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‘Buttterfly: Stories of Sri Lankan child soldiers: Documentary film by Vishnu Vasu (pseudonym) - A Review

Paper No. 5796                                          Dated 25-Sept-2014

Guest column by Charles Sarvan

Butterfly’ is a work of moral indignation and compassion aiming, through the Sri Lankan example, to point to the cruelty inflicted on children worldwide.

The danger, however, is that ‘racists’ will exploit it to smear the Tamil Tigers and, in that way, draw attention away from the policy and actions of the government, both in the past and in the present. As the Buddha taught, two wrongs do not make one right; one cruelty does not cancel out another cruelty. No, the world is left a much sadder place with two wrongs and two tragedies.

When I lived in Berlin, I often shopped at a nearby Turkish supermarket and was on easy terms with those working there. One day I came upon a young man who, while stacking the shelves, was singing to himself, quietly but with much feeling. Not knowing Turkish, I asked whether he was singing about love. In turn he asked earnestly, “Was sonst, Habibi? Was sonst?” What else, indeed! Perhaps not consciously, the young man had recognised that ‘the urge to merge’, to procreate and pass on, is fundamental to life; indeed, its basis. It is one of nature’s most powerful drives. Children are the result of this ‘force of nature’: they embody and represent the future. This, plus their sweetness and charm, their innocence and vulnerability (the title ‘Butterfly’ is apposite) may go to explain why many an adult will, without hesitation, try to rescue a child in danger, even at cost to herself or himself. Given the above, the phrase ‘child soldier’ sounds most rebarbative. ‘Child’ and ‘soldier’ simply don’t go together, and rightly create is us feelings of indignation and outrage. (The UN defines a child soldier as anyone below the age of eighteen associated with an armed force or armed group, be it as a soldier, cook, porter or spy.)

But one must be alert to hypocrisy on the part of governments and of those with power and access to the media. It is estimated that between fifty to eighty million lost their lives during the Second World War, the greater proportion of which were not soldiers but civilians (children included). Conflict thereafter has presented us with scenes of the total devastation of civilian areas; of cities turned into a moon-landscape; of children maimed, traumatised or killed. No discrimination is made between combatants and the population; between adults and children. In that sense, the infamous words of Nazi Joseph Goebbels now seem to apply: war is total. Using ‘sophisticated’ (sic) technology in operations known as ‘targeted killing’, a so-called terrorist is killed as he drives along a road or is in his home. It’s unfortunate that his children were present and were also killed. The killing of children by governments is glossed over but children as soldiers (invariably, in non-Western countries) causes outrage and condemnation. This is not to condone the use of child soldiers: quite the contrary. The aim is to draw attention to double standards: governments and their media which condemn the use of child soldiers accommodate the killing of children. (Vishnu Vasu points out that all five permanent members of the UN Security Council are listed as arms exporters, with the United States being the largest of them.) Then there are the millions of children, some below ten years, who daily labour in harsh and unhealthy conditions to augment the meagre income of the family. Their predicament is not as dramatic as that of the child-soldier, and tends to receive less attention. Yet another sad and sorry example is that of children sold into sex-slavery. Justice is indivisible. It is not justice if it is not justice for all. We adults, for all our cooing over little children, stand indicted.

Like most labels, the caption ‘child soldiers’ cannot take into account specificity and difference. Many a child becomes a soldier because s/he is threatened, forcibly recruited and fights under duress. The children then dread those with and behind them more than they fear the enemy in front. Still others join through economic necessity or by the attraction of uniform and gun, both of which confer power and status well beyond what they have hitherto experienced. Some join to take revenge on the ‘enemy’ for deeply felt personal harm. However, throughout the ages there have also been examples of children fighting for country or cause, demanding to be permitted to join the ranks, sometimes falsifying their age, anxious the war would end before they had a chance to contribute and to prove their worth.  During the heyday of the Tamil Tigers not infrequently parents found that their daughter or son had slipped away, leaving behind a message that she or he should now be considered as one dead.

Moving from general considerations to this particular, forty-five minute, documentary, I recall the words of Confucius: What I hear [read], I forget; what I see, I remember. Approving or disapproving, this film will remain and trouble the mind of the viewer. It is difficult to write about a film because the latter is a visual medium and I must say there are shots, often from nature, presented without comment by the producer. They are sensitive scenes, eloquent in their silence, placing the viewer in an active position as s/he tries to make sense, read significance. The background music and song are elegiac, haunting and beautiful.

However, rather than ‘Sri Lankan child soldiers’, the title more appropriately should have been ‘Sri Lankan Tamil child soldiers’. Given the huge disproportion in numbers, the government could comfortably manage without child soldiers; it didn’t even need to introduce conscription. The interviews conducted, and the material collected and presented, all add up to a powerful indictment of the Tamil Tigers and their appalling cruelty towards the very people they claimed to represent and protect. Testimony following testimony pile up to near-overwhelm the viewer. Like Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5), we feel we have “supped full with horrors”, cruelty and tragedy.

But truth is neither single nor simple; rather it is multiple and complex. And this is particularly so when it comes to the Tamil Tigers. As I have written elsewhere, it's not easy to strike a balance where the Tigers are concerned, and many of us are given either to total admiration or wholesale condemnation.  There is too much emotion; too much of disappointment and disillusionment; of anger and bitterness. I feel one should concede that if there was cynicism in the Tigers, there was also idealism; if there was ruthless ambition, there was also total self-sacrifice; if there was cruelty, there was also discipline and courage; if there was strategic error, there was also tactical brilliance; if there was extreme folly, there was also exceptional intelligence. This is not to fault ‘Butterfly’ since to present an understanding of historical background (see, for example, Adrian Wijemanne’s War and Peace in Post-Colonial Ceylon) and the many-faceted and contradictory nature of the conflict is beyond the scope of a short documentary. For other perspectives in film, we could turn, for example, to Beate Arnestad’s ‘My daughter, the terrorist’ or to R. Pradeepan’s ‘A mango tree in my front yard’. (Reviews of both are included in my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2.) For other testimony, there are written records such as the diary of Malaravan (nom de guerre), translated into English by Dr. N. Malathy, reviewed by me in South Asia Analysis Group, Paper No. 5554, 3 September 2013. I cite from this review: “The aim here is to draw attention to this volume: a small piece that goes to form a very complex, contradictory and contested, reality […] The author was born in 1972; joined the Tigers in 1990 and fell in combat two years later, aged twenty.” A fighter, writer and poet, he carried his gun and always his books: one is reminded of Christopher Okigbo who volunteered and died in action towards the close of the Biafran War, and of Wilfred Owen who wrote so movingly of the waste of war,  killed at the age of twenty-five. A powerful documentary on the present plight of Tamil women can be seen under: I thank Mr Susseenthiran Nadarajah of Berlin for sending it on to me.

‘Butterfly’, a short documentary, cannot be expected to take cognizance of the present situation of the Tamils on which there is much material to hand, among the recent being Bishop Duleep de Chickera’s statement in The Island of 5 September 2014. However Vishnu Vasu does, albeit quietly, question the nature of the present ‘peace’ and the true nature of what it means to be free – freedom for all; freedom from the past and freedom in the present. Altogether, ‘Butterfly’ is a film that demands attention. The controversy it may provoke is to be welcomed, provided it leads through thought and discussion to a better understanding. I thank the producer for sending me a copy.

The film laments the loss of a generation of Tamil children, but there can be no posthumous atonement: the dead are dead. But others, seeing, may be helped to tread a different, more humane, path. Humanity has said “Never again” - all too often. The prime concern and struggle now must be to ensure that future generations of Tamil children are not also lost. There are more ways of being damaged and “lost” than through overt and violent war, and news from the North give little ground for sanguinity. A luta continua: the struggle continues, and the Arts play their valuable, life-enriching, part.

(Professor Sarvan is located in Germany and takes a keen interest in Sri Lankan Affairs)