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How united, or divided, are Sri Lankans?

Ameen Izzaddeen
Filed on May 1, 2007

THE time was around 1 am on Sunday in Sri Lanka. Batting second, Sri Lanka had lost opener Upul Tharanga and new batsman Kumar Sangakkara had just come in. Then the lights went off. The eerie feeling was pervasive. "Don’t know whether the LTTE is once again attacking the airport," I told my homefolks.

Earlier in the day, when I was with a group of friends just before the World Cup finals got under way after a delay of couple of hours, one of them said the LTTE must be pulling its aircraft out of its jungle hideout in preparation for an air raid today when the whole country would be watching the match. Another friend dismissed the comment, saying, "No man, the Tigers would also be watching the match". "Didn’t the Tiger spokesman say on Tuesday that there would not be air attacks on that day as they also wanted to see the semi finals between Sri Lanka and New Zealand?"

In retrospect, the Tiger spokesman’s assurance was nothing but a ‘doosra’. It was uttered to give a false impression that the Tigers would not be spoilsports and the people could watch the finals between Sri Lanka and Australia without getting worried about LTTE air strikes.

Hats off to Sri Lanka’s security forces, for they didn’t get caught to the Tiger ploy. Besides, the incident was further proof that the Tigers cannot be trusted.

With Colombo and its suburbs being plunged into darkness, it only took cricket crazy Sri Lankans a couple of telephone calls to friends and relatives to find out the reason for the blackout. They faced a similar situation on Thursday as well. I came out of the house and switched on my car radio to listen to the live cricket commentaries. I was shaken by the crackle of machine-gun fire. It was all around us. The night sky was set aglow by the firing of volleys and anti-aircraft guns. Even policemen and soldiers on foot patrol fired into the air. The scene was, probably in microcosm, what we saw on TV during the air attacks on Baghdad prior to the 2003 invasion.

I heard the sound of the Tiger aircraft. It was over our head. Soon I heard two explosions. A neighbour shouted that the distant fire was visible from the balcony of her house.

In the meantime, we started losing wickets at regular intervals, after the second wicket partnership between Sanath Jayasuriya and Kumar Sangakkara gave us some hope that the match was winnable.

In the end, we lost the match after a good fight. There was no regret. That the boys reached the finals was as good as winning the cup. A country battling with a 25-year-old insurgency and yet producing a team that challenged the Aussies is remarkable.

But watching our team playing world class cricket during the 51-day long tournament should have taught us a couple of lessons to face the crisis we are facing at national level. The mood on Saturday in Sri Lanka showed that cricket unites Sri Lankans who stand for its unity.

A day prior to the World Cup finals, the BBC’s Tamil service interviewed Tamils in the north and the east. Many of them said they wished for a Sri Lankan victory, though a few said they did not care whoever won, because they were in a desperate plight.

A Tamil woman, who was traumatised by the 1983 ethnic violence that changed the course of Sri Lanka inter-ethnic relations, told me she was a Sri Lankan and she backed the team. But a Sinhala friend told me that his Tamil neighbour wished for Sri Lanka’s defeat, despite the fact that the national team has two Tamils —Muttiah Muralidaran and Russel Arnold—and a Muslim, too. The multi-ethnic composition of the cricket team was not an attempt to please any ethnic group or religious group. The team was selected on pure merit. In fact, cricket in Sri Lanka began to emerge as a world-beating power only after it overcame class barriers.

Years ago, Cricket was an elite game and only those rich and English-speaking youths educated at elite schools found a place in the national team. We have a Sanath Jayasuriya and a Lasith Malinga today, because cricket has been thrown open to all. Yet there is no input from the north, which once had a strong tradition of school cricket.

Perhaps, if there had been no war and the national team selectors had the opportunity to pick talent from the north and east, our team could have been strong enough to beat the Aussies on Saturday.

It is on the unity of all Sri Lankans that the fate of this nation hangs today. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakran, however, does not believe so. He thinks only of his vision of dividing this country —which I am sure most Tamils do not support, though they long for political autonomy within a federal set up.

Neither do some ultranationalists in the south believe that national unity means treating the Tamils and other minority people as equals. It is only through the unity of people —rather than the unity of a land mass —that Sri Lanka could stay united and emerge as a powerful country. Won’t these chauvinists on both sides of the ethnic divide see how the people were united in backing the national team and learn a lesson?

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo


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