The grim situation in Sri Lanka shows the hazards of extreme ethnic nationalism. In today’s world,the reality is that many people – whether they regard themselves as atheists, agnostics or religious believers – put their ‘nation’ first, often symbolised by a flag.
On occasions such as international cricket or football matches, flag-waving by excited but good-tempered fans is harmless enough and may even add to the enjoyable atmosphere. In wartime, though, flags often seem to rob people of their usual ethical standards and common sense. Ordinarily peaceable men and women show no dismay when children and pensioners are blown to smithereens by ‘their’ side, and claim to ‘support’ soldiers while helping to send them to their deaths, often in a cause in which they no longer believe.
Unquestioning allegiance to a ‘nation’ – in reality a set of leaders, often self-serving and prone to mistakes like everyone else – has its attractions, and people may act nobly when serving under a flag. Yet, as history as repeatedly shown, there are grave dangers in surrendering one’s power to make moral choices.
The media have given much attention recently to Tamil protestors in Parliament Square in central London and elsewhere in the West. Many are sincere in their distress at the desperate situation in the north of Sri Lanka). But, like many other Sri Lankan Tamils, I have no intention of joining them. For the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, under whose flags they gather, have – along with successive Sri Lankan governments – brought great suffering to numerous civilians and are currently keeping large numbers trapped in a danger zone. Meanwhile there are some Sinhalese who are equally confident that all the actions performed by soldiers serving under Sri Lanka’s lion flag are justifiable.
True believers on both sides tend to be in denial of the fact that both the government and the Tigers have appalling human rights records, described in detail by organisations such as Amnesty International and witnessed to by all too many victims and have recklessly endangered civilians. Desperate pleas such as those of a UN Refugee Council representative, to the Sri Lankan government to "restrain itself and have the moral upper ground by allowing the humanitarian aid in" and to the Tigers to "open the gates of hell and allow these people out into safety", have all too often been disregarded.
It is not surprising that many people in Sri Lanka and elsewhere give way to the temptation to put their faith in politicians and military commanders, despite evidence of their fallibility and power-games. There is a deep human yearning to belong and also an understandable urge to fight back when humiliated or attacked.
Thirty years ago, the Sri Lankan government passed a draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, which covered not only offences such as possessing explosives, but also defacing street-signs, and gave the security forces immunity for anything done "in good faith" to enforce the Act. Though there was widespread discontent about discrimination, the rebel forces at the time were few and weak. But the mistreatment of young Tamils under this law helped to swell their numbers. State violence was also used against members of the majority community who disagreed with the ruling regime.
Worse was to follow. Government forces burned Jaffna’s library which contained priceless historical manuscripts in Tamil, then a wave of ethnic cleansing took place in 1983. Many in my generation, feeling threatened and rejected by the Sri Lankan state, took up arms in what they saw as a heroic struggle for freedom. A so-called ‘ethnic conflict’ was underway, which would destroy or blight numerous lives.
Yet militarism has its own momentum. Soon enough, the Sri Lankan armed forces were butchering their fellow-Sinhalese, while Tamil nationalists turned on one another and conscripted children. Adult lions and tigers in the wild have been known to kill cubs, but the scale of slaughter by humans flying the tiger and lion flags shocked onlookers. Civilians of other ethnic communities were also targets.
Many Sri Lankans, fed up with the shelling, suicide bombing, kidnapping, robbery, extortion, death-squads and ethnic cleansing, struggled for a return to some measure of decency and democracy. There were some successes. Yet things slipped backwards, and violence took hold again.
The scale of the suffering now faced by people in the north of Sri Lanka should not obscure the individual tragedies. A recent report by the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) describes some such cases, such as the mother who screams at night because the seven month-old baby at her breast and two other children were killed by a government shell, despite being in the ‘no-fire zone’ and the ten-year old boy clinging to the body of his father - who had been shot dead by the Tigers while trying to escape - until rescued by an older brother. Though individual soldiers have shown compassion to refugees, their living conditions are dangerously inadequate and disease poses a serious threat to those who have survived the fighting.
It is time for a shift from flag-waving to acknowledging the drawbacks of fanatical nationalism and addressing the real needs of ordinary people in Sri Lanka – Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and others.
Yet there is another danger: abandonment of hope by Sri Lankans and well-wishers from around the world. All too often, opportunities for a settlement based on respecting the rights of all and democratic devolution of power from the centre have been lost. Some people now feel there is little alternative to supporting a gung-ho government or a now-desperate Tiger movement, with its cult of death.
But there have been times when ordinary Sri Lankans have asserted their desire for justice and mercy as an alternative to violence and power-seeking. Considerable work was put into developing a new constitution which would be acceptable to most Sri Lankans of all communities, but the government has failed to give proper consideration to this. Faith-based, humanitarian and campaigning organisations have continued to witness to the possibility of a more just and compassionate way, despite considerable risk. There are numerous seeds which can be cultivated to develop the hope of sustainable peace.
(c) Savi Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the recent book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).