Feature Article

‘Development’ conquistadors have no appetite for psychological need of Eezham Tamils

[TamilNet, Friday, 20 August 2010, 07:07 GMT]
Psychotherapy provides meaning for the enormous suffering people have undergone to hope for the future and to hope for trust in the world, says Daya Somasundaram of the University of Jaffna, one of the very few psychiatrics serving the war affected Eezham Tamils in the island. Considering the long history in the island, the meaning comes only when Eezham Tamils get their land and affairs into their hands and when their nation is recognised. But the ‘development’ conquistadors of the West and India show no appetite for basic psychology needed for regeneration in the context of the island, commented Tamil circles, citing Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Menon Rao who is scheduled to visit the island saying that conflict in the island had ended and India has to go beyond rehabilitation to look at development, without any reference to the crux of the matter.

The dimensions of the psychiatric crisis in the nation of Eezham Tamils as a result of the trauma inflicted on them by the war, revealed by Professor Daya Somasundaram of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Jaffna, clearly show what psychological requirements should precede the ‘development’ campaign.

His paper “Collective trauma in the Vanni – a qualitative inquiry into the mental health of the internally displaced due to the civil war in Sri Lanka,” appeared in International Journal of Mental Health Systems was based on participant observation and field study. It was especially focussing on family and community level adverse effects and their implication on resettlement, rehabilitation and development.

Within the limits of a person working in the island, Prof Daya Somasundaram has shown exceptional courage in subtly bringing out the picture, commented diaspora Tamil circles adding that his paper has to be read giving due allowances and keeping in mind that it comes from the island where doctors who worked with the people are silenced in captivity, survival is the concern of witnesses and where the state and abetters are keen that the blame for people’s suffering should mainly fall on the vanquished.

Highlighting the collective perspectives of the crisis and arguing for appropriate approaches, Daya Somasundaram says “There are hardly any spontaneous complains of individual symptoms or suffering. Even where a person talks of his or her personal agony, it is framed in general terms, reflecting what happened to the family or community,”

“The family and community are part of the self, their identity and consciousness. The demarcation or boundary between the individual self and the outside becomes blurred. The well being of the individual member is experienced as the wellbeing of the family and community. For example, Tamil families, due to close and strong bonds and cohesiveness in nuclear and extended families, tend to function and respond to external threat or trauma as a unit rather than as individual members. They share the experience and perceive the event in a particular way.”

“Similarly, in the Tamil communities, the village and its people, way of life and environment provided organic roots, a sustaining support system, nourishing environment and network of relationships. The village traditions, structures and institutions were the foundations and framework for their daily life. In the Tamil culture, a person’s identity was defined to a large extent by their village or uur of origin [98]. Their uur more or less placed the person in a particular socio-cultural matrix.”

But what Daya Somasudaram highlight as important to the mental health are the ones that are targeted for disruption by genocidal elements on one hand, and ‘development’ conquistadors on the other.

Given his constrains, Daya Somasundaram stops at the terms family and community in discussing the collectivity of the crisis. But one of his participants says the rest of it – the real larger dimension of the psychological crisis:

“Our longing was for freedom. Not necessarily by arms but that we should govern in our land. We wanted rule by the people because our past ethnic leaders had made many historical blunders (varallattu thavaruhal). Whether we liked it or not, we were forced to accept the struggle (porrattam). Although many of our expectations may not come to pass, at least one day, freedom and after that dawn (vidivu). This was the longing of many. Many lost much for this goal. But now we regret that the last 30 years have all been in vain. This anguish is greater than all the suffering we have been through,” says a participant of Somasundaram’s study.

The state does not recognize the concept of psychosocial needs or support, and it resists to well-meaning efforts, says the psychiatrist.

In his opinion, “it would appear that the state still fears a regrouping of the destroyed LTTE, but more harbours a deep paranoia based on ethnocentric perceptions of the ‘other’ to prevent any future minority mobilization”.

“Instead of using the historic opportunity for national reconciliation, the repressive ethnocentric approach without dealing with the underlying grievances in the long term will only alienate the minorities once again.

“If there is no healing of memories, merely a repression, the untreated collective trauma could well turn into resentment and rekindle cycles of violence once again,” the psychiatrist said.

The participants of his study came out with voicing anger against Colombo, the LTTE, US, NATO and the UN. But there was a particular outburst of anger against India, Tamil Nadu and Karunanidhi.

The following were some of the statements of the participants:

“Mullivaikal was where the Vanni Thamilan (Tamil persons) had their hair shorn and mouth gagged while nails were driven through their hands and legs like the scene at Calvary while 80 million (world) Tamils looked on”.

“There was a strong expectation that India would do something among the Vanni people. At least they would put a stop to the shelling. One thing became clear that people had a strong belief to the last that India would come to their rescue. One could see the sticker from the parcel, “From the Indian people” stuck on the tharapan shacks of the people for a long while afterwards”.

“When we were at Vellammullivaikal, the Tamil Nadu (in India) Chief Minister’s fasting drama created some hope of a ceasefire, a restriction on the use of heavy weaponry. There was brightening in the faces of people. There was no food to eat, no water to drink, no medicine for wounds but we believed the person who represented 60 million Tamils”.

“In the 2009 final battle too, the LTTE had pinned considerable hope on Tamil Nadu politics. Karunanidhi the chief minister in Tamil Nadu had gone on a publicity fast but called it off when the Lankan state promised not to use heavy weapons and offered a ceasefire. Some of the narrative accounts mentioned people listening intently on the radio amidst the raging battle for news of the election results from India that came in just before the last onslaught, dashing all hopes”.

“Those who believed till the end kept looking towards the sea for a saviour. The last hope dissolved with the Indian election results”.

The Indian Foreign Secretary, who announced in Chennai Thursday that an Indian Consulate in Jaffna would be opened this year, was harping on always-close linkages between the northern parts of Sri Lanka and southern parts of India. “We would like to see recreation of that old vision of friendship, affinity that existed across the Palk Strait which had been disrupted by the civil war,” she further said.

News reports say that she is visiting the island after M. Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, urged New Delhi to send an envoy to visit war-affected areas to assess the situation. Sometimes back Tamil National Alliance parliamentarians who visited Karunanidhi told the press that the meeting was promising. But informed circles said that most of the time the Chief Minister was talking about Jeyalalithaa.

The position taken by Mr. Karunanidhi on the national question of Eezham Tamils after the war was crucial in encouraging continued international disregard to the question, Tamil circles say. His stand paved way for the audacity of not only New Delhi but also the West to talk about ‘development’ without political solution, Tamil circles further said.

How the Establishments in New Delhi and Chennai are going to handle the crisis merely by talking about ‘development’ without going beyond to acknowledge the basic psychological need of Eezham Tamils, wonder global Tamils.

Further excerpts from the paper of Daya Somasundaram:

He begins the paper with the following poem by a Vanni IDP school student:

Tham Thimithimithom Thaiyathom
Tham Thimithimithom
Living we were- on Vanni soil
Living we were
Educating ourselves we were - Joyfully
Educating ourselves we were
Running around we were - with friends
Running around we were

Came the airplanes- on us
Throwing bombs
Died relations- our
Relations fell

Race destroyed- Tamil
Race disappeared

Life destroyed- our
Life scattered
Suffering saw- we
Sadness imposed
Caged by war- we were
Trapped in suffering
Enough the sorrow- we
Escape to survive

Much of what happened is still shrouded in mystery and secrecy. There are several contested versions, discourses battling to establish their perspective. The Sri Lankan state and military have actively striven to suppress the truth of the ensuing carnage for fear of investigations for war crimes. There also appears to be a more long term effort to frame and reconstruct the collective memories and historical record in line with the political agendas of different actors. The Lankan state and Sinhala nationalist would like to paint it as a war against terrorism, deny an ethnic or minority problem and portray the Tamils as of relatively recent origin, migrants or invaders from South India in the last millennium. Indeed, internationally the LTTE had become branded as a terrorist organization by several countries including India, U.S., U.K., Canada, European Union, Australia, Malaysia and others. In contrast, Tamil nationalists depict the conflict as a liberation struggle of a suppressed minority, claiming the Tamils have inhabited the North and East from the beginning of history

A basic principal aim of psychotherapy is to bring out the repressed memories and associated emotions as a process of healing.

It would provide some meaning for the enormous suffering they have undergone, hope for the future and trust in the world.

Silence in a situation of ‘repressive ecology’ is a survival strategy that can become ingrained and permanent.

Kai Erikson gives a graphic account of Collective Trauma as ‘loss of communality’ following the Buffalo Creek disaster in the US. He and colleagues described the ‘broken cultures’ in North American Indians and ‘destruction of the entire fabric of their culture’ due to the forced displacements and dispossession from traditional lands into reservations, separations, massacres, loss of their way of life, relationships and spiritual beliefs.

Similar tearing of the ‘social fabric’ has been described in Australian aboriginal populations.

There was a description of ‘cultural bereavement’ due to the loss of cultural traditions and rituals in Indochinese refugees in the US and collective trauma due to the chronic effects of war.

The head of the UNICEF programme in the Vanni, an Australian with long experience in Sri Lanka, described the children there as being different from those that she had seen elsewhere in the North East. It was only in the Vanni that children could be seen to play freely, frolicking and jumping into and swimming in the water tanks and irrigation channels. Outside visitors were amazed at the order, organization, sanitation and activity.

The Sarvodya leader from the south remarked that in the whole of Sri Lanka it was only in the LTTE controlled areas that women felt safe to walk by themselves late in the night. Unlike in the rest of Sri Lanka, military weapons, check points, barbed wire and round ups were not visible.

The 2002-2006 peace period had particularly been specially propitious in this respect.

However, the LTTE maintained a fascist, totalitarian control over the civilian population with a network of prisons for dissidents and enemies (throhies) who were killed or tortured and a strict pass system that did not allow people under their control to leave the Vanni. They effectively dispelled the whole Muslim population from the North in 1990 and the Sinhala population much earlier.

The paper pleads for their trauma and psychosocial needs be taken into consideration for their necessary healing and success of rehabilitation and development process. The Tamil community needs these narratives to come out to show the extent of their suffering, for their own review of what has happened and where they are going and for the outside world to understand.

Cited from Participants:

“I first learnt of kotu kundu (cluster bombs) in Mathalan. One would hear the click of the shell being loaded but would begin to think there is no explosion, perhaps it is a dud before there would be multiple ‘parapara’ sounds. Then that area would be mayhem. Not one or two but many would come and fall. In one day, it was not intervals between shelling but their absence would last only for a small time”.

“Our faith till the last had been with god. We were very keen to listen to news till the end. Every expected the UN to intervene. NATO will send in troops. Many believed the US statement to the last (Obama administration had at one stage suggested plans to send US Air Force and Navy units attached to its Pacific Command (PACOM) to evacuate the civilians). Those concerned (LTTE) would surrender their arms to a third party. Civilians will be rescued from the government announced safety zone (up to Vadduvahal) by the intervention of outsiders and taken to a safe place. But the truth was that instead of saving the people the world nations and UN committees respected the sovereignty of a weaker developing country more”.

“Last month we went to Killinochchi. Everything was flattened. There was nothing to identify our place. Everything was overgrown like a jungle and paladainthu (in ruins). It would be verrupu (despair) to stay there. Everywhere there is only the army. They have razed the Maveerar maythanam (Heroes (LTTE) cemetery) to the ground and ploughed it. The place of my son’s tombstone cannot be recognized. Before one day of each month I would go and cry at his tombstone. This time we were not even aware that Maveerar day had come and gone. When we lived at Killinochchi, the boys with my son would come often addressing me as ammah (mother). Now who is there for me?”

“Like before I do not repeat the rosaries, do not have the heart to go to church. Only anger and sorrow comes.”

“I want to forget those days but the memory of the thousands who died makes me want to show the outside world happened there. That would be giving the dead souls athma shanthi (paying respect, letting them rest in peace)”.

“Many of the militants (LTTE cadres) who surrendered in front of our eyes were not in the ICRC register. Many said they had been shot”.

On counseling, he cried, revealing that images of his two children dying in front of him and their leaving their bodies in the bunker without even carrying out their funeral rites keeps recurring in his mind preventing his sleep. As it was now one month since the event, He felt especially guilty that he was not even able to arrange the customary 45 day remembrance ceremony for them

Some mentioned an increase in new relationships; mutual help and cooperation; a sense of unity, comradeship and togetherness by being thrown together against adversity which was marked during the last days of the ‘final war’ and thereafter for a short period but had progressively decreased.

Family and social support, networks, relationships and the sense of community appears to be a vital protective factor for the individual and their families and important in their recovery.

The story usually began with the family described metaphorically as living happily in their village. It is significant that the happiness or wellbeing is perceived and experienced in terms of the family and community.

How the new conditions start affecting the family, how each member suffers, the deaths and injuries, how the separations form those who are injured, having to bury the dead without the customary rites, the guilt of leaving relations behind, and the strong yearning to know what happened to other members. The impact of the disaster is felt acutely within this living fabric of the family and community: the utter hopelessness, helplessness and devastation when the fabric is torn.

The Vanni IDP’s will have to be given an opportunity to mourn for the dead, grieve for the losses and practice the cultural rituals for collective consolation. What happened cannot simply be erased from collective memory.

Apparently the state did not want the stories to get out for fear of prosecution for war crimes that was being put forward by some members of the local and International community.

It continued to insist that ‘not a single drop of civilian blood had been shed’ and the ‘biggest humanitarian rescue mission in history’ had been executed.

Politics of memory and history writing are linked to power. Those with the power to impose their version can change memory traces and perceptions of what happened.

Reinstituting a belief in social justice would be an important psychosocial intervention for communal harmony and well-being as well as the future of the country.

Their forced internment in barbed wire camps was obviously a collective punishment for their ‘crime’ of staying in the Vanni with the LTTE. Those coming later in the battle were considered ‘more loyal’, particularly those who ‘stayed’ till the last. They were treated more harshly and punitively with far more restrictions in different zonal camps.

The narratives speak of the beginning of the last phase of the war in particularly apocalyptical terms. But the criticism and antagonism to the actions of the LTTE starts creeping into the narratives much later.

The state has continued to use this (Counter Insurgency) CI strategy to completely wean the Vanni people from the LTTE after the conflict by interning them in IDP camps with callous restrictions. They have sought to impose their version of the discourse in contrast to the ideas of liberation, Tamil homeland and separation.

It would appear that this was a deliberate ‘psyops’ military strategy of the state to drive a wedge between the civilians and the LTTE, as they increased the harsh conditions.


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