Glossing over the Atrocities

Sanjana Hattotuwa,  courtesy of The Island, 20 May 2017, where the title is “Eight years hence” ... followed by Jehan Perera

These violent delights have violent ends,

And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,

Which, as they kiss, consume. Shakespeare

 CTF report being handed in 

There are 71 mentions of ‘Army’ in the 491-page final report of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF), released earlier this year. One paragraph is worth flagging in full. “The Army representatives also stated that although they had achieved the Government’s objective under its political direction and in difficult and challenging circumstances, they felt a lack of solidarity and support at present. They stated their support for a truth-seeking process and if there is any evidence of criminal activity, for the prosecution of the guilty. Given that as far as they were concerned, no criminal activity had been undertaken, they saw no need for amnesty either. Whilst they insisted that civilians were not deliberately targeted and that a policy of zero-civilian casualties was followed, they conceded the possibility of civilian deaths on account of civilians being caught in the crossfire. They also denied that sexual violence was used as a weapon of war. The Air Force reiterated that no crimes were committed and no illegal weapons used.”

Reading the full report, there is a revealing divide between the responses of the armed forces and the thousands of others whose testimony is reflected in the report. The military is concerned with the end of the war, and the circumstances that led to its violent denouement. Testimonies by citizens who appeared in front of the CTF, as noted in the final report, are almost completely around the involvement of the army in violence that ranges from extra-judicial killings and abductions to the destruction of homes, fertile land and acts that subject hapless citizens to incredible indignity, intimidation and indifference.

Much of this testimony covers a period of time after the end of the war. There is a clear ethnic divide both in how the army is perceived, with the most disturbing testimony coming from Tamils. Reading the report around testimony given by Sinhalese who had suffered the violence of ’71 and ’89, it is clear that lines of empathy are drawn. Those who have suffered violence in the South, recognise how much worse it would have been in the North. And yet, the report itself and the testimony in it, is already forgotten.

The very Prime Minister who commissioned the report has distanced himself from it. Tamil and Sinhala translations of the full report, promised in January, were never released by the government. Public awareness of the report, through mainstream media, was overwhelmingly limited to the role of foreign judges in justice mechanisms, and more precisely, the intemperate pushback against this. The perceptions of the army, based on individual testimonies of violence, remain hidden, even as they are recorded in what some have called one of the most comprehensive processes of public consultation on transitional justice ever to be conducted post-war.

Last week, the State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene said that no one would be allowed to discredit the security forces, who had fearlessly safeguarded this country. The Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva used the collapse of a building in Colombo to lavishly praise the army. The army both men venerate, and go to great lengths to protect, is unrecognisable from the army reflected in the CTF report’s testimonies. And therein lies the rub. The south, even eight years after the end of the war, aren’t aware of the degree to which the army has eviscerated trust in the North, not just by what is alleged during the end of the war, but in how it has acted with impunity after May 19, 2009, as an instrument of systemic racism, the suppression of dissent and violent land grabs, the scale of which isn’t still evident in the South.

An entity portrayed as and largely revered in the south as saviours of the nation are agents of gross violence in the north. The disconnect could not be starker. In fact, those who know it most acutely could well be the army itself. Their website is replete with press releases around how the army is involved in activities it thinks wins the hearts and minds of those in the north. I have no doubt many soldiers who engage in this work, do it with the genuine belief they are contributing to positive change. I also have no doubt that not all of these activities, no matter how insensitive they seem to outsiders, are undertaken with malevolent intent by the army. They do aim to do good.

In the interactions with Police, Navy, Army and Air Force personnel as part of a diploma course in peace and conflict studies I taught at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies around 2005/2006, not a single one said they enjoyed war, killing or making enemies of the Tamil people. Everyone in class, over repeated batches, claimed they were the ones in the frontlines who had the bear the brunt of promises made by politicians in Colombo. The recognition that the army can be a meaningful participant in reconciliation is anchored to those in its rank and file who followed orders they didn’t agree with, and want now to make amends for a violence they were instrumental in meting out.

But this is also the limit of the ‘rotten apples’ theory – the belief that the worst atrocities were committed by a select few. Fearful of electoral pushback or worse, assassination, no government for the foreseeable future will take meaningful measures around accountability. It simply will not happen. The fiction of the army as saviour and hero will continue, in media, textbooks, public life and discourse, memorialization, policy and politics. The disconnect will grow in the north. The question is what this gives rise to in the years to come. The CTF’s final report suggests that those asking simply for closure, if not given what they deserve, will invariably seed a violence born out of not unwarranted hate, vindictiveness or unjust cause, but a hopelessness, grief, trauma and fear, the very validity of which continues to be questioned. Eight years after the end of the war, it bears repeating that so much of what gave rise to violence in the first place remain topics no one really wants to talk about openly.

The fate of the CTF report is indicative of how resistant government is to holding the army in particular accountable, or even remotely associated with a behaviour, over decades, that clearly suggests it is above the law. The end continues to justify the means. Chief architects of a violence that matched the ferocity of the LTTE continue to be rewarded and protected, even as the Foreign Minister decries in parliament the previous regime and its efforts to protect those accused of war crimes through diplomatic immunity.

The more vehement the opposition to accountability, the more destined we are to repeat history. I believe elements within the military’s rank and file know this better than most, despite their public positions. Reconciliation’s future in Sri Lanka in inextricably entwined with how and to what degree the army is involved. One risks disappointment to hope that wiser counsel will prevail over expedient gain, self-interest, and ultimately, a cancerous guilt.

***  ***

II > Jehan Perera: “Reversing the growing trust deficit in the North,” Island, May 22, 2017,


During the period of the previous government May 18 became a day of tension in the North. The previous government celebrated the war victory over the LTTE in the South of the country, while prohibiting any public memorial services for those who died in the last battles in the North. The report last week that police in the North had obtained a court order to put on hold a commemoration event in Mullivaikkal scheduled for May 18, the day the war ended, therefore took the centre stage of public attention in the North. It seemed that the prohibition was for all commemoration services for the victims of the war and that the past had returned to haunt the present. However, the court order was with regard to a single commemorative event. It was not a general directive that prohibited all commemorative activities.

There were many commemorations organised by political parties and civil society groups in the North and East. Some media reports said that families of the victims and the church groups had defied the ban and held commemorations. However, even the blocked event was later permitted to be held in a church, though not on the last battleground of Mullivaikkal as originally planned. The biggest event in Mullivaikkal, which had been organized by civil society and political parties and which was attended by TNA leader R Sampanthan and Northern Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran. This event attracted the most public attention as TNA leader Sampanthan was heckled by some of the participants as he spoke. This incident took over the centre stage of public attention.

Both the court order halting a commemoration event at Mullivaikkal and the heckling of the TNA leader points to the trust deficit between the people and the government. On the one hand, it shows the political space that has opened up which enables people in different parts of the country, and from different walks of life, to publicly express their dissent. Whether in the North or South those who protest are feeling increasingly emboldened to challenge those in authority. In the South this has led to highly disruptive protests by university students and doctors against the private medical school. Unless solutions are found to the problems, they will get exacerbated. The incident in the North on the night of May 18 in which a police patrol was fired upon, and which is currently being investigated, is a pointer to escalation.

NEED MEMORIAL:  The police sought the court order to block a commemorative event organized by a civil society group led by Fr Elil Rajendram. This even sought to memorialize those who lost their lives in the last battle of the war by placing stones with the names of those who lost their lives. At present the Mullivaikkal area is without any monument to remember those who died there. The government’s apprehension may be that if the stone laying took place it will lead to the LTTE being commemorated in a political manner. Memorialisation if taken forward with hidden agendas can be detrimental to reconciliation. The urge to honour the dead and remember violent struggles is as prevalent as the impulse to try to repress terrible memories and move on. Political actors can also use memories of the past to fuel ethnic hatred and differences among groups, and to consolidate victimhood as the identity of a specific group. Indeed, this is what TNA leader Sampanthan warned against, and was heckled for saying.

On the other hand, for the parents and family members of fallen LTTE cadre, they would still be their kith and kin whom they wish to remember. The government needs to deal with the problem that there is no memorial or monument for those who lost their lives in the last battles. There is a need for such a memorial and the government should not prevent the people who lost their lives from having such a memorial. If the government does not wish the construction of a memorial to include remembering the LTTE at this time, it needs to engage in a cooperative venture with both elected representatives in the North and civil society groups to jointly design an appropriate memorial. In the future there may be memorials for the LTTE also that are permitted with a measure of political and inter-ethnic consensus, just as there have been for the fallen JVP cadre where the loss of life was very high.

In this context the treatment meted out to Fr Elil who was one of the main organizers of the commemoration event needs to be investigated. Fr Elil received summons from both the Vavuniya and Mullaitivu police stations. This would most likely be to harass and intimidate him and also to send a message to the other activists that the same could happen to them too. Instead of resorting to the methods of the previous government (though not as extreme as getting white vans to make people disappear) which were rejected at the last elections by the people of the North and East, and indeed the South also, the government needs to enter into a process of dialogue with the people, so that what they want wholeheartedly is provided.

TAKE OPPORTUNITY; On May 19 together with some of my colleagues who are involved in promoting inter-ethnic reconciliation, we came into Jaffna by road. We saw a large police presence. We thought it might have something to do with the shooting incident the previous night. However, we were informed that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had visited Jaffna to discuss economic development issues to boost the northern economy. He had met with the elected representatives of the North, including Chief Minister Wigneswaran. It is also important that government leaders dialogue with the people on governance issues. It is not enough to open new buildings and new infrastructure, which the previous government also did, but this was not what the people gave priority to, as the election results later showed.

On May 20, two days after the commemorations in the North and East we took part in an inter-religious meeting organized by a civil society group in Jaffna. The issue of Mullivaikkal, and the commemoration event, was no longer at the centre stage of public interest. The issue did not arise in the discussions that took place. But the mistrust of the government system, and the security forces, was evident in some of the comments that were made. The main concern flagged by the group we met was that the drug problem was getting worse, and they suspected that there was deliberate plot to inundate Jaffna with drugs in order to destroy the younger generation. The slow progress with regard to other matters such as job opportunities for younger people and inaction with regard to the fate of missing persons were also highlighted. Mistrust was rife and it was based on partial knowledge. The drug trade, for instance, is also flourishing in the South of the country and destroying young lives.

A golden opportunity to engage with the people on governance issues may be emerging. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has said that he had informed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other world leaders including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the constitution-making process would not be delayed. He said this at the opening of the new District Secretariat Office in Mannar in the North. The prime minister said that he had told his Indian counterpart that the steering committee of the Constituent Assembly will submit their report within in two months to be followed by enacting the new constitution after discussions. “We cannot drag the constitution-making process anymore. President Sirisena was elected in 2015 to fulfil this purpose.” Mahatma Gandhi’s approach was to trust the people, for “… theirs is an amazingly responsive nature.” There needs to be an all out effort by the government to dialogue with the people, explain what it wants to do, win their trust, win the referendum to come and win sustainable reconciliation.


Poles Apart on May 19th: Tamil and Sinhala Voices of Power,” 19 May 2017,


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