the year of the tiger;
bearing down on waves of water
waving guns in a delirious salute,
dance the masque of death around
a ring of bodies,
This submission highlights the importance of looking at the impact of the war on the Tamil communities in the North in all its multiplicity. It is important that the war, both in its final phase and the ethnic conflict, are not seen as a binaristic Sinhala -Tamil conflict, or purely as a Tamil versus Sri Lankan state phenomenon, implying in the end a simple division between victims and perpetrators. For actual justice to be meted out, the historical detail of the ethnic conflict, the procedure of war, the high level militarization of several camps of the parties involved, the deep seated structural inflections of gender, class, caste and other factors, the deep injustices of structural aspects such as the oppressive practices of the state and state like structures, the structures of militant organizations like the LTTE should be taken into account.
Transitional justice is predicated on the idea of truth, telling the truth, accountability and finally a coming to terms with the past in some way, leading to reconciliation, co-existence. This submission aims at complicating the ideas of truth as given and truth would always lead to reconciliation and raising questions such as what we should do as communities, apart from legal measures, to achieve reconciliation and what kind of co-existence is possible at this historical juncture, seven years after the end of the civil war. Asking these questions will help us to be reflexive about the processes that we are part of and situate them in the current historical moment.
Multiplicity of Experiences
The prolonged ethnic strife and the civil war have left us with multiple stories about our past and how we now relate to one another as individuals and communities. Thus there is no single truth about the war. Even within a community the war was experienced by the people differently. These experiences were inflected by class, gender, and caste. Within the Tamil community, a group of people branded as traitors were socially and politically marginalized, physically tortured, killed or forced to leave their areas of residence by the LTTE for voicing their criticism of the movement and its narrow nationalist vision for the people in the North-East including the Tamils. Some activists were killed in places like Chennai and Paris. We cannot narrate The Tamil community’s experience of the war without talking about the torture camps the LTTE ran in the North-East and the children it forcibly recruited especially from underprivileged families in the rural regions in the East and Vanni and to fight the war. Reconciliation thus means not just re-structuring the state and creating the conditions necessary for a future of ethnic co-existence but also a process of self-evaluation that we need to undertake as communities.
While it is important to understand the ethnic dimension of the war, we should simultaneously look at how social divisions such as class, caste and gender pluralize the people’s experiences of the war. Thanges Paramsothy’s work on the IDP camps in the Jaffna district shows that the inmates of 25 of these camps predominantly belong to landless, oppressed caste communities. De-militarization alone would not solve the problems of these communities; the state has to allocate land for these families[iii]. Sivamohan Sumathy’s recent research on gender and violence demonstrate that women in the Vanni operate under the oppressive social gaze of patriarchy which is intensifying under militarization: “The women working on the [army-run] farm have to be attired in a uniform of trousers and shirt. At first there was much ridicule of this wear. The women took to changing their clothes at the farm itself, but as there was no shelter in the farm area, this led to much speculation, scandal and eventual outrage about moral depravity. At present, the women are boldly wearing this uniform to work.”[iv]
If our engagement with the past, the war as a whole and its gory end in Mullivaikal should take us to a violence-free, inclusive and democratic future we should acknowledge the multiple ways in which the people as individuals, communities, dissidents and people marked for caste, class and gender had experienced the civil war and ethnic violence. This multiplicity should encourage us to question what the nation (including the Tamil nation) and the state (including the contemplated Tamil Eelam) mean to their differently constituted, differently positioned peoples within their territories.
The War’s End, the Sri Lankan State and Tamil Nationalism
Even as we memorialize the end of the war as a tragic event in the North and from a contrasting standpoint, a day of victory to be remembered with pride in the South, there is very little cross-ethnic interaction that happens through these acts of memorialization. As communities, we have particularized our responses to the war in such a way that we can easily abdicate our responsibility of scrutinizing how we as activists, militants, catalysts, mute spectators and even victims are complicit in the crimes committed in our name against others which include not just the Mullivaikal tragedy but also the disenfranchisement of the plantation Tamil workers, state-aided anti-Tamil pogroms before the start of the militancy, the state culture of impunity and mass-murder as manifested against the marginalized Sinhalese particularly in the latter 1980s, the eviction of the Muslims from the North, the Tamil-Muslim killings in the East, to name a few.
The Mullivaikal tragedy that we remember in the month of May as the horrific culmination of the civil war has left a huge unchartered morass in our country’s post-independence journey, constantly pulling us back. The government and its armed forces have killed tens of thousands of civilians through direct means as well as impersonal ones including widespread shelling, chemical bombing and aerial attacks. The government is also responsible for shelling hospitals and other humanitarian objects. It denied humanitarian assistance to the people who were in the war zone. Many who reached the government controlled areas were abducted and raped. Even as the state tries to conceal these atrocities, they appear again and again to haunt the idea of Sri Lanka or what it means to the Tamil lives destroyed by the state during the so-called humanitarian operation in 2009.
The violent methods the LTTE used during recruitment during the last months of the war and the tyrannical grip that it had over the people in the Vanni before and during the final battle demonstrate that Tamils who were killed during the latter part of the war became disposable in the LTTE’s eyes too. The searing cries of these people whose last attempts to leave the war zone were thwarted deliberately by the top leadership of the LTTE, with the complicity of its local and international propagandists, continue to puncture the body of the Tamil nation.
Truth and Justice
The multiple ways in which we experienced the war show that truth is not singular or fixed or neutral. We should also be aware of the limits to truth-based approaches to justice and reconciliation. Laying bare the ‘truth’ as names, digits and facts through a judicial mechanism alone would not heal the wounds and guilt (if at all they are healable) caused by the war among the victims and perpetrators (one should also be aware of the ways in which the ethnic conflict and the competing nationalisms have blurred the boundaries of perpetrators and victims in Sri Lanka); paradoxically, in the absence of a larger social will to reconciliation, it may aggravate the existing communal antipathies. At the same time, we cannot build our future on false foundations without addressing the war and its effects upon the communities or by denying war-survivors the justice and reparation that is their due. The people who have lost their family members, relatives and friends are still seeking justice. For them justice is indispensable. Navigating these messy and muddy waters of truth, justice and co-existence is one of the greatest challenges facing Sri Lanka today. How our political leadership and we as communities, activists, writers, perpetrators, witnesses, survivors and victims respond to this challenge through legal means and creative avenues like social dialogue and translation will determine our political future. Such dialogue at the community level cutting across the ethnic, religious and regional divides is crucial to democratize the state and build a violence-free, pluralist and egalitarian political future for all of us.
The various commissions appointed by the state have done very little to address the needs of these people. As a result, the Tamil community is pushed to seek justice from international organizations or through an internationalized process of justice. Unless the state recognizes the systemic flaws in our law-enforcing institutions and keeps them free of majoritarian chauvinism, it will continue to alienate the minority communities.
Economic Solutions and Reparations
Even the economic solutions offered by the state to the post-war populations are problematic. The proliferation leasing companies in the North and the way they influence war-affected populations’ needs is a case in point. The communities’ increasing dependence on these companies shows that the state has failed to address the needs of this population and made them prone to the exploitation of these companies. While one cannot deny that the communities in the South too are facing exploitation from these companies, we have to recognize that the activities of the leasing companies have a different impact on the communities ravaged by the war. At a time when the war-affected communities in the North are trying to re-start their lives, these companies push them into severe indebtedness. The 65,000 housing scheme is another example of the ill-conceived economic solutions that the government offers to address the problems of the post-war populations in the North. One wonders whether this scheme was introduced to give an opportunity for a MNC to make profit or to support a war-affected population. These haphazard economic approaches to post-war development show that the post-war reconciliation initiatives of the state do not recognize the needs of the war-affected people.
Transitional justice initiatives cannot completely be separated from the question of economic justice. Sometimes we think transitional justice initiatives should follow a certain sequence: truth- accountability – reparation – guarantees of non-recurrence. But people have their immediate needs and cannot wait until accountability is established to receive the reparation that is their due. This is why some people accept small livelihood offers made by the state as interim compensation even as they are searching for their family members who have gone missing. One has to take into consideration the class and caste divisions within the communities and how they shape the people’s engagement with transitional justice and reconciliation.
Political Solution and Post-war Co-existence
The present post-war historical juncture requires a political solution alongside initiatives related to transitional justice. Devolving powers to the provinces and a certain non-absolutist recognition of the political differences of our ethnic communities is important. This recognition involves seeing differences both as products of power and state formation and as interdependent entities because of the geographic, cultural and economic entanglements that have emerged among us historically.
War, post-war, reconciliation are categories that are experientially porous. For those who have been traumatized by the war, the war has not ended yet. There has been no closure to the war as yet for those who are seeking justice. One does not know whether they will ever find a closure to the physical and emotional pain caused by the war. As much as the war has kept us divided as communities, our participation and silent condoning of the war and the quasi-revolutionary violence and brutality of the LTTE have implicated us in one-another’s lives. We cannot completely place ourselves outside of this entanglement. Even self-criticism would not release us fully from this situation. The past is gone. And with it are thousands of lives. We cannot fully go back in time. The work of S.H. Hasbullah and Swasthika Arulingam on land issues in the North capture this impasse[v]. The settled Sinhala populations who have been living in the lands belonging to the Tamils in areas like Manal Aru renamed Weli-Oya for thirty years cannot be evicted from those lands overnight. At the same time, the government should not falter in its responsibility to address the grievances of the returning Tamil farmers who had owned these lands at least by providing them with alternative cultivable lands. These conflicts show that we are now facing an epoch of difficult co-existence, a co-existence that we have to will constantly while recognizing its difficulties in order to avoid a future ridden with violence.
Co-existence does not always mean forgetting our pasts and living happily with one another or different communities living under the shelter of a common state after a period of communal strife. It is primarily about recognizing the fact that we share this earth with one another and our responsibility towards others. We have to co-exist; there is no choice. But to see co-existence as an open-ended process that does not coerce the war-affected people to seek release from their past when they are not emotionally ready for it is equally important. Such open-endedness will ensure that their voices are not stifled and will encourage them to demand a secure and inclusive future for themselves and others.
- Transitional justice mechanisms should take into consideration the diverse grievances, aspirations and needs of the different sections of our communities such as the Internally Displaced Persons, dissidents, child soldiers and their families, women, oppressed caste communities, workers in military-run institutions, soldiers and their families, ex-militants and their families and other vulnerable communities.
- An independent mechanism should be established to impartially investigate all war-related crimes committed by the state and non-state actors including the LTTE. As the government itself agreed to in the UN resolution that it co-sponsored in 2015, establishing a hybrid judicial mechanism that requires the participation of the international community is essential in view of notable failures of our justice system since Independence in numerous cases dealing with redress for minorities. But communities that seek international intervention should be wary of the local elite’s attempt to present the UN and other international organizations as their liberators and realize that international actors have their own neo-imperial economic interests and divisive political agendas and can even collaborate with local forces that are willing to implement their agendas in denying justice to those affected by the war.
- The right of individuals, communities and multi-ethnic collectives to memorialize the ones who were killed during the war including the soldiers and militants should be respected.
- There should be a special mechanism to address the communities’ conflicts over land, water and the environment arising from displacements, evictions and colonization schemes initiated by the state. Reparations should be given to the affected people.
- Truth about all those who have been made to disappear by the state and militant movements should be brought out.
- Political prisoners who have been languishing in the country’s prisons for many years should be released with proper compensation with avenues for meaningful existence including appropriate steps towards their re-integration into society and creating employment opportunities for them.
- De-militarization of the North-East and other regions of the country should be accelerated and the people’s land occupied by the military should be handed back to the people.
- The military and the state should stop planting Buddhist symbols and erecting Buddhist monuments in areas where no Buddhists live. It should also stop acquiring lands belonging to the people.
- To ensure that transitional justice initiatives, the international community’s involvement in them and constitutional reforms do not polarize the communities in the country further, the government should start a campaign to educate the public especially in the South about the importance of addressing the war and its legacies, winning the trust of the minority communities and resolving the national question.
[i] This is a written version of the oral submission made by the author at a public consultation session on reconciliation mechanisms held in Jaffna on the 6th of August 2016. Some sections of this submission have been taken from the article “Seven Years After the End of Sri Lanka’s Civil War” (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/seven-years-after-the-end-of-sri-lankas-civil-war/) written by the author in May 2016.
[ii] sumathy, s. “death by water, death by identity.” like myth and mother. colombo: sirahununi, 2008.
[iii] Paramsothy, Thanges. “Caste and Camp People in Jaffna: Landownership & Landlessness.” https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/caste-camp-people-in-jaffna-landownership-landlessness/
[iv] Sumathy, Sivamohan. “A Spoonful of Sugar: The Quest for Survival and Justice.” The Search for Justice: The Sri Lanka Papers. Eds. Kumari Jayawardena & Kishalie Pinto-Jayawardena. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2016.
[v] Research papers on land issues in the North presented individually by S. H. Hasbullah & Swasthika Arulingam at the Social Justice Conference held in Jaffna on the 18th of July 2016.