Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek, essayist, film and festival critic and director of the Festival international Signes de nuit.

Sri Lanka: Cannes presents a documentary about the slaughter within the Tamil community during the civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka.

Jude Ratnam is a Tamil film director. The Tamils are the minority cultural community in Sri Lanka where the Sinhalese majority represents the administrative, political and commercial leadership of the country after decades of bloody conflict.

In one of the first scenes of his documentary Demons in Paradise, Ratnam is visibly nervous when he hears his son speaking loudly in Tamil. His mother had taught him thirty years ago that he could get killed for doing so, and he’s seen enough to know how right his mother was.

Once Friends

Even if the Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhist and the Tamils mainly Hindu, they had lived in peace and tranquillity for 2000 years, at times even in the form of separate coexisting kingdoms. An active cultural-religious exchange between these two ethnic groups, already characterised by many similarities, had taken place for centuries.

All this changed in the era of British colonial rule. Ratnam’s documentary, screened in Cannes’ special section, opens with black and white footage from this period, showing a frightened population oppressed by their conqueror’s technical and industrial supremacy. The British chose (divide et impera) to place the minority Tamils in key social, commercial and administrative positions. This fact, after the British retreat and Sri Lanka’s declaration of independence in 1948, quickly transformed the Tamil community into victims, which are oppressed to this day.

«Jude Ratnam has worked for ten years in relatively risky circumstances to film his documentary, hiding his true subject matter behind a pretend love story.»

The Sinhalese repatriation and expulsion of Tamils with Indian roots reinforced the conflict. Acts of arbitrary violence were already occurring all over the country, but then in 1983 a huge civil war broke out resulting in indiscriminate aggression and the use of petrol bombs and torture. Tamil homes were ransacked and inhabitants often burned alive. Manhunts were tolerated by public forces and never stopped or even condemned by the government.

As a reaction, an independent Tamil state based in the northern town of Jaffna was born and it was defended by thousands of Tamils taking arms. During the following virtually thirty years of war, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people lost their lives and a further 100,000 became refugees in their own country.

Resistance turns to slaughter

Jude Ratnam has worked for ten years in relatively risky circumstances to film his documentary, hiding his true subject matter behind a pretend love story. He contacted former Tamil resistance fighters through his uncle who fought in the resistance. Today his uncle is one of a great number of Tamils living in exile in Canada. He shares his painful memories with Ratnam and he explains that he only survived the war with the help of a Sinhalese family who hid him in their house. His uncle’s reunion with that family is one of the most emotionally touching scenes in Ratnam’s film.

Demon in Paradise. Directed by Jude Ratman

One night while sitting around a fire with former Tamil resistance fighters, Ratnam’s uncle articulates the main subject of the film: 16 different Tamil resistance groups emerged during the fight for independence. However these groups turned on each other, massacring their fellow Tamils while defending their different visions regarding their future independent state. The slaughtering included public executions, burning tyres around living bodies, torture with iron sticks or piercing eyes with needles. Sometimes soft drinks were served to the public during these proceedings.

«These violent internal Tamil struggles claimed around 30,000 victims.»

These violent internal Tamil struggles claimed around 30,000 victims. They were mostly civilians accused of being members of a rival group using any possible pretext. The slaughtering had risen to such extreme proportions that Tamils, including Ratnam’s uncle, finally preferred to lose the main war against Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese army, just to bring an end to this disaster.

The main question put forth by the former fighters during their nighttime discussion is: Where did the violence come from? Did it only affect the militants or was it part of civil society? On the one hand, people were being killed because someone declared that they were members of a rival group. Even the mentally handicapped were not spared. People were also killed because they didn’t want to offer money or refused to give up their homes. On the other hand, it is evident that the civilians never tried to stop the violence and the murderous attacks of the fighters. One of the witnesses says, “There is a lot of decadence and malice in the community.”  Those who claimed to be “neutral” always sided with the dominant force, be it the Tamil Tigers, the army or the police.

Demon in Paradise.Directed by Jude Ratma

The whole truth

Before dismissing the facts on the grounds of moral lamentation, it is necessary to remember that a huge amount of Tamil property is now in the hands of the Sinhalese. There is evidence that the Tamils’ brutal action was stimulated by governmental politics and supported by the police and the military that also took an active role in the slaughtering.

«An effective protection against organized violence can only be found when political and social measures are taken to disarm and destroy the profit made from human slaughter.»

Ratnam presents a painful view regarding the Tamils’ reality. The exiled and globally dispersed Tamil population is claiming the status of victims of genocide on an international level. Ratnam shows that this is only a half-truth. That this was also strategic murder in its use of racial ideologies for quite rational commercial interests. An effective protection against organized violence can only be found when political and social measures are taken to disarm and destroy the profit made from human slaughter.
Is looking forward rather than back a solution? Ratnam is not convinced at all. The constant hidden fear is evident, even now. Tamils are still forced to deny their cultural identity, often not taking the risk of wearing their traditional clothes. A new outbreak of violence cannot be ignored as a possibility.