With the end of the civil war in 2009, the Rajapaksas’ deceitful claim of zero civilian casualties had inadvertently trapped their regime into an irreversible position. This absurd claim meant the inability to acknowledge the losses of a battered society that suffered the brunt of terrorism and faced the horror of the unacceptable death toll of their loved ones during the final stages of the war. It also resulted in the missing of a historic opportunity for a genuine reconciliation. It is estimated around 100,000 civilians died from the inception of the civil war in 1983 (although the uprisings commenced much earlier) with further estimates of up to 60,000 lives brutally lost in the final stages of the war. The majority of the victims were from the minority Tamil ethnicity. The tragic loss of lives of their loved ones is not easy to let go and the Sri Lankan government must address this and deploy an action plan to have a genuine and sincere reconciliation to ensure that this tragedy does not reoccur.
Successive governments have failed to carry out genuine reconciliation. Instead, there was the casual public display of unity among communities by merely showcasing acts such as Independence Day celebrations with children from all communities parading in their unique cultural dresses, religious leaders from all communities seated next to each other and heads of states making great speeches of unity as their commitment towards reconciliation. None of these public displays and speeches has addressed the true grievances of a minority community or resulted in the execution of any reconciliation actions that have had a real impact to the society at large.
Though true reconciliation and the healing process may take decades, the following could serve as a starting point.
Acknowledging the Truth – The first step is acknowledgement. The government should utilise the strong roots of democracy to reach out to the marginalised society by acknowledging the tragedy and informing the truth to the victims. This is the only way the people who lost their loved ones will be able to accept and commence the process to move on. GOSL should not shy away from publicly seeking and delivering the truth in fear of extremist and ultra nationalist reactions taking political mileage. Grief cannot, and should not, be suppressed. If GOSL omits this initial step of delivering the truth, it is accepting to its fellow citizens the notion that some lives matter less.
Though it frequently is viewed from this perspective, seeking and delivering the truth is not to be taken as revenge or to bring the perpetrators to justice. It needs to be carefully noted that this process is indeed different. Instead, pardoning by way of granting amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution should be applied. Perpetrators are to be forgiven, provided there is an equal attempt to restore the honour and dignity of the victims and to give effect to repatriations.
Whilst this may seem idealistic, a similar approach was carried out quite successfully in South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in 1994 where victims of gross human rights violations by the Apartheid regime were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request for general amnesty. This was hauled a great success in the healing process and South Africa moving forward. This is unlike the Nuremberg style prosecution of violators where perpetrators were sentenced depending on the level of injustice carried out.
National Apology – The head of state must deliver a national apology representing the country to all citizens, particularly to those who have lost their loved ones. It is not a personal responsibility but a claim of nationalistic sorrow for all the people, your people, who were unfairly affected by this civil war.
Even though there will be many reasons to feel let down by a national apology, and the lack of action, it is still important to acknowledge the emotion felt by the many survivors who will feel their stories have finally been acknowledged. An apology is not just an admission of guilt, it is also an expression of sorrow. It is not a case of “get over it’, ‘move on’, ‘let it go’ or ‘forgive and forget’. Never underestimate the power of “sorry” – it is an integral part of a healing process.
The national apology delivered by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on 13th February 2008 formally acknowledging the suffering caused by decades of mistreatment of Indigenous Australians was one of the defining moments in modern Australian history.
Law and order to be strictly enforced – Since Independence, successive governments have failed in enforcing the laws as opposed to the failure of the law itself. Every racial riot that has taken place post-Independence right up to the recent riots in March 2018 in Digana, Kandy, the government either had a complicit hand in promoting the racial riots or did not carry out adequate measures to curtail such riots in a timely manner. Following which, the perpetrators of such inhuman acts were not dealt with severely due to fear of backlash. This is a stark difference between Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Malaysia too experienced racial riots. Take for instance the Sino – Malay sectarian violence that took place on 13th May 1969 where an estimate of 600 deaths took place with the majority of deaths being the minority Chinese. Despite the Malaysian government introducing racially discriminatory laws favouring the Bumiputra or Malays following the racial riots, there was still a strict enforcement of the law where no civilians or their collaterals could be harmed or damaged thus fostering a culture of a safe place to live. Any violation was severely dealt with regardless of their ethnicity. In Sri Lanka, we have consistently lacked the strict enforcement of the law from post-independence to today, where perpetrators of racial riots roam freely.
Repatriation – There should be a process of repatriation where the government should compensate the reasonable needs and wishes of the victims in order to start a new life in their respective areas. Though it is impossible to attach a monetary value to the various degrees of suffering, the government should accept the moral obligation to make reparations to the victims of the civil war. The fact is that without providing for some measure of reparation to the victims, healing and reconciliation will not take place. Ironically, as Christian Tomuschat (1999) remarks, “the beneficiaries of these repatriation claims would have to pay themselves for the monies granted to them since public money is invariably levied from the tax-payer. After a democratic government has been established, the distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’ does not work anymore. The debts of the State are debts affecting everyone”.
Remembrance Day – It was a significant and bold step by the current Yahapalana government to change May 18th from Victory Day to Remembrance Day. However, this is not publicised due to fear of extremist and ultra-nationalistic elements taking undue political advantage. When the Rajapaksa regime named May 18th as Victory day, it demonstrates a failure in realisation this would create a bigger divide. Celebrating this day, the Rajapaksa regime only fueled the euphoria of ultranationalists. The rightful renaming to Remembrance Day by the current GOSL should further a step and be publicly commemorated as a day of mourning in respect of all the citizens who lost their lives as a result of this tragic civil war on both sides. Losses of large Tamil civilian deaths and the tears born by Army families too should not be forgotten. There can be a national song composed remembering the lives lost in vain in the name of war. Songs have always been a unique and important way of storytelling, and for helping people find empathy for the experiences of others. Never has this been truer than the impact these songs have had on the national consciousness. This will help heal wounds of the victims and also make future generations understand that this should never repeat.
Constitutional Reforms – The root cause of any uprising or terrorism is as a result of a political failure. Despite ending terrorism in 2009, we cannot ignore the political failures of past governments that caused the uprisings in the first place. It is similar to cutting down a tree without taking removing the roots. There should be constitutional reforms addressing these political failures, grievances and the reasonable demands of a battered society. These reforms should be put forward to the people of this country and gain acceptance by the majority of this country by way of a referendum. Historic experience demonstrates that backdoor deals and pacts have not delivered any fruitful progress.
Post Conflict Aid for Economic Development – The economic policy of the government should aim to be inclusive one where all ethnic groups should be given a stake in the success of the post-war economy. A quick summary of an initiative driven by economics is for the government to establish economic zones in war-torn areas to encourage entrepreneurship by offering financial assistance and land leases to set up focus industries such as in Agriculture, Fishing, Tourism and Technology. The industries this creates will rebuild and revitalize the area and lead to the creation of sustainable livelihoods especially for war-affected citizens.
After the end of the war in 2009, the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime enjoyed unprecedented popularity and absolute power. The perfect mix to execute a genuine reconciliation process. Instead, they chose personal victory and short-term popularity due to the greed for power over the long-term interests of the country.
President Maithripala Sirisena took office in January 2015 with a possible desire to carry out true reconciliation. However, with 3 years in power, he has displayed a lack of moral courage to carry out a genuine reconciliation process as he has become a prisoner to the whips and whims of the ultranationalist and extremist elements.
2020 will mark over a decade after the end of the civil war and will Sri Lankans be able to put their bitter past behind them and elect a leader who has the moral courage and leadership to defeat the forces of ultranationalists by carrying out a genuine reconciliation process in order to leave behind a legacy of a revitalized, united Sri Lanka, or would Sri Lankans continue to lose hope and be faced by yet another leader in charge with a personal agenda?