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Fostering not one but many Mandelas

by Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

(June 19, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Atrocities happen during war. This is a disturbingly cynical one-liner that we hear all too often these days. At one level of understanding, this reminder is quite true. This is precisely why, at the end of a long period of conflict and bitterness, enlightened people try to recognize historical atrocities and make reparations for them so as to move forward, not as a fractured nation but as a collective whole.

Political dilemmas and blatant selectiveness

Insofar as Sri Lanka is concerned, atrocities by governments, past and present, have been equally matched by the atrocities of non-state actors, and in the current context, by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The frequent lamentation of this government has been that normal standards of national or international law cannot be utilized when dealing with terrorist non-state entities. The opposing rationale is that a government cannot be expected to behave like terrorists. These arguments and counter-arguments, if one recalls, were pursued not only during the war between the government and the LTTE but also during the insurrections of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) particularly during the 1980's. They are therefore disconcertingly old in their intellectual logic but are nonetheless quite unresolved in the political dilemmas that they pose.

So what we see is blatant selectiveness in dealing with these difficult issues. On the one hand, the government refuses to critically review its own actions particularly post war, in dealing with complex questions of reconciliation. On the other hand, those bent on castigating the country for war crimes internationally refuse to see the complicity and singularly brutal contribution of the LTTE in bringing about a situation in which the worst elements of nationalist consciousness now hold sway. This best illustrates the myopic shortsightedness of extremists on both sides of the ethnic divide.

Comparative illustrations of a different response

Let us look at other comparative illustrations. South Africa is a classic example of a nation once rift by intense hatred and saved by the humanity and vision of a Mandela. But the South African people must also be credited for creating an environment that allowed a Mandela to rise up from the ashes. It was not that Nelson Mandela did not have opponents when many in his own party argued that post apartheid policy must concentrate on punishing those who had raped, tortured and killed. For those in any doubt about the opposition that he faced, viewing 'Invictus' in all its profoundly moving glory should put their doubts to rest. Yet the South African people had the wisdom to listen to the voice of reason rather than be swayed by racism that would have been as indefensible as white supremacist polices.

Does Sri Lanka have that same sagacity and that courage to allow not one but many Mandelas to rise up from our towns and our villages, Tamil, Sinhala, Muslim and other? This is a difficult question but is nonetheless a question that should be asked. When towns like Omanthai on the A-9 road to Jaffna are renamed with Sinhalese name boards in the context of the heightened militarization of the peninsula, are we helping the minorities to feel equally at home as the majority?

When pristine Buddhist festivals such as Vesak which have a special place in all our hearts, are paraded by the government in a way that speaks more to its own political ideology rather than the incomparable message of the Gautama Buddha, are we agreeing with this ideology? When ordinary meetings of scholars and community leaders in Jaffna are rudely interrupted or when political meetings are disrupted and those participating are assaulted, what message are we passing to the people?

Confronting the sins of the past

To be quite clear, this is to challenge official policies taken by the government and not to put in issue, the actions of individual solders. Barring a minority, these ordinary soldiers attempt to understand peoples' problems and assist in whatever way that they can. Unfortunately these efforts are completely undermined by government actions that are shortsighted in the extreme.

This is also not to minimize the intransigence of the Tamil political elite who, quite in the way of the Sinhala political elite, try to use political rhetoric to further their own agendas. This has been the way of history in Sri Lanka and will, quite probably continue to be the case. In the meantime, it is the common people who suffer. It is between the common people that the distrust and the mistrust increase. Politicians, irrespective of their ethnicity, should own up to their distinct historical responsibilities in this regard.

Defending Sri Lanka with more finesse

At a more general level, to say that not one but many Mandelas should arise from post war Sri Lanka is certainly not to agree with those, not necessarily only from the government ranks, who take the line that confronting the sins of the past would only inhibit post war development.

In an echoing query posed during the 13th Kanchana Abeyapala Memorial Lecture, former Attorney General of Sri Lanka, the late Mr K.C. Kamalasabeyson P.C. asked succinctly whether it was more important to build roads rather than to have a peaceful and law abiding society where the Rule of Law prevails?

This was one rare example of an Attorney General who, within the most difficult confines of his office, attempted to do his best to preserve his constitutional role, not as defender of the government but as defender of the state. It is a pity that state law officers, since then, have not shown similar sensitivity to this most crucial distinction or indeed, to issues of paramount concern to the Rule of Law. If so, perhaps, Sri Lanka's brief may have been defended with far more finesse at international fora and far more successfully against propaganda tactics of separatist advocates than what we have (generally) seen so far.

Equally, if we had preserved the integrity of our police, our prosecutors and our judiciary, we could have justifiably told any outside interventionists, regional or international as the case may be, to direct their well intentioned or ill intentioned lectures, as the case may be, elsewhere, with far more credibility than the hysterical outpourings that we hear now.

What is the future that we want?

So is meant by restorative justice? When we argue that it is best to forget the bitterness of the past and focus on the future, what do we exactly mean? Is this the future that we want for our country, where young female factory workers of the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) protesting against a proposed pensions bill are stamped on, dragged by their hair and subjected to unspeakable brutalities by policemen and policewomen gone wild or when a young boy dies as a result of this?

Where is the report of the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the government to look into this incident? Where is the cry of civil society, (the media and the ordinary public along with non-governmental organizations), asking for the report of this most recent Commission to be made public?

Is it to go by the way of the Udalagama Commission of Inquiry report which still remains unpublished except for certain 'planted' reports in some newspapers? Can we hope for any credibility regarding the forthcoming report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in the background of a dismal history regarding past such bodies, whatever may be the intentions of the Commissioners?

Again, these are good questions that we must ask ourselves as literate and 'patriotic' citizens and not merely direct them towards our politicians who are beyond redemption in every sense of the word. It is only then that the emphasis on restorative justice in Sri Lanka will have any meaning other than the sad jargon of government rhetoric.

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