and ended in May the same year, b) the numbers regarding the dead have been grossly inflated and related claims severely compromised by the absolute lack of source-credibility, not to mention the arbitrariness of the claims, and most crucially, c) the absolute reluctance for any kind of closure/reconciliation that is not compatible with the ultimate political objective (which absolutely at odds with history, geography and demography, among other things).
Consider for example, the response of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to the results of carbon dating tests on skeletal remains found in the much celebrated (!) ‘Mannarama mass graves’. They don’t want to accept the results. They want further tests.
This kind of obstinacy has prompted observations such as the following in social media: ‘Think about it. The way NGOs and Eelamists are trying to discredit the US laboratory results on the Mannar graves, they would even blame foreign judges if they absolved the Sri Lankan Army of genocide. Nothing will satisfy the NGOs and Eelamists unless they get decisions to suit their preconceived notions and protect their “jobs / funding flows.’
Let’s ignore jobs and funding flows. Let’s instead focus on reconciliation. It’s just not on, until such time key players in the affair such as the TNA take a break from goal-fixation. It doesn’t look likely though.
The most baffling element in all this is the consistent refusal of the reconciliation (as per devolution) advocates to consider the overriding commonality of victimhood at the hands of capital and political interests (which more often than not coincide) and resultant impoverishment as well as the shared horror of the wanton destruction and theft of resources.
Capital does not come with an ethnic or any other identity. Those who destroy forests are typically identity-free, an exception perhaps is the scandalous and determined efforts to erase ‘Wilpattu’ from the ecological map of the country. How about the complicity of politician and official to make and amend laws to facilitate corporates intent on plundering resources and the deliberate elimination of all traditional crops through the constructed extinction of seeds? How about the wresting of control over water resources?
No. Nothing of the sort. We have on the other hand people like Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu insisting that the moves in Geneva are not against Sri Lanka but ‘on’ Sri Lanka. Why? Because an ill-informed, ill-willed and clearly incompetent government decided to put the country’s signature on a flawed document? That makes it ‘on’ and not ‘against’? But that’s the focus. That’s the fixation. That’s also the distraction and ultimately a key stumbling block in the matter of reconciliation. A distraction as pernicious as creative historiography and indeed fixation on history and attendant myth-modelling as well as what Dr Arjuna Parakrama refers to as ‘category mistakes’, i.e. misnaming things.
Ladies and gentlemen, there are seeds, trees, sustainable practices and such that unite these allegedly ‘warring’ communities. There’s misery that is common and not born of one community targeting another. There’s commonality in victimhood on account of climate change clearly impacted by practices flowing from development ‘logic’ that is only about the sustained prosperity of a certain class of individuals who, let us not forget, do not give a hoot about identity.
If people are not interested in meaningful reconciliation, then let’s drop the term altogether, just as we need to drop terms such as yahapalanaya, accountability, transparency etc., for the simple reason that they have been made meaningless by overuse, mis-application and most seriously their pinning on things that mean the opposite.
We can do better. We can do better if people can wrest ownership of land, resources, communities, engagement and political processes and institutions. That might deliver reconciliation. All processes, institutions and individuals currently ‘invested’ in reconciliation are operating as subversive elements. That much we can agree on. That much we can reconcile ourselves to.