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Recollections from 1989 – Sri Lanka

October 24, 2010

Recollections from 1989 – Sri Lanka

First published: 9-6-2008

It seems like not so long ago. Yet the passage of time which seems so rapid does obscure old memories with new minor crisis. After sitting and drinking and laughing with in laws you can recall the vast difference between what was then and what is now. What are the differences that can be noticed between then and now in Sri Lanka. Perhaps sitting around and laughing about the past shows the difference.


I remember much from that time as I fell into a world where for the first time I was alien, the fish out of water, the stranger who looked at all things from a different perspective. The time was not like now and words could not be spoken openly as they are now. A whisper the wrong way would raise a suspicion and anything more than a suspicion was dangerous. Curfews closed the streets at night as terrorism closed the minds of the rulers from all sides. The real threat to the nation at that time was from a very complicated terrorist group called the JVP (Marxist by Ideology) and they did manage to terrify people in Colombo far more than the LTTE ever did. Suicide bombings were random and sporadic but a cohesive attack on the entire nation was something else. The doctors were ordered not to go to the hospitals and treat patients or they would be killed. Another day the bus drivers were ordered not to drive busses or they would be killed. People were assassinated and kidnapped regularly for the sake of a cause. The universities were shut due to the problem of political radicalism on campus. The impossible dilemma was either to join the JVP or be crushed, or to join and be crushed by the government.


We need not forget that the government was as ruthless as it could be at that time. Killing people based upon numbers rather than guilt. Bodies floated down the main river through Colombo on such regularity that parents would wait on the bridge looking for signs of loved ones. Why was it so?


To try to comprehend how ruthless a human can be you need only hear a fraction the things that I have heard. No animal can ever be like man in all his logical application of achieving an agenda. No animal so ruthless or no animal so cruel. Logic can be without the slightest amount of mercy if we let it.


There were incidents that stand out from my memory. One was several years prior when to head off the JVP the government was about to pass a law that would give complete amnesty from prosecution to all police officers fighting terrorism. The second incident was when the JVP stated that they would kill any person who came to vote on election day. The first incident caused all the religious communities of the island to form a united voice and condemn the law. Had they not done so then the law would have passed giving police unlimited power without fear of prosecution. The second incident was far more serious as it was an attack upon the foundations of a democratic society. In this case it was also the religious clergy of the island who put forward statement. That this was something that would not let happen and declared that they would all get up early and be first to vote. If anyone was to be killed then they would be willing to be first in the name of protecting democracy. This included priests and nuns who lined up ready to take the bullet. The bluff was called and the elections went ahead. Even the ruthless know their limits and fear to lose whatever veneer of respect that they may have.


This dark time passed as all dark times pass when the terrorist wing of the JVP was wiped out after the leader was captured and was killed mysteriously. The time where it was impossible to speak out against anything passed. In this time a word against the government or the JVP in any public place could easily end up with a bullet in the head. You did not know from where the bullet would come if you spoke out. People would kill people to win favour and other for the miserly sum of a few thousand Rupees. A human life was worth less than what I earned in a week.


Years later I watch with astonishment at the changes that have taken place from the effort of new film makers. I watch as words and criticisms of corrupt politicians are included into films where perhaps a decade ago would have had the person secretly executed. An unflattering photograph of President Premedasa’s wife culminated in the photographer being assassinated. The change in attitude is vastly different than what seems like just a few years ago.


Memories do fade and what is left is hardly the most accurate recollection of what occurred. Times and dates become vague but always what is the worst and the best in humanity is retained. These were hard times where fear was overwhelming and yet courage could still be seen. It was like a small glow that even the darkest moments could not extinguish.

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