The Complexity of Loss

Troubled by the burgeoning demands for accountability, the erstwhile Rajapaksa-government developed a homogenous narrative about how to respond to the cries of the war’s victims for truth and justice. Promoted as a ‘Sri Lankan approach’ to transitional justice, this narrative – the construction and promotion of which was ably assisted by key actors of the country’s legal profession – emphasized the importance of ‘restorative justice’ understood as giving prominence to forgiveness and tolerance when dealing with violence, and not to prosecutions of alleged perpetrators of crimes (‘retributive justice’). With a committed reluctance to investigate, the Rajapaksa-government which had successfully executed a war against the LTTE, had no other option but to promote such a narrative. Though less prominent today, its appeal has not yet diminished.

A recently published book effectively challenges this dominant narrative. In Confronting the Complexity of Loss: Perspectives on Truth, Memory and Justice in Sri Lanka (Law & Society Trust, 2015), Gehan Gunatilleke – a human rights lawyer, academic and civil society activist – provides an important account of the complexity of loss and the plurality of the narratives of loss which need to be taken into account in promoting justice to those victims of violence. Gunatilleke’s attempt is “to understand the attitudes of victims and survivors towards truth, memory and justice” (p. 2), and he does so by examining the views of victims of three events or episodes of violence: the victims of the JVP-insurrection (of the late 1980s); the victims of the war between the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and the LTTE; and the victims of human rights abuses of the post-war era.


Gunatilleke begins his exploration, in Part I, with a brief overview of the context of ethnic and religious relations in Sri Lanka. While it introduces and discusses the key events of violence the participants of the study have had to confront, this part contains a brief dip into the history of ethnic relations (p. 9-20), which provides the backdrop to the violence that took place in Sri Lanka’s recent history, such as the war (concluded in 2009) as well as the more recent violence carried out by ultra-nationalist Buddhist groups in the south.

One of the key aspects targeted by Gunatilleke is the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist narrative. Relying on the works of historians and social scientists such as the late Prof. Leslie Gunwardana, Prof. Sasanka Perera et al, the book sets out a brief critique of the Mahavamsa (a historical chronicle which is often considered to be shaping much of Sinhala-Buddhist understanding of the relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils). In the course of this critique, Gunatilleke makes reference, for example, to the claim made by the Prof Gunawardana to the effect that the famous Dutugemunu-Elara war was merely aimed by the former at capturing territory, both from Elara as well as other regional rulers. “Yet the accounts contained in the Mahavamsa have dominated the consciousness of the Sinhalese majority…” (p. 11). Gunatilleke argues that this historical narrative which portrays the Tamil as ‘foreign’ has got accepted as fact, and that even history textbooks in schools draw “heavily and uncritically” from sources such as the Mahavamsa (p. 10). Tamil nationalism emerged as a reactive force to minority-marginalization – and though non-violent at first, became “fundamentally violent eventually.” (p. 20). He also refers to the complex relations between Sinhala-Buddhists and other religious groups, such as Christians and Muslims, and the struggle for both space and power that has been central to these relations (ibid).

While Gunatileke’s brief historical analysis is a familiar one, especially within the more critical and reformist elements in Sri Lankan civil society, a few brief and general observations need to be made before proceeding to examine the remainder of the book.

The first is that, though there is much violence embodied in the Mahavamsa, the text may well be less central to the Sinhala-Buddhist imagination than is often considered to be. The Mahavamsa narrative is not uncritically accepted even within the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist circles. In fact, as the likes of Dr. Nalin de Silva have argued, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism would have serious concerns with the attempt made to relate the origins of the Sinhala race to the arrival of Vijaya. Such concerns have led him (de Silva) to claim that while the Mahavamsa narrative is anyway flawed, it will still be defended in the face of attacks by the usual critics. [Furthermore, there is also the additional question of whether a majority within the majority community have actually read the Mahavamsa]. The point here is that the sources animating the Sinhala-Buddhist imagination are more diverse, complex and political – while the Mahavamsa (which like all other historical chronicles contain myth and fact) can be read in different ways.

The second observation is to simply highlight that in choosing between different versions of history, we are making an essentially political choice too. For while an extreme attachment to the Mahavamsa-narrative is problematic, a dogmatic endorsement of the creative/revisionist histories would also be problematic for different reasons; one such reason being that there is no guarantee that the latter versions reflect more accurately the dominant mood and the underlying tensions and antagonisms that actually existed during the period under consideration. Undoubtedly, one virtue of these critical/revisionist historical narratives lies in their reconciliatory reading of past events – a reading which lessens the tendency to demonize the other. And the broader point of such historical accounts by scholars such as Gunawardana was, as Prof Gananath Obeysekara once pointed out, to suggest that “Sinhala and Tamil are not simple oppositional categories but instead their interplay must be grasped to properly appreciate our past and its continuing presence.” In emphasizing a more fluid and critical reading of history and identity formation, what is rejected is what scholars such as Eric Meyer considered to be the primordialist understanding of identity formation [as Prof. Nira Wickremasinghe explains in her Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History (OUP, 2014)].

Yet, these readings are also, in a sense, political interventions; written and promoted at troubling periods (for example, Prof. Gunawardana’s article was published in the late 1970s, when such an intervention was thought to be most required), to promote a critical but also a political re-reading of history. They may or may not be accurate reflections of how different groups understood their relationship with each other. Rather than histories choosing us, we choose the histories that reflect our own political predispositions.


Having discussed the historical backdrop as well as the key events of violence, Part II of the book sets out the narratives of loss, as recounted by the victims of those events. Gunatilleke patiently unravels the agonizing stories and personal narratives which have come to define their lives (p. 36-54), and their reflections on truth, memory and justice (p. 54-87). Thus, Part II constitutes the longest and the most illuminating section of an otherwise short study.

The alleged perpetrators of the violence that the victims talk about are many; ranging from armed forces personnel to the LTTE. And due to the diverging narratives of loss, the reader is exposed to a remarkable heterogeneity of views. For instance, the responses of those who lost family members due to the war express different sentiments: some consider the war to have been necessary to bring about peace; some remain ambivalent about such a necessity; and some think the war was totally unnecessary (p. 56-57). Interestingly, not all who had lost family members in the military considered the war to have been fought for a just cause (p. 58). There are also attempts made at self-reflection, attempts to come to terms with the violence unleashed upon them. For some, telling others of their experience was a cathartic experience. Also in these narratives are the voices that resist forgetting. In this regard, Gunatilleke points out that “Sri Lanka is yet to adopt a culture of memorializing atrocities against civilians” (p. 71).

A similar heterogeneity exists in the views expressed by these victims on questions of justice, truth and memory. For instance, Gunatilleke refers to the religious influences that shape the views of victims (p. 73-76). Some of the victims are cynical about the idea of justice (p. 76). For some, the idea of justice is of no relevance to their lives after loss. For a woman who had lost her husband in an LTTE bombing, justice was an empty idea (p. 77). Yet, there were victims, especially from the Tamil community, for whom justice was a right, something that had to be given to the victims (p. 77).

From these different narratives and perspectives emerge two distinct views of dealing with alleged perpetrators: one, a clear desire for the identification and punishment of perpetrators; another, for perpetrators to be rehabilitated rather than punished. Concluding this part, Gunatilleke also explains the two perspectives which shape the victims’ views on how a recurrence of violence was to be prevented: firstly, the view which suggests that the conflict emerged due to a breakdown of law and order (wherein ‘terrorism’ is viewed as a cause and not an effect of political grievances); secondly, the view which considers the conflict to be a symptom of a grievance (p. 86-87).


In the final section of the book (Part III), Gunatilleke discusses the main lessons and findings of the book. One is the heterogeneity of views of victims of violence. In setting out this heterogeneity, the author exposes the ‘Sri Lankan approach’ to transitional justice – which sought to emphasize ‘restorative justice’ – as a myth. Gunatilleke argues that this singular narrative is unconvincing for two main reasons: firstly, because it is normatively problematic (since it promotes a very limited, and inaccurate, understanding of restorative justice); and secondly, because it is empirically questionable (as the narratives of the different victims clearly show). As he states unequivocally:

“The most significant finding of this study is perhaps that the enormity of human loss is simply not reducible to a singular approach. The narrative on the so-called ‘Sri Lankan approach’ is hence best described as ‘reductive’.” (p. 96).

What then are we left with, what then is to be done?

“[T]he heterogeneity of views presented by participants in this study is perhaps best accommodated through an approach that prioritises victim and survivor preferences. If the victim is at the centre of a mechanism meant to deliver transitional justice, then her preference in terms of truth, justice and reparations must give substance to that mechanism. Thus the mechanism ought to accommodate the widest possible spectrum of preferences.” (p. 102-103).

Thus, Gunatilleke concludes with a call dominant within those promoting transitional justice: the call for a truly victim-centred approach. Such a mechanism does not emphasize one single form or mechanism promoting truth and justice. What is required is a mechanism which is victim-centred, and one which “must cast its net as wide as possible to accommodate a broad spectrum of victim and survivor preferences” (p. 107). It is then a broadly conceived mechanism, which enables truth telling, memorialization of events, the criminal prosecution and accountability of perpetrators, and more.


The main contribution of Gunatilleke’s book lies in its careful and patient exploration of the plurality of victims’ voices in Sri Lanka, enabling the reader to realise the complexity of loss as well as the perceptions of loss, as felt and narrated by the victims. Though it does not aim to tackle the complex questions of the meaning of ‘truth’, ‘justice’ etc, exploring the plurality of views about such concepts tells us much about the fluidity and indeterminacy of such concepts.

Yet, if there is one major concern about the book, it emerges towards the end when Gunatilleke discusses a most vital issue, namely the ‘legitimacy of context’. Simply stated, this refers to the idea that the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the context in which the violence took place shapes the approach that victims adopt towards the search for truth and justice. So for example, if the victims consider the war to be illegitimate, then mechanisms such as prosecutions are more willfully demanded. If the war is considered legitimate, then, prosecutions take a back seat. Thus, there emerges a correlation between the perceived legitimacy of context of loss and the expectations of justice (p. 98). The problem with the reductive narrative then, which Gunatilleke critiques, is that it considers the views of those who regard the war to be just (and the context legitimate) as being the more dominant and widespread in society, which is then regarded to be the only view which deserves consideration. Yet this cannot and should not be the dominant attitude to justice (ibid).

But thereafter Gunatilleke proceeds to make the following argument:

“[Q]uestions of justice must be asked of victims and survivors who genuinely believe that the circumstances of their loss were ‘unjust’. Participants who recognised the unjust nature of the circumstances surrounding their loss were the only ones who were actually grappling with questions of justice. The so-called ‘Sri Lankan approach’ to justice must therefore be located among these participants; […] a singular attitude to justice simply does not exist among such victims.” (p. 99-100).

This argument, it is clear, helps Gunatilleke to give central importance to a victim-centred approach, and thereby critique the reductive narrative promoted by the former government. But my concern lies with the ultimate impact of this argument – which tends to have the potential of undermining the theme of pluralism or heterogeneity Gunatilleka so usefully and carefully promotes. My aim, very briefly, is to set out some critical observations about Gunatilleke’s above quoted argument, simply with a view to problematizing further the underlying theme of the book.

Firstly, there appears to be a categorization of victims who consider the conflict to have been ‘just’ and those who consider the conflict to have been ‘unjust’, with the latter being considered the more genuine victims of violence. Such a categorization, though natural, is problematic because the consideration of the war as being ‘unjust’ and ‘just’ are both considerations which are equally political and subjective. To consider the war unjust or just is to have a certain political understanding about the conflict, its protagonists, its consequences, etc – an understanding shared by all the people as well as by those who are meant to develop transitional justice mechanisms, be it the Sri Lankan government, political/civil society groups, or international actors.

This essentially political and subjective understanding becomes obvious when we note, for example, that the degree of legitimacy one attaches to the ‘just’ or ‘unjust’ character of the war may very much depend on the way in which the war ended. It is natural for those victims of the Tamil side to consider the war to be unjust given the total decimation of the LTTE, while the Sinhalese would be extremely reluctant to consider it to be so having defeated the LTTE. What is also to be noted is that the Sinhala fight against the LTTE was always considered to be just (and more so given the defeat of the latter), while the Tamils, at least until May 2009, viewed their war against the (Sinhala) armed forces as a just war too.

An inconclusive ending, in turn, would have attracted more skeptical voices about the nature of the war – and the narratives of loss as well as how the recurrence of violence is to be prevented may have been different had the survey taken place in a different era, say in 2001-2002. In short, it is impossible in my view to avoid taking into account certain forms of views about the conflict, while considering the remaining views as views of the more genuine victims of violence.

Secondly, and related to the above, it is unclear how Gunatilleke reached the conclusion that it is only those who consider the context ‘unjust’ that were grappling with the question of justice. My view is that by and large everyone is grappling with questions of justice, but given their own political motives, objectives and perspectives, they reach different conclusions about the meaning of justice, and how it needs to be realized – and in ways that are problematic to some who were more directly affected by violence. This, in fact, is also a conclusion which emerges from the pluralism of views Gunatilleke discusses in the book.

This is yet another unavoidable complexity one confronts when attempting to consider the views of victims or survivors of violence. For who is, and is not, a victim or survivor? Are victims of war only those who were directly affected by the firing and those who lost their loved ones? Are not those who, for instance, fretted over suicide bombings in the south or attacks in the north – those who may have had no role to play in the war and the various narratives and rhetoric that contributed to it – victims? Are not the people affected by the economic impact of the war, victims of the conflict? Would not soldiers and rebels be ‘victims’ too; victims of the policies of governments and rebel groups, seekers of justice who have witnessed their fellow soldiers and rebels being killed by indiscriminate attacks?

Here too, the spirit of heterogeneity calls us to acknowledge (however difficult that may be) that the ‘victim’ is a complex creature, but equally importantly, that the discomfort arising from having to consider their perspectives too needs to be endured if promoting a truly victim-centred approach is the ultimate aim.

Thirdly and more critically, providing avenues for victims to realize justice in the ways they request and demand is a necessary and laudable thing. But such a state of affairs, which Gunatilleke no doubt desires, will always remain illusive. One significant reason is because the demands of victims reflect different and often competing values (or, what Isaiah Berlin would call incommensurable values).

For instance, prosecution and forgiveness represent incommensurable values in that both are right and necessary, but no one value is better than the other – they are incomparable. In addition, a single value (e.g. prosecution) may contain or promote competing aims and objectives – a desire to move on or a desire to seek revenge. [A similar clash of values are embodied in memorialization as well as forgetting]. The importance of emphasizing heterogeneity and therefore a victim-centred approach is that a government cannot impose any single value upon society. But it also means that in giving expression to different forms and mechanisms, one is making room for a clash of different values, resulting in tensions which now need to be managed and moderated by the state.

Providing an avenue to realize all the demands for justice (let us assume, even of the more ‘genuine’ victims of violence) may have political consequences which are contentious and extremely challenging. For instance, any accountability mechanism which – let us assume – holds that the allegations leveled by the Tamils are accurate (i.e. the allegations of civilian deaths amounting to over 40,000, of systematic violence, of cultural genocide, etc.) would not necessarily lead to a peaceful and reconciliatory environment thereafter. Rather, it would logically provide the perfect argument for secession. In turn, to unsympathetically prosecute (and prosecute successfully) the LTTE for its violence would only heighten not just the already dominant view (within a majority in the country) that the LTTE deserved no sympathy, but also the view that nothing of the political demand for autonomy deserves any serious consideration. But then, to be silent on prosecutions and accountability would also only make things worse, legitimizing violence and promoting a culture of impunity.

Thus every government will eventually come to prioritize which mechanism or which set of values should receive priority, depending on the situation, the circumstances of the case, their political motives, etc. (every entity, such as the state, the LTTE, etc., have had such priorities). For placed as we are within a state, there is always an ultimate and overarching aim that this search for justice is meant to fulfill: not just the realization of peace, but also the preservation of a peaceful and single country. The demands for justice, on most occasions, do not take such overarching aims into account: for the victims, it is the realization of their truth and justice that initially matters, not any other abstract aim. Therefore to the state, victims are not the most suitable to decide on the complex and abstract idea of peace and unity. Some element or force which remains outside the pool of victims will also decide what the victims need.

Thus, prioritization becomes inevitable, which would tend to ignore certain demands of victims. Choices would have to be made, with the commitment to deal with and manage the resulting political consequences. This is perhaps the challenge of heterogeneity too. With victims and views of different sorts, resolving complex questions of truth and justice remain difficult, even impossible. This ultimately is the tragic paradox that heterogeneity would confront.


All homogenous accounts of victimhood, as well as narratives of justice, are dangerous for they simplify the complexity of loss and the complexity of societies and of human beings. In emphasizing the heterogeneity and pluralism of victims’ voices, Gunatilleke problematizes the dominant discourse which sought to promote a singular narrative of justice. Therefore, his study provides a short but most important intervention on a complex subject, especially at a time when these issues are bound to generate greater debate in the country.

In these times which are no less troubling than the time when a reductive narrative of transitional justice was more vigorously promoted (2010-2015), an audience closer to Gunatilleke will see in this book some clarity about the way forward, and perhaps some hope and optimism too. Yet, one need not unnecessarily suffer from such optimism, for there is a more critical message the book does not (or does not want to?) reveal. It is that a commitment to a truly victim-centered approach is actually a radical commitment to an uncertain future – one which most promoters of transitional justice (understandably) seek to avoid acknowledging. For hidden in a victim’s cry is the sheer complexity of loss: of the innocent and aching plea for the truth, of the search for solace and meaning to simply move on, of a fierce and untapped determination to take revenge, to make war – irrespective of whether the victim succeeds in, or fails to, realize some form of truth and justice. Which of those complex sentiments will ultimately emerge triumphant cannot be assured, since any such assurance would only signify the loss of complexity.