Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

Unpacking the Truth in Sri Lanka


In recent weeks there has been some talk about a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) as something that will allow Sri Lanka to come to terms with its troubled past and move forward into the promise of its ‘post-war’ future. I have been informally invited into a few of these conversations because I have worked with the International Center for Transitional Justice in connection with TRC initiatives and proposals for such initiatives in a range of countries, from South Africa to the Philippines. However, it is precisely the lessons I have learned from that experience that confirms my skepticism about the proposal for a TRC in Sri Lanka at this juncture. In many contexts with a long complex record of abuse and a fraught security climate, civil society activists (and sometimes the international human rights community), have pushed for the establishment of a TRC in the hopes that this may be the thin edge of the wedge that opens the door to more political space; space that would expand and empower human rights victims, dissenting activists and others. However, again and again, in country after country, where commissions have been advanced in contexts shadowed by repression and insecurity, the resulting commission has done more to legitimize impunity rather than advance justice.

It may be worth reminding ourselves of some of the goals that have been vested in truth commissions. From Peru to Sierra Leone, social justice or human rights activists who advocated for truth commission saw their efforts as aimed at the inter-related goals of truth, justice, reparations and reform. These goals come together in contesting impunity by addressing both what TRCs have termed legal, forensic truth regarding the details of particular violations, and the ‘big picture’ social, historical truth regarding their enabling conditions. These are often mutually reinforcing truth seeking processes that situate human rights violations within larger structures that identify the command responsibility chains, institutional roles and systemic injustices that were pivotal to particular crimes.

The term ‘truth’ may be misleading to the extent that it suggests that commissions should be aimed at ‘fixing’ the truth. Rather, the potential of truth commissions can be best described as a process that can help contest reigning ideas about the ‘truth’. It is not about establishing an uncontested truth, but about critically unpacking claims to truth. In this sense, the aspiration for a truth commission process is that it will undermine dominant myths rather than determine official dogma. For instance, truth commission analysis may be able to demonstrate that human rights violations are not just a question of a few bad apples in the security sector (as is often the official line) but that these violations are a window into more systemic and structural problems; that violations are not random and isolated but that struggles over the politics of race, ethnicity, class, gender, ideology etc. can explain patterns of violations. Thus, at their best, truth commissions may demythologize nationalist conceits and, as Michael Ignatieff has noted, “narrow the range of permissible lies”.

In some cases, the potential of a TRC to open-up greater political space for accountability can be seen in the relationship between TRCs and prosecution initiatives. For instance, in Chile, the TRC functioned as the principle official instrument contesting impunity when Pinochet left office and his amnesties barred prosecutions; moreover, two decades later those commission findings became crucial evidence when the amnesties were repealed and cases were brought against Pinochet. In South Africa, the TRC’s partial and conditional amnesty was envisioned as the route to an intertwined carrots-and-sticks strategy where perpetrators who came forward to the commission and told the whole truth about particular incidents were given amnesty for their role in those particular incidents but those who didn’t were liable to prosecution. Because they are aimed at telling the larger story regarding patterns of violations, TRC analysis can be of particular value in prosecution initiatives against those with command responsibility. Moreover, while prosecutions provide one important platform for accountability struggles, ideally TRC analysis will go beyond the terrain of courts to open up a wider national conversation on the prevailing distributive injustices and their supportive ideologies that have been the enabling and contributing conditions of violence and abuse; a conversation about the ordinary, everyday complicities and extraordinary, persistent hierarchies that have sustained and reproduced a history of human rights violations.

The Sri Lankan Experience
I started this brief note by invoking some of the anti-impunity ‘truth seeking’ goals that have motivated advocates of TRCs. Yet from Indonesia to Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka, we have repeatedly seen commissions in many parts of the world that have been designed precisely to defeat the goals they claim to advance. Over the last two decades Sri Lanka has itself convened several commissions of inquiry into disappearances and other human rights violations that bear some family resemblance to truth commissions. The history of these commissions provide an indicator of how commissions can be manipulated to defeat dissent by channeling criticisms of human rights violations into institutions that the government of the day uses as a shield against critique. Even when commissions have fought against the odds to push for justice their work was restricted and compromised and their recommendations for prosecutions and reform were buried; many voices of dissent who engaged with these commissions have been threatened and the justice aspirations of those who gave testimony have been betrayed.

Some argue that irrespective of Sri Lanka’s past record, the current need for post-war ‘reconciliation’ warrants a TRC. Yet, not unlike the word ’truth’, the word ‘reconciliation’ in truth and reconciliation commissions has sometimes led to more confusion than clarity. Reconciliation is a long term process that is itself dependent on advancing justice rather than functioning as a proxy for justice. There are many contexts where there is a great need for reconciliation but more often than not the discourse on reconciliation has functioned as a cynical public relations exercise where empty calls to unity have substituted for policies that genuinely address the justice claims of minorities and other marginalized groups.

This is not the first time in Sri Lanka that calls for reconciliation have been advanced (in the name of a “post-war” historical moment) in ways that have raised questions regarding legitimacy and accountability. In March 2002, after the GOSL-LTTE ceasefire agreement, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the South African TRC signed a statement protesting threats to the space for dissent in Sri Lanka noting that the legitimacy of peace “depends not only on the cessation of hostilities, but also on broader questions of democratic accountability.” This statement reminds us that questions of justice and dissent that inform questions of democratic accountability will be central to the legitimacy of post-war initiatives.

In the spirit of the Tutu statement, we may note that although the requisite ‘legitimacy’ preconditions for a TRC to pursue the goals described earlier are complex and multi-facetted, whether the current government can establish an institution today that has the confidence of marginalized communities and dissenting voices may provide a telling window into whether the most elementary political and security conditions obtain. For instance, would those most victimized believe that such a process will advance their justice goals? Do dissenting political activists believe in the integrity and independence of the process? Do those most skeptical of nationalist myths believe the process will expose lies and challenge impunity? Is there a political and military climate where dissenting voices can give testimony without security fears? The answers to these questions may give us a hint as to whether establishing a TRC at this juncture would enable Sri Lanka to unpack dominant ‘truths’, track command responsibility and redress legacies of abuse, or, instead, if it would prop-up national myths, cover up the responsibility of those in power and legitimize a repressive regime.

Where do you place your bets?

  • Dayan Jayatilleka

    Dear Vasuki,

    The crucial question may the be the one that is unasked. TRC are forms of Transitional justice which imply transitions that are (largely) negotiated ones, which in turn are evidenced only when armed conflicts result in stalemate. The question then is this: which war ended in outright, decisive victory for one side, to be followed by a TRC/transitional justice probe of both sides? Off the cuff, my answer is: none. And does anyone expect Sri Lanka to be holier, and set a precedent or example? C’mon.

    This does not mean that grievances cannot be ventilated and justice served in some form. But the forms will be those of ventilation in parliament by the Tamil MPs post-elections, the use of the courts, the media, and the arts. Some day a different domestic dispensation, in a different atmosphere, undergirded by a different social coalition may revisit these times and issues. Or not. Far more traumatic experiences (Chile, Bangladesh) are left to heal with the passage of time, with no government initiatives, though civil society finds creative ways of catharsis.

    I suggest no slogans from afar, which can unwittingly trigger a chauvinist, even militaristic backlash against a fragile civil society, institutions and equilibrium.

  • Moses Dayhaen

    There are many criticisms and cynicisms levelled against TRC – especially at the SA model. Equally, victim testimonies are ample to think twice. A relevant model has to be found for SL instead of throwing the baby with the bath water.
    Dayan is chauvinistically thinking in terms of the winner-loser narrative. All are losers if the out come is unsatisfactory. The perennial problem of the Tamils will need to be solved. The transition has to be a cathartic-healing process of memories, pent up emotions and grievance.
    The passage of time may also make wounds to fester, especially when the winner-loser narrative is promulgated either subtly, cunningly or blatantly, as it has happened, tragically in the past in SL.
    TRC is only a beginning of a journey. (Don’t trash it Nesiah, just because you have had bad experience.)

  • Hari Narendran

    The further we get away from the definitive end of the ‘war’ phase of the battle for minority rights within Sri Lanka, the more we see two distinct narratives emerge. One from the majority community – where the GoSL and armed forces are angels of mercy who have freed the Tamils from the clutches of the evil LTTE and to whom the Tamils should therefor be forever beholden. And on the other hand a very different one from the Tamils – which acknowledges the LTTE was a murderous outfit, but does not hold the GoSL to be any better based on experiences at the hands of agents of the gov’t. I fear without a TRC process of some sort – which could be either government sponsored or one where civil society is permitted to freely pursue/investigate the truth in terms of narratives from victims of human rights abuses/violations without threats from “unidentified” goons or being labeled traitors by the powers that be – we will have a situation where neither side understands where the other is coming from, further fueling a climate of mistrust which will get in the way of reaching a stage where we can all get on with building a peaceful and prosperous nation.

  • LankaLiar

    Sri Lanka never had truth. and never there will be. We breath lies have lies for breakfast and dinner and we sleep and dream lies. The head quarters of Lies is in Sri Lanka. Our flag is a LIEon holdin a weapon ready to kill any one who speaks truth. It is futile to try to unpack truth, you are only trying to unpack something that is not there. Good luck

  • undergroundview

    A Truth and reconciliation process can only work if all sides are agreed that the war or dispute or whatever is over, and the issue on the table is how the communities or groups live and work together.

    With the IDP camps still holding over quarter of a million souls, that may not be the case.

    It also requires an openness to dialogue and criticism. The attitude of the Rajapaksa brothers to turbulent journalists (and their incarceration or untimely death) suggest that might not be the case either.

    We may have to wait a while for either truth or reconciliation.

  • Sie.Kathieravealu

    Please just forget about TRC which can be used for the opposite purpose as said by the author. As such,.instead of TRC, please use some of your time in finding ways and means of establishing “good governance” in the country. When there is good governance in the country, truth will just burst without a Commission.

    So let us devote our time to promote good governanmce in the country.