Must reconciliation await another generation?

Today these sad and harsh memories of war are receding from the minds of people, in the north, east and south. The end of the war has made positive people-to-people interactions between Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims possible once again.
by Jehan Perera

(April 19, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The UN panel of experts to advise Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on matters relating to human rights violations in the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war finally issued its long delayed report on the eve of the traditional Sinhala and Tamil New Year. The timing of the release of the report may have been strategic. The entire country shuts down on the week of the New Year with families traveling either to their home villages to be with their relatives, or go on holiday to spend time together. As a result, an immediate mass response to the contents of the report was difficult to generate as happened in the past in regard to the same issues when a government minister led a mob attack on the UN headquarters in Colombo.

As the UN panel was not permitted to come to Sri Lanka to investigate and gather evidence, the report itself contains nothing especially new, repeating what has been said in the past by human rights groups. But the fact that the UN panel has made these observations would give them added authority in the eyes of the international community. The government’s initial response was to denounce the report as biased, false and unsubstantiated, and to pledge to make a written response soon.

When the news came that the UN had released its report, I was in Bandarawela in the hill country re-enacting a family tradition after many years. This was to take part in the tennis tournament there which is always held during the New Year holiday season. But this time it was not as a participant. When I was a child my father had brought me to Bandarawela to compete in the tournament. This time it was my turn to take my daughter to compete. A year ago, as a six year old, she informed me that she had written an article after I had taken her to Trincomalee in the east on a reconciliation programme carried out by the National Peace Council. She had written that she had seen an elephant working, a peacock and a monkey on a tree. Also that she had seen children in a school and a mother and child in an IDP camp and she asked God to bless them and keep them in his care always.

Positive interactions

On this occasion, however, at the Bandarawela tennis tournament, such benevolent thoughts were not on my daugther’s mind. Her opponents in her first two matches in the Under 8 event were two little girls from Jaffna. They all wore the same t-shirts and skirts to show that they came from the same school, the famous Chundukuli Girl’s School. Later when I spoke to their parents they told me how a group of parents from Jaffna had decided to bring their children at great effort to take part in the tournament. Previously they had taken the children to play in tennis tournaments in Negombo and Nuwara Eliya. They wanted their children to improve. They had little resources for tennis development in Jaffna, only three tennis courts and no qualified coach. They had come by public bus to Kandy, and from there hired a private van, as there were no buses due to the New Year.

During our time in Bandarawela, we stayed at the Leo Marg Ashram, which is an educational and training centre run by a Catholic priest, Fr Guy de Fontgalland, whose name belies his Sri Lankan Tamil ethnicity and who conducts programmes of social and economic empowerment for the plantation community and other disadvantaged groups. While we were there, a group of 60 youth from the former was zones of the east visited the hill country and stayed at the training centre where they went on the visit the natural wonder of Horton Plains and the site of religious pilgrimage at Adam’s Peak.

While reflecting on the visits of the children from Jaffna to take part in the Bandarawela tennis tournament and the youth from Batticaloa on an exposure visit to the hill country, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Fr X O Karunaratnam, also known as Fr Kili, who headed the North East Secretariat on Human Rights (NESOHR) in LTTE-controlled Kilinochchi during the time of the war. He told me that many people misunderstood him to be a supporter of Tamil Eelam and of the LTTE. He said he was for non violence and for the equal treatment of the Tamil people. He said he loved the Sinhalese people and did not want to be confined to the north and east, but also wanted to enjoy the hill country and Colombo as his own.

Less than two years later, Fr Kili was assassinated as he traveled deep within the Wanni on his human rights work. The LTTE accused the Sri Lanka army’s long range patrols for this killing. But there was another account, that Fr Kili was assassinated by the LTTE itself, on account of his objections to child recruitment that the LTTE was engaging in at fever pitch in the last phase of the war. It was also said that Fr Kili’s body lay on the road for many hours, as no civilians dared approach the scene, as they knew who was behind the killing.

Polarisation again

Today these sad and harsh memories of war are receding from the minds of people, in the north, east and south. The end of the war has made positive people-to-people interactions between Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims possible once again. It is unlikely that the parents of the Jaffna children who came to play tennis in Bandarawela, or the Batticaloa youth were knowledgeable or even interested in the UN panel report on possible war crimes in Sri Lanka. If reconciliation after war is to become real to the people all obstacles to their interacting with each other as equal citizens who do not suffer discrimination or suspicion need to be facilitated.

It is unfortunate that the commitment of the UN to a world in which human rights of all people are protected should lead to a new phase of political polarization within Sri Lanka that is inimical to reconciliation. An influential section of the international community and human rights groups are convinced that reconciliation cannot take place without accountability. The UN panel has stated that "Accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law is not a matter of choice or policy; it is a duty under domestic and international law."

On the other hand, at successive elections held after the war, the government has demonstrated that it can mobilize majority support to itself. In winning electoral contests, the government has shown itself capable of utilizing its war victory over the LTTE to further strengthen the people’s political support for itself. It has also convinced the majority of people that the Western world and NGOs seek to unfairly punish it for ending the menace of the LTTE’s terror once and for all. If this confrontation between the human rights and international community and the Sri Lankan government continues it appears that reconciliation will have to await a future generation.

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