Needed: A Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal our nation

l by Shanie

“I could not dig; I dared not rob;


Therefore I lied to please the mob.


Now all my lies are proved untrue


And I must face the men I slew.


What tale shall serve me here among


Mine angry and defrauded young?” – – Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

(December 03, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Britain set up a War Propaganda Bureau to promote the government’s war effort. All the leading writers (George Bernard Shaw being a notable exception) and major newspaper owners/editors were invited and all agreed to support the war propaganda. Hundreds of pamphlets were produced, under the signed authorship of different writers, encouraging young men to enlist and fight the German menace; and to give a weekly “history” of the war enumerating details of alleged German brutalities. All the writers were sworn to secrecy and it was not until twenty years later that the collaboration of the writers in war propaganda became known. Rudyard Kipling was one of the writers thus recruited by the War Propaganda Bureau. Kipling’s only son was one of those who enlisted following his father’s and fellow writers’ propaganda. He fought in the front lines and was killed. Kipling was deeply troubled and wrote the poem quoted above. In another poem on behalf of his son and all the other young men who had been killed in the war, he wrote:
“If any question why we died,
Tell them because our fathers lied.”
War propaganda is sordid business that does little to enhance the ethics of journalism. A classic example was the case of Albert Rhys Williams, an American journalist covering the First World War in Belgium. He was with a group of British photographers also covering the war when one of them asked Williams whether he would not like a photograph of himself in the war surroundings just to take home as a souvenir. The idea appealed to Williams and they discussed various options when somebody came up with the idea of taking a photograph of Williams being shot by a firing squad for being a German spy. So it was that a photograph was taken of a blind-folded Williams standing against a wall with a four-man Belgian firing squad facing him with their guns aimed. A week later, on 10th October 1914, the photograph appeared in the Daily Mirror in UK with the caption: “The Belgians have a short, sharp method of dealing with the Kaiser’s rat-hole spies. This one was caught near Termonde and, after being blindfolded, the firing-squad soon put an end to his inglorious career.” That photograph remains a classic for students of war propaganda. Williams, an ordained American Congregationalist Church minister, was later to cover the Russian Revolution, become a great friend of Lenin and remained a socialist (he never joined the US Communist Party) until his death in 1962. But that is another story.
We will not know the accuracy of this as the parties involved have chosen neither to confirm nor deny the story. Gotabaya Rajapaksa however simply dismisses the story that a deal was agreed upon. The fact however is that the LTTE leadership who remained in the Nanthikadal Lagoon area has all disappeared, although we know that Prabhakaran was killed.
Critics of War Propaganda
Only the very naïve will believe that similar propaganda was not used by the different parties in our recently concluded war against the northern insurgents, or for that matter in both southern insurgencies we had earlier. During the war, anyone who publicly challenged this sort of propaganda was immediately labeled a ‘traitor’. The label was freely used not only against anyone exposing false propaganda but also against any person who challenged the government’s strategy in dealing with the Tamil insurgency and its causes. It is now over thirty months since the insurgency was crushed but the mindset of the propagandists and their undiscerning followers remains the same. Propaganda, even false propaganda, is understandable while a war is on. But propaganda for the war must not be used to engage in propaganda against democratic political opposition. How often have we seen a hysterical reaction being promoted against well-meaning critics of the war strategy. Peace and national integration, the absolute need of our time, cannot be built if this mindset persists. We need to be able to discern the agenda of those who would like to resist a return to democratic normalcy.
During the last stages of the war, it was known that many civilians were intimidated by the LTTE into retreating with them until they were trapped in a small sliver of land by the Nanthikadal Lagoon near Mullaitivu. The LTTE was using them as human shields but these civilians had no choice but to retreat with the LTTE. They had no way of going elsewhere on their own. The exact number of civilians caught up in this will only be known when there is a full and independent investigation. Government propaganda at that time was that there were only about 80,000 civilians left but this was proved false when, at the conclusion of the war, over 300,000 streamed into the IDP camps in the Vavuniya District. Along with the civilians, a number of LTTE cadres and leaders also surrendered. None of the LTTE leaders or hard-core cadres seem to have survived. They have simply disappeared; again under what circumstances only an independent investigation can reveal. The LLRC was not mandated to investigate that.
Although there was no confirmation or denial by the parties involved, it was commonly believed that some of the LTTE leaders made contact, through intermediaries, with Vijay Nambiar, Chief of Staff of the United Nations Secretary-General, and a deal was struck with some leading government figures for them to surrender carrying white flags in return for safe passage. We will not know the accuracy of this as the parties involved have chosen neither to confirm nor deny the story. Gotabaya Rajapaksa however simply dismisses the story that a deal was agreed upon. The fact however is that the LTTE leadership who remained in the Nanthikadal Lagoon area has all disappeared, although we know that Prabhakaran was killed.
For a long time, international human rights groups have charged the security forces and the LTTE of violating international human rights laws during the last stages of the war. The United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Panel of Experts also found sufficiently credible evidence to warrant a full independent investigation into action by all parties during that period. The official position of the Government of Sri Lanka was that no violations took place and no civilians were killed. This was later amended to say that the security forces had followed a policy of zero civilian killings. But there was no admission that any civilians were actually killed.
The need for a TRC-type investigation
But this thirty-month old position (propaganda?) has recently undergone a change. Over the course of the last few weeks, the government admits that there may have been some excesses and some undisciplined soldiers may have fired and killed some civilians. One does not know if this change of line was in anticipation of the LLRC report which may have found credible evidence of disappearances that warranted an independent investigation. But whatever be the reason, it is good that the government has realized the need to investigate the charges of human rights violations. But such an investigation, if it is to have any credibility, must be by a truly independent Commission whose members will have the consensual approval of the major political parties represented in Parliament – SLFP, UNP, TNA, SLMC and JVP.
Yasushi Akashi, the Japanese envoy, has at the conclusion of his five-day visit to Sri Lanka, suggested that Sri Lanka would do well to appoint a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the lines of the South African model. This is what many in Sri Lanka, including this columnist, had suggested earlier. Accountability is not a dirty word. As South Africa has shown, accountability and amnesty are twin sides in the process towards reconciliation. When the TRC was to be appointed, one of the reasons for it was the need to create a new moral order. Learning from the lessons of the past, without repeating the errors of the past, a new South Africa had to be built. As Prof Piet Meiring, a member of the TRC, stated: “As we step out of the wreckage of the past, South Africa is still in many respects a spiritual wasteland, a reality painfully expressed in the appalling crime rate, the breakdown of family structures, a growing disrespect for the dignity of the human person. We are a nation in need of healing, in every sense of the word.”
Many will agree that Sri Lanka, too, today needs that kind of healing. Now that the government has recognized the need to investigate the conduct of the war, now is perhaps the time to build a national consensus for the setting up of a truly independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission that will go a long way to help in the process of healing our nation. The membership of such a Commission could comprise largely of non-political Sri Lankans of national stature who will command the respect of their fellow-citizens plus, as Akashi suggested, some internationally recognised judicial persons with experience in such Commissions. The South African TRC had as its main terms of reference: 1. the circumstances, factors and context of the human rights violations, the perspectives of the victims, as well as the perspectives and motives of the perpetrators; 2. facilitation of the granting of amnesty where appropriate; 3. establishing and making known the whereabouts of victims, restoring their human and civil dignity; and 4. recommendation of measures to prevent future violations of human rights.
To build a national consensus for making such a TRC an effective body, we need to change the ‘nobody can tell us that we have done any wrong’ mindset that has been created in our people. The government has taken the first step in acknowledging that there have been human righta violations and civilians have been targeted and therefore an investigation is required. But, as Akashi stated, the whole process of investigation must be genuine. An independent TRC on the above lines will certainly heal and restore the credibility of our nation.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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