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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Politics and Language in Sri Lanka

Politics and Language in Sri Lanka

George Orwell, in his famous essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) noted, inter alia, the following:
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” Poor villages are bombarded from the air and the inhabitants driven out: this is called “pacification.” Peasants are “robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.” Because, sitting comfortably, one cannot say, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so”, one says something like, “While freely conceding that the regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.” In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics”. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. Language, by concealing and misleading, can “corrupt” thought.
The Indian Defence Review report (see, Montage, Colombo, October 2009, pages 27-31) identifies factors that led to victory against the Tamil Tigers. The language used in that and other erudite reports and analyses reminds me of Orwell’s essay. For example, one factor cited in the report as contributing to military success were the steps taken by the government to “regulate” (sic) the media so as to ensure “a unidirectional flow of conflict information” (sic). This translates into plain English as media censorship and state propaganda, that is, into both suppression and falsification. The admired “Go to hell” attitude adopted by the government of Sri Lanka vis-a-vis foreign governments and humanitarian organisations means that humanitarian considerations and compassion were rejected. Innocent, trapped and petrified children, women and men were made to pay an appalling price in the unnecessary haste to ‘finish the job’: “wade through slaughter” to victory and power, and “shut the gates of mercy on mankind” (Thomas Gray).
Secondly, from incorrect questions one cannot arrive at correct answers but I would draw attention to a question not asked by the Review or by anyone else. Allow me to quote from ‘A “great” military victory?’ published by you recently (Sunday Leader, 25 October 2009).
It is thought that, at their height, the Tigers perhaps numbered 30,000. Towards the end, down to a few thousand (finally, a few hundred), they faced an army of (again, perhaps) 250,000. The Tigers did not have jets and helicopters. Their mono, propeller, planes were slow and clumsy, and of no real military value. Rejected by foreign governments, the Tigers were as isolated internationally as they were totally surrounded in geographic and military terms. In contrast, the government of Sri Lanka received help and advice from several countries, even from those states in competition with, and suspicious of, each other. The Taliban fight in mountainous, inaccessible, terrain, while the Tigers occupied flat land, albeit forested. Sri Lanka being an island (and the government of the nearest country, India, implacably hostile), the LTTE did not have borders over which they could easily slip, regroup, recover and return to continue the struggle. The wonder is not that the government eventually won but that it took so long for final victory to be achieved.
The last should surely be investigated: given the above facts, why did victory take so long? The answer will point to shameful elements, such as money made through war, including lucrative commissions on the purchase of weaponry (at times, of poor quality and / or of little use); political corruption, nepotism and military incompetence; covert political compromise and secret “horse trading”; foreign governments playing roles which changed in Machiavellian fashion (or, if one prefers an Eastern text, in the spirit of Kautilya’s treatise on government, Arthashastra) according to their perceived interests, and so on. Most damningly, those in political power, as well as those in military command, were indifferent to the injury and death suffered by rank-and-file soldiers, drawn largely from the rural poor and the working class. (See, Elmo Jayawardena’s poignant, Sam’s Story.) Wounded, traumatized and disabled soldiers were not adequately cared for; close relations (wife and children; parents) of those killed not financially sustained. These last help to explain why recruitment was then difficult; why, for long, morale was low, and the rate of desertion embarrassingly high; why, at times, the Tigers were able to equip themselves with weapons abandoned by fleeing troops. Of course, as already indicated, another factor that contributed to the prolongation of the war was that the Tigers, granted their ethical failures and political failings (both several and of a grievous nature) did fight with exceptional courage and tenacity. Mr Christopher Rezel (Sri Lankan writer and journalist, now in Australia) in a recent message to me, points this out:
“Be that as it may, the LTTE leader must have had (a) brave and (b) brilliant men and women. Otherwise, those daring and successful military victories could never have been achieved – and there were many such battle-victories against unbelievable odds and circumstances. As for (b) above, consider the building of an air force and submarines, however rudimentary; the construction of airstrips and ports. Given time, they may have even got guided missiles up in the air!”
But to take up, discuss or argue this aspect here would distract from the present focus.
It is well to bask in the glow of victory (and exploit it for maximum political mileage), but if corruption is to be reduced, an honest examination of the conduct of the war over the last thirty years or more should be undertaken. Uncomfortable questions must not be swept under the carpet. In the long-term interests of the Island and its well-being, not only the reasons for victory, but why a totally unequal conflict prolonged itself for so long should also be confronted and investigated. The people are entitled to, and deserve, the truth, the total truth.
The laurel crown of victory must not be allowed to serve also as the proverbial fig-leaf that hides embarrassment and shame.

Charles Sarvan

by courtesy of: The Sunday Leader

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