No future without forgiveness and reconciliation

| by Shanie
‘‘Talk to us about reconciliation
Only if you first experience
The anger of our dying
Talk to us of reconciliation
If your living is not the cause
Of our dying
Talk to us about reconciliation
Only if your words are not the product
of your devious scheme
To silence our struggle for freedom
Talk to us about reconciliation
Only if your intention is not to entrench yourself
More on your throne
Talk to us about reconciliation
Only if you cease to appropriate
all the symbols and meanings of our struggle.’’
– J Cabazares, Filippino poet in Discovering True Peace through sincere Reconciliation
( January 5, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) From the latter part of the nineteen sixties to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there had been increasing violence and acts of terrorism by the para-militaries on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. The British security forces were being accused of providing assistance in a variety of ways to the loyalist para-militaries. In 1989, a Catholic lawyer Pat Finucane was assassinated by gunmen who burst into his house. His ‘crime’ was that he provided legal assistance to republicans accused of various acts of ‘terrorism’. Immediately after the assassination, accusations were made that the gunmen were directed by British security forces. This was denied by the authorities and many felt that the accusations were too far-fetched. But the demand for an independent inquiry was pursued, not least by Finucane’s widow and three children who were present and witnessed the shooting. An earlier inquiry that exonerated the security forces was dismissed as a ‘whitewash’.

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The present coalition government in Westminster agreed to a review and commissioned Sir Desmond de Silva QC to investigate and report on the events of 23 years ago. (Incidentally, de Silva is of Sri Lankan origin and an old boy of Trinity College Kandy. His father Fred and grandfather George were at different times Members of Parliament for Kandy.)In his report, de Silva concludes that senior army and police intelligence officers colluded in the killing of Finucane and other republican sympathizers. He provides in detail how they had helped to identify, target and murder the lawyer and that they had even supplied the murder weapon to the gunmen. They had also deliberately obstructed the course of subsequent investigations. The very idea of killing Finucane was suggested to the para-militaries by a police officer. de Silva says that as much as 85% of the of the intelligence information with the para-militaries came from official sources. Up to now, all this has been denied by the police, the army and the establishment. When this report was presented in the House of Commons on 12th December, Prime Minister David Cameron found it ‘really shocking that this happened in our country’. Similarly, following an earlier report on the Bloody Sunday killings in 1972, which also found the security forces culpable, he had tendered a full apology on behalf of the British Government. The right wing Economist referred to the apology as Cameron ‘declining to defend the indefensible’.
Investigating civilian killings
In Sri Lanka too, we have had several similar massacres in connection with the three insurgencies in our country, two in the South and the third the long drawn out one in the North. In all these massacres, there was alleged involvement either by the insurgents or by the state security forces. In 1989, the same year that Finucane was murdered in Northern Ireland, Kanchana Abhayapala, also a lawyer, was gunned down in Colombo. Like Finucane, Abhayapala was also been involved in filing habeus corpus applications on behalf of alleged insurgents. In the first insurgency, another lawyer Wijedasa Liyanarachchi was murdered on the verandah of the Tangalle Rest House. In more recent times, we had civilian journalists like Lasantha Wickrematunge and Dharmalingam Sivaram killed. But the perpetrators were widely believed to be the part of the security services. But the state always denied their involvement in these extra-judicial killings. There was no independent inquiry into the killing of these civilians, obviously for the same reason that the British Government resisted holding an independent inquiry for many years.
There have been other killings of civilians by all parties to the various conflicts. The British Prime Minister has made a gracious apology for the involvement of state agencies in the murder of Finucane and the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland. Even though it came several years after the event, an apology would have struck a chord with the affected community. In Jaffna, some years ago, an innocent young schoolgirl returning from school after an examination was detained at an army checkpoint/camp, and later sexually abused and killed. Her mother and brother who went in search of her were similarly killed. The then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga ordered an investigation, based on which a soldier was charged in courts and found guilty. That was one of the rare instances where a government took action in respect of excesses by its security forces. In the Embilipitiya massacre of schoolboys also at an army camp, a Commission of Inquiry found army personnel guilty of abduction and killing, But that inquiry came only after a change of government. More recently, five schoolboys were gunned down at Trincomalee allegedly by the Police. Following international pressure, a Commission of Inquiry headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge was set up and a report handed over to the President after due investigation. But that report has not been released and no further action has been taken.
The South African Experience
We have borrowed the title of this week’s column from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book No Future without Forgiveness. In that book, Tutu explains the rationale for the appointment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and how the objectives, proceedings and the final report of the TRC transformed South Africa. The South African experience was an example to us and to the world of what is required for true reconciliation among peoples torn apart by conflict and injustice over many years. Without doubt, it was a miracle that a democratic change took place in that country without any revengeful violence and bloodshed that other countries in similar circumstances have experienced.. There were many who contributed to that miracle, but one man, Nelson Mandela stands out as a colossus among them. Imprisoned in an island prison for twenty seven years, he emerged from imprisonment without any bitterness, without any desire for revenge against his oppressors and with only the dream of seeing South Africa move forward in all areas of economic, political and social life and where peace, justice, equality and the rule of law would prevail.
Justice Ismail Mahomed, Deputy President of the Constitutional Court and later Chief Justice, in a judgement on the issue of granting amnesty under the TRC, referred to the apartheid era and stated that it was a shameful period when ‘neither the laws which permitted the incarceration or the investigation of crimes, nor the methods and the culture which informed such investigations, were easily open to public investigation, verification and correction. Loved ones had disappeared; others had their freedom invaded, their dignity assaulted or their reputations tarnished by grossly unfair imputations. Secrecy and authoritarianism had concealed the truth.’ Despite all this, South Africa was prepared to grant an amnesty to perpetrators as long as they made a full disclosure. It was this generosity of spirit on the part of Mandela and the new democratic leadership that led to a peaceful transformation. Incidentally, it may interest President Rajapakse and his advisors to know that the South African National Anthem is in four languages, including Afrikaaner, the language of the deposed regime.
‘Ubuntu’ is more than a word in one of the South African languages; it is a concept that is gaining currency in many other countries as well. It is about humanity and reconciliation. Tutu explains in his book: A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming oif others, does not feel threatened that others are able or good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they are less than who they are. But ubuntu is much more than a mere slogan. It must be shown to work, in reconciliation, in the rule of law, in treating all with respect and dignity. Ubuntu is what is required in countries like Sri Lanka where reconciliation and treating the ‘other’ with respect and dignity is the urgent need.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Tutu also refers to some home truths. Forgiveness and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. It is a risky undertaking, but it is worthwhile, because in the end there will be real healing from having dealt with the real situation. Spurious reconciliation can only bring spurious healing. Tutu also has a vivid illustration. He refers to a picture in a magazine of three US ex-servicemen standing in front of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. One asks, ‘Have you forgiven those who held you a prisoner of war?’ ‘I will never forgive them’, replies the other. His mate says, ‘Then it seems they still have you in prison, don’t they?’
Sri Lanka may not have a Nelson Mandela but if we are not to self-destroy ourselves, what s needed is for all of us, the democratic citizens, to urge the government to move forward in the same spirit as South Africa did in the nineteen nineties. The Commission of Inquiry into Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka may not have had the same wide-ranging mandate that the Truth and reconciliation Commission had in South Africa. But the LLRC’s analysis and recommendations, if implemented in the right spirit, would be a giant step towards achieving the same goals as in South Africa. The National Action Plan on the LLRC recommendations, however inadequate, should not be treated as a mere sop to the international human rights bodies. It has to be implemented with sincerity. The LLRC consisted of eminent persons who have made valuable suggestions that would go a long way towards promoting national unity and peace. The President and the government must ignore chauvinistic and extreme nationalist elements within the government and without, and go ahead to usher in an era of peace, stability and growth in the country. Above all, the rule of law must be protected and there cannot be any place for vindictiveness and revenge.
Supremacy of the Constitution
As this column was about to go to Press, news has come of the Supreme Court’s determination in respect of the several writ applications that were referred to it. It is hoped that the President and his government will have the humility and the good sense to abide by this determination. The Supreme Court is the final authority for the interpretation of the Constitution. Nobody can be treated as being above the Constitution and the Rule of Law. Anything less will have disastrous consequences for law and order and governance in our country.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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