Sri Lanka: A Year After War’s End

We had some very vigorous discussions at Sepia Mutiny last year as the civil war in Sri Lanka ended, with the LTTE defeat, the death of Prabhakaran, and the placement of some 200,000 Tamils in temporary refugee camps.

I haven’t followed the week-to-week developments since then terribly closely, but several recent developments were mentioned in a thought-provoking Op-Ed by Bishop Desmond Tutu and Lakhdar Brahimi in the Guardian yesterday. There is some good news overall, as the peace has held, but Tutu and Brahimi also acknowledge that progress towards rebuilding the affected parts of northern Sri Lanka, and the broader project of healing and reintegration, has been painfully slow. Here are the specific things Tutu and Brahimi want to see the government do:

Respect for minorities, human rights and the rule of law must be centre stage in Sri Lanka’s future. The worsening conflict saw limitations imposed on civil liberties and democratic institutions. The recent relaxation of emergency laws and the promised presidential pardon for Tamil journalist JS Tissainayagam are welcome, but they are only a start. Real change must begin with repealing the state of emergency and re-establishing the constitutional council.

All displaced civilians should be helped to return home. Those suspected of being fighters must be treated humanely with full regard to international law.

[...] There is a growing body of evidence that there were repeated and intentional violations of international humanitarian law by both the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) in the last months of the war.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision earlier this month to appoint a commission on lessons learnt and reconciliation is a step in the right direction but not nearly enough. There is no indication, as yet, that the commission intends to hold anyone to account for any violations of domestic or international law. (link)

The particular development that stands out here is Rajapaksa’s decision to create a South Africa (and Rwanda) style Truth and Reconciliation Committee to deal with human rights violations on both sides. On the one hand, this seems like a good thing, since up until now the Sri Lankan government seemed very reluctant to even acknowledge the possibility of any military misdeeds.

But there is also a problem — unlike in South Africa and Rwanda, where the Truth commissions were established by new governments to deal with the violence associated with previous regimes, in Sri Lanka the government has not changed. In order to ensure that witnesses from both sides feel safe coming forward, Tutu and Brahimi advocate a different approach to establish a reckoning — an independent, international committee.

I hope this process does move forward somehow. Rebuilding people’s homes and putting a new economic infrastructure has to be the first priority (and even there, it appears the government has lagged, despite significant infusions of foreign aid to help rebuild the north). But the longer-term project has to include some sort of credible reckoning: of the numbers of deaths, of specific crimes and atrocities, and admissions of responsibility (even if no criminal punishments are involved). If you don’t make efforts to confront the legacy of violence and, establish a shared baseline for the truth of what happened, the sense of bitterness and rupture people feel won’t begin to heal.

Since a lot of our discussion last year involved the Tamil Diaspora’s anguish about the way the war was concluded, it might also be worth noting that getting into these matters is especially important to address the concerns of that community.

9 thoughts on “Sri Lanka: A Year After War’s End

  1. Rebuilding people’s homes and putting a new economic infrastructure has to be the first priority (and even there, it appears the government has lagged, despite significant infusions of foreign aid to help rebuild the north). But the longer-term project has to include some sort of credible reckoning: of the numbers of deaths, of specific crimes and atrocities, and admissions of responsibility (even if no criminal punishments are involved). If you don’t make efforts to confront the legacy of violence and, establish a shared baseline for the truth of what happened, the sense of bitterness and rupture people feel won’t begin to heal.

    These two priorites are not distinct and I would say incredibly mutually interdependent. If the government is not reliable to protect minority rights, recognize limits on its own authority, allow itself to be held accountable or hold itself accountable for acts it has engaged in, then there is virtually no chance of a rebuilding process that is not influenced by these failures. At minimum, this will entirely undermine the credibility of any rebuilding efforts and at worst, it will be an exacerbation – as previous policies have been alleged to be, such as ‘colonization’ in order to reshape the demographic landscape through development work.

    And that’s being gentle. See here for reporting in the UK media based on Sri Lanka army sources that mass killings were not just accepted but ordered – http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/politics/international_politics/sri%20lanka%20option/3652687. Granted, it may reflect the internal politics in Sri Lanka today, in the aftermath of the Presidential election, but this is or close to the reality we’re dealing with.

    In other words, your point above is the key one – “But there is also a problem — unlike in South Africa and Rwanda, where the Truth commissions were established by new governments to deal with the violence associated with previous regimes, in Sri Lanka the government has not changed.”

    I agree that what Sri Lanka probably needs, unfortunately, is the equivalent of a Goldstone report (in my outsider, not adequately informed opinion) because any kind of political developments can be seen as anything more than the takings of the spoils of war -whether done cleverly through a whitewash or whether done crassly as the pr during the war was. But I will believe it when I see it. Until then, there are groups like HRW or Amnesty already doing independent work on this front.

  2. amardeep,

    thanks for posting this. it comes just as I read another item which raises very serious questions about the discussion itself and it’s most visible and voluble participants:

    http://indi.ca/2010/05/the-liberal-circle-jerk/

    much of what we talk about here, in our sphere of western privilege, is also discussed in SL–only that these ideas travel in an insulating loop. This is not a loop which insulates SL from bad public policy but which separates an elite NGO-world from those which are less wealthy.

    Read the last year’s worth of messaging and advocacy you have read/solicited/received regarding Sri Lanka. Is it from USTPAC? Some other amalagamation of “tamils” and being “against genocide.”? Groundviews? The NGO than runs Groundviews? Mr. Saravanamuttu? Most people who have left SL, especially those who are older, know the very sharp and meaningful class divisions(in consumption, housing, education) which rend SL society. It is neither right nor prudential to perpetuate such divisions. Yet this kind of discussion exists and is perpetuated mostly because these distinctions exist and no one has any incentive to transcend them.

    What you are leaving out of your discussion of truth and reconciliation commissions is that there is not a single iota of evidence that they have ‘succeeded’ in mitigating violence, increasing mutual trust or improving public policy outcomes, regardless of whether they were initiated by a new or old government.

    Goldstone’s report has only served to solidify the impression within Israel that everyone is out to get them and, in Haaretz of all places, the incredible anti-historical notion that a product of apartheid South Africa had no place in judging them simply because he came from that scary place (ignoring the substantial diplomatic and security links between Israel and SA during apartheid.)

    There are also internally-displaced refugee issues which pre-date the tamil one, namely the slaughter of Muslims in the early 1900s and the many thousands forced out by the LTTE. I don’t see Tutu remembering them.

  3. What you are leaving out of your discussion of truth and reconciliation commissions is that there is not a single iota of evidence that they have ‘succeeded’ in mitigating violence, increasing mutual trust or improving public policy outcomes, regardless of whether they were initiated by a new or old government.

    Actually, the process seemed to work pretty well in Rwanda. Did you read the long study in the New Yorker last year by Philip Gourevitch? (May 4, 2009; it’s not on the NY’s website anymore, but someone posted it to Scribd, at Scribd)

    What he showed was that the local truth trials in various villages and urban neighborhood where atrocities occurred seemed to be working. They certainly didn’t make make everyone feel “good” about their neighbors from the opposing ethnic group — there is still real anger there. People who lost loved ones in 1994 will never really get over it (how could they?). But it at least put them on a footing where they can go on living near them, which builds the foundation for the next generation, perhaps, to heal & reintegrate.

    I don’t know much about the Goldstone report, though I can say this: the strength of a society lies in its ability to hear unpleasant things said about itself & acknowledge unpleasant truths. Both the Tamil diaspora and Sri Lankan government supporters (esp. my Sinhalese friends) need to acknowledge some things about what their respective sides did during the conflict that they might not like.

  4. amardeep,

    i do agree with your point regarding the strength of a society.

    I will have to say that SL is not that strong or, perhaps, not that kind of ‘strong.’

    the capacity for ‘true-tolerance’ or allowing for phenomena in society that makes you go ‘ick’ is very very low.

    http://thekillromeoproject.wordpress.com/2009/05/27/high-time-for-human-rights-inquiry-against-the-us/

    the concept of a society being able to examine it’s own flaws and crimes against it’s own members is simply the dog unable to hunt in SL. The habit of a society to review things like, say, drone bombing in Pakistan and Afghanistan is seen as a mental defect by the middle-class over there (and this guy was a ‘creative’ to boot!)

  5. Amardeep, thanks for this thoughtful post.

    My two cents regarding terms often used in this conversation: it’s important to be careful about slinging around terms like “the Tamil diaspora” and “the Sinhalese community” and attributing opinions to those general categories, especially when we know that there is a history of suppressing disagreement about related political issues. Consider: for every comment about this, there are ten people who might not say a thing. (Obviously I’m speculating with numbers.) That’s true all over the Internet… people who comment often hold extreme views, while those who are more moderate feel less safe about speaking up, and so there’s a multitude of silent lurkers.

    There’s a history of it being quite difficult to dissent in Sri Lanka or the diaspora—it can feel hard to be a Tamil who doesn’t support the Tigers (perhaps this should be past tense, although certainly the residue of this is still there); hard to be a Sinhalese person who criticizes the government. How do we open up space for people to disagree? Well, in part, by not lumping everyone together and acknowledging the dissent that’s already there. One of my biggest beefs is the coverage of “the Tamil diaspora.” If you’re going to talk about political views and actions of “the Tamil diaspora,” there ought to be some qualifiers, and some questioning of people who claim to be spokespersons. Members of the media, including the Western media, were given examples of moderate views. But they rarely chose to acknowledge them, although from my (admittedly anecdotal) viewpoint, they are relatively widespread.

    All that said, I want to be clear that I’m not calling anyone in this thread an extremist… and yeah, it’s fair to say that the Tamil diaspora felt anguish over the way the war was conducted.

  6. One of my biggest beefs is the coverage of “the Tamil diaspora.” If you’re going to talk about political views and actions of “the Tamil diaspora,” there ought to be some qualifiers, and some questioning of people who claim to be spokespersons. Members of the media, including the Western media, were given examples of moderate views. But they rarely chose to acknowledge them, although from my (admittedly anecdotal) viewpoint, they are relatively widespread.

    I should have been more specific — I was thinking of the folks waving LTTE flags last year in the massive protests in Toronto. You’re of course quite right that not everyone in each ethnic group “sides” with the interests of their group before the greater common good — and in a way, it’s those people who give one hope.

    The journalist they’re hopefully going to pardon (we blogged about the 20 year prison sentence they had imposed on him last September), Tissainayagam, is himself not a direct LTTE supporter, as far as I can tell, though he is clearly pro-Tamil and skeptical of the GoSL. We also blogged in January 2009 about a Sinhalese journalist named Wickramatunge, who was assassinated in broad daylight, presumably for writing critically of various government actions.

  7. How do we open up space for people to disagree?

    This is an important question, but it presupposes to an extent that the issue raised here:

    There’s a history of it being quite difficult to dissent in Sri Lanka or the diaspora—it can feel hard to be a Tamil who doesn’t support the Tigers (perhaps this should be past tense, although certainly the residue of this is still there); hard to be a Sinhalese person who criticizes the government.

    has already been resolved, which it hasn’t. To me a truth and reconciliation process – involving the people who were damaged by the conflict, not the government or what is left of militant tamil nationalism – is right on – but the reason it’s needed is exactly why it’s so difficult for me to imagine. It seems like very few people have the space to speak honestly, openly, empathically, safely – still.

    I have heard that this group – http://sandhi.org/ is doing good work on that front and so are others, but it is going to be a long and hard process and ultimately, in my opinion (and I think you agree), is going to involve commentators on the conflict abandoning an explicitly communal framework in favor of a different one – I would pick humanism or human rights or socialism, some people would choose others, but in the end almost any would be an improvement over a communal conflict that has been settled through military means but not any other way.

    For now, though, it’s hard to tell my Tamil nationalist friends that should not be angry and grieving – whether over their personal losses or over the death of their ideal – and it’s hard to ignore that the Sri Lankan state is and has frequently been repressive – not just communal (even if communally ‘democratic), but authoritarian and repressive as well, as it has been in the past. In fact, it’s hard to know what it will do without the LTTE in justifying some of the abuses it has carried out against people on the island.

  8. Hrm, no time for extended comment, but I certainly agree with you (Doc A) that it hasn’t been resolved. Thanks for nuancing that. @Amardeep, thanks for your comment as well. Also, worth looking at what Doc A says about “commentators on the conflict abandoning an explicitly communal framework in favor of a different one.” You (Amardeep) write: “You’re of course quite right that not everyone in each ethnic group “sides” with the interests of their group before the greater common good.” I’m also not sure if by “their group” you mean Tamils generally, or the Tigers; Sinhalese generally or the Sinhalese-dominated government. Just thought it was worth noting again that the Tigers and the government have done a poor job of representing the interests of Tamils/Sinhalese, respectively. It’s obvious what Tamils lost with the rise of the LTTE. It’s less obvious what Sinhalese people have lost with the rise of authoritarianism and the Rajapakse regime… But indeed, we have seen the slow erosion of their rights and safety, too.

    As an aside, what does “pro-Tamil” mean? Is it bad? Or does it mean recognizing legitimate grievances?

    Grateful, again, for such rational discussion.

  9. It’s less obvious what Sinhalese people have lost with the rise of authoritarianism and the Rajapakse regime…

    To be idealistic about it – they have increasingly lost the aspiration to democracy among the ruling elite. Not in the last few years alone, but over time. They have lost political space to articulate their own messages and voices as you pointed out and instead suffer from an arrogant government that acts with impunity. They have lost independent journalists and journalism that is willing to criticise their government. And they have lost the right to be able to be identified as something other than or in addition to ‘Sri Lankan’ or ‘Sinhalese’ and in that sense, something of their humanity.

    I don’t think the costs have fully been reckoned with, but one way to approach a truth and reconciliation process is by looking at it in terms of abuses by the state and non-state powers (whether LTTE or others) against ordinary people on many grounds, including ethnic, religious, political dissent, human rights violations.

    Thanks to you as well for the down-to-earth discussion.