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Memory, forgetting and madness

January 23, 2012

What happens if you are not allowed to acknowledge what has befallen you?

Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of mental illness in the world. A report in The Lancet suggests the country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, with an average of 6000 deaths per year; nearly 100 000 people will attempt suicide every year in Sri Lanka.

Its not surprising. People have lived through three decades of a vicious civil war and a murderous tsunami _ its hard to believe sometimes that this jewelled, verdant island is not somehow labouring under an ancient curse.

Other countries have tried to confront their pasts. Rwanda’s gacaca courts and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commisison tried, in their clumsy ways, to give the victims of state repression a voice. Sri Lanka had a reconciliation commission of sorts but it fails to examine the state’s role in the mass killing of civilians in the last days of the war. But then, Rwanda and South Africa are now ruled by groups that had won their struggle against their governments. Sri Lanka’s story is being written by the victors.

In his book “The Cage” on the last days of Sri Lanka’s civil war Gordon Weiss, a UN spokesman in Colombo, speaks of the Sri Lankan government’s way of repressing memory. It will never address or admit the brutality with which it deals with dissent, both among Tamils and among its own, Singhalese communities.

I can’t help believing that the government’s refusal to acknowledge its brutality plays a part too. Yolanda Foster at Amnesty International talks about politics of amnesia – violence has been erased from collective memory as the state has refused to acknowledge disappearances and the reality of large-scale terror.

The urge to forget about the past is overwhelming. If you’ve survived the worst, why rake over it again? But without some sort of acknowledgement and possibly accountability, Sri Lanka’s jarring, traumatic recent history will haunt the people who lived through it forever.

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