On forgiving and forgetting

Pre-Independence, our island was among most peaceful lands in Asia. For some centuries there had been no large scale ethnic riots in our Island apart from the anti-Muslim riots of 1915. Even the 1915 riots lacked the scale and brutality of some of the anti- Tamil, JVP led and state led anti-JVP  pogroms that we had experienced since the mid – 1950s. The distinctive feature of the post-independencepogroms is that very few of the perpetrators had been identified or punished. What we have often witnessed is either denial or justification of the violence, and the surviving victims and their loved ones being asked “to forgive and forget”. Is this possible or even desirable?

This question has been addressed over the last few decades in several countries of Africa and Latin America through a wide range of Truth Commissions. A central focus of these Commissions was on Truth Telling with a view to identification of both victims and perpetrators, the nature of the crimes, and also exploration of the circumstances that led to these crimes. The formula for the mix of retributive and restorative justice has varied from country to country. Most Truth Commissions offered partial amnesty, but this had to be earned by each individual perpetrator through public, face to face Truth Telling direct to the victim/victim’s family.

Blanket amnesty was never offered; nor were the victims and their loved ones urged “to forgive and forget”. The nature of the crimes (killing, torture, rape etc) was such that forgetting was impossible. Moreover, the publication of the Commission reports with details of every crime dealt with ensured that the relevant facts were disseminated worldwide, not suppressed. We have never had such a Truth Commission in Sri Lanka involving the confessions of perpetrators. Many of those who are urging the establishment of a Truth Commission in Sri Lanka may have very little knowledge of what it entails; many of those who do maywant not a Truth Commission but a cover up Commission.How many perpetrators would make full confessions? How many of them would be willing to implicate those of their colleagues and superiors who may be unwilling to confess? Even among the victims, how many will dare to go public with their accusations against identified perpetrators? A genuine Truth Commission will be possible only after an appropriate transformation of the nature of the state. There are, as yet, no signs of such a transformation in our country.

In his sermon at the Cathedral of the Colombo Diocese of the Church of Ceylon on Sunday 19th January 2014, Rev.Michael Lapsley , well known South African anti –apartheid activist, who lost both hands and an eye when he tried to open a letter addressed to him, spoke of forgiving and forgetting. He could find no Biblical basis for the frequently heard urge “to forgive and forget”. How can he forget when he has lost both hands and an eye? How can he forgive an assassin who had not identified himself or confessed or asked for forgiveness? In his research he discovered that the word “forget” occurred frequently in the Bible, almost invariably preceded by two words. These words were not “forgive and” but “do not”. The Biblical prescription is not “forgive and forget “but, rather, “do not forget”.

Rev. Michael Lapsley   went on to suggest that the Biblical appeal not to forget was intendednot to take revenge but to reconcile and redeem. These are not possible if you forget. Forgiveness too is not possible unless the perpetrator confesses and seeks forgiveness from the victims. A genuine Truth Commission could help to bring reconciliation to Sri Lanka, as in several other countries, but if the objective is to suppress or cover up the unwelcome Truth, it would be counterproductive. Any healing would then be on the surface; underneath, the wound would continue to fester. If a woman had been raped or had her husband or child murdered, she cannot and should not forget. This holds in personal matters but also on communal issues.

We see this elsewhere in South Asia. The issues involved in Pakistan separating from India and, in turn, Bangladesh separating from Pakistan have not been addressed, and the wounds continue to fester, erupt and spread from generation to generation. This could continue indefinitely and foul up the history of the region.  We in Sri Lanka need to do better than that; but if we continue to avoid addressing the underlying issues and grievances, we too will get locked up in long term conflict. To avoid any misunderstanding I need to clarify my view on “forgiving”. Forgiving is necessary and an integral part of all the great religions. The problem is with “forgetting”, including the phrase “forgiving and forgetting”.

Forgiving is essential, forgetting is not.