We are still walking shell-shocked after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks on the island once known as Serendip, from which serendipity comes, from where two leaves and a bud are picked by magenta saree-wearing tea workers in verdant hills, where beaches are besieged by surfers looking to ride the perfect wave from the Bay of Bengal. In the island, once baptised Ceylon, my birthplace, Sri Lanka, we are playing funeral dirges once again.
Before the Tsunami struck in 2004, the island had received a warning from a tsunami-monitoring station off Hawaii. But it was ignored. We read now of nine suicide bombers, in three cities, exploding themselves at Easter masses, at Easter brunches, and of an unexploded bomb found outside the airport. We read that some details of the plot, and even some of the killers’ names, were known in advance but tragically that information was not properly shared and precautions were not taken. More than 200 people have died, many of them children. More than 500 were injured. The Boxing Day tsunami killed 35,000 people in Sri Lanka. Both sets of grisly numbers would have been greatly reduced if we had only listened to the signs, taken action in time.
The same hindsight applies to Sri Lanka’s civil war. What if the government minister who led soldiers to burn the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 had been sanctioned, or better yet, prevented from engaging in the provocative act? Or the 13 soldiers ambushed by the Tamil Tigers in July 1983 – what if the government had not organised a state funeral, a public procession to bury them? From that public outpouring of fanned anger the mob grew, which armed with voter lists, went to Tamil homes and businesses in the capital to burn, pillage, to kill. Black July resulted. The civil war kindled a fire that raged for more than 25 years.
I accompanied my son, my sister and one of her daughters, to my father’s grave on Easter Monday in Rockville, Maryland. Our family has been Catholic for a few hundred years. Missionaries from Portugal and the United States spread the word of the Lord in ages when missionary work was celebrated and expected in their native countries.
My ancestors took that word to heart and studied hard. Tamils and Muslims are Sri Lanka’s principal minority groups. They share the island with the majority Sinhalese and smaller communities of Dutch burghers, Malays, and Eurasians. Tamils are fiercely studious. We are proud of our achievements, flourishing also in exile, in Toronto, London, Paris. Our Muslims are equally proud, running businesses, praying in an easy live and let live Islam, not the Wah’abi strain of the Sunni expression of Islam, imported into the island in recent decades.
We do not know what possessed these murderers to kill themselves and slaughter hundreds of innocents. We read about paradise – that they were interpreting passages from the Qu’uran. One’s person’s literal reading is another’s death sentence. But I cannot say if a Sri Lankan, or another member of the human family, will seek to avenge these killings, and in doing so, continue to sow the mistrust and hatred the perpetrators of these abominable crimes displayed with their shocking explosions.
The Sri Lankan Civil War has its roots in the 1956 Sinhala Only Act, which made Sinhalese the official language. It was amended later to give an effective secondary status to Tamil and English, henceforth recognised as national, as opposed, to official languages. (Tamil has since been given official status).
In 1958, the country suffered the first of several cataclysmic attacks on minorities. Now we mark that sad anniversary, as well as subsequent dates of infamy, 1977, 1981, 1983, and then the 26-year period that followed, which I call the period of uncivil war.
That war ended in 2009, and for 10 years Sri Lankans have enjoyed booming peace with record numbers of tourists, super highways, new roads in the north, a thriving stock market. But poverty persists in some areas, especially in the north and east, where the war raged. Minority Tamils and their Tamil-speaking cousins, minority Muslims, have benefited from, these years of peace, although both groups suffer from the lack of resolution of many issues from the war. For Tamils, it is the failure by the Sri Lankan army to return all appropriated lands, job creation for war widows, some control over local affairs. For Muslims, they have seen mosques and businesses attacked on a few, searing occasions. The terrorists struck in a multi-ethnic country whose civic bonds have been frayed over decades of war and the failure to bring perpetrators to justice.
Last December, I read from my poetic history, Uncivil War, to an audience of students, professors, priests, accountants, retired, and the young. The hall at the University of Jaffna was full. You could hear a pin drop.
People cried as I read “Fire Department” about villagers running from bush to field to army base, a people without a home, living from camp to camp in an internal exile. Those Tamils have to learn to accept that the uncivil war is finished, that they are part of a unitary state called Sri Lanka. But their rights must be respected, especially their right to pay respect to the dead. We said goodbye and hello again to our late Dad.
Sri Lanka is mourning the victims of the terror attacks. Let us remember them always and let us take action. We have to find out why warnings were not heeded, assure them that measures have been put in place — in the hearts and souls, in the religious teachings — to ensure that the horror will never come back.