Am I a Nationalist or is Amnesty International a Spoilsport?

by Ram Manikkalingam

3571My senior editor Morgan Meis and I were watching Sri Lanka play Australia in the Cricket World Cup, in an Australian pub in New York city last month. Morgan accused me of being a nationalist, because I did not agree with Amnesty International’s (AI) campaign for international human rights monitors in Sri Lanka. He did not use nationalist here as a compliment. What he meant by a nationalist, was someone who said my country, right or wrong, i.e., my country whether or not it kills innocents and displaces hundreds of thousands, or develops the economy, and educates and feeds the poor.

As the armed conflict intensifies in Sri Lanka, several thousand were killed and about a thousand have disappeared in the past year. These disappearances and killings have primarily taken place at the hands of the Sri Lankan security forces, or their proxy militias. The Tamil Tigers, who have been fighting harshly, have also made a significant contribution. In addition, in the capital Colombo, dozens of minority Tamil businessmen have been kidnapped for ransom. These kidnappings involve a combination of lawless lawmen, ex Tamil militants and criminals. More recently, the Tamil Tigers launched their air force, bombing the main air force base and gas storage tanks. The economy is in a tailspin with a severe drop in tourism, risk of hyperinflation, low levels of investment and increasing cost of living. There is no doubt the situation in Sri Lanka has deteriorated, with the military clashes escalating and ordinary civilians suffering. Even the most sanguine observers, and nationalist minded, will find it hard to deny this.

This has led reputable national and international human rights organizations like Civil Rights Movement and the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), and Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to call for the armed parties to respect the laws of war, and for the deployment of international human rights monitors to establish a presence in Sri Lanka and protect civilians. The idea (or hope) is that the presence of impartial outside witnesses will make the armed parties to the conflict, whether connected to the state or opposed to it, think twice before they kill and torture innocents or expel them from their homes. This has been the case in a number of other conflicts from El Salvador to Nepal. They hope that this experience can also prove to be true for Sri Lanka, easing suffering and reducing violence.

Picking up on this theme, Amnesty International, launched an international campaign around the World Cup Cricket to get the international public to call on the government and the rebels to accept international human rights monitors. The campaign was titled “Sri Lanka play by the rules”. Cricket, in Sri Lanka, as in much of South Asia, is not simply a passion. It is a way of life. Some might even say it is the only secular religion we have – sort of like French nationalism or Turkish secularism. In any case, AI gambled that with passions running high during the cricket world cup, it would be possible to highlight the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka, and pressure or persuade the government and rebels into accepting the presence of human rights monitors. It did not quite work out this way and Amnesty’s campaign was a flop.

I also contributed to this failure, not in word, nor in deed, but in sentiment. Like most Sri Lankans, I was deeply discomfited by the campaign, if not opposed to it. I was torn, because I did support more active human rights monitoring, including international presence, if required, but did not like the use of the World Cup Cricket tournament as a venue to campaign for this. I wanted to support the Sri Lankan cricket team and enjoy cricket without Amnesty, and by extension Sri Lanka’s civil war, intruding on it. So Morgan accused me of being a Sri Lankan nationalist – defending my country right or wrong – and choosing my cricketing pleasure over the welfare of my people.

So why would someone like me, who sympathises with the purported objectives of Amnesty – an end to human rights violations in Sri Lanka – and even the means – international human rights monitoring – oppose its campaign during the world cup? Let me first set aside the two responses that I have heard that do not necessarily apply to me. One is the response made by an organization like the Free Media Movement that also criticized Amnesty. They had this to say: “Amnesty International’s actions at the Cricket World Cup, for the best of intent, may well result in the worst of outcomes for human rights activists in Sri Lanka. By raising the wrath of the government and fuelling the already powerful rhetoric of extreme nationalist forces in the country who are deeply and violently opposed to civil society advocacy and support of human rights, we regretfully note that Amnesty International’s ill-thought of campaign may end up severely discrediting the human rights movement in Sri Lanka.” Now while I do not disagree with this view of the Free Media Movement’s, I am a bit more nationalistic, at least according to Morgan, because I am saying something more. Not just that the campaign is bad, because it is not successful and is turning off many Sri Lankans, but that I myself am one of those Sri Lankans who is being turned off, by Amnesty’s campaign.

Others say it is bad to mix politics with sport, and therefore Amnesty’ campaign should be condemned for doing so. This is a facile response. After all politics and sport are often linked. And politicians like to take advantage of sports victories by their countrymen to increase their popularity. Prime Minister John Howard, who cannot really claim any credit for Australia’s victory at the World Cup, hosted the winning team to dinner, and sought to bask in the reflected glory. Moreover, I supported the sports boycott of apartheid South Africa, which had a racist regime and all White teams. And there is no doubt that the sports boycott contributed to the demise of apartheid there.

Sri Lanka, or at least its cricket team, is different. It is a multiethnic team with members from all communities – Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala. While there is clear discrimination against Tamils by the state, along linguistic and ethnic grounds, this is not the case in the selection of the cricket team. And there is a widespread consensus that it is successful, in part because there is a considerable degree of meritocracy in its selection. This is not to deny that because of the war there are fewer and fewer players from the war affected North and East being able to make the grade, in part because it is harder for schools and clubs to participate in national competition. But this is quite a bit different from saying that players are excluded simply because they belong to a particular ethnic or social group, as was the case in apartheid South Africa. So what then is my specific reason for opposing Amnesty’s campaign?

While there are many things that make me sad to be Sri Lankan – poverty, corruption, violations of human rights, authoritarianism, ethnic extremism, not to mention death and destruction – there are some things that make me happy to be Sri Lankan. Anyone visiting Sri Lanka will notice, in the early mornings and late afternoons, children going to and from school, in their crisp clean whites, whether they live in affluent urban settings or poor rural ones. It is hard to tell the wealthier children from the poorer ones, as they bicycle, bus, or walk to school in the hundreds of thousands. It is sight that always makes me feel good. Not because the schools have the best facilities, or every child is going to “make it”. But because I feel that whatever we may have done wrong, we have a society, where most children (if not the poorest of the poor) will learn to read and write, and have a real opportunity for a better life. And I feel proud to be part of a left tradition that helped set the foundation for a universal and free public education system that is able to provide for most Sri Lankan children.

And then there is cricket. We have a team, from a small poor South Asian country, that has been able to stand up to, and invariably defeat, the very best in the world. And this because we have chosen our cricketers, not on the basis of their class, ethnicity or regional background, but because of how well they can play the game. I am (only) a little embarrassed to admit this, but one of my heroes among, John Rawls, Antonio Gramsci, Salman Rushdie and Muhammad Ali, is Arjuna Ranatunga – the Captain of the Sri Lankan team that won the World Cup in 1996:

And like all Sri Lankans, I enjoy watching my country play cricket, and I particularly enjoy watching them win. And this in Sri Lanka is pretty much universal. On days when Sri Lanka is playing cricket, traffic comes to a complete stop, nobody works, and everyone is watching the game, except a few very superior souls. Cricket provides a uniquely common moment of enjoyment for all of us. Even strong Tamil supporters of the Tamil Tigers, cheer the Sri Lankan team in international competition, donning Sri Lanka cricket T-shirts, even as they give money to the Tigers to prosecute the war against the Sri Lankan state.

No doubt there is in cricket a moment of national escapism not entirely unlike a good bollywood movie. When we cheer the team, we forget the number of issues that divide us, plague us, drag us down, and make us depressed and sad, because of the state our country is in. But this moment of escapism is just that. It need not be seen as denial, because from the Free Media Movement, which opposes the campaign but enjoys cricket, to the Tamil Tiger supporter who supports the Tamil Tigers, but cheers the Sri Lankan cricket team, or the Sinhala nationalist who wants the Tigers defeated and supports the Sri Lankan team, the reality of the war and moment for choosing sides, is around the corner, as soon as the game ends. At this moment, Amnesty or anyone else, might have our attention, when they chip in to get us to address the mess we find ourselves in. But by interfering with our cricket before that, they risk marginalization by intruding on a moment of collective escapism, and pleasure, and dare I say pride, that all of us Sri Lankans share irrespective of whatever may divide us.