By Izeth Hussain –
I am outlining in this article one possible approach to the problem of ethnic reconciliation, while acknowledging that other approaches could also merit consideration. First of all we must acknowledge that the investigations into war crimes required under the UNHRC Resolution could prove to be profoundly divisive, making the task of reconciliation even more difficult than it would have been otherwise. Part of the problem is that the investigations will be confined to the period 2002 to 2009. It will mean that Sinhalese notables will be targeted but not the LTTE ones – who were responsible for the horrors of the forcible recruitment of child soldiers and the use of 330,000 Tamils as human shields – because they are safely dead. It becomes arguable therefore that the investigations should cover the antecedent period as well, including the actions of the IPKF.
I am here recapitulating some of the main points in my article Reconciliation versus Geneva 2015 which was published in the Colombo Telegraph of October 19. The principle I affirmed was that looking into crimes committed in the past should be seen as part of a process of nation-building. We did have a Sri Lankan nation at one time but it broke down some years after Independence, becoming a Sinhalese nation in which the minorities are in Sri Lanka but not of it. The cost of the failure to build a Sri Lankan nation has been very terrible: a 26-year civil war which has left 100,000 dead. Nation-building has perforce to be an indigenous process without outsiders butting in. Therefore the crimes committed by the IPKF should be set aside – for which there are obviously other compelling reasons as well. The focus should be on the Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim contributions to our ethnic tragedy.
Where should we begin? Not with the pre-colonial past, nor even with the riots of 1956 and 1958 which in a historical perspective have to be seen as no more than sporadic bouts of violence. We should begin with the qualitative change in our ethnic relations which began in 1977, when the obviously state-sponsored pogrom of that year inaugurated a period of systematic violence against the Tamils. It reached its apogee in the state-sponsored holocaust of 1983. Some special features of what followed in the aftermath should be noted. Unlike in 1958 there was no vigorous protest from the Parliamentary Opposition. There was no civil society reaction worth speaking about, and the Sinhalese people cowered in terror under the heel of the omnipotent Jayawardenian state. There was no one within Sri Lankan to whom the Tamils could turn. It was shown that they could be killed with impunity, and even be treated as worse than pariah dogs with total impunity. It has never been our practice to burn pariah dogs alive, but in 1983 Tamils were burnt alive with the forces of law and order looking on.
The Sinhalese side must acknowledge those horrible facts and also the horrible consequences that follow from those facts. Here I must emphasize that what really matters is not what I think or the Tamils think, but what the international community thinks – meaning of course a powerful group of countries. We can be certain that what the international community thinks is that the Tamils, just like any other group deprived of the protection of the law, were right to take to the gun. That was the only way they had of affirming their human status. The international community could be expected furthermore to think that India was justified in providing training and weapons to the insurgent Tamils, even though India disastrously mishandled the problem at a later stage. I must add that I totally approve of the splendidly outspoken Island editorial of October 1915 which clearly recognizes the then government’s responsibility for 1983 and asks for a probe of the holocaust, including the two Welikada jail “riots”.
On the Tamil side there should be an acknowledgment of the fact that the prolongation of the war was largely due to LTTE intransigence. I don’t want to regurgitate well-known details to demonstrate that both Presidents Premadasa and Kumaratunge were sincere about wanting a negotiated political solution to the ethnic problem. Considering all that happened in the past, it is arguable that the Tamil side had good reason to doubt that sincerity. But that surely does not apply to the Norway-led peace process which the LTTE was bent on aborting by its ridiculous insistence that the addressing of substantive problems should be postponed until the existential problems of the Tamils were solved. The truth is that the LTTE never wanted a political solution because it believed that a military victory was inevitable. Behind that belief was a racist underestimation of Sinhalese capabilities – a racism that I analysed through a dissection of Heroes day speeches of Prabhakaran and Balasingham some years ago. So the Tamil side must acknowledge that the prolongation of the war was mainly due to LTTE intransigence.
A special importance should certainly be given to the expulsion of around 90,000 Muslims from the North under conditions that were horrifying indeed: only a few hours notice was given and the Muslims had to abandon their goods and property which passed into the possession of the Tamils. It was an act of utter barbarism, the only clear act of genocide during the entire 26-year civil war. For some time I held the view that that expulsion from the North was in retaliation for the Eastern Province Tamils having been driven out of around sixteen villages by Muslim Homeguards getting together with members of the STF. But I see from Rajan Hoole’s The Fallen Palmyra that what happened in the EP was itself in retaliation for earlier provocations by the LTTE. So it appears that the expulsion from the North was a well-planned and cold-blooded act of genocide. There seems to be reason to believe that if it had been possible the Muslims would have been driven out of the Eastern Province as well. I must acknowledge that the Muslims have supported the Sinhalese in every act of racist idiocy against the Tamils, and thereby they have contributed in no small measure to the ethnic tragedy. But that does not justify genocide against them.
Investigations into the antecedents of the ethnic problem going back to 1977 should correct what looks like an invidious targeting of the Sinhalese side by limiting the investigations to the period from 2002 to 2009. In any case the extended investigations are necessary for the purpose of ethnic reconciliation. We can be sure that our historians and others will be carrying out such investigations, but that will take time and therefore it will be best for the Government to appoint commissions for that purpose. In my view it would be counterproductive to try to establish whether this side or that side is more blameworthy for the ethnic tragedy, because that will only deepen our divisiveness. The focus should rather be on the fact that both sides have shown themselves capable of committing acts of utter savagery against their fellow human beings. The reason for that is that in the midst of civilisation we are in savagery. Every civilized society is capable of lapsing into savagery as shown best by Nazi Germany. But the same German people who lapsed into savagery have recently shown that they are capable of rising to glory by their movingly humane response to the plight of refugees.