The Sri Lankan government has appropriated the term ‘reconciliation’ to construct a narrative of post-war Sri Lanka in which the rights of non-majority communities are being protected, and their concerns addressed. In reality, the policies and acts of the state show scant regard for the rights of non-majority communities, dismissing the ethno-political nature of the conflict and the need for a political solution as irrelevant.
The argument presented by Sanka Chandima Abayawardena in ‘Reconciliation in Sri Lanka means the youth must lead the way’ – that reconciliation initiatives should be conceived and driven at the local level by Sri Lankan youth – appears reasonable and benign. However, the experience of people in the conflict-affected northern areas illustrates the extent to which Abayawardena has disregarded complex ground realities, while calling upon pressure groups to understand ‘the nature of the country – what Sri Lanka is…’.
This article focuses on recent research conducted among the Tamil community in the north.
Equating calls for justice with revenge: What do the affected say?
The call for an international intervention to establish responsibility for war crimes has been dismissed by Abayawardena as a political move aimed at ‘persecuting the Sri Lankan political and civil leadership out of anger’. Commentators such as Michael Roberts have argued that the ‘bitterness wrought by the ethnic conflict’ ↑could be fuelling the need for retribution that they assume many Tamils feel, which in turn might lead to the fabrication of allegations of war crimes. There are also those who claim that persons affected by the armed conflict only wish for a better standard of living, jobs, access to education and healthcare, and are not concerned either about violations of human rights and humanitarian law that took place during the armed conflict, including the last stages of the war, or a political solution to the ethnic conflict.
However, research in Mannar, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and the Jaffna peninsula shows that there is an acute need within the Tamil community for an acknowledgement of their singular experience of suffering during the final phase of the war, that goes beyond both a desire for revenge and the natural yearning for an improvement of their material conditions and economic well-being.
When questioned by the Committee Against Torture (CAT) in Geneva on 9 November 2011, Senior Legal Advisor to the Cabinet and former Attorney-General Mohan Peiris pointed to the issuance of death certificates for missing persons as the primary method used by the state to deal with the issue of disappearances. Mr. Peiris claimed that the issuance of death certificates would immediately bring the whole episode to a close, and provide families with certainty about what had happened to their family members. In contrast, the testimonies of many from the North, even those whose family members disappeared in the 1990s, were emphatic that they do not wish to obtain death certificates because it would thereby deny them the right to demand answers from the state concerning the disappearances.
Currently, there are over 5000 cases of disappearances on file with the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), which includes those from the 1990s. The figure therefore does not indicate how many went missing during the last stages of the war, and families have no means of accessing information on their plight. Until very recently it was official state policy to deny there was any loss of civilian life during the war. The Department of Census and Statistics has now published data on the number of civilians who were killed or went missing during last stages of the war. However, Secretary of Defence Gotabaya’s dismissive statement ↑ prior to the completion of the survey that ‘the real number of dead and missing is far too small to provide any substance to the absurd allegations of genocide and war crimes that have been made against our military,’ casts doubt on the government’s commitment to engage in a public dialogue on the issue.
This denial also indicates that anyone seeking answers to questions that challenge the government’s narrative of the armed conflict is unlikely to find redress: to ask about the plight of a family member whose relatives claim was last seen being taken away by the armed forces is inevitably to raise allegations of rights violations by the state. This is illustrated by the government’s only concretely identifiable response to the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), tasking the military along with the Attorney-General to investigate allegations made against the armed forces by those who appeared before LLRC.
The government of Sri Lanka is actively building a hegemonic narrative of the war that is solely about victory and the valiant soldier, with no public acknowledgment of the loss and grief experienced by civilians who lost family members in the armed conflict. Along with the glorification of the warrior-citizen, collective (majoritarian) memory is created through celebrations of the war victory, military parades, and the erection of memorials to members of the Sri Lankan armed forces who died in battle. Yet, there is no space for civilians to organise public events to mourn the dead, nor memorials to commemorate the lives lost. Instead, each year on 19 May, the date that marks the official end of the war, the armed forces in the North have actively prevented collective community ceremonies.
I asked Tamils in communities across northern Sri Lanka whether they felt a public ceremony to mark the end of the war and commemorate those killed was desired, and whether they had thought about convening such an event. The immediate response from every person interviewed was that since they felt they couldn’t even speak of issues relating to the ethnic conflict, they couldn’t imagine holding public events to remember the dead. This is evidence not only of the severe restrictions placed upon the freedom of expression and assembly amongst the Tamil communities, but also the alienation this population feels from the state and the majority Sinhalese community. As an interviewee said, ‘we can’t believe anything the government says as they’ve always gone back on their promise’.
Local reconciliation based on the rule of law: an impossibility?
While concurring wholeheartedly with Abayawardena’s statement that ‘reconciliation based on the rule of law is the only way to have a lasting effect on post-war Sri Lanka’ and that ‘justice must be available for victims at a local level’, the feasibility of achieving this should be examined in the context of the current state of civil administration and maintenance of law and order in the North.
Militarization in the North is taking place in complex ways, at multiple levels. The most visible manifestations are the army checkpoint/civil affairs office at every junction in every village, and the large number of new and now permanent army camps along the A9 road from Vavuniya to Jaffna. These are the obvious, and therefore perhaps more benign, signs of militarization. The dictates of the army seem to run far deeper in the Vanni (areas formerly controlled by the LTTE), with excessive scrutiny and surveillance not only of community and non-governmental organisations, but also of any gathering of more than a handful of people. Prior notification has to be given to the army of any meeting or workshop that is held. Interviewees said that even when notification was given, if there were participants coming from outside the Vanni – the mainland area of the north – sometimes army officers attended the meeting and observed the proceedings. Army officers would attend or check- up on smaller community gatherings, such as women’s societies and savings groups, only if the organisers failed to provide prior notification.