Sanjana Hattotuwa, in The Island, 29 September 2018, where the title is Ïdentity and Belonging”
Sixteen years ago, I met a child soldier. He had a T-56 and was cocky. The A9 had opened up a few months ago, and taking it to Jaffna with a group of journalists, we encountered a checkpoint manned by the LTTE, past Omanthai. The children at the checkpoint, with guns strung around their torso loosely, were in the LTTE’s signature fatigue. Hostile and demanding, they curtly instructed our driver to provide the documentation to enter the area, which at the time the LTTE provided. One clambered into the driver’s seat as I sat in the passenger seat, knowing that if they wanted to be difficult, we would be stuck here for a while. I smiled. He didn’t. He looked around slowly, T-56 placed on the dashboard.
Our Toyota Hiace van had at the time a rarity – an in-dash CD player. Looking at it quizzically, he gestured to me authoritatively to explain what it was. I forget what I ended up playing, but I remember the soldier immediately giving way to the child beneath, as he smiled broadly at the music and still beaming, gestured excitedly to his smaller and probably even younger comrades to come listen. They assembled outside the driver’s door, all smiling ear to ear and pushing each other to see how the music was being generated. He played around with the controls, skipping tracks, replaying songs after a few seconds, ejecting the CD, looking at it as if it was an alien creation and then inserting it again into the player, gasping and recoiling a bit as it was sucked in automatically. This was repeated.
Clearly, itwas the first time he had encountered a CD and CD player in his life. And like any kid with a new toy, the player interested him far more than the sound it produced. I can’t remember his face anymore. But I remember his eyes, his smile and of all things, his gun – the scratches, marks and dents on it and the ammunition clip. I can’t remember what we did on that particular trip, but still vividly recall him and his friends, at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. I also recall the complete silence in the van as we drove away. We were all lost for words.
There is so much of what I saw, heard and experienced during the ceasefire agreement from 2002 to 2005 worth writing about someday. But the memory of a child soldier in the middle of the Vanni sprang to mind reading Francis Fukuyama’s latest, titled Identity. Fukuyama’s tome is at times unwieldy and unfocused, but in the main, is a fascinating exploration around the dynamics of identity and dignity in political systems, and the challenge of their accommodation and expression in a liberal democracy in particular. Fukuyama’s central thesis is that populism’s rise and appeal at present is because of the indignity suffered by those in society who are rendered invisible by the dominant narratives undergirding the politics, practices and policies of the government.
Akin to the points made by JD Vance in ‘Hillbilly Elegy’, Fukuyama suggests that the politics of the left has lost its way, focussing on ever smaller issues anchored to specific communities, giving way to right-wing politics that uses identity politics, including by appropriating the language of marginalisation and outrage, to appeal to ever greater numbers. Fukuyama focussed on the deterioration of liberal democracies in the West, but his critique of polarisation in political dialogue, lack of robust critique, the rise of emotion over reason, short-term fixes instead of long-term reform holds true even in Sri Lanka. Refreshingly, Fukuyama doesn’t posit any of this to social media. Towards the end of the book, he says that as much as social media is clearly responsible for exacerbating existing social, political and communal divides and thus contributing to violence, it also holds the key to greater cohesion, stronger democracy and better governance.
How to link this to the memory of a child soldier? I recall, to this day, driving away from that checkpoint looking at those children with guns disappear in the dust. I wondered then, as I do now, the conditions of a lived experience which contributed to, over time, a violent, armed movement to secure identity and dignity – constructs that a majoritarian, exclusive, and deeply discriminatory state had never afforded Tamils and other communities. 2015’s shift from authoritarianism to a government more open to criticism and less inclined to resort to violence against detractors hasn’t resulted in a stronger democracy. We are often told by the current government that we do not have to fear white vans; that the PM is subject to vicious and often unfair criticism, that the President considers he is the subject of awful media reportage, and that the inchoate nature of government is actually a feature of a more democratic form of governance.
All of this is in the absence of constitutional reform to address issues around identity and dignity that were drivers of violent conflict. More concretely, mothers of the disappeared are callously ignored by the President, who last week in the UN went on to deliver a speech that was as supremely misguided as it was detrimental to any meaningful reconciliation. But it is not just about the North and East, or Tamils. Fukuyama makes the point that poverty-stricken whites from the Rust Belt feel particularly marginalised, because they have no one to champion the lived experience they endure, and risk being called petty or privileged for flagging issues around economic injustice, disenfranchisement, debilitating debt, poor education, health issues, the lack of any social safety net, hopelessness and marginalisation they too face acutely, daily and without respite or relief. The electoral outcome, as Fukuyama notes in countries without a firm sense of an overarching national identity, is the rise of populism that fine-tune into discontent across geography, uniting disparate groups who suffer the indignity of poverty and the discrimination of an insensitive government.
I remembered a child soldier from over 16 years ago, unlikely to be alive today, because that single, brief encounter encapsulated beyond anything I can pen the sheer horror of war, and why its meaningful resolution can never be achieved by military, political or communal dominance. If belonging and dignity are, as Fukuyama strongly suggests, central to a stable democracy, Sri Lanka is very far from it. If fear or anxiety is what continues to unite the greatest number amongst us, and if pride in a supra-national identity eludes us, I do not believe we are very far from renewed violence. A child with a gun manning a checkpoint in Sri Lanka is not something I want ever to see or encounter again.
I just fear I might.