“Relationship-building following violent conflict, addressing issues of lack of trust, prejudice, and intolerance whilst accepting commonalities and differences, is the essence of reconciliation.
The culture of suspicion, fear, mistrust and violence needs to be removed and opportunities and space opened up in which people can hear each other and be heard. A culture of respect for human rights and human diversity needs to be developed creating an environment where each citizen becomes an active participant in society and feels a sense of belonging, of being Sri Lankan. For this purpose the social, economic and political structures which gave rise to the conflict and estrangement need to be identified and addressed.” . – Report of the LLRC 8.136-137
( December 8, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Commission of Inquiry into Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation made some important recommendations towards achieving lasting peace and reconciliation among our people. For most of the years since we obtained independence from colonial rule, our country has been subject to sectarian violence and conflict. In addition to insurgencies in the South and North, there has been periodic violence unleashed against minorities, usually with state sponsorship or with the state security forces looking the other side. The appointment of the LLRC followed the last, the most brutal and the longest lasting of these conflicts. The people were tired of living in fear and of being polarised on ethnic lines and lacking mutual trust and understanding. It was hoped that the LLRC would provide an opportunity for the country to move forward in restoring that lost trust and understanding. By and large, the LLRC lived up to that promise and made clear recommendations that would have gone a long way to achieving reconciliation in our country. Sadly, it is just over a year since the LLRC report was released and nearly all the key recommendations remain unimplemented, despite a National Action Plan being presented to our people and to the international community. The blame for this attaches not only to the political leaders but must also be shared by our media and civil society.
Two events last week symbolised this failure. One was the beating up of Tamil students of the University of Jaffna by the Sri Lanka Army. We refer to the victims of the Army assault as Tamil students pointedly for reasons which will be explained. The second event was the silent march by a group of women, Sinhala and Tamil, protesting against the disappearance over the past six years of members of their family and for which the authorities had failed to conduct independent inquiries and provide credible information. Both events went largely unreported by the mainstream media, for reasons only they can explain.
Attack on the Students in Jaffna
Shocking details are now emerging about the Army entering the University of Jaffna premises on Karthigai Theepam/Mahaveerar Day. It appears that after they entered the campus, the Army separated the Sinhala students from the Tamil students, and then went on to abuse the Tamil students with guns pointed at them. They did the same thing at the women’s hostel. At least one girl had fainted probably out of fear, but the verbal and physical assault by the Army went ahead.
Later that night, a petrol bomb had mysteriously had exploded near the TELO office. The Army had come back to the campus arrested the Secretary of the Arts Students’ Union claiming that the TELO had said he was responsible. TELO had later reportedly denied this. They did complain about the explosion but did not name any names because they simply did not know who was responsible. The university community seem to believe that the petrol bomb episode was simply a pretext to arrest the student leader.
The Military Intelligence personnel are within the campus and have been keeping an eye on the student activists. They will also know that it is also not at all clear if the lighting of oil lamps was because of Karthigai Theepam or because of the Mahaveerar Day, or both. Either way, if the event was ignored, it would have passed with no significance to anybody. The Police apparently had told the people earlier that there was no objection to the lighting of lamps to celebrate Karthigai Theepam. By their action, the Army has only drawn attention to or rather not allowed the people to forget Mahaveerar Day. Apparently, a text message sent by a Sinhala female student is being widely publicised within the campus and outside. She had said that ‘by hunting for Tigers, we are turning the students into Tigers. You cannot beat the Tamil this way.’
The Road to Building Trust
The presence of the Army in a camp in the North is necessary, as it is in other major areas of the country. But their presence in such large numbers and their intrusion into civilian affairs gives rise to the perception that in the North we have an Army of occupation. The issue of lighting lamps for Karthigai Theepam or for Mahaveerar Day is a matter that should have been handled by the university administration. If they had felt that there was going to be a breach of the peace, the administration could have called in the Police. But in this case, there would have been absolutely no need for that as well.
The students arrested by the Army are still being held in a camp in Vavuniya, apparently on the instructions of the Ministry of Defence. These students have broken no law and their arrest and detention is clearly unacceptable. When the need of the hour is reconciliation, this is plain intimidation of young people. The government seems to be in no mood to set in motion the process of reconciliation recommended by the LLRC and which all persons of goodwill want for our country.
The Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance published a Handbook for those seeking reconciliation following conflict. One of the case studies reported in it was the case of the reconciliation process in Cambodia following the ‘Killing Fields’ massacre of civilians. They concluded the case study by stating : ‘The messages of non-partisanship in reconciliation are fundamental to the proper practice of Buddhism. It is this type of leadership that is required of Cambodiapoliticians, if they and the population are to move beyond their painful past. Cambodians need to overcome the deep-seated mistrust of, and animosity towards, each other that arose as the consequence of the Khmer Rouge and their aftermath. Open discussion, improvement in social justice and human rights, education and health care for all – these are all fundamental to a step-by-step process of building mutual trust and understanding.’
Disappeared and Missing Persons
The march by the women protesting missing loved ones was organised jointly by the Committee for Investigating Disappearances and the Movement for the Release of Political Prisoners. About twenty five women mainly from the North and East took part in this symbolic march along the streets from a Hindu kovil in Kochchikade to another Hindu Kovil in Gintupitiya. They carried clay plots with camphor fire in keeping with cultural traditions. There was at least one Anglican priest Fr. Sathivel, who participated by lighting the camphor pot and blessing the marchers. The women prayed and pleaded for information about their missing husbands, fathers and sons who had gone missing, some known to have been abducted in white vans.
It is a pity that this symbolic protest went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media. Whoever the victims are, all human beings need to be treated within the rule of law. The media has the best opportunity to highlight any injustice to anyone, particularly when that injustice is done to someone without the due process of the law. Extra-judicial arrests and abductions are unacceptable in a democracy, or even, to use Izeth Hussain, in a quasi-democracy.
The LLRC report also highlighted this when it stated: “During the public sittings and its field visits, including to the conflict affected areas, the Commission was alarmed by a large number of representations made alleging abductions, enforced or involuntary disappearances, and arbitrary detention. In many instances, it was revealed that formal complaints have been made to police stations, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the ICRC. In some cases, submissions had also been made to the previous Commissions of investigation. Yet, the next of kin ontinue to complain that the whereabouts of many of those missing persons are still unknown. The Government therefore is duty bound to direct the law enforcement authorities to take immediate steps to ensure that these allegations are properly investigated into and perpetrators brought to justice. The Commission emphasizes that it is the responsibility of the State to ensure the security and safety of any person who is taken into custody by governmental authorities through surrender or an arrest. A comprehensive approach to address the issue of missing persons should be found as a matter of urgency as it would otherwise present a serious obstacle to any inclusive and long term process of reconciliation.
The Commission also emphasizes that the relatives of missing persons shall have the right to know the whereabouts of their loved ones. They also have the right to know the truth about what happened to such persons, and to bring the matter to closure. Reconciliation is a process. Closure is the first difficult emotive step in that long and complex journey irrespective of whether they are victims of conflict or victims of LTTE terrorism.”
Shared Future from a Divided Past
It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who wrote the foreword to the Handbook on Reconciliation after Conflict from which we quoted earlier. What Tutu stated has relevance to us as well: “In South Africa we have travelled a long way down the road of reconciliation, but our journey is not yet over. Reconciliation is a long-term process and it must – and will – continue for many years to come. And yet, we have made a good start. For us, truth was at the heart of reconciliation: the need to find out the truth about the horrors of the past, the better to ensure that they never happen again. And that is the central significance of reconciliation. Without it people have no sense of safety, no trust, no confidence in the future. The aim must be, as the Handbook’s authors say, ‘to build a shared future from a divided past’. There is no alternative way to lasting peace.
“As we continue our own journey towards peace in South Africa, I commend this Handbook to those who struggle for reconciliation in other contexts around the world. I hope that the practical tools and lessons from experience presented here will inspire, assist and support them in their supremely important task.”
Our religious leaders, the media, the civil society and all persons wanting to ensure that democracy and peace prevails in our country must urge the government to change course and give the highest priority to taking forward the process of reconciliation. Arresting and detaining students who have broken no law and turning a deaf ear to the pleas of mothers and wives whose loved ones have disappeared in extra-judicial abductions and arrests negates the process of reconciliation. All of us need to work towards building a shared future from a divided past.