l by Shanie
(March 24, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Jean Arasanayagam and Anne Ranasinghe are two of Sri Lanka’s most accomplished writers and poets. Despite their last names, neither of them is Tamil or Sinhalese. But both have written extensively on violent conflicts. Arasanayagam was a witness to the pogroms against the Tamils in Sri Lanka and Ranasinghe was a witness to both the pogroms in Sri Lanka as well as the holocaust against the Jews by Hitler’s Nazis. Their poems therefore are written with feeling born out of personal experience. There is consequently greater depth and authenticity in their poetry. History, at last, has meaning. Historical memories and memorials link the past with the present and the future. They provide a shield lest we forget what needs to be remembered.
Selective memory is however dangerous; it is a convenient tool for those who have never experienced conflict or never put themselves in the shoes of a victim. For nearly sixty years, almost from the time we secured independence from British rule, we in Sri Lanka have gone through ethnic pogroms directed against the other. Among the victims have been thousands of civilians, Sinhala. Tamil and Muslim. The perpetrators have been the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups, the security forces and other para-military groups, ordinary criminal elements, and for a brief period of time, the IPKF. Those with selective memories, should read perhaps the only reliable and comprehensive reports of this violence as recorded by the University Teachers for Human Rights in their several documents and reports, in their ‘The Broken Palmyra’ and in ‘Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power – Myths, Decadence and Murder’. Of the original founders of the UTHR, Rajini Thiranagama was assassinated by the LTTE, two other academics are living abroad and only Rajan Hoole remains in Sri Lanka and he has taken personal responsibility for the last named publication
Selective memories were very much to the fore both during the recent sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council as well as in the orchestrated street demonstrations in Sri Lanka. The focus of the resolution before the UNHRC was on the report of the LLRC and the need for the Sri Lankan government to set up an effective and independent mechanism to implement the LLRC’s recommendation. Whatever criticism can be made of the LLRC’s emphases in their report of the violence by the different actors in Sri Lanka over the years, it acknowledged that there was a possibility that all parties, including the security forces, were implicated in unacceptable conduct resulting in death and injury to civilians. This needed further investigation and, where necessary, the wrong-doers brought to book.
Cream of the Private Sector?
Obviously, the business and the bank executives, the representatives of the Joint Chambers of Commerce, the professionals and academics who signed petitions and even engaged in street demonstrations showed, or were pressured into showing, their inept ignorance of the issues involved. Wednesday’s Island reports that the cream of Sri Lanka’s private sector, around 5000 in number, gathered on the streets proclaiming, ‘Leave Sri Lanka alone. No war crimes here. Look elsewhere’. It appears that the cream of Sri Lanka’s private sector thought that war crimes figured in the resolution before the UNHRC. All these business professionals and academics should at least have had the business or professional sense to find out what they were protesting against. If it was about the resolution to be discussed at the UNHRC, they should have at least read the text of the resolution and made comments accordingly. The public sector has already been heavily politicised; the future of our private sector is indeed grim if its ‘cream’ can be so easily manipulated or intimidated.
Those who so easily succumb to pressure (we can only be charitable and hope that these company directors and business executives were standing on the streets and waving placards only under pressure) and participate in these street demonstrations need to be aware that the thrust of the resolution is that the LLRC recommendations must be implemented. Wednesday’s Island also reports of a meeting of the UNP Parliamentary Group where Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to have stated that his information was that the government was negotiating with the US for the withdrawal of the resolution before the UNHRC on the firm undertaking that the government would implement the LLRC recommendations. We do not know if this information is correct. However, there does appear to be some negotiations, perhaps involving India, for the resolution to be taken up in two parts. But in the end, none of it emerged. The resolution has been voted upon and adopted.
Sri Lanka Attorneys-at-Law gathered in court premises Colombo on 14th February 2012, to protest against white van abduction which occurred within court premises recently.
The Role of the Media
It must be emphasised that nothing in the resolution speaks of the war or of any crimes allegedly committed during the last phase of the war. Nor is it anti-Sri Lanka or a threat to the sovereignty of the country. It calls for the government to draw up an action plan and a credible independent mechanism for the implementation of the recommendations of, to use a hackneyed phrase of the President, the home-grown LLRC. It also encourages the UN High Commission for Human Rights to offer, in consultation with and the concurrence of the Government of Sri Lanka, advice and technical assistance in the implementation of the Government of Sri Lanka’s action plan. This is similar to the advice and technical advice we receive from international agencies like the IMF. The UN HCHR is expected to present to the UNHRC at the sessions in March 2013 a report on the assistance so provided.
It does not appear that the media, particularly the Sinhala and Tamil media, have sufficiently publicised the text of the resolution. We do not know if this was a deliberate omission but this has led to both the supporters and opponents of the resolution, for different reasons, misrepresenting the thrust of the resolution. The vote at the UNHRC was not a vote against Sri Lanka but a vote to safeguard the recommendations of our own LLRC.
It is also a matter for serious concern that the media, print and electronic, particularly the state Sinhala media, is being used to name and vilify Sri Lankans who have taken a line on the UNHRC resolution that is different from that of the government. This is similar to the naming in a state website some years ago of lawyers appearing for Tamil suspects in fundamental rights applications. The Supreme Court had to intervene then to stop that intimidatory posting. The state media are now resorting to this unethical journalism. Presumably, it is the view of these journalists and their (official or unofficial) bosses that anyone who does not toe the government line is a traitor who deserves to be dealt with appropriately (white vans?).
On the Path to National Reconciliation
The LLRC was appointed by the Government and many of its members were well respected professionals. Their analysis of the final phase of the war and the developments that led to it may not have met the expectations of all, on all sides of the political scene in Sri Lanka. But there can be no disagreement that their recommendations are in the right direction of peace and national reconciliation. Thus, nobody who is for peace, law and order in our country can object to the recommendation that armed groups in the North and East, owing allegiance to two ministers in the government, need to be disarmed. Similarly, there is a need for an independent Police Commission that will at least to some extent reduce the politicisation of the law enforcement authorities. The Police must be free of political interference to pursue investigations and bring to justice criminals. Those who commit crime are criminals, even if they enjoy political patronage; there cannot be peace and stability in the country if such elements are not prosecuted and punished.
Any citizen must have the confidence that he can expect justice from those who are expected to enforce justice and to dispense justice. There can be no doubt that that confidence has been severely eroded in the recent past. It is not only Sarath Fonseka but even the humblest villager who has inadvertently crossed the path of a politician or a pompous police officer is losing confidence in our criminal justice system. This is another of the recommendations of the LLRC. In 2006, five students relaxing by the waterfront in Trincomalee after sitting for their AL examination were shot dead by a trigger happy officer. The Udalagama Commission of Inquiry investigated this crime, among other murders. No action has been taken to release this report handed over to the President in 2009 or to prosecute and punish the perpetrators of this crime. Incidentally, this case is in stark contrast with the abduction, rape and killing in 1996 at an army check point in Kaithady, Jaffna of a schoolgirl also returning after sitting for her AL examination. Then, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga ordered an investigation. Six of those directly involved were prosecuted and sentenced to death by the courts.
When he was presenting his Commission’s report to the President in 2009, Justice (Retd) Nissanka Udalagama in a newspaper interview stated: “One recommendation that we made to the President was that this kind of Commission must be there permanently. Since our Commission began functioning, the kinds of incidents we were investigating stopped taking place. This means the existence of the Commission acted as a deterrent of sorts. I know that members of the armed forces and police were told about the existence of such a Commission.” This is a very valid point made by Udalagama. There must be a permanent statutory body for national reconciliation that will not only be charged with implementing the LLRC recommendations but will also take up ad hoc violations of human rights, cases of unlawful abductions, torture and extra-judicial killings, etc. This will be an important step towards national reconciliation and the protection of citizens’ rights.
The LLRC recommendations are basically a call for a restoration of law and order and for peace and national reconciliation. In the words of the Commission that we have quoted before: “Sri Lanka now faces a moment of unprecedented opportunity. Rarely does such an opportunity come along without equally important attendant challenges. This is especially true of any meaningful effort towards post-conflict peace building following a protracted conflict. Sri Lanka’s case is no exception. Terrorism and violence have ended. Time and space have been created for healing and building sustainable peace and security so that the fruits of democracy and citizenship can be equitably enjoyed by all Sri Lankans. To this end, the success of ending armed conflict must be invested in an all-inclusive political process of dialogue and accommodation so that the conflict by other means will not continue.”
The government now has the opportunity to tell the world, but particularly the people of Sri Lanka, that it takes its responsibilities seriously; that it means to implement the letter and the spirit of the LLRC recommendations with sincerity and transparency; that it means to set up an independent mechanism to do so. Will it have the political sense and the will to seize that opportunity?