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Marilyn Krysl: Turning the Tide in Sri Lanka

January 8, 2009

Marilyn Krysl

Sri Lanka’s 64,000 square miles harbors nearly twenty million people, twenty percent of them Tamils. Was it inevitable that the majority Sinhalese would rule? Probably.

Let it be said that both sides in Sri Lanka’s civil war use civilians as human shields. That both sides prevent humanitarian aid workers from entering areas where Tamils need medical and food assistance. That both sides exploit women, that the Tigers steal children to train as child soldiers. And then there are the government’s system of identity cards. You HAVE to have one, because soldiers at checkpoints want to know if you’re a Tamil and therefore under suspicion of supporting the Tigers.

A few years ago, when the four year cease fire agreement collapsed and the war resumed, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s new government swore to wipe out the Tigers completely. Last week the Sinhalese government hailed its capture of the Tigers’ administrative capital, Kilinochchi, as a victory marking the end of the war. (What they don’t mention is that the Tigers had lost a far more important battle than this one—the 1995 capture of Jaffna city, the most populated and culturally significant location of all—and persevered, which led to retaliation: the suicide truck bombing of Colombo’s Central Bank, the most daring and spectacular of successes. Then Tigers captured the Mullaitivu army base and its 1200 soldiers. The Tigers are weary now, but they’re not exactly slouches.)

The government decided to party in celebration of the Kilinochchi “victory.” But to celebrate you’ve got to have celebrants. So they rounded up all the Tamils around and confiscated their identity cards—without which you’re subject to arrest and incarceration. They ordered all Tamils to get out the national flags and fly them! Shout, cheer, sing, light fire crackers and put on a thrilled, animated show of relief and delight for the media! And if you’re convincing, we’ll give you back your cards.

Meanwhile the rainforests keep leafing out and blossoming. The air is sweet and warm, and the soothing sea goes on lapping the shore and offering up delicious fish. Sinhalese and Tamils keep falling in love and marrying, as human beings do. So here’s my proposal, with which hundreds of you will heartily disagree!

Just imagine if there were a Tamil Minister of Education.

Rajapaksa is both President and Prime Minister, and he appoints his cabinet of 49 ministers—there’s even a minister of indigenous medicines—as well as 36 non-cabinet ministers, and 21 more deputy ministers. Imagine a Tamil Minister of Constitutional Affairs & National Integration—the post exists.

There’s also a Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights.

And the Minister of Justice is listed 48th in a cabinet of 49—but just imagine if the Minister were a Tamil.

This is the island to which the dying Buddha pointed and said to his followers There on that island keep my teachings alive. Imagine if a Sinhalese Buddhist like Rajapaksa himself—or some other visionary Sinhalese Buddhist politician—listening to the breeze whispering in the banana leaves—or listening instead to his own reasonable heart—for there are reasonable Sinhalese, compassionate Sinhalese, even visionary Sinhalese. If even one of them stood up in parliament and said, Listen, we have the power to act judiciously, so let’s call a halt to the war, hold Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings for ourselves and the Tigers to clear the air like the South Africans did, and then let’s grant the Tamil people, civilians and Tigers, their territory in the northern and eastern provinces. If they insist on a separate state, let’s grant them that, but let’s also suggest that a better solution might be to welcome them as equals into our present system—though with some changes in our system, such as cabinet posts.

The Tigers would have to agree, of course.

And agree to give up suicide bombing.

Here’s how Arafat de-commissioned the Black September suicide bombers. He called patriotic young women to come forward and offer themselves to the nation. Marry the Black Septembers, he said, and we’ll pay you two grand. Have a kid the first year and we add five.

They all went for it.

The Tamils might have a hard time trusting my version of Rajapaksa’s offer. But to entice them, suppose he rises to the occasion and says, Just to show you I’m serious, I’m going to appoint some new cabinet ministers—you get the drift.

My point is this: one visionary leader, respected and trusted, could begin to turn the tide. And when a tide turns, the water follows….

Click here to read Marilyn Krysl’s Fire Inside (which appeared last month in Guernica), the story of an American peace worker in the Sri Lankan city of Batticaloa watching one woman bravely face the worst the world can offer.

Marilyn Krysl’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories. Her fourth collection of stories, Dinner with Osama (ND Sullivan Prize Short Fiction), won the Richard Sullivan prize in 2008, and Swear the Burning Vow: Selected and New Poems will appear in 2009. She has served as Artist in Residence at the Center for Human Caring, worked as a volunteer for Peace Brigade International in Sri Lanka, and volunteered at the Kalighat Home for the Destitute and Dying administered by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity in Calcutta. In Boulder, she volunteers with the Lost Boys of Sudan and C-SAW, the Community of Sudanese and American Women.

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