By Jehan Perera –
US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal who visited Sri Lanka made it clear that the United States would continue to pursue a resolution on Sri Lanka at the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The Sri Lankan government is totally opposed to the initiative spearheaded by the US to have a resolution that calls for an international probe into the human rights issues that arose in the last phase of the war. Ms Biswal also explained her country’s interest in Sri Lanka as being motivated by its values and desire to see peace and prosperity in Sri Lanka and the region. However, this latter motivation is unlikely to impress the ethnic majority Sinhalese population at large whose view of post-war Sri Lanka corresponds to that of the government, which gives priority to post-war economic development over other values.
While Assistant Secretary Biswal was meeting with the country’s decisionmakers and also visiting the North, I was in Avissawella in the Western Province. The government has scheduled early elections in both the Western and Southern provinces and selected the day after the vote in Geneva for these elections. The government appears to be calculating that the voters will be motivated by the spirit of nationalism to give it a victory at these elections, which will be a springboard for further victories at the more important Presidential and Parliamentary elections that are billed to follow in swift order. On the Sunday morning I was in Avissawella, it presented a picture of tranquility and prosperity, with tea and rubber plantations and factories and schoolchildren going to Sunday school in their temples. In conversation with people on the street getting about their daily business it could be seen that Ms Biswal’s concerns about post-war peace and prosperity were largely met, at least for them.
But the problem is that the same does not hold true in the North and East of the country where the war was fought, and even in the hearts of members of the ethnic minorities who live outside of those fromer war zones. The concerns of the Sinhalese majority are different from those of the Tamil and Muslim ethnic minorities, especially where it concerns their sense of security. The recently elected Northern Provincial Council has passed a resolution of its own calling for an international war crimes investigation. The resolution of the Northern Provincial Council has pitted it frontally against the government and is likely to be based on their frustration at the emasculation of the Provincial Council despite its recent election. However, most non-Tamil Sri Lankans would agree with the view that the government is being punished for having defied Western pressure to stop the war and negotiate with the LTTE. Some would even say that the forces of separatism are at work again.
Given the issues at stake a victory by either side is not likely to further the post-war reconciliation process within Sri Lanka. It will only induce bitterness and whet the appetite for revenge in the name of justice. Reconciliation will be the first casualty. At a media briefing in Washington DC, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga has warned of a descent into chaos if there is an international investigation that probes war crimes and targets the Sri Lankan military. The Presidential Secretary’s warning of a descent into chaos evokes the memory of July 1983. After an LTTE ambush that killed 13 soldiers, the largest number to die in a single incident at that time, Sinhalese mobs went on the rampage and attacked Tamils in Colombo and elsewhere they lived as minorities.
Those riots took place because the government of the day created the enabling environment for it, which proved in hindsight to be the greatest mistake on the part of any Sri Lankan government. Such a descent into chaos would be a terrible tragedy to the entire country, and also to the government. It was after July 1983 that the tide changed against the Sri Lankan government and towards the Tamil militancy. They became strengthened immeasurably with scores of voluntary recruits and international support. On the other hand, the government lost its international credibility as media images of the pogrom were beamed internationally. The government hand in the mob violence, both through the active participation of government ministers and the inaction of the security forces became evident. It required the election of a new government in 1994 to restore the international balance.
The Presidential Secretary’s second point was that the government should be given more time to make the reconciliation process take root. He asked for five more years from a starting point of July 2012. While taking this date as a starting point is not self-evident, it nevertheless is valid to observe that reconciliation takes a considerable period of time. But it must also be noted that the post war period has seen a rise in the targeting of minorities — especially the Muslim community, with impunity, suggesting that reconciliation has not been on the forefront of the government agenda. The government’s approach to reconciliation in the North continues to be contradictory. On the one hand, the government uses the security forces to engage in surveillance over the people which creates a psychology of fear towards the security forces. On the other hand, the government takes pride in using these same security forces to engage in economic development and welfare activities such as house building and provision of material handouts.
The third point raised by the Presidential Secretary was that any investigation to be just and comprehensive should span the longer period of the conflict and go back at least to the 1980s when the violence took root. The international focus on only the last phase of the war is too obviously targeted on the government. But there was more than one party to the conflict and to the atrocities that took place. There is no justice in picking out a short period and investigating it so that only those who committed war crimes and other human rights violations in a particular period will be caught and punished. The longer period too needs to be investigated. That is what makes it fair and will give it legitimacy in the eyes of the larger population in the country. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission had a mandate that extended back from 1960 to the early 1990s and not just any one phase.
The absence of balance lies in the insistence on an investigation only into the last phase of the thirty year war. The narrow focus on the last phase of the war is seen by many in Sri Lanka, and not only its government, as a partisan intervention to punish it for defeating the LTTE. At best it seems to be a call for punitive justice for its own sake, rather than for reconciliation. Any investigation of the past, either in the form of an international inquiry or a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission would need to win the acceptance of the different ethnic communities who constitute the Sri Lankan people. There are many examples of such truth seeking commissions in which finding the truth for the sake of the victims who need to know what happened to their loved ones took priority over other considerations. Whatever model Sri Lanka chooses, looking at what happened over the longer period than the last phase of the war would be necessary.
There is a need for Sri Lankan society as a whole to be apprised of the nature and consequences of the political violence conducted with impunity by all sides in the past, by the present government, previous governments and different militant movements, including Sinhalese, so that the cycle will not repeat itself. In this context, a Truth and Reconciliation mechanism with international involvement that has the consent and involvement of all major stakeholders within Sri Lanka is an option worth considering. The South African government has indicated its interest in supporting a process if it has cross party support within Sri Lanka and is part and parcel of a larger process of political reform. It could be an alternative to an international investigation if both the Sri Lankan government and the major minority parties agree to it.