On Distrust, Suspicion and Personal Friendships: Understanding the Effects of a Socially Protracted Ethnic Conflict

This is a post that Aachcharya wrote for the Forgottendiaries.org project in June this year. Being reproduced given the current relevance.

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.

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One response to “On Distrust, Suspicion and Personal Friendships: Understanding the Effects of a Socially Protracted Ethnic Conflict

  1. Sie.Kathieravealu

    “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.”

    “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.”

    The answer for the above two quotations can be found in the text below:

    In Sri Lanka, the trouble started due to discrimination and injustice and continues due to bribery and corruption. These may be the reasons for troubles in other countries too.

    Current wars have to be ended and new wars have to be prevented. To achieve this goal the present system of Democratic Governance has to be changed to one that is really democratic in its true sense.

    In the present democratic system it is only the powerful – speech, money and thuggery – can join the ruling class to suppress or convert others all others as their subjects and is a fertile ground for “corruption” in various forms to thrive.

    In my opinion “Corruption” includes any kind of waste, neglect and every form of malpractice, dishonesty, abuse, misuse, unreasonable exercise of power, failure or refusal to exercise power, anything and everything left undone which results in the right of the people being denied or impaired.

    Without a “just society” in existence much talked about “terrorism” cannot be eradicated. For the creation of a “just society” there should be “good governance” in the country. For the creation of “good governance” in the country “corruption” in ALL its forms must be eradicated. And to eradicate “corruption” the present democratic system of governance, where full power to make final decisions ultimately rests in the hands of one person, must be changed.

    So the only way to salvage a country is to change the present system of governance to one that is truly democratic where the final decision-making power will NOT be in the hands of ONE person BUT shared by as many people as possible and thus restricting any individual hasty decisions that might lead to trouble everywhere.

    To make a country truly democratic, the powers of the Parliament (the decision making supreme body of a country) should be split and separated and each of the separated powers must be handled by different groups of persons selected and elected by the people for the purpose of administering EACH SET OF POWERS or duties as the case may be so that no single group has the full power. All the groups together will make the whole. The country is not divided but the powers of parliament are divided/separated.

    Different groups have to be elected for such purposes as administration, fiscal management, planning, implementing, policy and law making, auditing and for any other function that may be deemed necessary.

    The group that is entrusted with the power to make laws and regulations shall not be given the duty/power of implementing/administering the laws and regulations.

    Particular care should be taken to see that all powers are NOT CONCENTRATED in one place and that they do not overlap and there must not be a secret budget to be handled by a single person.

    All transactions should be transparent including Diplomacy which has to be diplomatically transparent.

    One set of powers dealing with the development of the country should be given to the set of representatives at the village level. The people of each and every village must be empowered to determine their way of life (lifestyle). The life-style of a village, its lands and resources shall not be disturbed by external forces.

    All plans of development of a village that remotely/indirectly affects the village must have the concurrence of the people of that village concerned.

    It has to be ensured that people are treated equitably regardless of their gender, race, colour, ethnic or national origins, age, disability, socio-economic background, religious or political beliefs and affiliations, marital status, family responsibilities, sexual orientation or other inappropriate distinction;

    The decision-making powers with regard to each and every set of powers must be spread through-out the country.

    With such system in practice discrimination, injustice, bribery and corruption, the four pillars of an Evil society might become history.

    When the above four pillars of Evil are eradicated, the people would be living under a system that would guarantee sustainable peace, prosperity and a pleasant living to everyone in any country.

    Comments on the above views are solicited from everyone with a view to prevent future wars and end current wars.

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