By Rajan Hoole –
The 1990s: The Culture of Untruth and a Perilous Vacuum Part 6
Chandrika Kumaratunga’s PA government was elected to power on good intentions. We mentioned the movements for the disappeared, which directly and indirectly played a major role in creating the wave which swept the PA to victory. During that period justice for the disappeared became almost a cult slogan with which one could not afford to disagree in public. With the approach of the parliamentary elections fixed for 16th August ’94, it became common for leading PA (SLFP, LSSP and CP) politicians to breeze into sites of mass graves and commence digging for remains before the glare of publicity guaranteed by crowds and video cameras. After her victory, presidential commissions were appointed by Chandrika Kumaratunge in keeping with her election pledge to go into human rights abuses.
Most of the presidential commissions submitted reports by early 1998. A large number of security personnel responsible for abuses were identified but any action against persons of rank appeared to hinge on political expediency. Cases where hearings commenced in the normal courts
against key officers remain stalled. Finally, all those who voted for the PA expecting a new and benign state culture with justice for the victims of abuses have been left to feel cheated. They had not voted UNP because it was clearly hostile to any inquiry into abuses and offered no hope of reform. The PA government’s failure in this respect has several grave consequences. The bulk of the 23,000 victims killed during the JVP era (as recorded by the disappearance commissions) came from poor and underprivileged rural homes. The PA’s failure gives these people the strong message that they do not count, the Law and the democratic process do not work for them and, as compared with those of the urban elite, their lives do not matter.
This failure by the PA may neither affect the members of the elite immediately nor lead to an armed rebellion in the foreseeable future. But it brutalises life as a whole, destroys healthier human values and the sense of community, and furthers the belief that only those who are utterly ruthless and utterly selfish in the pursuit of power and gain can succeed in life. The Disappearance Commission for the Southern Zone has recorded some stark instances of such brutalisation. A youth, whose elder brother was killed as a subversive by the security forces, joined the same security forces. In another instance, a youth joined the security forces so that he could requite his anger against those of a superior caste in a neighbouring village. Both are instances of a vacuum where in the face of the loss of the value of life, and the non-existence of political action for redress through democratic means, the gun and the uniform appear as the ultimate success in life.
Yet in many different ways, is this not what has been happening to us as a country for the last two decades? We have been force-fed with economic theories which maintain that corruption, gross inequalities and brutalisation are passing phases on the road of rapid progress. But is this not substituting self-serving quack theories which change every few years for the moral wisdom that has come down to us through millennia of mankind’s travails?
Some would hold that Premadasa and the group around him are archetypal success stories of economic liberalisation. The old traditional Marxist parties – the LSSP and CP – who had their base in Colombo North and Central had to give way to the new brand of UNPers under leaders like Premadasa. The latter are, as it were, the new superbly rich entrepreneurs from the very roots of economic and social deprivation, pointing the way forward to their fellows. In place of the old Marxist leaders teaching workers’ solidarity, which gave a sense of dignity and community to the ordinary worker, there were now godfathers. These men would look after those who obeyed them and slit the throats of those who crossed their path. The symbols of the new culture were Pajero jeeps, casinos, fortress-like houses, corrupt cops and mafia groups.
Did this kind of success story, however, give dignity to the downtrodden? The answer is clearly no. It brought in more volatility and criminalised them as witnessed by the severity of the July 1983 violence in the commercial district. In 1958 by contrast, the Left was able to mobilise its cadre to man the streets and have a restraining influence. The old elite backed Premadasa for president mainly because they felt that on account of his origins, he would deal with the JVP insurgency more effectively. But once that was over, they were happy to ridicule him, pile on him all the sins for which he was only partly responsible, and were more than happy to see him gone. Had Premadasa been an upright leader who communicated this virtue to the people who were closest to him, he would have been a liberating influence. But now, he is gone, having reinforced the class prejudices against his own people, and after being manipulated and used by those whose pretensions he detested.
Now, why did the PA government fail to bring redress to those affected by mass extra- judicial killings by the security forces? A part of the answer is that the LTTE, even on a utilitarian calculation, could settle for nothing reasonable and renewed hostilities in April 1995. In turn the Government whose activism was naively geared towards peace, had to change direction amidst a state of panic and fight a war. It made it practically difficult for the Government to take action against errant members of the security forces. Renewed war also provided opportunity for the lobby against a political settlement of the Tamil issue to gain credibility.
The more important reason, however, is that most of those who flocked behind the cause of the disappeared from 1991 until the parliamentary elections in August 1994 had no serious appreciation of the gravity of the issue. It largely became a way of looking good while putting all the blame on the UNP Government. After the elections when the new PA Government took steps for forensic and judicial proceedings at the sites of mass graves, supporters of the cause of the disappeared began to falter. By October 1994, this issue led to the first open hostility to the new Government in the media.
The pseudonymous Undercurrent in the Sunday Leader accused the Government of a Dracula-like propensity for digging up graves. As to the main line of the argument, we quote from If History Repeats Itself? by Islander in the Sunday Island of 16.10.1994:
“Today, in the comfort of well padded air conditioned auditoriums and luxurious sitting rooms in Colombo, there are those who speak of the atrocities of the armed services and the police at that time. ‘Mass graves’ are being dug up under the glare of TV lights. The government functionaries responsible for the crimes are being hunted down.
“Sri Lankans while being swamped in today’s moralistic and judicial fervour should also reflect on whether any other solution was available. Certainly no one was forthcoming with any such solution at that time….
“What human rights activists and others should ask themselves is what could a government responsible for law and order do when murder, mayhem, arson and violence of every form is unleashed by an organisation in the name of a social revolution? This is the conundrum faced by Sri Lankan governments in ’71 and the late eighties….
“While the old maxim of the laws being silent amidst the clash of arms is no longer in vogue, crimes including war crimes are punishable by law. Naturally parents and relatives of innocent victims and not so innocent victims will be calling for justice….
“The more important question however is the question of governance. Will the history of ’71 and the late eighties be repeated? If so will the servicemen and police play by the book of rules? Can insurrections of the types we have faced be defeated playing by the ICJ book of rules? These are questions which those who have taken on the task to govern got to ponder in the context of their own past experiences.”
The flaw in the argument is contained in the last paragraph quoted. The author fears the repetition of history and doubts whether such virulent rebellions can be defeated through playing by ICJ rules. Here we seem to have two stark choices:- viz. either maintain a repressive and venal state apparatus fortified with impunity and ensure that history repeats itself; or, look for and enforce bold measures to strengthen democracy, so as to provide means for remedying grievances through non-violent means. The two approaches are incompatible. It is unfortunate that we are trapped into seeking solutions through the same governing mental framework that creates the problems.
It was disturbing that there were hardly any responses to such articles as the one quoted above. With the passage of time the attacks on the commissions of inquiry gained in virulence and soon the Government was going it alone. In January 1996, President Kumaratunge wrote to the Army Commander with a list of about 200 service personnel including four or so brigadiers implicated in testimony before commissions of inquiry, ordering him to place them on compulsory leave. It was a commendable decision for a president to take while having a war on her hands. The order was not implemented and was allowed to become a dead letter. In contrast to the massive support enjoyed by the cause of the disappeared during the UNP government, when it came to real action the silence was deafening. No civil society movements organised campaigns to pressurise the Government to pursue the matter or formed an independent commission to bring out the truth.
The problem was that the issue had not been discussed frankly before by those who supported movements for the disappeared. Few from among the politicians, NGO activists and the alternative media who supported this cause could claim to be uncompromised by this tragedy. A frank discussion would have made it plain that the responsibility lay not only with the Government and security personnel, but with a much larger circle. Then the problem would have been about what should we do now so that future generations do not have to re-live this tragedy. Such a process would also have resulted in greater clarity about the Tamil question.
As the first step, the truth should have been placed on record. Once the truth was established, the process should have enabled the victims to exercise their discretion and seek redress within the Law. Had an atmosphere of frankness and reconciliation been built up, the victims’ families would have been generous.
But having until August 1994 pretended that the killings were all to do with the UNP government, the sections that had supported the victims began to fear an excursion into the truth that would go too far. This was unfortunate. It is not politically wrong to admit that one is compromised and yet participate in a movement for truth and justice for the sake of future generations. Chandrika Kumaratunge is a case in the point. She left the country for Britain after her husband’s death and was not directly party to what was going on here. But her husband’s and her party, the SLMP, was instrumental in forming the paramilitary group PRRA and some of her close associates then were very much involved. Yet, this does not in any way impair her political cause of seeking redress for the victims of violations. After all, what happened then are things that cannot be swept under the carpet. Apart from the torturing and killing of JVP suspects, all sorts of killings that were vicious and venal took place on a large scale.
To be continued..