Jack-boots in the Island Country
Originally published in Himal
As much as we would like to forget certain unsavoury events of the past, they refuse to let go of the present. They keep coming back to haunt us, shaping the way to the future. Totalitarian states are scared of the past. The past always raises questions and dictators hate questions. They shoo the past away through all means possible. And the best way to do that is through discipline and mind control. Control as such would ensure submission and obedience. The individual is taught to obey and execute, not to think and question. Dictators all over the world practise this art. Sri Lanka is on its way to perfect it. A country that desires uniformity in race, now requires its youth to follow a uniform pattern in thought and action.
Introducing the ‘Leadership Training Programme’, an obligatory three-week course for university entrants.
Trained by the best in business – men in military uniforms.
Training to be held at your friendly neighbourhood Lankan military camp.
Send in your child and he will turn out a patriot. Even if he comes from the other community.
And university students of the other community, the Tamil community, received a pleasant surprise when they found summons for this course lying at their doorstep – written in Sinhalese. A Tamil contact from Colombo pointed out the comic aspect of this. ‘Imagine Palestinian students getting summons in Hebrew for a military training course from the occupying Israeli army,’ she said. The parallel seemed apt. Israel requires all its citizens above the age of 18 to attend compulsory military training. The rigorous course at the Israeli Defence Forces lasts 3 years for men and 2 for women. Besides the physical drills and conditioning of the body, the army drills in a state of paranoia and conformity into the trainees. ‘Look! You are engulfed by Arabs! Love your country! We need to kill if we need to live!’ At the end of the course, most Israelis buy this. A nation of zombies is created and to challenge this requires not just phenomenal courage, but also phenomenal creativity. Agamben’s famous state of emergency becomes the state of mind for an Israeli citizen. Lanka follows similar path…
As far as racialization is concerned, the Sri Lankan military outshines their Israeli counterpart. Over 98% of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces is Sinhalese. They are celebrated heroes of the chauvinist sections of the Sinhalese population, who consider them the ‘saviours of the Sinhala-Buddhist race’. If they end up as educators, one can already imagine the kind of lessons that will be taught. A BBC report has said that the training will include ‘physical drills and conflict management’ in order to ‘increase mental and physical fitness’ among students. It is the mental part that is the most worrying. In a country where left-liberals speak in the language of conservatives and conservatives are rabid fascists, a mentally fit Sri Lankan is a Sinhala nationalist. And that is how the Army would train its students. To become ‘authentic’ Sri Lankans.
The timing seems ironical. On18 May, Tamils world over mourned the massacre of over 40,000 of their kin by the Sri Lankan armed forces two years ago. Ever since its ‘victory’ over the LTTE, the Sri Lankan army has systematically destroyed all traces of the rebel outfit’s existence. ‘Peace’ in Sri Lanka was the name of camps where over 300,000 Tamils were detained in pathetic conditions. ‘Unity’ meant repeated sexual assaults of captured Tamil women and forced pregnancies. And ‘Order’ meant torture and executions. Veracity of this was proven by different footages of the Lankan Army’s brutalities on the Tamils. While international agencies like the Permanent People’s Tribunal and the United Nations have lambasted the Sri Lankan government for its (mis)conduct of the war and its wanton targeting and abuse of Tamil civilians, the Sri Lankan government seems to be desperate to project an image of a united country. And this is why when the recent UN report accused the government of committing war crimes in its military operations against the Tigers, the government went head over heels to mobilize international support to prevent prosecution of those involved.
While such antics were played out in the international circus, the local theatre in Sri Lanka had a different drama. A seminar on ‘Defeating Terrorism’ was held from 31 May to 3 June. Co-sponsored by China, the event was attended by military representatives from over 40 countries including India, Pakistan, Russia, Kenya and other countries who have had quite flawed democratic traditions. The top personnel in the Sri Lankan Defence sector have credited their success to the militarization of the country’s society. Sri Lanka’s external affairs minister has asked for a reworking of international laws in a way that would enable governments like his to combat terror more effectively. Those who have seen the execution videos from the last stages of the war on the LTTE, where captured men and women were paraded naked, abused and then shot, can have an idea of how a ‘war on terror’ approach based on the Sri Lankan model would be.
The move to involve students in courses conducted by the military is an attempt to defuse, especially among the Tamils students, any attempt to protest the past actions of the Lankan state. Considering that the Tamil liberation struggle led by the LTTE was itself assisted by an active student community, Sri Lanka would love to erase all possibilities of some likeness of the past re-emerging. The military apparatus that it seeks to incorporate in universities, then, is not an isolated aberration but is part of the very aberration that is the Lankan state.
A Tamil from Jaffna said over chat that he would send his son to India for graduation and then, if possible, abroad. ‘We have seen what the army has done to our people. It is not right for the murderers of our children to become their tutors. It is not right.’ But it is. In united Sri Lanka, it is.