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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Internal Political Power Bashing in the Name of Justice for War Victims

[On 21st February 2015, Mr. Sumanthiran’s effigy was burnt at a demonstration in Jaffna Town]
by Rajan Hoole and N. Sivapalan, University of Jaffna, Ahilan Kadirgamar,an independent researcher in Jaffna, and K. Sritharan –

The UN Human Rights Commission’s decision to investigate violations and the huge loss of life during the last months of the war concluded in 2009 was a significant victory for the victims. The dignity of the victims required that the truth must be told without fear or favour, and processes of justice and restoration set in motion. And the wrong was not all on one side. Dignity also demands that we await the verdict of the judges with restraint and reverence for the name of justice.

But in Jaffna, all hell broke loose over the coming UNHRC report in an orgy of mud-slinging, recrimination and effigy burning for Tamil leadership spoils. Some academics in Jaffna University led by taking on themselves the task of identifying and upbraiding ‘traitors to the race’ in a return to dangerous heroics. MPs Sampanthan and Sumanthiran were excoriated for attending the Independence Day function. The first shot in virtually christening the coming UN report a ‘genocide report’ was fired by Northern Chief Minister Justice Wigneswaran on 10th February 2015 in the Provincial Council resolution he advanced.

The opinion held by a sizeable portion of the university teachers was not to politicise the coming UN report, so as to allow Sinhalese to read it with an open mind. There was no opposition to delay, as requested by the new government. But this moderate stance got lost in the rush of events. It was presented to the media on 13th February as the University Teachers demanding the release of the report as scheduled in March. Suresh Premachandran MP, the same day, welcomed Wigneswaran’s ‘genocide resolution’ and called upon India and the US to ensure the release of the UN report. Later he supported the call of the University Teachers to undertake a march to present the demand for early release of its report to the UN.

A UN report that was meant to help the victims was getting lost amidst the extremism of pied pipers encouraging students to abandon moderation in a University that now has a large number of Sinhalese and Muslim students, and put up notices recalling the rallying cry of ‘PonguThamil’ (Arise Tamils) during the LTTE’s heyday, but over a petition for the release of a report the UN Human Rights Commissioner has assured he would.

On 21st February 2015, Mr. Sumanthiran’s effigy was burnt at a demonstration in Jaffna Town organised by the Women’s Front for Disappeared Persons, thus politicising the all-important issue in a manner very detrimental to the victims. Soon afterwards another leader, Mr.Mavai Senathirajah, perhaps to stop more effigy burning by those trying to capture the TNA leadership or its place, announced his support for the supposed University Teachers’ protest.

The pretext for the attack on Sumanthiran was his engaging with the Government on implementing a local mechanism to give effect to the coming UN report’s recommendations. This is the best we could expect from a government we helped to elect. Without a change of government the UN report would have been simply rejected, and getting any benefit out of it would have been an arduous process. To start by dismissing internal mechanisms as hopeless without engagement is to destroy any possibility of national reconciliation which is our only hope. The UN would, rightly, not recommend international prosecution until domestic mechanisms are exhausted. Engagement means for example that we must demand legislation for command responsibility.

Moreover the public is being duped by creating an expectation that the UN will charge the Government with genocide. The coming UNHRC report will build on the UN Secretary General’s advisory report of 31st March 2011, but one hardly expects any significant deviation in the conclusions. The UNSG’s report faults the Government for (i) killing civilians through widespread shelling; (ii) shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects; (iii) denial of humanitarian assistance; (iv) human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors; and (v) human rights violations outside the conflict zone [such as persecution of the media and abductions].

It faults the LTTE for: (i) using civilians as a human buffer; (ii) killing civilians attempting to flee LTTE control; (iii) using military equipment in the proximity of civilians; (iv) forced recruitment of children; (v) forced labour (e.g. using civilians to dig bunkers); (vi) killing of civilians through suicide attacks.

The nature of the LTTE’s violations which Tamil nationalists systematically deny or obfuscate makes allegations of genocide solely against the Government hard to sustain. The propensity to lie and avoid the truths most crucial to giving the Tamil community a decisive change of direction has been the way of Tamil politics from the earliest times. Take for example Wigneswaran’s recent statement. It has listed the International Tamil Research Conference Tragedy of January 1974 under the heading of genocide.

But the facts were established by a professionally conducted citizens’ inquiry headed by Justices O.L. de Kretzer and V. Manickavasagar and Bishop S. Kulandran. Their verdict did not deny the Police’s right to arrest Janarthanan, a Tamil Nadu politician who illegally entered the country and participated in the conference, in which they failed. The judges held that knowing the probable result, i.e. a stampede, the Police should have adopted a course of ‘quieta non movere’ – leave well alone – but had instead acted recklessly. That is a far cry from genocide.

But what Tamil nationalist politics did was to, without any basis, accuse Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah who was already branded a traitor deserving death from a nationalist platform, as having instigated the police action which caused the deaths. Duraiappah was killed the following year by the incipient LTTE, which in turn branded several Tamil nationalist leaders traitors for negotiating a political settlement and killed them over the coming years. This politics of assassination inaugurated by the Tamil leadership culminated 35 years later in 2009 in the gigantic tragedy at Mullivaykkal, and continues to haunt the Tamil nationalist leadership.

The last event has been described in Wigneswaran’s statement as the ‘Vanni genocide’. However, it was the LTTE that held masses of people hostage, allowing the Government to claim its action, as in January 1974, as legitimate. The people concerned however preferred ‘quieta non movere’ on the Government’s part and rescue by a less costly international initiative. Our judgment of the Government’s military action is inevitably coloured by decades of the people’s experience of the security forces and in the run-up to the finale, the wanton killing of five young Tamils in Trincomalee on 2nd January 2006 and the massacre of ACF aid workers in Mutur that followed; by its military strategy involving total displacement by shelling with a view to acquisition of lands to change their demographic composition and the relentless shelling of locations the Government itself had declared safe zones. These we trust will be dealt with by the UN report.

For the civilians caught up in the war in 2009, matters were made worse by the Tamil leadership denying that the LTTE was holding the people hostage and was shooting escapees. It is this long history of lying and refusal to examine its responsibility for the politics of assassination that makes the Tamil leadership so vulnerable today. And the madness goes on. Wigneswaran’s genocide statement has let loose demonization of those who engage with the Government, purely for political one-upmanship.

Genocide is a word loosely used for political rhetoric, too often by politicians who themselves have blood on their hands. It is a fact that the war was waged by all sides without any concern for civilian well-being. The LTTE continuously trapped the people in a destructive war and consciously worked towards scenarios where the Army would kill large numbers of civilians. It created conditions where civilians will be forced to identify with it in one form or another to make sure that when that Army enters, they will all face the wrath of the Army. That fear itself forced the people to join the movement or to move with them. Have we forgotten the Exodus of 1995, the chasing away of Muslims in 1990 and many other atrocities unleashed in the name of liberation?

Could we say that the LTTE was involved in genocide against its own people by quoting all the massive killings it carried out at various times from trapping people again and again into wars they did not want and forcing them along a suicidal route?

Could the chasing out of Muslims and massacring them in Mosques be legitimately raised as genocidal acts of the LTTE? There are many sides and narratives to the conflict. It is very sad that the University which needs to create space for people to re-evaluate the past and critically analyse what went wrong that allowed suicidal politics to ensnare the community, is now again blindly promoting the same politics which destroyed our community.

Indeed, the Sri Lankan state failed miserably in protecting the minorities and evolved as a Sinhala state. There are many Sinhalese intellectuals and politicians who recognise this, but whenever there were initiatives towards addressing the issues, extremists from both sides undermined them. It is important that Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims engage in an open manner to nullify the legacy of the past and build a wholesome political culture. That can happen only through internal processes and we need to identify resources and potential already present within each community, and work towards slowly building trust. Sri Lanka, as a UN Member, has a responsibility to respect all norms enshrined in its treaties and covenants and when it fails to protect the rights of its citizens, we would all sooner or later face the consequences. But international initiatives are often controlled by the limited vision of those in charge and have many a time failed to give priority to the internal potential, and the results had very limited impact. Our main focus must be to strengthen the democratic process and work towards building broad alliances among all communities to address the many issues facing the nation.

The president must expeditiously fulfill the just demands of the Tamil peoples, who in trust and goodwill gave him an overwhelming mandate. The large numbers of people who are internal refugees owing to the war, now ended, should be urgently resettled in their former homes. The persons, who have long languished in detention on mere suspicion without charges being filed, should be released without delay. In order that all communities could live together in understanding and goodwill, moves should be set in motion without delay, to resolve the national question.

We have a responsibility to engage with the government, we helped to elect and make a start on what is best for the people – not just the Tamil people but for all the people in the country. Our name calling of opponents and the government is only helping the Sinhalese extremists who do not want any solution to the national question and we need not spell out the consequences, especially when political conditions in the South are also unstable.The Tamil leadership has a major responsibility in addressing the fears of the ordinary Sinhalese people and to be open about their failures in the past. There are many Sinhalese who are ashamed of the way the Sri Lankan Army carried out operations where large numbers of innocent civilians were killed and many surrendered persons were massacred. Tamil politics can either strengthen them or isolate them. The LTTE continued to undermine the peace constituency in the South by sticking to its maximalist position but opportunistically demanded addressing immediate issues to buy time and materials to strengthen its military capability. The peace lobby in the South tried to justify the LTTE’s position genuinely hoping that it may transform, but the resulting ground reality gave opportunity to the Sinhalese extremists who argued that only a military solution was possible and undermined the Peace Lobby with relative ease.

The situation in the South is fragile. There being Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim students in Jaffna University, it will be much more productive if the students engaged among themselves to understand each other rather than wallow in a bankrupt political discourse that destroys all hope. And Tamil politics would remain, as the left leader V. Karalasingam said in 1963, in the wasteland of ‘burning itself out in impotent rage and despair against the government than permit a critical re-examination of its politics’.

Those trying to edge out the present Tamil leadership with hysterics of betrayal over the UN report are certainly marginal elements. Their barely hidden rhetorical demand for Tamil Eelam recalls Marx’s aphorism that events in history occur first as a tragedy and for the second time as a farce. The elements carrying us through the farce today could easily be tackled if the Tamil leadership would apologise to the public openly for its Himalayan blunder of original tacit support for the politics of assassination against opponents, and explain the grim choices confronting the Tamil people today and the urgent need to advance reconciliation on equal terms.
– The Island


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