By Jehan Perera –
In most of the country, there is still a considerable amount of freedom for political parties and civic organizations to work with the people, to create awareness amongst them and to mobilize them on issues as befits a functioning democracy. The government’s recent decision to question the director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation is a step beyond which may be intended to send a signal to other international organizations working in Sri Lanka that there are limits to their work in the area of good governance and it that should not be overstepped. This follows a seminar that FNF had organized for some parliamentarians and other elected officials from the main opposition party on improving the opposition’s performance by better campaign methods. The government has claimed that it is investigating FNF as it is concerned about a conspiracy against the government.
However, the government’s readiness to see conspiracies extends in a much more systematic manner to the former conflict zones of the north and east. In the north and east of the country there is an entirely different system of control and surveillance at work that is not seen in the rest of the country. There is a need for civic organizations and NGOs to get permission from special government bodies and even the military of the area, before they can do their work. This is justified by government spokespersons on the basis that the LTTE, or its rump, and the Tamil Diaspora and others are still intent on dividing the country. But there is a more important issue at stake that impacts on the sense of security of government leaders and which drives their desire to control.
One of the main concerns of the government during the last phase of the war was to limit the flow of information about what was happening on the battlefields of the north. To this end, it required international humanitarian organizations and media to leave the war zones, for their own safety as the government claimed. There were claims and counter claims about civilian casualties. Even after the end of the war, there is restrictiveness towards the work of humanitarian and human rights organizations in the north and east of the country, which were the areas where the war was fought. It is clear that the government would also like to close the chapter on what happened during the war, especially in relation to civilian casualties and allegations of war crimes.
The government’s most serious concern that looms above all others is that sections of the international community are utilizing the issue of alleged large scale human rights violations that occurred at that time to enter the country with intrusive international investigative mechanisms. A fact finding committee appointed by the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navaneetham Pillay which visited Sri Lanka earlier this year recommended the setting up of an independent international investigative mechanism to probe what happened during the last phase of the war. The issue of the alleged human rights violations in the end phases of the war resurfaced at the UN Human Rights Council session held in Geneva in March of this year. The question about what happened at that time in the battlefields of the north continues to haunt the government.
At the last session of the UNHCR a resolution sponsored by the United States was passed by the majority of countries over the objections of Sri Lanka. Among other matters, it called upon the government to conduct an independent investigation into the violations of international humanitarian law (war crimes) that may have occurred during the last phase of the war. While the government would be concerned with protecting those of its armed forces and political leadership who prosecuted the war to its successful conclusion, it is also irked by peripheral and limited interest shown in LTTE violations. The LTTE and those who supported it materially and politically cannot be exonerated for its role in what transpired during the war. There needs to be a holistic approach to this issue that encompasses all who engaged in the war, both as perpetrators and as victims.
A recent seminar conducted by the Marga Institute titled “The Numbers Game—The politics of Retributive Justice” brought out these points in a powerful manner. Earlier in March 2011 it had organized another seminar on the report of UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on accountability issues in the course of the war (Darusman Report). Once again, the Marga discussion stressed the importance of gaining a further knowledge of civilian casualties and the human tragedies in order to move forward to national reconciliation. This was also the spirit of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that came out in November 2011, which looked at accountability, human rights, humanitarian law, compensation and governance from the primary standpoint of reconciliation.
There is a big variation in the estimates of civilian casualties ranging from the government’s initial denial of any significant number of them to the UN’s initial estimate of 7000 and going up to the Bishop of Mannar’s submission of 146,000 of those trapped in the war zone being unaccounted for at the end of the war. The discussion at the Marga seminar pointed to the difficulties of coming up with an accurate number. There were observations as to the unreliability of the figures given by local government authorities at that time, as they were under LTTE control, and therefore could be bloated. The LLRC report recommended a conducting a household survey covering all affected families in all parts of the country. But there were also observations that even a household survey could not capture the entirety of civilian losses, as some entire families would have been wiped out while others would have gone abroad and have no one left to report on their behalf.
The currently prevalent figure internationally for civilian deaths is 40,000, which arose from earlier estimates that gave a range of 20,000 to 40,000. The Marga seminar did not hone in on a single number, but it did bring out another important point that must not be lost sight of. This observation is that behind every number, was a person who died or went missing, and each of these figures contained a narrative and a human story of suffering and loss. It is like that story from Colombia in South America, which has had one of the longest running insurrections in the world. This is a story found in a textbook on conflict resolution an authoritative academic figures, John Paul Ledarach, and it tells of a Colombian farmer who goes to his coffee plantation after many years during a time of ceasefire. He hears his long lost brother-in-law’s voice coming from out of the ground, saying “I am here, get me out.” When that site is dug up, a skeleton is found along with his brother-in-law’s clothes.
Whether in war or in normal human life, the dead do not go away, those missing continue to linger in memory. Last week in Vavuniya a legal case came before the high court, submitted by five women whose husbands went missing in the last days of the war. Their complaint was that they saw their husbands surrender after the army announced on loudspeaker that those of the LTTE who surrendered to them would be safe. Their story was that 800 got on buses of which there were 15, and amongst them was a Catholic priest who negotiated their surrender, Fr Francis Joseph, who is also missing to this day. The case was postponed for six weeks to give the state more time to answer. Their search for their loved ones will undoubtedly continue for years to come, even as the bodies of some of those who went missing in the JVP insurrection of 1988-89 are now being dug up in Matale. It would be better if government institutions recognized this, and deal justly and kindly with them for the problem will not go away. It is not a conspiracy against the government that drives them to the courts of law, the last bastion of Sri Lankan justice, but the most primordial of human sentiments, which is the commitment of family members to one another.