Sunday, April 17, 2016

Where conflict is being kept alive and where conflict is being put to sleep

Strange thing to be in the middle of a conflict zone some years since the conflict petered out. Well it didn't "peter out" because accompanying its end were the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians in the last days. These were Tamil civilians, just to be clear. The ending days of the war were a national trauma and an international trauma still being played out. Hard to say in any case that the conflict has "ended" because there are so many reminders. Reminders that are hard to find. Part of my work for the Fulbright has been to discern these reminders, to listen for distant echoes of past trauma. This may seem like a strange endeavor to you. You may ask, "why focus on the bad things happened?" Why not move forward?

I could say my work has been doubly challenged because the people around me ask these questions with their silence. People young and old are moving on with their lives. Older people carry scars and memories but they mobilize their energy and creativity to form a new social compact. They move into the past or they move into the future but they do it in the present tense. I am witness to a new world they are building literally brick by brick. And young people carry on. Whatever they know of the old world they forget when their pockets open up and they pull out their motorbike keys and buy their sodas and snacks and go to the gym and take their selfies, endless selfies on their late-model phones that may only last a few months but then they'll buy another! More selfies. More games. More apps. 

A world that long slept on a bed of pain revives in an everyday presence of life. You could say this "forgetting" and rebuilding is a form of resilience. Maybe there are many forms of resilience, many many forms of resilience produced through the acts of rebuilding, knitting together, annealing, welding, stitching, but not retelling. The scars are deep, the scabs may be delicate. The few horror stories I've heard would suggest, and people have told me this literally, that looking deeper, asking people to talk about these things, would be opening old wounds. What right do I have to do that even if I think it's right? People move along their paths and live their lives by these pathways in the way they see fit. For all I know these are deeply enculturated ways of getting over pain, maybe even the selfie cult. The selfie may be another way of looking in the mirror. And I've seen men, young men and older men all over this country spending an inordinate amount of time looking in the mirror. 

Part of the culture here is also a culture of separateness. The languages of this country, Sinhala and Tamil, are separate. Decades of suppression of English has left the people without an effective bridge language. But what I read in that bridge language, in places like the daily Mirror, make my hair stand on end. This paper, owned by Sinhalese publishers, spews hate toward Tamils almost every day--and that's in the special "northeastern" edition! When the sinha-le ("lions blood") bumper sticker emerged with its racially motivated message, writers for the Mirror dismissed it or worse, praised it as a symbol that included "all true" Sri Lankans. The paper has celebrated D. S. Senanayake, the first prime minister after independence who stripped upcountry Tamils of their citizenship. In another instance the paper wrote about the 30 years' war as a war against "Tamil terrorism." The fount of hatred and misinformation doesn't stop. And here, the scars are being gone over, scabs picked at, hatreds moldering. 

I don't know where this society is headed. I don't feel the hatred coming from the Tamil side. I've heard perfectly well-meaning Sinhalese people tell me "there are two sides to every story" and that "no one was unaffected by the conflict." But where conflict is being kept alive and where conflict is being put to sleep seems to follow a boundary between Sinhalese-dominated culture and the sliver of this country that still holds pockets of Tamil language and culture. It's a pretty scary thing. And it makes me think the conflict is far from over. 

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