By Rajiva Wijesinha –
LTTE Terrorism: Musings of a Catholic Priest is a timely publication at a time of increasing polarization. It is a collection by Rev Fr Vimal Tirimanna of his writings over the last few years about the conflict that has torn Sri Lanka apart. It continues to do so even now, despite the destruction of the LTTE, precisely because the balanced and essentially religious approach Fr Tirimanna advocates is lacking, conspicuously so in many of those who claim to be religious.
In his introduction Fr Tirimanna notes how the Catholic Church also contributed to the problem, through the failure of many of its members to strike a convincing balance. He notes the reason for this, when he claims that it was ‘certainly the right thing to do’ to aim for balance. But the failure to condemn LTTE terror openly, ‘on the wrong presumption that it would hurt the Tamil sentiments’ as he puts it, led to the Church losing its credibility.
Fr Tirimanna is unequivocal in his condemnation of terrorism, and he argues with great erudition and the citation of numerous authorities that the Catholic Church can have no truck with terror. At the same time he makes clear his understanding of the reasons for terrorism, and notes the need to deal sympathetically with the grievances of the Tamils that were the result of the majoritarianism he also condemns. Indeed he makes it clear that democracy needs to be inclusive, and that in the modern world ‘special consideration’ is needed for the minorities and that they ‘need to see themselves as being protected, especially in the Constitution of the country’.
Through this clear enunciation of principles that promote pluralism, Fr Tirimanna makes clear the destructive impact of the fundamentalist assertions on either side, namely ‘ that Sri Lanka belongs only to the Sinhala Buddhists and that north and east of Sri Lanka is exclusively the Tamil homeland’. He shows also the need for sensitivity to avoid conveying such perspectives, as when he wonders whether it was appropriate to celebrate victory in battle through a tamasha at Independence Square – while categorically asserting the moral obligation of the government to liberate areas held by the LTTE, and noting that the security forces deserved credit for their achievement. In short, he never loses sight of the distinction between the LTTE, which he felt had to be defeated militarily, and the Tamil people on whose behalf too the government was acting. This needed – and still needs – to be conveyed, and he makes clear again and again the need to bend over backwards to get this message across.
With regard to the LTTE he notes both the moral need to have negotiated, and the equally valid moral need to deal with them conclusively when they had made it clear they had no interest in negotiations. In this regard he makes clear the flawed approach of the Wickremesinghe government, though his harshest criticism in this regard is reserved for G L Peiris, whose equivocations over this period he condemns roundly – ‘what happens is that at the end of every session of the peace process between the government and the LTTE, the government spokesman comes out with a rosy picture which is full of equivocation, then, he also never hesitates to attribute exclusively to himself or to the government the “immense success” of the peace efforts. When those of us who have not been victims of amnesia can still recall that it was the same gentleman who for some six years painted a similar rosy picture not only of the economy but also of the peace process of the then PA government, one wonders what sort of credibility the government commands with regard to the peace process. This sort of calculated hoodwinking and avoiding of vital issues may not last long, for people have a limit to their patience’.
This President’s patience with Prof Peiris seems to have no limts, as was the case with both his predecessors as Heads of Government. What is even more tragic about this is that he should be taking the lead, given his experience in the field, with articulating the government’s ‘vision for a political solution to the national crisis’, which Fr Tirimanna notes Robert Blake, in the days when he was more on our side than not, recommended to further isolate and weaken the LTTE. Prof Peiris does seem to understand one way in which we should be moving, for Fr Tirimanna quotes from a lecture he delivered in 2010, about ‘a need for power sharing mechanism in the Centre as well….There are many ways of achieving that objective, one of which is a bicameral legislature’.
But the total hollowness of the man became apparent when he did not put this idea forward in negotiations with the TNA. After I stressed the need for us to put forward our ideas, he did bring forward a proposal, but he failed to follow it up, just as he failed to follow up on my suggestion about strengthening local government, even though the TNA responded positively to both suggestions.
Another villain Fr Tirimanna identifies, in addition to the extremists on either side he condemns, is the Bishop of Mannar. More circumspectly than he exposed Prof Peiris’s shortcomings, he makes it clear that the Bishop should not have had the Madhu statue removed deeper into LTTE held territory, just as he makes clear that the demand that there be a peace zone around the Madhu shrine was disingenuous given that the LTTE had violated this and was quite likely to ‘reinfiltrate and reoccupy’ it.
The hypocrisy and double standards of those others too who opposed the destruction of the LTTE by our forces is clearly exposed by Fr Tirimanna. He refers to the quite disgusting cover ups of atrocities in Iraq by the BBC and notes Chomsky’s comparison of the coverage of the killing of a priest by the Communist government in Poland with the comparative neglect of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, ‘a friendly client state’ of America. He notes the anomaly of condign criticism of Karuna and Pillaiyan by those continuing to urge negotiations with the LTTE, in effect to ‘hand over a part of the country to a ruthless group of “terrorists” who can never be converted’. And he notes that doubtless the Opposition would not have been so harsh on Karuna and Pillaiyan had they joined the Opposition – which is surely true, as I realized when I was urging Ravi Karunanayake to compromise with President Kumaratunga back in early 2004. His point was that there was no need to do so, since that would mean compromise with the JVP, which he thought the public saw as beyond the pale – whereas the UNP together with the LTTE supported TNA was bound to do better in any election if President Kumaratunga had the temerity to call one.
But while Fr Tirimanna is quite clear about the need to have overcome these equivocal approaches to terrorism, and the importance of what the Rajapaksa government achieved in getting rid of the LTTE forces in Sri Lanka, he is also clear about the need for Reconciliation. In the last chapter of the book he looks at length at the LLRC recommendations and makes it clear that government will fail in achieving lasting peace if it does not swiftly act on those recommendations. He talks about the need for both restorative justice and structural justice, and urges swift constitutional reforms that would ensure ‘minority participation in the day-to-day running of the affairs of our nation’.
In short, this is a thorough account of the crisis and its aftermath, sharp in its analysis, affecting in its universal sympathy, forceful in its moral perspectives. But as with all such balanced and principles approaches, I fear that the extremists on either side, and the equivocators he assesses so critically, will continue to dominate us and, to cite the words with which the book concludes, ‘we may be condemned to repeat our tragic history all over again’.