Monday, May 18, 2009

Sri Lanka: Campaign over, conflict remains

Those Southasia posts never happened, but in my defense, I did not set up a timeline for them! 

Today, it has been widely reported that LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has been killed. 

For months now, we have been reading about the Sri Lankan army's campaign to "liberate" areas previously "liberated" by the Tigers. Lines moving back and forth on maps, thousands of people moving back and forth on the ground. As the SL government promised an end to the campaign in months, weeks, days, hours, the humanitarian crisis in the border zones acquired the proportions of an epic tragedy. 

The humanitarian crisis is not new. It may even be worse than recent reports have shown because in fact, it is a tragedy that has been unfolding, intensifying over more than two decades. Two generations have grown up in the shadow of war. Hundreds of thousands of people, of every ethnicity, have paid the price in the loss of family, limbs, property--those who died were luckiest. Families have been displaced not once, not twice. They have been separated. Young people across two generations have been dragged into conflict where they should have been in school, on cricket grounds, in reality talent shows, dreaming of ordinary things. Thousands of score children live in the separate ethnic universes depicted in school textbooks, about which Sri Lankan scholars like Regi Siriwardena and Sasanka Perera have written. 

The humanitarian crisis of the last few months is only the most dramatic, most gruesome tip of the iceberg. 

The military campaign may be over. Prabhakaran and his deputies may have been killed. Will the memories of those who were killed, maimed, displaced fade away as easily? The end of the campaign is a triumphant moment for its architects, but those who love Sri Lanka and those Sri Lankan leaders who are thoughtful will not pause for a celebration until the humanitarian crisis is addressed. If celebration overtakes concern, then those who cried 'genocide' will be justified in their accusation. If those who matter and those who make decisions, simply move on to take care of the displaced, dispossessed, injured and bereaved, there is still some hope for the people of this island. 

The LTTE campaign was sustained financially and politically by those who were not about to enter the fray and risk their own lives. That which they have nurtured at a low cost, will they now abandon as a lost cause? The Tigers have hurt Sri Lankan Tamils as much as they have the Sri Lankan state, but will anyone remember that in the romance and nostalgia that will probably envelop the movement's most prominent and recent martyrs? The idea of Eelam will not die with the dead Tiger leadership. Some cannot forget; some will not allow it to be forgotten. What new forms of Sri Lankan (and pan-) Tamil nationalism can we anticipate in the aftermath of this violent end to a violent movement? Or is it even an end? 

Beyond the campaign and the humanitarian crisis, remain the grievances that caused the alienation of the Sri Lankan Tamils from a state they had helped found in 1948. Any post-campaign dispensation that merely deals with humanitarian issues and fails to seriously re-engage with these in search for a political solution is simply a post-campaign and not a post-conflict dispensation. 

The campaign is over, not the conflict.