Picture the stereotype: masses starve and are pushed further and further down into the depths of despair and impoverishment as gun-toting politicians take all they can and their bouncer-like thugs drive around in jeeps with tinted windows threatening/assaulting/assassinating anyone that dares to stand up to them. The economy plunges into an abyss of darkness, and a militant megalomaniac of a tyrant rules over the pillaged and plundered land, driven mad by his own paranoia, floundering under pressure and unable to cope with the reality of the hole he has dug for himself. Journalists and activists flee into exile and political prisoners languish in jails. And so we have it: A Corrupt Developing Nation Ruled by a Militant Tyrant. It is such a stereotype it could be theatre. And yet, that is Sri Lanka, too.
A road-mural, painted by civilians, as a commemoration of the death of Neelan Thiruchelvam was obliterated with the use of tar, by a team of around 15 men. Why someone would invest time in committing an act so hurtful, cruel and petty, is beyond me. Apparently they came back after they’d finished round # 1 – to ensure the job was done right. It certainly sounds like a lot of time and energy went into this – more than they are willing to spend on real development, like the repairing of roads. This was an erasure of something that was largely personal – a small memorial to a man assassinated, created by family, friends and colleagues. The mural was almost child-like, featuring over-simplistic motifs of peace, doves and flowers, and a banner that said ‘Protect the Sanctity of Life’. What harm was it doing to anyone? Hundreds of cars drove over it every day – no one even noticed it. It was special to the same people to whom Neelan was special, and many of them walk down that little lane every day, to attempt to continue his work.
Ganesh Nimalaruban, 28 years old, a political detainee being held at Vavuniya Prison (on suspicion of having ties with the LTTE), was assaulted in prison and later died. At first, the Courts did not want to hand over his remains to his parents, to whom he was an only son, and his parents were told, as explanation, that conducting his last rites in their village in Vavuniya may lead to ‘trouble’. The Courts didn’t seem to understand the reason behind his parents pleas for the remains of their son – so they could bury him in peace and dignity, in the village that was his home. Finally, his body was released to them – though nothing was or has been said about how he, and so many other countless prisoners (particularly suspected LTTE cadres), are subjected to violence in prisons every day. His funeral has been followed by further silence.
A mob led by a Buddhist priest forcibly removed a statue of Lord Ganesh from a Hindu Kovil in Panamai (Pottuvil). No one knows why. It now remains within the confines of a Buddhist temple in Panamai. This beloved statue has been worshipped by Hindus and Buddhists alike for decades, and is said to be in possession of divine powers. It is highly venerated and holds a special place in the hearts of many locals. The abovementioned Buddhist priest has, several times before, demanded that this statue be handed over to him and his temple – again, no one knows why, and he himself has never given a concrete reason. The mob, led by the priest, were aggressive, assaulting anyone who stood in the way. They were seemingly determined to not leave the premises empty-handed.
A country that can engender the destruction of things so small, yet so cherished, so insignificant on the large scale of things, yet so special to the heart of the individual – what kind of country is that? A country that has to destroy public art drawn by a bunch of average citizens? A country that no longer understands the parents’ need to bury their child properly? A country that has no answers to questions about police brutality and the torture of prisoners? A country that allows the theft of a religious statue? A country that will unhesitatingly strike where it hurts most – deep in our hearts, destroying the small, even silly, things that help us make sense of our lives, the things that make us human, flaws and all. The things that give us strength and yet are our weaknesses, because they are all signs that we are not just thinking, breathing creatures, but feeling creatures.
What kind of country is that?