These are UNHRC days. These are Yahapalana-UNHRC days which are therefore very different from the Rajapaksa-UNHRC days. Both regimes use the same lexicon when it comes to ‘reconciliation’. Back then too we heard talk of truth, reconciliation and what not. There are of course differences.
The previous regime created conditions to enable such talk simply by defeating the LTTE. This regime says, rhetorically, that it wants to go beyond the rhetoric. The previous regime rubbed the big name nations in the international community the wrong way, this regime is cosy with them.
As for the movers and shakers, this much can be said: they have less illusions on what’s possible than those who swear on this government’s commitment to deliver on promises made.
They’ll of course listen sympathetically to pleas about ‘ground realities’ and will appear to purchase the sob stories about spoilers in the opposition, but they probably know that spoilers notwithstanding the entire discourse of ‘reconciliation’ stinks on account of selectivity, gross exaggeration, editing out the uncomfortable and a fantastic brain-fade of context. Yes, ‘context’, the basis for a deadline-extensions, is forgotten when it comes to the matter that’s at the heart of all this: the war and especially it’s final stages where the Sri Lankan security forces carried out an historic and massive hostage-rescue operation against the world’s then most ruthless terrorist outfit.
Transitional justice. That’s a lovely term. It’s supposed to be about truth-seeking, accountability through courts of law, reparations and institutional reforms to ensure that there will not be recurrence of human rights violations. Sure, all these are important and much needed too. In the marketing of ‘need’ however there’s exaggeration, context-lack and such.
There’s talk of continued suffering of those who were victims of the war. They are said to be living in difficult circumstances and often out of the mainstream of life. They are supposed to be struggling to survive without viable livelihood opportunities and burdened by uncertainty about the fate of their missing family members.
Let’s get the marketing out of the way.
Not too long after the war then BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka Charles Haviland lamented in an article the plight of a former LTTE combatant who had been rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. The man, Haviland wrote sadly, didn’t have a job. The government had failed him, we are encouraged to conclude.
Someone picks joins an outfit that kills people, sets off bombs in crowded places, abducts children and proceeds to hold several hundred thousand people hostage, is apprehended, given marketable skills and then set free. The man can’t find a job. We are supposed to feel sorry for him? We are supposed to rant and rave about a government that has failed him and about a ‘failed state’?
Sri Lanka is a middle-income country in name. There are lots of third-world areas in this country. We have not had the privilege of being government by competent and honest people for decades. In fact it is a considerable feat that terrorism was defeated in the first instance. The fact of the matter is that difficult circumstances is not the preserve of a particular community living in a particular part of the country. The victims of the war: they are not just Tamils or those living in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Survival struggle is not witnessed just in these two provinces. It is not that those living in other parts are right in the middle of life’s ‘mainstream’. It is not that everyone else has ‘viable livelihood opportunities.
This is not to say of course that those in these two provinces suffered less; indeed they suffered much more. The blame for all that cannot be addressed to those who governed and no one else. The governments in power have a responsibility of course to make things better, but if making things better is what it’s all about then those who took the LTTE out of the equation and effectively ended the war did better than anyone else.
Then there’s the burden of uncertainty about the fate of loved ones, i.e. those who disappeared. There are claims about abduction. Easy to charge, hard to prove. There were tens of thousands ‘disappeared’ between 1988 and 1989. If ‘uncertainty of fate’ is a burden, that burden is now close to 30 years old. Does not mean that the currently privileged burdens should not be dealt with of course. Again, easy to demand, hard to deliver.
We know that among those claimed to have been disappeared died in battle. We know that some went abroad. We know that in wars there are liberties taken that are unwarranted, but we also know that all this is painted in a politics that has little sympathy for the aggrieved.
In Sri Lanka’s case, there’s a deafening silence when it comes to the LTTE’s role in all this and an equal and even more pernicious silence on the culpability of the LTTE’s key approvers, namely the TNA. Throw all that into the category called ‘ground reality’ and you will begin to understand that those who ignore all this are as guilty of opposing reconciliation as anyone else. The ‘ground reality’ is made also of those who see and understand the hypocrisy of those who talk of reconciliation as though it’s a single hand clap. The Opposition will oppose as their predecessors have done, regardless. It’s silly though to accept everyone to salute the ludicrous.
Let’s return to ‘transitional justice’. Those who demand ‘truth’ are silent on the truth. Are we supposed to join them in the various forums they articulate their demands? Those who talk reparations do so on tiptoe, making sure that their loved ones (politically speaking) don’t get egg on their faces.
And yet, we need the truth, i.e. the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and not the comfortable ‘truths’ that the yahapalana-approvers or rather the lies they agree upon.
And yes, we need accountability through courts of law, an eventuality that is being effectively subverted by the privileging of political revenge over justice-seeking, the preference for compromising sovereignty over credible investigation.
As for institutional reforms that prevent recurrence of human rights violations, are they talking about federalism without using the F-word? They did that for years until it became embarrassing to defend the LTTE. Let them know then that not everyone believes that human rights violations are prevented or encouraged by the nature of the state, whether it is unitary or federal. World history does not support such a thesis.
In the end, we need a better and broader definition of the term ‘transitional justice’ and maybe we’ll get there, not because of these justice-seekers but in fact in spite of them.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: malindasene. Blog: www.malindawords.blogspot.com