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.
Taken from the Sunday Times Sunday, June 19, 2011
Vision & Mission
Vision: A peaceful and just country in which freedom, human and democratic rights of all people are assured.
Mission:To work in partnership with different target groups to educate, mobilize and advocate to build a society of rights conscious citizens and a political culture that enables a political solution to the ethnic conflict and equal opportunities to all.
Monday, June 20, 2011
On the way to Kurunegalla, the group stopped by the Rumassalla area. In ancient mythology, it is rumored that the Hindu God Hanumantha had dropped a patch of soil which had clung to some medicinal herbs he had uprooted from the Himalayan mountain range, which he needed to treat his troops who were waging a battle against evil demon king Ravana. Interestingly enough, geologists and botanical experts have claimed that some of the special medicinal plants in the region are similar to the ones found in the Himalayan region. The group also toured the Buddhist Dagoba by the name of “Peace Pagoda.” The “Peace Pagoda” was strategically positioned in an area which offered a breath taking, panoramic view of the Galle Coast.
After having witnessed the beauty of Rumussalla, the group took off to Jaffna via Kurunegala. In Kurunegala, the group from Puttalam and the organizers split up with the members from the other DIRC’s to return to their respective homes. This break away at the Warakapola Foodland was indeed one for a Hindi movie, with nearly all the religious leaders breaking down into tears and expressing their sadness at having to part with each other and the members from civil society organizations wept with sadness. It truly was remarkable to witness the bonds of friendship that were sown, by getting people from different backgrounds to live with each other for a period of time. My thoughts wandered, surely if friendships between Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims could have been built as evidences by this initiative within a short span of 5 days, surely then reconciliation at the national level is indeed possible.
After a scrumptious breakfast the group was then taken to the picturesque “Paravidevi Dupatha” (Pigeon Island) via a bridge that had to be walked on foot. The group from the North was warmly welcomed by the Head Priest of the Temple. Much to the surprise of the members from the Northern DIRCs, the Deputy Inspector General of the Southern Province was present to welcome the gathering along with high ranking government officials. This I felt was one of the highest marks of respect that could have been offered to a visiting delegation into Matara. After a charismatic speech from the DIG who emphasized the importance of unity and a home grown solution to the ethnic conflict, the group observed Buddhist “pirith.” It was a truly remarkable spectacle to see Moulavis, Buddhist Monks and a Nun being present in an environment where Buddhist rituals were being practiced. Most of the members from the North expressed their sincere joy at being able to visit a Buddhist place of worship since they never had before.
After climbing down the steep slope that led to the temple, the group walked on foot to the nearby “Our Lady of Matara” Church. The Head Priest at the Church enthralled the gathering with some fascinating stories, out of which the most notable one being of the famous statue of the deity of “The Lady of Matara” being washed away into Sea during the tsunami and several days later it being washed back ashore. He also spoke vividly about the tragic events that took place on the 26th of December 2004, when the South Asian Tsunami swept away scores of worshippers in front of his own eyes, during his morning sermon.
The group then were taken to witness the infamous Dutch fort in Matara, constructed in the shape of a star and surrounded by a particularly impressive moat which is now home to a number of fish and amphibians. The inside the Fort, which had been turned into a museum, offered a variety of information on Matara, even the remains of a two thousand five hundred year old human being. After a quick look around the sturdy buildings, the group boarded the bus once again to return to the Sarvodya Center. Surprisingly enough the DIG we had met before arranged for us a police escort. While some of the members perceived this as being pre-emptive action to thwart a potential attack on the group, it was meant to symbolize the highest levels of respect being rendered to the group visiting from the North. I was told only VIPs received this kind of treatment.
After lunch, the Matara DIRC had their welcoming ceremony for the group from the North.
This particular ceremony was extremely well attended, with the Executive Director of the National Peace Council, Dr. Jehan Perera being in attendance as well. Upon its conclusion, the moderator informed the group that they would have to choose two options, either between going to the Martin Wickramasinghe museum or a sea bath at the “Polhena Beach”. While there were initially a few murmurs of agreement to the option of attending the museum, a notable personality remarked that it would be better if we could do both. To this unsurprisingly, there was a strong applause.
With much excitement, the group took off to the beach. After warnings of not to stray too far into the sea, the participants dived into the water. There were even a few who turned a deaf ear to the warnings and decided to swim several hundred meters into the ocean. After days of travelling and speeches that provoked one to think about the dynamics surrounding the conflict, the participants seemed to use this opportunity to let off some steam. Having told that an extremely impressive cultural ceremony had been organized on their behalf, the participants reluctantly emerged from the water. The term “impressive” to describe the cultural ceremony that took place would have been quite an understatement. The ceremony consisted of a variety of different Sri Lankan dances. These weren’t your typical ubiquitous “Natum Bera Karayos” that graced Colombo 7 functions but rather I was told they were “Low Country Traditional Sinhalese Dancers.” In between the dances, several notable politicians and the DIG (despite their being an incident between the police and a group of protestors) who had earlier been at Pigeon Island, made a repeat appearance to convey their appreciation of the visit by these members from the North. Even Sanath Jayasiruya’s brother was present in his absence.
The event was made more memorable for the participants, with a sumptuous dinner which consisted of fine Southern Sri Lankan dishes like “Ambul Thiyal.” Day 4 marked the end of the visit to the south by the Northern DIRC’s and the teams set out to their last resting place before setting off to Jaffna via Kurunegala.
The first item on the agenda on Day 3 was a visit to the Galle Fort which was built by the Dutch. However, the constant pleas to visit the Hikkaduwa coast by the participants convinced the organizers that visiting Hikkaduwa once again was worth the delay. The ride turned out to be absolutely stunning, especially for the team from the North who had never experienced something like that before. Having seen the beauty of the corals, a Sister from Vavuniya, much to my confusion remarked that humans indeed were like the Hikkaduwa coast line. My confusion was put to rest when she explained that humans were turbulent on the surface, just like the waves that crashed onto the coast, while deep within they were capable of compassion, the beauty of that compassion could be likened to the beauty of the corals found on the sea bed. Out of all the inspiring analogies that are thrown around, that had to be one of the finest I have ever heard.
After coming ashore, we then set off to the Galle Fort with two other members from the Galle DIRC who acted as guides informing the group of the history of the fort and the community which lived within it. The group was treated to some breath taking views of the ocean from the top of the fort and to some fascinating stories of individuals being taken away to the sea in an area of water which even at high tide only reached up to a person’s knee. A Muslim Moulavi of a mosque, located within the fort invited the group into the religious premises and provided them with an extensive history of the Fort and the community that lived within it. He also informed the group; of the extremely strong inter religious ties that existed between the communities that lived within the fort. He went onto claim that during times of ethnic unrest outside the fort, steps were taken by the inter-religious committees set up within the fort to prevent the unrest from seeping into the community within the fort by preventing certain persons from entering the fort. For many of the Hindu and few Buddhists from the North (which included a Daham Pasal teacher), this was the first time that they had entered a mosque. Subsequent to this experience, the group headed back to the Training Center for lunch and a welcome ceremony by the Galle DIRC.
The group then travelled to Pittabadara Matara, a small village which clearly punched above its weight in putting a fine welcoming ceremony for the group from the North. Prominent members from the local government and Matara DIRC graced the occasion. Fine Sri Lankan sweets like “Thala Guli” and “Halapa” were served, while a group of young girls put on an elegant dance performance. It was also arranged for the awarding of marriage certificates to 20 couples who lived in the nearby estate to take place after the usual round of speeches. Some of the couples who had arrived had already been married for well over 10 years and yet did not have a marriage certificate. Members of the Divisional Secretariat claimed that it was a mixture of ignorance and apathy that was responsible for this pathetic situation, where a large number of estate workers did not even have birth certificates.
The team then left to the Sarvodaya in Matara where they were to spend the night.
The team set off from the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute early in the morning. Barring some minor complaints about accommodation and food, the team seemed to be in good spirits. The Group headed South on the Galle Road to the Divithura Estate. Upon arrival the group was cordially welcomed with a cup of tea made from the leaves picked in the estate itself and some delicious, traditional “halapa” a sweet which many of the participants from the North confessed they had never tasted before. When the reception at the estate began, the gathering was informed, how the Matara DIRC had played an active role in helping estate workers secure national documentation such as Birth Certificates, National ID Cards and Marriage Certificates. Many of these workers in the past, especially during the time of war had, had to face severe limitations on their movement and access to other public and private services as a result of not having these documents. However, the Matara DIRC composed entirely of Sinhalese persons in collaboration with the estate supervisors, helped these individuals receive the required documentation. This was seen as another successful example of ethnic harmony, where Sinhalese persons showed no hesitation in helping out their Tamil brethren. It was hoped that examples such as this would convince the members from the North, that the ethnic conflict that had come into being was far more nuanced than the Sinhalese and Tamils being in conflict with each other.
Next, the team was able to enjoy a traditional Southern Sri Lankan meal of rice and curry at the Madu Ganga Conservation center located by the scenic Madhu Oya. The team from the North, was able to taste a wide variety of curries and sambols cooked in authentic Southern Sri Lankan style. Following the meal, the group was given the opportunity to watch a short documentary on the Madu Oya before setting off on a boat ride to Balapitiya. The boats skimmed across the crystal clear waters and snaked through and around the mangroves in the area. The adrenaline rushing, 45 minute boat ride finally came to an end in Balapitiya, where a distinguished panel of local government officials and Galle DIRC members were waiting to greet the team in a conference room atop a large floating raft made of plastic barrels. After being served tea, the dignitaries welcomed the gathering and expressed their keen interest at seeing a genuine peace being established in Sri Lanka, however it was merely one politician; the leader of the opposition in the local council, who spoke of the importance of implementing the 13th amendment fully.
Similar to Puttalam, Balapitiya has a large Muslim and Buddhist population. All of the local politicians that graced the occasion re-affirmed the religious harmony that existed in the region, claiming that it was the only town in Sri Lanka that had a road named “Sinhala Muslim Friendship Road.” At the conclusion of the gathering, the Galle DIRC had arranged the gifting of some artistic key tags resembling Masks, which the Ambalangoda area was world renown for. While these beautifully carved and painted items were famous for being used in traditional Low Country Sri Lankan dance items, they also made fine ornaments in a living room. To provide the visitors a more in depth knowledge about these cultural items, they were whisked to a famous mask museum which had on display an exotic array of masks of export quality. We were informed that the members in the Galle DIRC had kindly requested the museum to remain open half an hour late to enable the group from the North to visit it, having been delayed by the protracted nature of the welcoming ceremony in Balapitiya.
Next on the list was to visit the Hikkaduwa coast to enjoy a glass boat ride to witness the beautiful corals that had brought that town much fame. However, due to lack of time, the trip had to be postponed to the next day. The group instead headed to the Wakkwala Management and Training Center, where they were to spend the night.
After a delay of around 30 minutes, the bus from Jaffna rolled in through the gates of the Tourist Board Hotel in the historic city of Anuradhapura. Suddenly the DIRC members who were milling around me in the conference hall (which was actually the restaurant) hurriedly arranged themselves in a rigid perpendicular line which would have made a military officer proud. Each of them carried a betel leaf, dressed in their finest attire. As the persons from the North emerged from the stairs, the women and girls who had lined up at the top of the stairs ambushed them with smiling faces greeting them by offering the betel leaf they were holding. Then as if these people had been their best of friends, the Anuradhapura DRC members grabbed their Northern counterparts from their arms and guided them to their seats and initiated a conversation using a mixture of broken Tamil, Sinhalese and wild gesticulations. This may sound as being extremely superficial to a reader, yet I could see that the members from Anuradhapura were making a concerted effort to give their Tamil brethren a hearty welcome. The persons from the North, who initially had been surprised by such an enthusiastic welcome, seemed to start losing their jitters as the meeting progressed. For all that I had heard of mutual suspicion between Tamils and Sinhalese, the group here seemed to show little reluctance at mingling with each other.
The ceremony which was graced by religious leaders from Anuradhapura and the North lasted one hour. Each of the speakers made a passionate appeal to practicing universal values such as brotherhood and tolerance that were essential to guaranteeing a peaceful society. The conclusion of the ceremony saw the exchange of gifts between the two groups of people. The party from the North gifted samples of Northern Sri Lankan cuisine consisting of “Thal Alla,” “Thal Kavum,” and “Thal Hakuru” while they in return received miniature replicas of the “Sanakada Pahana,” a cultural artifact inextricably linked with the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
After some hurried goodbyes, the group then took off to Puttalam where they were joined by members from the Puttalam DIRC on their visit to the South. After lunch, religious leaders from Puttalam, informed the gathering of successful stories of religious harmony in the area, claiming that it was a model town which other parts of the country should emulate. Ven. Chandrarathana Thero recalled how on the recent passing away of a Chief Buddhist monk, all of the students of Arabiya College in Puttalam had attended his funeral despite they themselves following a faith which was drastically different from Buddhism.
The team then took off to Colombo, stopping on the way at the Don Bosco Training Center in Negombo, one of eight training centers in the country. The Don Bosco initiative was geared at providing valuable vocational programs to youth from all backgrounds who had failed in their secondary educational pursuits, let alone those who couldn’t secure admission into the local university system. One of the admirable features of this program, was that unlike many of the private tertiary educational institutes that had popped up in Sri Lanka, the Don Bosco Institute made an active effort to provide their students with employment opportunities upon completion of their courses. It truly was a remarkable initiative that gave a second chance to youth to make a valuable contribution to society. Many of the members from the North concurred that the Don Bosco Model was one which should be worth considering when addressing the humanitarian problems created by the war. Another more impressive reason to duplicate the Don Bosco model was that despite being run by the Catholic Church, youth from all religious backgrounds were welcome to enroll in the courses offered, by the organization. We were informed that the Catholic Church took special measures to provide facilities for Non Catholics to observe their respective faiths.
After a quick tour of the Negombo branch, which consisted of large workshops, residential dormitories and sports facilities, the group headed to the renowned Sri Lanka Foundation Institute for the night.