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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The diary of an extraordinary human being: A Review of Ben Bavinck’s "Of Tamils and Tigers"

The Island, 24/06/2011, NOTEBOOK OF A NOBODY

by Shanie

"This is a time of reflection for the Tamil community; a time for refashioning its politics. Even though the Tamil nationalist vision for a separate state met with a decisive military defeat in 2009, the politico-military decline of the LTTE had begun far earlier, with the convergence of multifarious set of political developments, both local and international, that began the downward spiral at a time when seemingly the LTTE was at its strongest.....

This time of reckoning is not just for the Tamils but also for the majority Sinhala community....Today, after the end of the war, the minorities fear that history is being rewritten. They fear that injustices meted out to the minorities are being written off that there is an unwillingness on the part of the majority community, even after years of destruction and polarisation in the country, to ...understand and acknowledge the history that pushed the Tamils to the edge, into the arms of the Tigers, (to understand) the uneasy relationship that ordinary Tamils had with the LTTE …...(and) that the demands for democracy and accountability are being brushed aside by an arrogant authoritarian state."

Rajani Thiranagama, an academic attached to the Medical Faculty of the University of Jaffna, was brutally shot and killed allegedly by an LTTE cadre in 1989. It was she, along with a few of her colleagues in the University of Jaffna who formed the University Teachers for Human Rights which became well known for the courageous stand they took against violations of human rights by the different actors in the Thirty Years War. Because of the principled stand the UTHR took, Thiranagama was gunned down and the other leaders like Rajan Hoole and Sritharan were driven underground. But despite these setbacks, the UTHR continued to publish their bulletins at regular intervals. These bulletins came to acquire a reputation for reliability in investigative reporting. They were able to do this because they obviously had a network of trusted informants which they cross-checked for accuracy before publication. It was this independence and integrity that made the UTHR bulletins become so very reliable, leading to the UTHR receiving the Martin Ennals Award as brave defenders of human rights.

A group of people who shared the vision and thinking of Thiranagama and the UTHR formed the Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Committee to remember the twentieth anniversary of Thiranagama’s assassination. The Committee continues to function and has taken the initiative in publishing, in collaboration with Vijitha Yapa Publications, the diaries of Ben Bavinck, a Dutch church worker, who was both a teacher of Thiranagama and a close friend of the founders and leaders of the UTHR. The diaries are published under the title ‘Of Tamils and Tigers - a journey through Sri Lanka’s war years’. The book was launched in London recently and the quotation at the head of this column is from the Introduction to the Diaries written by the Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Committee. Whereas the UTHR bulletins were based on investigative reporting by the authors, Bavinck’s dairies are personal reflections by the author during the period covered which is from 1988-1994. (A second volume covering the years 1994-2004 is under preparation.) The bulletins and the diaries therefore complement each other in providing the only accurate and independent recording of the events of that period in our country’s troubled past.

Bavinck’s diaries were originally maintained in Dutch (for understandable reasons) and have been translated into English for publication. They are frank and written in a style that makes for easy reading. It will be an indispensable tool for anyone researching the political and social history of Sri Lanka during the war years. Although it is essentially about the North and East, there are many references to the happenings in Colombo and elsewhere in the South as Bavinck operated from Colombo during this period as the relief co-ordinator for the National Christian Council. Like the UTHR bulletins, Bavinck’s diaries are balanced and the sensitive concern of the diarist for peace and justice comes through very clearly. As Professor Valentine Daniel says in his Foreword, in the hands of the lesser man, the years covered in the diary could have been given to a selective recording of the vilest and the most hateful aspects of the period, a journal dedicated solely to the pornography of violence. "It is not so with Ben Bavinck, who sees moments in the midst of war of acts of humanity and shared human concerns on both sides, and even when he witnessed the worst, he was capable of envisioning the possibility and promise of it being otherwise."

The Diary

A sample of the entries will show the depth and the fairness of the diarist’s recordings:

!3th September 1988 (following a JVP declared Hartal the previous day): "I found that the success of yesterday’s Hartal has really shocked people. A few men with guns can apparently start a rule of fear. Would it be possible to break this by refusing and resisting on a mass scale? Does a whole society give in too easily? It looks as if the Jaffna story has started here too. How will it ever end?"

20th September 1988: "I feel tired and lethargic. But I decided nevertheless to walk around the Beira Lake. While walking, I was thinking about the situation in the North, where one finds an atmosphere of cynicism about the Indian proposed ceasefire. "It will not lead to anything!" and "How can our ‘boys’ trust the Indians?" It is important to break through this cynicism and not to forget that this is one of the few chances we have got to bring an end to the violence and misery. And we should not forget that neither the Indians nor the Sinhalese have much reason to trust the Tigers. It is necessary to have a positive attitude which is willing to take risks. But actually one so often comes across a cynical mindset, which can only lead to the disintegration of this island."

8th July 1989 (following President Premadasa’s wooing of the LTTE to oppose the IPKF): "One of the most amazing and incomprehensible developments is the total reversal in Sinhalese opinion about the Tigers. Of course, one can notice this in Premadasa’s appeal to the IPKF not to attack the Tigers. But the most amazing example of this changed attitude was at a meeting of our own Rehabilitation Committee where a Sinhalese pastor said, ‘The Indians must stop killing our boys.’ Our boys! Who are these boys? They are the Tigers! Really unbelievable!

1st August 1989: "The murders by the JVP continue. Now a popular Sinhalese TV personality, Mr Guruge, has been killed. I heard that when Mrs Guruge had found her badly wounded husband and wanted to take him to hospital, all cars simply drove on....Fear demoralises people and the community as a whole. One has to pray that one will not, like the priest and the Lebvite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, just pass by when suddenly a fellow human being in desperate need lies at one’s feet."

1st October1989: "On Sunday morning I cycled from Vaddukoddai to Jaffna to visit the Rajasingham family, the parents and sisters of Rajani. My old colleague Rajasingham was very downcast, and he wondered whether Rajani had not been too audacious. But he felt that the urge to stand up for justice and human rights came from deep within her being. He asked me to speak at the meeting in the university in her memory the next day. He mentioned that I had been her teacher, and that my stories about the Second World War and about resistance to the Nazis had influenced her. I also talked to Rajan Hoole. He was practically sure the ‘the striped animals’ had done this, but didn’t want to speak about this at this time, so as not to disturb the ceremonies in commemoration of Rajani. He told me that Rajani had been shot from behind as she was cycling home from the university, by someone on a bicycle."

2nd October 1989: "In the morning, I finished preparing my speech and proceeded to the university. There we heard that the procession through the town, in the morning, had been attended by 3000 people, including the Vice-Chancellor if the University, Prof Thurairajah. The Kailasapathy Auditorium was also filled completely when the meeting started under the chairmanship of the vice-chancellor. There were twelve speakers. I spoke about that sentence from the Gospel, which says that unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will not bear fruit. Self-sacrifice as a vocation, which only the best among us dare to accept."

21st February 1990: "Back in Colombo, I attended the funeral of Richard de Zoysa, a well-known TV journalist, age 35, who in the night had been taken out of his house and killed. His body had been founded the next day by a fisherman as it was floating in the sea. There are suspicions against the Police, but a top minister, without offering any proof, coolly blamed RAW, the Indian Secret Service."

20th August 1990: "This morning I heard that the unfortunate Methodist pastor who was trapped with his lorry at Iyakachchi had still not been relieved. Another Methodist convoy had been attacked by a helicopter resulting in Rev Govindaraj being wounded in the back of his head. Going to Vaddukoddai, I met Principal Jebanesan also on his bicycle. He told me that Vaddukoddai had been bombed just then. We cycled there quickly and found that two dive-bombers had indeed been busy dropping four bombs. One destroyed the Primary school of Jaffna College by the side of the church, another fell behind the church near the boys’ home, which was badly damaged. The boys had all been in a bunker and were not hurt, but some teachers had sought refuge under a water tank. One of them was killed by a piece of shrapnel which had penetrated his abdomen. One bomb fell on a Co-op Store and another fell on a private house, where four people were killed, two of them children of 11 and 8 years. Totally incomprehensible why this bombardment took place. Were they under the impression that small arms factories were operated here by the Tigers?"

15th April 1994: "Sri was here. He told me about a Tamil friend Manoranjan, who writes very good Sinhala and regularly contributes a column to the organ of MIRJE, called Yukthiya, in which he describes the situation in Jaffna and the feelings and perplexities of people there. Apparently this column provokes many reactions from Sinhalese people, often even from persons in the armed forces. Many of these reactions show much understanding and compassion. It confirms the idea that the ordinary Sinhalese person is very friendly and capable of tolerance and understanding for others. The intolerance is found among the more educated Sinhalese. Sri also told me ...a Tamil university professor had reproached the UTHR (J) that it was all the time criticising the Tigers. He seemed to feel that we should not speak about the failings and misdeeds of the Tigers while the fight was still on."

Need for critical assessment

Bavinck, who lived and worked in Sri Lanka for a total of thirty three years, in two almost equal spells, had a sensitive mind that enabled him to reflect with understanding on the conflict in Sri Lanka. He lived in his native Netherlands during the Nazi occupation in the Second World War and says that that experience had a profound impact on him, creating a deep abhorrence of authoritarian fascist rule. He was publishing his diaries in the hope that it would ‘help the Tamils as well as the Sinhalese to strengthen a critical assessment of the policies and actions of their own government/movements/armed forces during the period covered. This may be of value in the ongoing search for a lasting peace in Sri Lanka.’ Even after the war has ended now, that critical assessment is still needed, Even more, a critical self-assessment is needed by everyone in Sri Lanka to reflect if we have shown any real understanding of the pain and suffering of ‘the other’ and instead become mere apologists for the failings and misdeeds of the government/armed militants/armed forces in our country’s tragic past and present.

As Professor Valentile Daniel states in his Foreword, Bavinck’s Diary entries are ‘a record of what he had seen and has now witnessed; an emotionally charged landscape that was at once subtle and plain, complex and transparent, objective yet interpreted. This diary is a gift, not only to the historian and research scholar, but to every (Sri Lankan) citizen, whatever be the state with which he or she chooses to identify himself/herself with.’ In addition to Ben Bavinck, we have to be grateful to the Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Committee and Vijitha Yapa Publications for making this Diary available to a wider readership.

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