‘A Memory of War’ by Vidu Gunaratna

When Sri Lanka’s legendary bowler Muttiah Muralitharan was repeatedly accused of chucking by an Australian umpire, captain Arjuna Ranatunge protested by walking out with his team in an Australian stadium. Sri Lankan cricket fans not only disagreed with the umpires, but also generalized resentment towards Australian cricket in general. Some even spread it to all Australians. Tensions continued in matches between Sri Lanka and Australia until the International Cricket Council (ICC) intervened to initiate a proper investigation. Media reported that the investigation included 3D motion capturing from repeated bowling trials by Muralitharan to be analyzed by multiple experts in biomechanics, cricket laws, and statistics. Results were published for scientific discussion in a reputed sports journal[1]. The investigations led to the new knowledge that judgment by an umpire from one angle can sometimes lead to visual illusions[2] – It is impossible for an umpire conclusively to cite a bowler for an illegal action based only on naked eye observation. To do this the umpire would need to be in at least three different positions throughout a single delivery. Similarly, video footage shot from at least three different angles during the bowler’s delivery action would need to be viewed by the match referee. By viewing the delivery from only one position, the visual illusion of a “throw” will be created by the presence of a large “carrying angle”.

The detailed impartial investigation led to several outcomes – a) Muttiah Muralitharan was found not guilty of chucking, b) the whole protocol of judging controversial bowling actions changed to more advanced and transparent methods, c) the cricket world as a whole and umpires themselves came to know the complexity of what they were judging, d) generalized resentments and hatred among fans died down, and e) most of them began to pardon the umpires after realizing the technical complexity of the judgment process. This, in my eyes, is a classic example of reconciliation. A sense of quality reconciliation following truth seeking, independent and honest investigation, holding people accountable, daring to confess fault, pardoning, and understanding.

Imagine a situation where all Australians united to defend an Australian umpire in a national spirit, and denied the need to have ICC interference in the way Australian umpires give judgments. Imagine the investigations were flawed with no publishable transparency and the umpires were allowed to continue judging with flawed techniques. Would the world have ever realized how the complexity and diversity of biomechanics of different players lead to visual illusions? What if the Australians asked Sri Lankans to forget the past and move on? Would Sri Lankan cricket fans have felt comfortable to make peace with Australian umpires and cricketers? Then, if, for instance, a football fan with no emotional attachment to cricket jumped in and said, “what is this nonsense about a no-ball? Move on guys!” how would the cricket fans have felt? Let us give ourselves some time to think about this specific case of reconciliation achieved through truth seeking and accountability to understand a more complex case like post-war reconciliation where hurt emotional attachments are much more intense.

Whenever I am required to look inside myself (in this case to confront hurt feelings due to somebody else’s actions, or when my actions have hurt somebody else), I turn to my religion – Buddhism. In Bala-pandita Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya, Buddha preached to his monks – “These two are wise people. Which two? The one who sees his transgression as a transgression, and the one who rightfully pardons another who has confessed his transgression. These two are wise people”[3], Lord Buddha taught little Rahula thero that “the ability to recognize one’s mistakes and admit them to others is the essential factor in achieving purity in thought, word, and deed”[4]. In Dhammapada verses 172 and 173, Buddha’s words are – “people who recognize their own mistakes and change their ways illumine the world like the moon when freed from a cloud”[5]. Bhikku Thanissaro writes – “in Buddhism, reconciliation (patisaraniya-kamma) means a return to amicability, and that requires more than forgiveness. It requires the reestablishing of trust”[6]. Therefore, any kind of truth and reconciliation should be based on inner reflection, honesty, and courage to change.

At a personal level, truth seeking has helped me reconcile and pardon those who have caused trauma to me. Growing up in Sri Lanka amidst daily news of two wars – one in the South where I lived, and the other in the North – I was very frequently moved by news of the loss of somebody I knew or by the very imagination of what other families might be going through to lose a loved one due to the war. When I was young, I must admit that I got more moved when a fellow Sinhalese died than when a Tamil died. It took me a long time to realize how state media had instilled this bias in me. For instance, the news of several massacres of civilians by the LTTE in Sinhalese villages in the North central province struck me heavily, and I failed to imagine what aerial bombing by the SLAF, or shelling by the SLA might be doing to Tamil civilians.

Then, I started to investigate kind of justification the LTTE offered for massacring civilians. I knew that the LTTE did not tolerate Muslim immigrants in the North, who were not forcefully settled there, but naturally settled as business and agricultural migrants. This led to my belief that the LTTE might be resenting any non-Tamil migration to the North in general, and that Government sponsored Sinhalese settlements in the North would have intensified this to hatred. This is when I tried to piece together the Mahaweli river diversion project though it was topic of triumph on state media under JR Jayawardana administration. When I pieced the maps of the dry zone, contour map, estimated ethnic distribution, and the Mahaweli development zone together, I became suspicious that the borders of the Mahaweli development zone were determined not only by scarcity of funds or the geography of Sri Lanka, but also by the ethnic divisions. After a long time, recently I re-visited this issue with a view to addressing some of my long lasting dark memories of LTTE massacres of civilians in Mahaweli settlements.

What I piece together can be seen in figure 1. It seems to me that the Eastern and North-Western borders of this development zone somehow shy away from Muslim areas while the Northern border edges into Tamil majority areas with an accompanying Government sponsored Sinhalese settlement program. This may have given the Tamil people the dilemma that demanding for Mahaweli water can be precarious because it comes with forced Sinhalese settlements. I find it very difficult to fully pardon LTTE for the massacres in those settlements in 1990s. However, the confession that my ancestors and myself as a child did not recognize the ethnic dimension behind the shape of the Mahaweli development region helped me to reconcile to a certain extent.

SL Map

Figure: Left: the rainfall distribution, middle: Mahaweli development region, and right: demographics of Sri Lanka.

When I recently started to practice monastic retreats, I wanted to go beyond that inner peace to a more stable and global one. This led to the realization that if the Southern leaders settled Sinhalese in the edge of the Mahaweli development zone knowing what those people were walking into, if the leaders of the LTTE were exposed to some conditioning to think that massacre of Sinhalese settlements is the only answer to Government enforced ethnic migration, if I was subjected to the conditioning to be biased towards empathy with Sinhalese due to LTTE attacks without seeing the total picture of war affected people, if politicians on either side kept fuelling ethnic hatred, and if Sinahala language state media on one side and Tamil language media on the other side contributed to biased propaganda, then there is no wonder that a rift deepened that made two co-existing polarities of hateful thinking feeding each other. I must also confess that my involvement in the Steering Committee of the Centre for Research and Development, Ministry of Defense, that was coordinating research efforts of all three forces, helped me to piece together some technical lapses that had existed in the past that may have caused wider civilian casualties during shelling and long range firing. For instance, technology for sound source localization made some significant improvements only around 2007. Accuracy of thermal imaging from aircrafts flying in the night was not that great before 2008.

The above process of inner questioning was not easy because the biggest hindrance was my own dishonesty that kept putting the blame on one side without allowing the mind to wake up to the total picture. A sustained effort helped me to realize that dishonesty itself is nothing but a natural defense mechanism to re-settle to the old mental configuration the mind was comfortable with. It needed compelling evidence to create space for the mind to account for a broader picture. This moment of “ah, if these conditions exist, no wonder that result should also exist though it is so catastrophic”, was a deeper sense of relief hard to describe in words. The immediate conclusion was that “Ah, now I see, I was not aware of how I was being conditioned, mostly by state media!”

The occasion of marking the 5th anniversary of the war coming to an end is pertinent to reflect on why the conflict still continues despite the silence of guns and on what true reconciliation should encompass. The anniversary provides a chance to question the extent to which the steps taken by previous generations to cover up injustice in the name of our own ethnic and religious identities have caused our pains. Having gone through a hard inner reconciliation process on the topic of Mahaweli development region, Sinhalese settlements, LTTE massacres, the role of state media, technology lapses in the war, and my own lapses of awareness, I now realize how hard it is to reconcile war memories without deep questioning. This questioning should happen at an individual level, and also at a national level if we ever want to reinstate trust, because trust comes from some inner peace similar to what I described above. That inner peace never comes to a Nation without a deep realization of the full picture – the picture of all causes and conditions that led to the horror we collectively experienced during the war. Without a full picture, we tend to arrive at conclusions based on the polarized picture we are given – leading to hatred and confusion. Sinhalese must reflect on whether the Government’s failure to prosecute those who burnt the Jaffna library, those who massacred Tamils in 1983 riots, and those who bombed North without knowing how to separate civilians from LTTE combatants contributed to the growth of LTTE. Tamils should reflect on whether the failure to question massacres of Sinhalese villages in the North and bomb blasts in Colombo, contributed to the growth of Southern Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism/racism. Muslims should ask themselves if the role they played in the conflict brought any justice.

After this process of questioning, let us critically reflect on what reconciliation is. For some, reconciliation means donating books, toys, TVs, bicycles, and even money to Tamil Internally Displaced People (IDPs). This group in general believes that economic development will automatically take care of reconciliation. While this approach may help to heal some economic wounds of war, however, they cannot explain why the conflict mostly exists not among the poor people, but among the middle and upper middle classes. For others, a former LTTE commander joining the portfolio of cabinet ministers of the Sri Lankan Government admiring the development projects in the North and East is a sign of reconciliation. While such crossovers may amount to forgiving based on political considerations, this group too cannot explain why the number of former LTTE officers joining the Government does not accompany an elevated sense of trust or a reduction of fear and uncertainty. I also have a fundamental disagreement with the group that seeks reconciliation by insisting that we are all humans with the same red blood running through our veins. All humans are of course brothers and sisters at the level of their being subjected to a common set of universal laws of conditioning by the environment. However, the above approach intrinsically insists on the recognition of homogeneity at a physical symbolic level as a precondition for reconciliation. It works for some, but it is not universal enough for National reconciliation.

For me, reconciliation is about understanding all dimensions and depths of the rift first. An awareness of the total picture coming from a comprehensive investigation will set the right mental landscape for reconciliation to happen from within individuals and then across groups. This will prepare most of us to manage our attachments and come to a consensus across parties to the conflict in some common intersection of the things we value[7]. The intersection of common value maybe a reinstatement of respect for justice, rule of law, the notion of citizenship, freedom of expression, or the right to speak our own languages and believe our religions or choose not to believe any religion. It will also prepare us to identify who is responsible for crimes that haunt us and who is not – a courage to stop generalizing. It will enable a radical acceptance of our misgivings, an ability to pardon those who confess responsibility, and the openness of mind to accept differences of attachments to language, culture, ethnicity, or traditions, as traits that can co-exist in certain re-arrangements of political frameworks. Above all, reconciliation will make us more tolerant to allow re-arrangements in response to on-going changes of people’s attachments more easily. I feel that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the Sri Lankan Government came close to the questioning process at the national level. However, the way the very Government that established LLRC came out and lashed it for over-stepping its mandate to investigate only why the 2001 ceasefire failed does not reflect well on the depth of honesty of the Government in truth seeking for reconciliation. On the contrary, such an investigation should boldly address crimes committed by all parties involved so that we, the people, will have a solid ground to understand whom we should hold responsible for pains we have. It could be that most of the Sri Lankan soldiers behaved in a soldierly way. Then they should be released from unfair accusations and even be rewarded. It could be that most of the Tamil diaspora who sympathized with the LTTE had genuine political grievances that should be addressed properly. In that case, the bold step would be to start a dialogue with those who we initially disagree with rather than ban them as foreign terrorist organizations. Random shooting in the dark, with no will for accountability will not further this cause and help those who run the show of deception prolong people’s sufferings.

The success of such a re-arrangement of political frameworks should be measured against the level of trust it will reinstate that justice sits above the ceiling of the Government by the people for the people, and that justice protects the rights of the people within the walls of the Government. Rights of citizens include the right to live, right to believe, right to education, right to migrate, right to speak, and the right to justice under rule of law. If the action of the central Government shows that it stays silent when “Buddhist” monks go and demolish places of worship of other religions, and it is quick to enforce the prevention of terrorism act (PTA) when it wants to arrest a Tamil poet addressing a gathering, people should start to look for practical ways to reform the Government, in order to reestablish trust. If reestablishing trust in the Government involves devolution of power under mechanisms like the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution (which allows a devolution of administrative powers including law enforcement), then devolution should be boldly implemented.

George Bernard Shaw said, “democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve”. What can we do to be people who deserve to have lasting peace? The answer is simple. We must lift the veil of deception to see what we voluntarily cover up in the name of our identities. Daring to lift the veil would be a more powerful way to mark the 5th anniversary of the end of a war that did not end the conflict in Sri Lanka, than dancing under a heavy dose of euphoria.


[1] Lloyd, D. G., J. Alderson, and B. C. Elliott. “An upper limb kinematic model for the examination of cricket bowling: A case study of Mutiah Muralitharan.” Journal of Sports Sciences 18, no. 12 (2000): 975-982.

[2] Aginsky, Kerith Dana, and Timothy David Noakes. “Why it is difficult to detect an illegally bowled cricket delivery with either the naked eye or usual two-dimensional video analysis.” British journal of sports medicine 44, no. 6 (2010): 420-425.

[3] Anguttara Nikaya 2.21 Bala-pandita Sutta: Fools & Wise People

[4] Majjima Nikaya 61 Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone

[5] Dhammapada, Lokavagga: Worlds

[6] Purity of Heart: Essays on the Buddhist Path, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Geoffrey DeGraff, 2006.

[7] Philpott, Daniel. Just and unjust peace: An ethic of political reconciliation. Oxford University Press, 2012.



This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.