What makes the destruction of one life more acceptable than the destruction of a thousand? The answer may seem obvious to some – even most. But I disagree. The destruction of one life, to me, is not less terrifying and condemnable than the destruction of a thousand. As mortars and landmines take the lives of hundreds at a time, headlines are printed. 100 dead here, 60 dead there. Those far away from these explosions may shed a tear or two, and talk about the atrocity that is war over a scrumptious dinner with the family. But the reality of it all never hits you until you actually visit the field of war, where broken families still live in broken homes.
A last minute change in travel plans afforded me one more week in Sri Lanka. My family agreed to a trip to Trincomalee, another war-afflicted area towards the North-East of Sri Lanka, where they would enjoy the beautiful turquoise beaches and I could talk to natives and do more research. This is the paradox of Sri Lanka. A beautiful paradise island with a tumultuous history of violence and ongoing prejudice and political power struggles.
I am collecting mostly ethnographic research on my observations of the destruction of the war, coupled with some of the “resettlement” that is going on. I put this within quotation marks because it was the word generously thrown around by a military official we are travelling with. I thought I’d add some pictures to this post, of the ongoing resettlement of war-afflicted people in the area. I applaud those who have built homes for these people. But post-war efforts need to go beyond simply the provision of homes, war and electricity. Indeed, am emphasis needs to be placed on reconciliatory efforts at educating children and adults alike, moving towards a change in attitudes from attention to difference to movement towards integration.
You may think – how?
But the more compelling mindset in Sri Lanka seems to be – “impossible.”
“…the Tamil people who live in Jaffna, they’re very strong-headed people, very brainy people, they’re born to study…And… they’re also… I mean, they also, they don’t give in? Type? So… that led to lot of disaster.” –(007A) – Sinhalese participant, referring to Sinhalese perpetrator, Tamil victims incident.
“And there – I don’t think there was much of a difference between in those areas who was LTTE and who wasn’t. Because they were all for it. Majority of them.” –(022B) – Sinhalese participant, referring to Sinhalese perpetrator, Tamil victims incident.
“They are the majority. They are selfish. It’s not in them, in their blood, to help us…” –(071B) – Tamil participant, referring to Tamil perpetrator, Sinhalese victims incident.
Essentialist attribution. I’ve found that the minority, or disadvantaged group tends to essentialize themselves in a bid for disavowal of agency at their position of being victimized. The majority group also tends to essentialize the disadvantaged group in justifying why they acted/discriminated as they did. Essentialist beliefs are embedded deep into the mentality of individuals here, in justifying large scale ethnic conflict to explaining domestic quarrels. When one believes that the other is born in a certain way, it becomes the ultimate justification for defending oneself, or acting the way s/he did, as attempting to change the behavior of the individual is ‘impossible.’ It is only through the circulation of ‘facts’ that show that such stereotypic traints are not necessarily qualities that individuals are born with that can move individuals towards a change in their view of the other. I hope to study such essentialist attribution in my Psychology thesis, while deconstructing it further in my English thesis to explore its role in the politicization of trauma through propaganda under the guidance of Professor Lisa Kasmer and Professor James Elliott.
Reconciliation must go beyond resettlement. And more importantly, individuals of power need to understand that a misrepresentation of events and half-truths only serve the needs of those cushioned in air-conditioned cars and million dollar homes. The misunderstandings between the West and the politicians of this island can be resolved better if one stops focusing on the ‘big picture’ of infrastructure and tourism that would boost the ‘overall economy’ of the country, and instead look into the social education of the people themselves. Sri Lankan may nurture some of the most driven, school-oriented children in the world, but its population is sadly illiterate when it comes to understanding the vicious cycle of social prejudice (both Sinhalese and Tamils alike) that hinders reconciliation in such a multi-ethnic setting. Opportunities need to be provided for all, and the discrepancy between the ‘development’ that is printed in the media and the actual state of the individuals needs to be addressed. This is again is only possible if the people understand that change is, in fact, possible.