Two years after the war: justice, reconciliation and the UN Panel Report

I am posting the Editorial of the latest issue of dissenting dialogues, a social justice magazine on Sri Lanka. The lengthy Editorial discusses the situation two years after the war and the much debated UN Panel Report on accountability for crimes committed towards the end of the war in Sri Lanka.

The May 2011 Issue also has an interesting article by Kanishka Goonewardena on the political economy of World Cup cricket titled, Space, time and cricket: from M.C.C to M-C-M’. The article engages the work of C.L.R. James, David Harvey and Giovanni Arrighi while discussing the shift of cricket (and) capital to India.

The entire Issue No 3, May 2011 of dissenting dialogues can be downloaded as a pdf file from the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum website.

May 2011

Two years after the war: justice, reconciliation and the UN Panel Report

Even as the government of Sri Lanka protests vociferously about “The Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka” on grounds of state sovereignty, its protests are not having the desired effect. In fact, quite the opposite. The more the government tries to avert the international gaze, the more it is becoming embroiled in international controversy by inviting negative attention to its conduct from countries around the globe, including its allies. After nearly two years of a needlessly provocative campaign against the UN, and more recently the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Advisors, the government is now dithering on its response to the UN Panel Report as international pressure around the war crimes controversy mounts.

The recent joint statement by India and Sri Lanka promising a devolution package, early return of internally displaced persons to their homes, withdrawal of emergency regulations and investigation of human rights violations illustrates the point. Will Sri Lanka now have to take action to move on a political solution, justice and reparations for IDPs, and investigate rights violations at the behest of its powerful neighbour? Or is it simply a move designed to keep the UN and Western powers at bay, following the concerns raised in the UN Panel Report on Sri Lanka?

The government’s failure to make serious moves towards peace and reconciliation in the aftermath of the war has led to its current predicament. Its ostentatious display of triumphalism, its failure to take swift and sufficient measures to relieve the catastrophic humanitarian situation, the continuing human rights violations through internment, abductions and disappearances of those in the camps and critics of the government, total abandonment of all measures to move on in resolving the underlying political problems that gave rise to the ethnic conflict: this is the record of the government for the past two years, even after the demise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Only international pressure has forced it to make some meagre and grudging moves towards reopening the issue of a political solution.

Triumphalism and consolidation of power

The government’s triumphalist campaign was a callous and overweening attempt to consolidate the power of the ruling regime when the Vanni IDPs’ lives lay in ruins.  It couched this outright Sinhala-chauvinist campaign in very jingoistic and xenophobic terms, and even suppressed the war-affected Tamils’ right to mourn their dead. Two years on, the triumphalist road show has not stopped, and its intent is to make the Tamil people of the North and East in particular feel like the conquered. The annual victory celebrations, called the “war heroes” month, are continuing again this year. And towards the end of the month, the military is hosting an international conference on its experience of “defeating terrorism”. Is this the time for such jingoism, and are there really heroes in this war? Is it not time for reflection and recognition that the country as a whole has lost as a result of the war?

Such triumphalism has also set in on the economic front. The close to eight percent economic growth over the last two years, larger foreign exchange reserves following the balance of payments problems two years ago and the multiplying market capitalisation of the stock exchange are producing exuberant interventions by policy makers and government ministers. There is little caution about the sustainability of this contingent boom, and the economic devastation that can ensue when the winds of capital flow and flight turn in a different direction. Neither is there deeper introspection about what such economic data actually mean for the marginalised sections of the population throughout the country who bore the economic brunt of the war.

All this has affected the cause of peace and reconciliation very seriously indeed. We are back to square one, with unashamed flagrant Sinhala nationalism occupying the centre stage of political discourse in Sri Lanka – led by government figures. It is clear the government’s intentions towards the minorities are not honourable.

After the publication of the UN Panel Report, the Minister of External Affairs G.L. Peiris made the preposterous claim that a demand for accountability would breed Sinhala nationalism. It is the government that has given a central place to extreme chauvinist elements within it and has actively fostered the thinking that Sri Lanka is primarily the land of the Sinhalese. Is Peiris issuing a threat to minority Tamils who have been at the receiving end of both state and LTTE violence for the past 30 years? Does he believe that Tamils should not seek redress for the atrocities they have suffered?

The continued suffering of the displaced peoples, their disappearances, the lack of transparency over detainees, the attacks on critics of the government such as journalists, human rights defenders, students and political activists – all have prevented the healing process from taking a foothold. The government sent a clear message to the country that it had won, and the minorities, in particular the Tamils, would have to put up with it and shut up.

Once the government achieved its war victory, all talk of a political solution to the minorities question was simply shelved. Instead, the only constitutional change brought about following the war victory was the 18th amendment, further tightening the executive presidency’s grip on power and ending the presidential term limit in a most undemocratic manner. This was a blatant move to give legal and constitutional form to the consolidation of power of the ruling regime.

Sovereignty and the people

It is in this context that international criticisms of the government’s handling of the post-war recovery and reconciliation have to be viewed. The Sri Lankan government claims that any challenge to its conduct of the war in the Vanni is misplaced and based on false allegations: that these are the machinations of imperialist powers that have backed a terrorist group; and that they are continuing to collude with the Tamil-nationalist diaspora, undermining Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

It is widely accepted that the manner in which contemporary international standards and laws are implemented is not without controversy. The history of the deployment of these international mechanisms shows that they have been utilised one-sidedly against less-developed post-colonial states, allowing powerful nations to get away with far greater crimes with impunity. The hypocrisy of the West, which prosecutes the “war on terror” in flagrant violation of the human rights of its own citizens and the citizens and territories of many Third World nations – while preaching “human rights” – is a fact that the Sri Lankan government relies upon heavily to buttress its challenge to the international community.

However, this line of argument starts to unravel when the Rajapaksa regime happily utilises the Bush doctrine of “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” in the treatment of its opponents, and adopts the “war on terror” discourse to prosecute the war against the LTTE. “State sovereignty” and “national security” have increasingly become arguments linked to the repressive agenda of regime consolidation rather than the interests of Third World peoples resisting imperialism.

In addition, the Rajapaksa regime is doing deals with Western nations to attract capital and investment. Such deals further enrich the elite to the detriment of the livelihoods and prosperity of ordinary citizens, and as such pose a threat to the sovereignty of the people of Sri Lanka. This is the case in point with the austerity measures set in motion by the International Monetary Fund Standby Agreement and the sale of sovereign bonds that mortgage the country’s economic future to global capital. The government is also not averse to Western capital and investments to fund many of its current development projects. In fact, it bends over backwards to woo such investments.

And while it castigates the “evil West,” it is courting other big and powerful states closer to home for military backing and economic development. The government’s economic and military deals with China, India and other big states around Asia are not without a heavy price both economically and politically, and are a greater threat to sovereignty because of the geopolitical proximity.

The recent reports of demonstrations by the residents of Sampur in the East against the loss of their lands to a power plant that is a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka, and the agitation of residents of Kalpitiya against the loss of their homes and livelihoods to a multinational company’s tourist hotels, are examples of the gradual erosion of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Related to such economic concerns is the recent strike action by university teachers demanding higher pay; for all the government’s rhetoric of making Sri Lanka a knowledge hub of Asia, it cannot even pay its university teachers the promised decent salary. Is that because of budget constraints related to the IMF Agreement? These are a few instances of the neo-liberal solutions that the Rajapaksa regime is proffering for political-economic problems.

The UN Panel Report and Sri Lanka’s obligations

The UN Panel Report merely underlines Sri Lanka’s obligations to its own citizens in accordance with international standards that Sri Lanka has signed up to. These are not obligations to the international community, and under international law Sri Lankan citizens have the right to hold the government to account. These obligations are about delivering accountability, justice, reparations and humanitarian support on the ground, through appropriate measures taken domestically. The government cannot expect to deflect this by dismissing it as some imperialist design. Arguments that countries like the US are not being held accountable with regard to their involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are no consolation to Sri Lankan citizens who lost everything in the war, and such an attitude will not aid long-term reconciliation domestically.

While the UN Panel Report bases its conclusions on a preliminary examination of available evidence, the scale and intensity of this war, especially its spectacular end, inevitably produced massive evidence that simply cannot be swept under the carpet.  Even if the government manages to deflect accusations now, the question will resurface.  The people who suffered in this war do not require any UN panel to tell them what happened to them. The evidence of the actions of the various armed actors is plain to see, carved out on the bodies, minds and souls of the survivors of the war from all three communities, and especially the Tamil community, which was battered by two nationalist armies. Accounts of how individual soldiers acted with humanity in the face of LTTE atrocities have often been recounted by the IDPs, but equally credible and disturbing accounts of rape, torture, disappearances and murder abound. Under such circumstances, claims of zero casualties and the supposed use of “restraint” during the last phase of the war make the government’s position appear ludicrous, and betray a lack of any integrity and purpose with regard to reconciliation in the future.

The UN Panel Report’s findings make a clear signal that the Sri Lankan government can no longer procrastinate instituting a process for pursuing accountability and reconciliation by relying on spurious arguments of state sovereignty. The only sure way to preserve state sovereignty is to put our own house in order. Sri Lanka alone can enable its people to deal with the ghosts of the past and move on.

The government set up a rather inadequate mechanism, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, to look into the failure of the Ceasefire Agreement from 2002 onwards. Apart from the alleged partisan nature of some of its commissioners, its very narrow remit and focus and its lack of resources and powers prevent it from having a broad engagement. A thorough reconciliation process cannot be just about the end of the war in 2009 or the peace process in 2002. The 30-year war, its end, and the subsequent humanitarian catastrophe warrant a very deep and broad reconciliation process that could enable the whole country to engage in a period of reflection on the ethnic conflict, the 30-year war, and their historical antecedents and causes.

The state and dismembered body politic

In the last 40 years, Sri Lanka has experienced serious systemic failures within the functioning of the state, spurred on by a process of militarisation and centralisation of power.  This process was integrally linked to the growth of destructive ethnic nationalisms cynically stoked for political gain by hegemonic forces throughout the post-colonial history of Sri Lanka. It was also accelerated by the liberalisation of the economy resulting in development for the few and the widening of inequality to the detriment of many.

These problems with the state and capitalist development resulted in two violent insurgencies in the South and one protracted war in the North and East. The country has to achieve closure by dealing with the legacy of mass killings, abductions, disappearances and the day-to-day abuses of individual citizens’ human rights by its security forces and their proxies, not just during the war of 30 years, but also during the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna uprising of the late 1980s, when tens of thousands of Sinhalese were wiped out within a period of merely two-and-a-half years.

Such memories would seep into the body politic and poison it unless there is a robust reconciliation process, which would look at not just the long line of massacres and killings by the state, the LTTE and other non-state actors during the protracted war, but also the atrocities and terror of the late 1980s in the South perpetrated by the JVP and the state.

The economic devastation of the war – and the inequalities that have become entrenched with problematic economic policies over the decades – means reconciliation will not be possible without addressing the political economy of dispossession, displacement and economic disenfranchisement. The situation for Up-Country Tamils continues to be dismal 60 years after their wholesale denial of citizenship. While their citizenship rights have been granted, without better access to education, changes in their employment relations in the oppressive estate sector and new job opportunities for their youth, what would reconciliation mean for them? Displacement has made land a central concern of resettlement and reconciliation, as well as the political issues of devolution and communities’ ability to control their local economic and political future. If viewed from a purely macro-economic perspective, based on data on economic growth, the situation of the urban shanty dwellers dispossessed of their homes, the Up-Country Tamils denied a just wage or the importance of local communities determining their economic landscape will not become legitimate concerns. However, if peace and reconciliation are to be sustainable, the state, the economy and broader society will have to consider both social investment in uplifting marginalised sections of society and the importance of devolving powers to local communities to facilitate a future that is a real break from the tragic past.

The continuing militarisation of state and society undermines both reconciliation and the democratisation necessary for the country to turn a new leaf. Two years after the war, the North and East in particular remain heavily militarised, restricting freedom of movement, curtailing the rebuilding of civil institutions and administration. A worrying concern mentioned by student leaders in our interview in the February 2011 issue is quickly becoming a dangerous reality, with the Education Minister collaborating with the military to provide compulsory “leadership” training for all university entrants. These issues are reflective of the undemocratic trend in state-society relations.

Culpability, justice and reconciliation

The chilling denouement of the ethnic conflict at Mullivaikkal was the endgame of a legacy of extremist nationalism and militarism. The Tamil civilians trapped in Mullivaikkal were caught between the LTTE and the army.  There were numerous stories of individual soldiers saving Tamil lives, but unfortunately the opposite was also true, and far more numerously. Those at the helm of the war on the side of the government appear to have found it easy to conflate these trapped people with the LTTE and allowed the indiscriminate bombing campaign to proceed, with no concern for civilian safety.

On the other hand, the LTTE and their backers share the same culpability, if not more.  As predicted by many dissenting activists and human rights defenders, the path was already well drawn, and the writing was on the wall signalling that the LTTE would take the Tamil people along on a suicidal mission to their ultimate destruction. The LTTE’s fascist logic saw no future for the Tamils beyond its demise. If they would not stand and die with them, they would not be allowed to flee to safety and live.

The Tamil-nationalist diaspora community worldwide is now remembering the slaughter of the innocents in Mullivaikkal. But it is totally silent on the UN Panel Report’s conclusions on the LTTE and its backers in the diaspora. It has not shown the ability for reflection and introspection on why things went so horribly wrong, and it does not have the courage to acknowledge its own involvement and record.

Instead it once again places all hopes in international mechanisms to take its quest for justice forward. Sri Lanka is not of serious strategic importance, and for the most part Western powers and the UN system will ultimately defer to the powerful nations in the region to take Sri Lanka in hand. Geopolitical realities and political expediency on the international stage will ultimately determine the fate of the chief demand of the Tamil- nationalist diaspora community, which is an international investigation.

The quest for justice is not one of retribution or revenge. It should be about the long-term security and wellbeing of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, where they will coexist with the Sinhalese and Muslim communities. The quest for justice is about forging a consensus amongst all communities for a permanently peaceful coexistence. This means a process for peace and reconciliation within Sri Lanka that must necessarily rejuvenate democratisation, not only at the level of state structures but also deep within society, addressing concerns of class, gender, caste and inter-ethnic relations.

Meanwhile, the spectre of rapid “economic development” awaits us, causing greater uneven development and inequality. This will in turn widen the urban-rural divide and ethnic marginalisation for the sake of quick enrichment of the few, increasing loss of land and livelihoods and a lack of access to the state’s resources for the majority of Sri Lankans. These concerns cut across ethnic lines and are inextricably linked to the question of devolution of state power, both to the regions and to the minorities, in a very complex way. If we fail to grasp this nettle, we will fall victim to the political agenda of ethnic nationalism, which will render a reconciliation and democratic accountability more elusive than ever.

The challenge for left forces and progressives in the country is to link the ongoing struggles for social justice throughout the country with the political problems of minorities requiring a political settlement and reconciliation.

In this context, the current issue of dissenting dialogues brings out further analysis of the UN Panel Report and begins the first in a series of articles debating the politics and category of the “national question”.  The first part of an interview with a democracy activist discusses the first JVP insurrection of April 1971 in light of its fortieth anniversary. In another interview, a social and political activist discusses the history of caste oppression and resistance in Jaffna. Finally, given the recently concluded World Cup cricket tournament, this issue looks at the history and politics of international cricket and situates it within an analysis of global political economy.

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