By Jehan Perera –
This week marks 25 years since the Muslim people inhabiting the north were evicted by the LTTE in a matter of hours that ranged from two hours to two days. Their treatment in Jaffna, the seat of Tamil civilization, was particularly harsh as there they were given only two hours to leave. Those who tried to take their valuable possessions with them, such as deeds to their land, jewellery and money, were stripped of them at the LTTE checkpoints. In many places their Tamil neighbours intervened on their behalf but to no avail. The LTTE was not a democratic organization that heeded the voice of the people when it differed from their purposes. Five years later, in 1995, the Tamil people living in the Jaffna peninsula suffered a similar fate at the hands of the LTTE when they were ordered by them to evacuate rather than come under the Sri Lankan military who recaptured the peninsula.
Today about 80 percent of those Muslim families who were evicted from the north continue to live outside it. Many have successfully rebuilt their lives. Despite the ruthless nature of their displacement only a few of them lost their lives so that the family units, the greatest long term strength of any community, remained intact. But in every other aspect they lost heavily, their moveable properties, their jewellery and their traditional homes and villages. There are complications attached to their return although six years have passed since the end of the LTTE. As a result the majority of the Muslim people who were displaced remain in a state of frustration and distress over their fate, which spills over into the larger Muslim community of being unjustly treated. The problems faced by this section of the Sri Lankan population and finding a just solution have not been given either the governmental attention or priority that it deserves.
The new government’s decision to co-sponsor the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka provides an opportunity for the country to come to terms with it many war-related problems and finding a just solution to them. While the focus of this resolution is the last phase of the war it nevertheless covers a broad range of concerns. The government has agreed to set up a judicial mechanism with international participation to investigate the past violations of human rights and international humanitarian laws, and prosecute those found guilty of those offenses. On the other hand, the UN investigation report on which the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council is based covers only the period 2002 to 2009. It is therefore possible that the expulsion of Muslims of the north which took place more than a decade earlier in 1990 may be considered to fall outside of its scrutiny.
There is a valid reason for seeking to restrict the time period of a judicial investigation in to the past that will lead to legal consequences and punishments. Properly constituted courts of law take a great deal of time to proceed with their documentation of cases, examinations, cross examinations, legal verdicts and appeals. Any fully fledged legal process is likely to be a slow one and capable of dealing with only a few cases at a time. The shorter period of 2002- 2009 may therefore be more conducive to the judicial accountability mechanism that is proposed to be set up with international participation. However, if it means that those serious violations of human rights that took place prior to 2002 are going to be ignored, it will mean that the accountability process is seen as partial to one group of victims rather than treating all victims alike.
Any victim-centered process needs to be fair to all victims and hear their voice and note their grievances for remedial action. It is to be noted that the government has not only proposed a judicial mechanism to address the hard issues of accountability. It has also proposed three other mechanisms which will contribute directly to the healing of the wounds of the past. These are the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Office of Reparations and Office of Missing Persons. The mandate of these three mechanisms can be expanded to take in complaints of serious violations that took place prior to 2002. They can go back in time to cover the expulsion of the Muslims of the north in 1990 so that their voices and their grievances can reach the entire country and international audiences too.
Although the expulsion of the northern Muslims took place 25 years ago, and not in the last phase of the war, it too needs to be investigated and the circumstances under which it took place need to be known to the world. It also needs to become a part of Sri Lanka’s history that is remembered and never again repeated. What happened to the Muslims a mere two years ago with the rise of the Sinhalese nationalist Bodu Bala Sena continues to generate unease within the larger Muslim community. It may also be appropriate to give the Truth and Reconciliation Commission the power to recommend prosecution of crimes that took place prior to 2002 if exceptional circumstances warrant it.
The sudden upsurge of anti-Muslim sentiment two years ago, and its open manifestation amongst sections of the ethnic majority population, came as a shock to Muslims and they have still to recover from it. Muslims in Sri Lanka had believed themselves to be integrated into the mainstream of society. But when the anti-Muslim campaign that was undertaken by the Bodu Bala Sena struck, it was not challenged publicly by any significant section of the polity. Perhaps the reason was that it was feared that behind the anti-Muslim campaign was the hidden hand of a section of the then all-powerful government. Nevertheless, the unwillingness of the political parties to speak up and make a critique of the anti-Muslim propaganda at that time was an indication of the failure of post-war reconciliation. To this day, there is a sense of vulnerability of the Muslim community which needs to be dispelled.
So far the present government’s effort to deal with the past failure of governance, and to obtain the support of the Sri Lankan people and the international community, appear to be on course. The international community has been impressed by the government’s cooperative approach. The government’s decision to co-sponsor a resolution that was specific to Sri Lanka was unique, as mentioned by the UN Human Right Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. The government has thereby committed itself to implement the recommendations of the resolution. It is important to note that these are not limited to accountability for war crimes, but also include other areas of governance. One of these is to “investigate all alleged attacks by individuals and groups on journalists, human rights defenders, members of religious minority groups and other members of civil society, as well as place of worship.”
It is not only the government that is to be commended for its willingness to take the country on a new path that gives priority to the protection of human rights and values of good governance. The people of Sri Lanka too have been prepared to give the government the time and space to carry out its reforms without getting misled by propaganda of the opposition parties. The contrast to how the country received the UN resolution of 2013, with wildly emotional protests and demonstrations and how it received the present resolution of 2015 shows that the Sri Lankan people are by and large open minded. Sri Lanka is today an oasis of peace in its absence of armed conflict and political violence. There is also at present no overt display of hostility between the ethnic and religious communities. But the need for inter-ethnic and inter-religious peace building and reconciliation is never ending, as a glance at what is happening in other parts of the world will show.