Suspecting generally Tamils who belong to the younger age bracket as possible terrorists has a history of more than 30 years since the time Tamil youth took up arms to give effect to the Tamil Nationalist project of creating a separate state in Sri Lanka.
There are various ramifications of what this ‘feeling’ of suspicion can do to people. This post is a small note from my personal experiences. This is an issue, a theorem difficult to explain, but let me try. The central question that I pose in this post is whether one can separate his take on the ethnic politics of this country from affecting his friendship. My equation is this” politics has fuelled distrust and suspicion. Trust and confidence in each other are central ideals to any notion of friendship. Hence there has to be a connection.
Within an entrenched climate of distrust between the different ethnic communities in Sri Lanka it is my hunch that no amount of personal relationship and friendship can totally alleviate this feeling of suspicion. For a Sinhala speaking person I doubt whether it can be ever possible, how much ever long standing and close the friendship is, to be sure that his or her Tamil friend might not be a ‘LTTE type of Tamil’ ( I know its difficult to define this. I am not going to attempt to define it myself). Now this is not entirely problematic but what follows is: I will go a step further and say that it might not even possible for a Sinhala friend (when the suspicion is evoked externally) to easily dismiss the fact (in its entirety) that his Tamil friend might not be a member of the LTTE. Let me deal with two personal examples. One of my friends was once caught up in a mess where a member of an organisation that he used to head started spreading stories that he was either close or part of the LTTE. Now this sent ripples all round and some of his friends started to feel that they shouldn’t get ‘involved’ in ‘this’. They were ‘not sure’. Now I must quickly add that there were many friends of my friend’s – a whole host of them – whom he would flinch at the thought of even labelling them ‘Sinhala’ friends who stood by him. But my friend did feel that he was shocked by the response by quite a few (actually many) who were ‘not sure’.
The other situation was when this same friend of mine was arrested for all the wrong reasons or probably as some told him because he was stupid. Some of his friends worked very closely to get him out but they warned their other friends not to come to the police station to meet him. The reason: police would get suspicious, unnecessary questions would follow etc etc. Now this was very unfortunate. Being not to be with your friend during time of distress is as worse it can get.
These are difficult questions. Sometime back we organised a forum theatre looking at how the ethnic conflict has affected young peoples personal relationships with people in other communities. The plot revolved around two friends one Sinhalese and the other Tamil who were arrested for ‘loitering’ around (yes it is sort of a crime in this country). The parents of the Sinhala boy get him out without problem and the boy protests that he wont leave the police station unless his Tamil friend is also released. The parents drag the boy away from the police station. The police are shown in this theatre piece to advice the parents not to allow their son to have friendship with Tamils.
Last month I was in New York and I met up with my uncle who moved to the US after being forced to leave his country having been affected personally because of riots that took place in Colombo in 1983. Now both my aunt and uncle said that though a lot of their Sinhala friends had been helpful back in Colombo during those difficult times and continued to be good friends, it was impossible to shred away the thought which they believed was true that most of the ‘Sinhalese’ friends except for a handful of few friends were to use the popular term of their generation ‘communal minded’ when it came to politics and discussions that centred around how to resolve the conflict in Sri Lanka – that they never understood the problems of the Tamils. Now this is what academics who research on peace building and conflict resolution call a ‘protracted social conflict’- a type of conflict very very difficult to remedy.
The other side of the problem is this. For some Sinhalese there is no ethnic conflict because they all enjoy within their friendships many a Tamil. We all drink together have fun etc etc. For all those who think we don’t have an ethnic conflict because of your friendships my answer is: the test of friendships whether they are effected by politics or not is when the worst of your ‘suspicions’, unconsciously situated in you, are threatened. The foregoing paragraph where I narrate a conversation with my uncle and aunt is a dedication to them.
For me I wonder what would take to alleviate this distrust that has been built over centuries of reading history, passing down oral history and personal experiences. It will take a sea changing turn in our history (now what do these academics call it? ..hmmm..yes .. paradigm shift..!!) for us to push back our distrust of each other. There seems to be no indication of this happening in the near future.