Colombo Telegraph

A Sri Lankan Truth And Reconciliation Commission?

By S. I. Keethaponcalan –

Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

One of the completely unexpected outcomes of the recently concluded Colombo Commonwealth Summit was the ignition of a dialogue on the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Sri Lanka. The source of this idea is the visit of South African President Jacob Zuma to Sri Lanka to attend the Commonwealth Summit in November 2013. Some suggest President Zuma mooted the idea. This is possible, because South Africa has been trying to get involved in the conflict resolution and/or reconciliation process in Sri Lanka for a while. Others believe that it was President Rajapaksa who wanted to “learn” more about the South African experience of the TRC. Either way, it seems that both presidents have discussed the idea of a TRC in Sri Lanka and currently, the Sri Lankan media suggests what could easily be termed the Sri Lankan Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SLTRC), may be instituted in the near future.

Not Ready

Given the prevailing socio-political realities of the country, one could argue that a South African style TRC could be problematic and most probably will fail, if reconciliation is the true objective of the proposed mechanism. Sri Lanka has been grappling with the idea of reconciliation for almost half a decade since the end of the war in May 2009, with no noticeable result. In fact Sri Lanka has already become a failed case of reconciliation.

Unfortunately, it seems, ethnic communities are further polarized now than before. The primary reason for the failure so far, is that the country is not ready for reconciliation.

Reconciliation essentially is a post-conflict concern. Once basic issues of a conflict are resolved, the parties can focus on repairing the broken relationship, which is crucial to securing the peace achieved through conflict resolution. This is exactly what happened in South Africa, which was a true post-conflict society where the fundamental issues were resolved through peaceful means and the peace agreement produced a win-win situation for both major communities.

Sri Lankan Reality

The Sri Lankan scenario is different. The end of the war resolved the problem of violence; not the conflict. Sri Lanka therefore, is not a post-conflict society. Most of the reconciliation mantras in Sri Lanka are only pretensions and some of them are politically motivated. That’s exactly why they failed to produce greater ethnic harmony. One therefore, can safely argue that any reconciliation mechanism, including a truth commission, introduced without addressing the basic issues of the conflict most probably will fail. Moreover, a truth commission in Sri Lanka at this stage has the danger of sidelining the real issues. The real issue right now is not the “truth.”

Post conflict societies which prefer reconciliation take advantage of different tools available. Naming and shaming, collective amnesia, and affirmative action are some of the other popular tools. South Africa opted for a truth commission largely due to its cultural and religious backdrop. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SATRC) was founded on the Christian notions of confession and forgiveness. Sri Lanka’s culture and traditions are markedly different from that of South Africa. This author feels that at this stage, knowing the horrible details of the conflict and violence will not help heal psychological wounds of the victims. It could in fact exasperate the prevailing animosity.

Even in South Africa, some victims refused to forgive and reconcile after listening to the confessions of the perpetrators. This kind of response could be overwhelming in Sri Lanka. Even after the South African experience there is no concrete evidence to suggest that truth will lead to reconciliation.

Collective Amnesia

It is imperative to note that the victors in Sri Lanka originally preferred collective amnesia as the post conflict method. The government constantly reiterated the need to forget and move forward. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was constituted only to mitigate the international pressure on the question of an international investigation. That’s one reason why the LLRC could not make any positive impacts on ethnic relations. The SLTRC could also suffer the same fate.

Of significance is the fact that it was the “threat of prosecution” that encouraged perpetrators of violence in South Africa to appear before the TRC. Some of these people had the real danger of being prosecuted and punished by the legal system of South Africa. They preferred amnesty in exchange for the truth. In Sri Lanka however, a large number of LTTE cadres have been rehabilitated and released. The presumably hardcore members of the rebels who are still in state custody could be offered an opportunity (or forced) to appear before the SLTRC, if the idea becomes a reality. However, no members of the Sri Lanka armed forces are in danger of facing prosecution. Therefore, it is not clear who will come forward from the South to appear before the commission. This reality could lead to the apprehension that the proposed commission could become a one sided affair which in turn will fuel more ethnic animosity instead of reconciliation.

Clash of Ideology

At this point in time, the SLTRC also looks like an improbable scheme. First and foremost, the very conceptual foundation of the SATRC runs counter to the ideology of the Sri Lankan government. The SATRC was founded on the notion that knowing the fact that all parties to the conflict committed atrocities would promote racial empathy and reconciliation. In Sri Lanka the government believes that it fought sort of a holy war against one of the most brutal terrorist organizations in the world and in fact it was argued that the Sri Lankan soldier fought the war with an AK-47 in one hand and the human rights charter in the other. A genuine South African style TRC would totally damage this conception.

The present Sri Lankan government has successfully built the image of an unyielding protector of the country and the military. Its leaders have repeatedly declared that they will go to any extent to protect the armed forces. A truth commission on the other hand will force the government to introduce at least a few members of the armed forces to accept responsibility, because blaming the LTTE alone will not bestow any credibility to the proposed commission.

This will not be accepted by the nationalist elements of the Sinhala polity. Especially, in an election year the government cannot take the risk of antagonizing the very heart of its vote bank. Therefore, it is difficult to anticipate actual launching of a Sri Lankan TRC in the near future. It will continue to remain a mere theoretical conception.

Truth Commission of the Victims

However, what is less risky and perhaps could be of value is a truth commission of (or for) the victims. The SATRC accommodated both perpetrators of violence and victims into the TRC process. Selected victims and applicants of amnesty were allowed to make presentation before the Commission. In Sri Lanka, role of the perpetrators of violence in the proposed mechanism could become a real problem. A truth commission of the victims on the other hand may have several advantages.

First, victims from all communities could be invited to give evidence and it is clear from past experiences that all communities will be eager to tell and record their stories. This will easily make the process inclusive. Second, hearing the accounts of horrible violence and consequent humanitarian crisis from the victims themselves has the potential to make a positive psychological impact on the nation, which could in the long run pave the way for national reconciliation. Such a commission could also achieve the very basic objective of a truth commission; promoting the understanding that no community can claim that they are the only victims. Third, this approach will also shift the focus from the perpetrators to the victims.

Sri Lanka after successfully terminating the war moved on to other issues such as development rather quickly without paying adequate attention to the victims of ethnic violence. A truth commission of the victims with a complimenting mechanism for reparation may facilitate personal reconciliation, which could form the foundation of national reconciliation that should follow conflict resolution.

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