Picture courtesy JDS
Last month saw the official marking of three years after the end of the 28 year old war that plagued Sri Lanka, killing thousands and setting the country back in terms of development and prosperity. Yet three years on, it seems that not much has changed.
Whilst Sri Lanka has tried to portray that there has been progress made on the ground largely in infrastructural development, critics have been quick to highlight the lack of tangible progress on reconciliation, in effect the inertia on implementing internal recommendations for reconciliation, coupled with an ever weakening space for human rights, media expression and democratic freedom. The recent resolutions at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva on Sri Lanka have been testimony to this type of thinking where analysts have not only been critical that progress has been slow on the ground amidst a decline in general rights that are deemed to be core to a functioning democracy, but they have also pointed to the need to keep this on the international agenda.
This is a debatable fact and the Government is not really willing to engage on any real discussion on the issue despite the occurrences as reported in the media of kidnappings and killings. A recent interview between the defence secretary and the BBC is testimony to the extremely sensitive nature of such discussions and criticisms.
It is also not helped by the ongoing international distractions that have prevented it from addressing some of the real pressing issues. Since the end of the war, there has been pressure from parts of the international community, supported largely by many Tamil Diaspora organizations (some of them aligned with the former LTTE rump) for ‘accountability’ on the conduct of the end of the war and the ‘alleged’ deliberate killing of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan army.
This vociferous call for ‘justice’ from one section of the Tamil Diaspora community which is blatantly anti State and only interested in one thing, which at the surface is not any comprehensive reconciliation solution for Sri Lanka, has been unfortunately conflated with criticisms of the country’s current status. This lack of subtle differentiation is convenient and means that any discussions critical of the state and its governance is immediately treated with suspicion that it is being done in support of the LTTE. It doesn’t help as well that those who are often the loudest critics of the country and the government, themselves share platforms publicly with supporters of the LTTE and the creation of a separate Tamil state.
This suspicion from the government’s perspective of any criticism of its actions is somewhat unhealthy as it views with distrust anyone who disagrees with them. It has also become unhealthy because the real pressing issues of reconciliation, good governance and so on, are overshadowed by trying to react to these allegations and calls for ‘accountability’.
A recent discussion in London at the Frontline club, bears testimony to this ‘Push Me – Pull You’ scenario affecting Sri Lanka. Pitting the director of the Infamous Channel 4 documentary, with someone from Amnesty International and a representative for Tamils against Genocide, against a Government MP and advisor, the stormy discussion ended up rehashing old ground with no actual consensus of how things can move forward and two sides clearly polarised and reacting to one another. As a consequence, we have a hurting stalemate with no real progress.
There needs to be a change of narrative that seeks a 3rd alternative to the one that is currently being offered by both sides. The 3rd alternative has to be one that starts to look at how the country (with all its constituent communities) can move forward.
The days of looking for black cat in the dark room is over because we now know that there is no cat there’
In the past, the war was a powerful unifying force, giving radical parties a platform for populist agitation and established politicians a diversion from their failure to address economic weakness, social concerns and pervasive corruption. This shield is no longer there and the government will have to realize that there are some fundamental structural weaknesses affecting the country (in terms of bad governance, corruption and so on) which criticism off, doesn’t make one anti state. Whilst the task of ensuring a political solution to the grievances of the minorities in a way that ensures that the country moves forward after more than 20 years of conflict, the government
will also have to realize that true reconciliation is a bottom up approach that requires acknowledgement of and engagement with all communities and their concerns. This in particular means that there is a need to contain the extreme Sinhala Buddhist elements that seem intent on hammering the Sinhala nationalist identity home whilst playing into the hands of the detractors by affirming their criticisms of the country. Recent incidents in Dambulla with no official reaction from the government have done little to dispel the perception of an erosion of rights for minorities in Sri Lanka.
The Tamil community mainly in the Diaspora have to also learn that by continuously appearing to repeat the narrative of organizations associated with the LTTE or even flying LTTE flags at protests and events such as what happened during the recent visit of the president to the UK, they will do nothing apart from harden the opposition to them and the perception that they represent ‘ an LTTE rump’. By flying the LTTE flags, these protestors show that they not only support an organisation that killed many of their own leaders and people, but was also responsible for the recruitment of child soldiers and the ethnic cleansing in the north. This not bode well for any future discussion of reconciliation, accountability and justice for Sri Lanka.
There will also have to be a realisation that the narrative of the end of the war is not as clear cut as it seems. If recent media reports are to be believed, a large part of the Tamil Diaspora are themselves responsible for the deaths of civilians in the conclusion of the war, when they refused to put pressure on the LTTE to release the human shields that they were holding.
So the narrative on Sri Lanka and about Sri Lanka has to change. The Tamils genuinely believed that they were fighting for an identity and to take pride in their ability controlling their own affairs. Though the LTTE ultimately betrayed their own people on what Tamil autonomy would entail, these
feelings cannot be blotted out by simply eliminating the LTTE but, they can be made irrelevant by the treatment Tamils (and other minorities) receive in the new Sri Lanka. More importantly it cannot just be done by institutional measures to use Tamil language or to suggest some political autonomy but it will have to be done parallel at the grass roots level where communities need to start trusting one another and accepting them for their differences.
The building of relations of trust is important. By building these relations it is about forswearing the need for revenge and hatred but understanding that there has to be a way of stopping the cycle of unfair pain turning in one’s memory. In order for this to happen, we have to acknowledge each other’s narrative and hear the other’s stories. This iintellectual empathy ensures that people who are in conflict with each other will have to acknowledge that everyone has justified grievances and will also allow the disagreement of someone’s view, analysis or policy without doubting their sincerity and loyalty.
This is what we call restorative justice that does not punish nor does it condone evil and absolve the perpetrator of responsibility. What it does is that it acknowledges that the past is the past and though it has to be honoured must not be allowed to become a ball and chain for the future.
As Ian Paisley said, ‘We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future. in looking to that future, we must never forget those who have suffered during the dark period from which we are emerging’
Restorative Justice is needed not only on the ground but also with the Diaspora of all communities, who have a lot of interest in what goes on in Sri Lanka and can be used to support post conflict community reconciliation.
Circumstances have now changed and there is a real opportunity for great advances to be made for the country, not only in laying to rest the ghosts of the past, but to work towards a new political system and era. Everyone is advocating for a change, tired of the cost that the conflict has inflicted upon the nation, tired of the corruption of the political system, tired of how Sri Lanka has become as a nation and society.
The question is whether communities and stakeholders will develop that 3rd alternative to go beyond the hurting stalemate or whether we will be resigned to wishful dreams of what might have been.