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FeaturesNews‘What Sri Lanka is…': acknowledging the ethnic conflict in post-war reconciliation

‘What Sri Lanka is…': acknowledging the ethnic conflict in post-war reconciliation

Ambika Satkunanathan,  
The term ‘local reconciliation’ may seem benign, but recent research amongst Tamils in the north of the country highlights the damaging silence hanging over the survivors of the conflict, and a determination to reach justice through transparency over past and present wrongs.
Sign post for the military police in Jaffna, in Sinhalese and English only

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.

Sign post for the military police in Jaffna, in Sinhalese and English only. Some rights reserved.
The paradoxically named Civil Affairs Office (CAO), which is ‘manned’ by the military, is the best example of the entrenched presence and participation of the military in civil affairs in the North. Created during the period when residents of the peninsula had to obtain passes to travel to the South, this office has now morphed into a one-stop monitoring and surveillance unit of the army. For instance, following the end of the war all those who were released after being held at government ‘rehabilitation’ centres for alleged former LTT combatants have been asked to register with the CAO and then report back to sign in on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis, depending on the edict of the local commander.
The presence of the military has increased the insecurity of women, who constitute the majority in many villages due to the death, disappearance or detention of men. The feelings of insecurity stem from fears for their physical security, due to living in a heavily militarized environment without any male members of the family, controlled by an army which speaks a language they do not understand. The presence of the military leads women to make a conscious effort to limit movements outside of their homes and communities. These self-imposed restrictions impact adversely on their ability to access livelihood options and education opportunities Nearly three years following the end of the war most of these women do not have a viable livelihood, leaving them open to exploitation and abuse. In this context it seems impossible for the Tamil people to believe that they can access justice at the local level.
The voices of the youth in the North
Following the end of the war, persons who the government termed surrendees (allegedly because they surrendered to the government as members of the LTTE or had links with the group) were sent to rehabilitation centres. Although termed ‘surrendees’ the voluntary nature of surrender is in question since many were detained either as they made their way to the government controlled areas or in the IDP camps. The actual number of rehabilitees is unknown but it is estimated that around 12,000 persons were sent to these centres.
In contrast with Abayawardena’s faith in the youth of Sri Lanka, the voices of those youth who were sent to rehabilitation centres for alleged affiliation with the LTTE have effectively been silenced.
Interviews with those who were released from the centres revealed that while all experienced a sense of relief to be free from what they, at one point, felt would be a never ending ordeal, and reunite with their families, they also felt trepidation about the future – about their ability to find employment and re-build their lives free from harassment and surveillance in an environment in which they were still viewed as persons who have to be watched and monitored by the state. Since many released rehabilitees have to report regularly to the CAO (army checkpoint), they are viewed as informants for the army and so regarded with suspicion and fear by their communities. This impacts adversely, particularly upon women. For instance, one woman rehabilitee said that ‘society will talk/gossip about women who visit the army camps to sign-in. Neighbours might even break up marriage proposals by informing the prospective groom’s family about the woman’s visits to the army camp’. This limits their chances of gaining employment and places pressure on their relationship with their families, leading to familial disputes. Due to this many feel they have no future in Sri Lanka and seek to leave the country, either by applying for foreign asylum with little hope of success, or paying huge sums of money and entrusting their fate to human traffickers. In the words of one rehabilitee ‘After I finish my education, I don’t want to stay in Sri Lanka for one minute’.
Which way forward?
The government claims it has put in place adequate measures for post-war reconciliation, rendering outside attention unnecessary. Viewed through the framework of transitional justice the state’s policies and actions do not stand scrutiny – they do not provide recognition to victims and create civic trust. In the North adequate measures have not been taken to ‘normalise’ the former conflict affected areas. Instead militarisation has become entrenched and a large military presence in the North has been formalised.
A welcome sign to 521 Brigade Area in English onlyA welcome sign in English only. Some rights
Although Tamil was made an official language in 1987 and the government launched a ten year trilingual programme in January 2012, state action illustrates limited political will to carry this through. For instance, Tamils in many parts of the country, not only the North and East, state that when they lodge complaints at the police station it is documented in Sinhala, a language they do not understand. They are then asked to sign the document indicating that it is a true record of their complaint.
Moreover, in the past six months alone new sign boards in Sinhala only or Sinhala and English have sprung up in the Tamil speaking North. With the lack of even minimal cause for Northerners to trust their governance structures, local reconciliation based on the rule of law as posited by Abayawardena amounts to a denial of the harm done.
The alienation felt by the communities in the North is illustrated by this statement, made by a woman who was displaced multiple times and lost 7 members of her family during the last stages of the armed conflict: ‘The President should look after the Tamils as they are citizens too. He doesn’t care about the Tamils’. In order for Tamils to feel they are equal citizens the onus is on the state to take measures, including but not limited to, demilitarization of the North, enabling people to fully and freely exercise their rights, acknowledgement not only of the violations and loss experienced during the war and provision of reparation, but also acceptance of the ethno-political nature of the conflict and commitment to provide a political solution.
The other important failing on the part of the state is its attempt to impose collective amnesia on the Tamil population in relation to the LTTE. The relationship of the Tamil people with the LTTE was, and remains, a highly complex and sensitive matter. We should remember that this relationship encompassed a nuanced spectrum of opinion within the Tamil community: from those who unequivocally supported both the LTTE’s ideological stance and methods, to those who, faced with a state unresponsive to their political aspirations, tolerated the LTTE in instrumental terms, to yet others, given the attitude of the LTTE in regard to dissent and political pluralism, simply had no choice whether or not to conform. Post-war, and post-LTTE, this is a matter that is best resolved, reconciled and come to terms with, within the Tamil community. The high profile insertion of the military into not only the civil administration, but also the civic, social and political space of the North, in a manner designed to impose a history, to control collective memory, and intrude into post-war catharsis, is not only callous, but also myopic and ultimately self-defeating for the state.
In other words, there is no better way than the path the government is currently taking to ensure the sustenance within the Tamil polity of the LTTE’s brand of hard-line nationalism, even without the LTTE.
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