Photo courtesy of Amila Udagedara

In May this year, a Sri Lankan living in Australia was seen tearing up a flyer on the Tamil genocide commemorations at a #GotaGoHome protest. He said, “Do you think there was a genocide? Why don’t you go to court? This is not a thing to talk about here,” before declaring that there was no genocide in Sri Lanka. He then requested the Tamil congregation to move from the location, almost threatening to remove them if they did not leave. This was all caught on camera for the world to see and later shared on social media.

For us, as two members of the Sri Lankan diaspora, it was painful to watch a fellow Sri Lankan invalidate the pain and suffering of another Sri Lankan and deny one’s truth. It made us ponder that we often forget the subjective nature of truth. As American novelist Siri Hustvedt once said, “Each person does see the world in a different way. There is not a single, unifying, objective truth. We’re all limited by our perspective.”

What is genocide?

Can laymen Tamils and Sinhalese just go around declaring there was or there was no genocide? Should we not look into facts and consider the other side carefully by listening to the analysis and opinions of experts? If we don’t possess such knowledge, don’t have the capacity to research and our reaction is but knee jerk, the only correct response here is “I don’t know.”

First coined by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944 in response to the startling levels of inhumanity the world witnessed in the context of the Holocaust, genocide was not recognized as a crime till 1948 when the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (i.e. Genocide Convention) came into effect. According to the definition of the crime, genocide entails the commission of a series of specific acts against members of a particular group (i.e., national, ethnic, racial, or religious) with the intent to destroy that group in whole or in part. The destruction and havoc it wreaks has led genocide to be known as the crime of crimes. However, in practice, there is no hierarchy between the core international atrocity crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. All atrocity crimes, due to their gravity and the intense suffering they entail, warrant the moral condemnation of humanity as a whole.

If one were to hazard a guess, it is more likely than not that the leaflet tearer and those who later sided with him had little or no knowledge regarding the crime of genocide. At international criminal tribunals, it is a crime that is notoriously hard to prove and obtain a conviction for. This is due to the special intent requirement (i.e. dolus specialis) that has to be proven as having been held by the alleged perpetrator for it to lead to a successful conviction. Rwanda and Srebrenica (in Bosnia and Herzegovina) are two popular situation examples where genocide convictions were rendered against individuals. Hence, apart from experts in international criminal law and public international law, few would be well placed to dissect and speak of the intricacies related to the crime.

An opportunity for true reconciliation

Yes, the current protests are to send the president and his battalion home. But is that all that the protests stand for? At some stage during the protests, the call for the president’s resignation grew to a call for the resignation of all 225 parliamentarians. The change sought appeared to reflect a yearning for a broader change of a lasting and systematic nature. While the previous government may have sullied the term good governance through its association with the phrase, the recent demands advocate for a different mode of governance. What such governance should entail is a fact we should all reflect upon.

A part of this process should include an examination of our past, confronting our mistakes and acknowledging any wrongdoing. One might argue that any such mistakes cannot individually be attributed to us. However, as citizens of a democracy, the actions of our leaders also reflect the will and mindset of the populace (or at least that of the majority) as we are the people who ultimately elect our leaders into powers, who in turn made such decisions on our behalf. Indeed, some of us may not even have been alive when such decisions were made. However, these past events have shaped our history, formed our narratives, influenced our thought processes and shaped our identity as Sri Lankans.

For decades, throughout the civil war, we were inundated with narratives of us vs them. The propaganda worked so well that most of us (meaning most of us who are non-Tamils living outside the north and east) unquestioningly embraced the harassment of Tamil citizens across the country through random identity checks, surveillance, land seizures and arrests, all in the name of security. As allegations of war crimes perpetrated against Tamil citizens emerged at the end of the war and mothers and family members of the thousands of Tamils who disappeared after allegedly handing themselves over to the government forces, marched, protested, held hunger strikes, and sought justice through institutions that made a mockery of justice, we turned a blind eye. Why? Because …“our war heroes”, “it was only a few bad apples”, “it wasn’t our people”, “how dare they tarnish the reputation of the country?”, “they are all terrorists”.

Did we for once stop to listen, to think, to feel? To entertain the possibility that our “perfect” troops may have acted imperfectly and if so, to realize that behind each executed command was a higher authority issuing such commands? When the Sri Lankan president declared in 2020 that those who disappeared during the civil war were dead, how many of us paused to wonder how thousands of individuals, including those who allegedly handed themselves over to government forces, could have miraculously vanished into thin air only to have met untimely death?

The Booker-nominated A Passage North fictionalizes the far reaching mental health struggles of Rani, whose son has been missing since the war ended. Have we ever thought about the trauma of those in the North and East, not only having directly witnessed a 30 year old war but also to have had no genuine acknowledgment of their pain? To the mother who waits for their disappeared child, for the spouse who knows not the whereabouts of their loved one, to the family that grieves the loss of a life cut short, regardless of ethnicity, the pain is no different. There is no superior suffering nor inferior despair demarcated over ethnic lines.

With victory day celebrations commemorating the government’s military victory over the LTTE we harp on about peace, vanquishing terrorism and better times compared to the past. However, what of reconciliation? True reconciliation comes not only through development projects in the North but also through an honest reflection of our past and an acknowledgement of the pain of our Tamil brothers and sisters.

Reminding ourselves often of human fallibility (and thereby of governments) is important to attempt to forgive ourselves and others  – an essential step in moving forward. As the Lord Buddha said, “To understand everything is to forgive everything.” Hence, to acknowledge faults should not be viewed as a weakness. It can pave a path towards true healing. Some examples of governments attempting reconciliation through acknowledgment for historical harms include:

  • The Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau acknowledged the genocide of the Indigenous people after a mass burial site was unearthed at a residential school in British Columbia in mid-2021.
  • The New Zealand government issued official apologies to discriminated communities like the New Zealand Chinese community, Vietnam veterans and the nation of Samoa.
  • The Australian prime minister apologized to Australia’s indigenous peoples in 2008 for past discriminatory government policies that resulted in the forced removal of indigenous children from their families.

Moving beyond blanket apologies, attempts have also been made to uncover the truth and strive for reconciliation and accountability through acknowledging past actions amounting to atrocity crimes:

  • In 2005, Guatemala’s Vice President Eduardo Stein apologized for the 1982 massacre of indigenous Mayans in the small mountain hamlet by Guatemalan soldiers and paramilitary forces during the height of Guatemala’s bloody civil war.
  • In April 2022, a Colombian military general and 9 other military officials acknowledged their role in orchestrating extrajudicial killings of civilians amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In Sri Lanka, we have yet to see an acknowledgment of and apology for what the Tamil community has endured throughout the war and its aftermath or for the discriminatory practices dating as far back as the introduction of the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 and the anti-Tamil pogroms that ensued.

Reconciliation as individuals

Reconciliation will be felt at a deeper level only when it becomes the responsibility of every Sri Lankan living on the island and abroad. Reconciliation is not merely the responsibility of our government and policymakers, although, of course, they oversee structural changes and can lead by example.

So, how do we reconcile as individuals? First, can we become more curious about the experience of others? Can we be open to the fact and accept that we may have wronged collectively as a nation? Perhaps an impartial inquiry is the best solution to move forward? Transitional justice mechanisms such as truth and reconciliation commissions, if established and implemented not with the purpose of drowning out complaints under a barrage of administrative red tape or sweeping unsavoury transgressions under the carpet but with the goal to establish a true record of events, deliver justice and acknowledge suffering, can offer us an opportunity to heal.

Second, we can try our best to refrain from going into defence mode when someone from the minority accuses the state of an unthinkable act. When we go on defence mode, we close the door on compassion and understanding, losing a valuable opportunity for reconciliation that can have a snowball effect on our communities.

Over the years, when allegations of atrocity crimes committed against the Tamil population have surfaced, many of us have been quick to engage in an exercise of whataboutism. We have pointed the finger at others, particularly more geopolitically influential nations such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom who have also been accused of having allegedly committed war crimes and have repeatedly asked “why pick on us? Why not pick on them and hold them to account first?”.

An atrocity crime committed by a national of any state, geopolitically influential or not, still remains an atrocity crime. However justice, especially international criminal justice, is often inextricably interlinked with the wider geopolitical realities at play. While accountability for such crimes may take time to achieve or may not always be easy to achieve, this does not right a wrong. Despite all the comparisons we make, impunity should never be the answer. Our yearning for and commitment to justice and accountability should not be modelled on the actions, omissions or failures of others. To deliver justice at home, we do not need to wait for others to take the first step in delivering justice abroad.

It is also important to recall that during the civil war, allegations of the commission of atrocity crimes were attributed to both parties to the conflict (i.e. the LTTE and the government forces). All parties to an armed conflict – be it a state or members of an organized non-state armed group – are bound by treaty and customary rules of international humanitarian law. States have a legal obligation to educate their national troops regarding the laws, customs and duties that apply in the context of an armed conflict with a view to ensuring non-violation of such laws. Hence, as Sri Lankan citizens, we cannot be blamed for expecting a higher standard of behaviour and a greater adherence to the law of our national government and national armed forces. Moreover, as the government (i.e. the government of all Sri Lankans regardless of our ethnicity) we cannot be faulted for expecting our government and armed forces to protect our rights, not to commit atrocity crimes against any citizen and to expect justice should our rights be violated.

Diaspora needs to let go

Often people say that the diaspora needs to let go of the past. In some ways, there is some truth in this. But there is also much we can learn from history. Moreover, how can one let go when they haven’t received any empathy, validation or acknowledgment?

Take the example of a husband and wife quarrel. Will either party be healed and want to move forward if they weren’t acknowledged for their suffering? One party may not understand the worldview of the other or why they are even upset. But there needs to be a genuine effort to try to understand how the other sees the world and their injustices. If not, the wound festers while the couple continues to keep the peace for children or society. Each subsequent quarrel will only add salt to the wound, disallowing any party to truly heal and move forward. Their connection and affection are forever ruined.

Once we have extended empathy and acknowledgment as a nation and as individuals, it may be time for the diaspora to let go. Slowly but surely. But we are currently far from this point. Instead of stopgap measures, box ticking exercises and attempts to shy away from accountability, genuine efforts need to be made towards delivering justice. It is this justice that the Tamil diaspora has been campaigning for. Truth telling is all well and good but in the absence of justice and accountability, any such attempts will ring hollow. This will only further entrench the culture of impunity we have nourished for aeons, and a culture of impunity does not bode well for a nation seeking true change based on values of justice, equality and good governance.

If we’ve done all that we can to deliver justice and accountability to the Tamil community and we have genuinely committed to a future of fairness and kindness, we can then perhaps begin a conversation about moving on. However, we must remember that forgiveness always lies at the discretion of the aggrieved. Nobody can rush it, demand it or feel entitled to it.

The purpose of this piece is not to split hairs over how a particular act or omission should be legally qualified. That falls under the purview of legal experts and courts of law. Instead, it is a call for reflection and introspection as individuals, institutions and governing bodies. The civil war, its antecedent events and its aftermath have robbed us of much as a nation: life, limb, blood, innocence, trust … the list goes on. Let it not also rob us of our humanity.