Jehan Perera in Island, 23 July 2018, where the title is “Coping With Nationalism In Jaffna Through Engagement”
Early in the morning as I walked down a street in Jaffna, I heard a cry “Annai, annai.” Initially, I took no notice and kept on walking, but the cry was persistent. So I looked back to see two small children behind the gate of their house. I smiled at them and recommenced my walk. But again the cry “Annai, annai” rent the air. This time I turned back and walked to the source of the sound. The elder one, a girl of about six years of age, ran away but the little one, a boy of no more than three stood his ground. Eyes gleaming and with a drippy nose he stood and smiled. I reached out through the chained gate and stroked the top of his head and he laughed happily and ran away.
Sri Lanka is a country where children are usually open and friendly and this child in Jaffna was no exception. It did not matter to this child that I was a stranger and not from his street. Although this child’s parents had probably grown up in Jaffna during the years of the war, they had not taught their children to be suspicious of strangers or to reject them. This is the case throughout the country and applies in most parts to adults as well. There is a deep substratum of human affinity and goodwill that binds people to one another. This is a valuable asset that Sri Lanka possesses in its search for a solution that will bring long lasting peace and reconciliation after decades of conflict.
I was in Jaffna to be part of an exchange visit that the National Peace Council had organized to bring members of its district inter religious committees from Galle, Matara and Kilinochchi to Jaffna. They had taken part in workshops at which the roots of the country’s ethnic conflict had been discussed and the positions and perceptions of each of the main ethnic and religious communities had been discussed as well. But it still required a face-to-face interaction with the realities of life in Jaffna and to meet the people there for the groups from the South to say, “We thought that the North still wants war. Now we see it is not true.”
The problem of misperception of the people living in the depths of the North and South about each other provides the raw material for ethnic nationalists to provide extreme interpretations about the motives of the other and cause division amongst the people. It is this misperception that has permitted those in the political opposition to undermine the efforts of the government to deal with the unresolved issues of the past, whether it is constitutional reform or the contentious issue of missing persons. On this issue the entirety of the Tamil people are united that those who are families of victims who went missing have a right to know what happened to them, especially those who were handed over by their families to the Sri Lankan security forces and disappeared thereafter.
The government established the Office of Missing Persons in February this year to address this issue. The OMP is intended to ascertain what happened to those who went missing or were made to disappear during the war years, and even before and after the war years which would bring victims of the JVP insurrection within its purview. So far about 20,000 applications, including 5000 from families of military personnel, have been made to government commissions that came before. It can be believed that there are many other families that have not yet registered their missing family members because they did not feel safe to do so or had no confidence in the previous government mechanisms to bring them the truth.
Political opponents of the government have been alleging that the OMP is meant to find evidence against the Sri Lankan security forces and take them to international war crimes tribunals and to the non-existent electric chair in the Hague. They have accused the government of betraying the security forces and deserving to be punished as traitors. Ironically in the North too there has been opposition to the OMP. The introductory meeting of the OMP in Jaffna was disrupted by protestors while the introductory meeting in Kilinochchi was entirely scuttled. The protestors in the North took the position that they had no confidence in the OMP and instead have demanded an international investigation as the only way to secure the truth and justice for the victims.
While in Jaffna I learnt that one of the main accusations against the OMP was that a former Major General of the army was among the seven members of the commission. The impression was created that a battlefield commander of the Sri Lanka army would certainly dominate the OMP and would suppress the truth. However, the public meeting in Jaffna which was eventually held over the opposition of the protestors revealed that the former major general of the army was in fact the legal head of the army whose job it was to pursue internal legal processes against delinquent army personnel. In addition it was disclosed at the meeting in Jaffna that this commissioner was a Tamil by ethnicity and a woman. When this was revealed the families of missing persons directed all their questions and hopes at her.
The lesson from both the OMP meeting in Jaffna and the exposure visit of the inter-religious groups from the South to Jaffna is that face-to-face engagement is necessary to dispel misconceptions and to overcome false propaganda. The government needs to be commended for having established the OMP and for having appointed credible members to be its first commissioners. Apart from the former legal head of the army, the members include well respected human rights activists of long standing who have worked to uphold human rights in a non-partisan manner in the face of violations by successive governments. The credibility of an institution depends greatly on who runs it and those who currently lead the OMP are those who have been committed to inter-ethnic and inter-religious justice for decades.
The protests against the OMP in Jaffna and Kilinochchi have been led by political groups along with sections of civil society who have no faith in the government or in any Sri Lankan government for that matter. They appear to see the only solution to obtaining their aspirations and addressing their grievances as coming from the international community. This is an unrealistic expectation as the international community sees Sri Lanka on the road to reconciliation and good governance, even though it is as a slower pace than anticipated. While the inter-religious group from the South was in Jaffna, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too was in Jaffna to launch a new ambulance service with the support of the Indian government. More such messages of care need to come from the government and southern part of the country and will surely yield an equivalent positive response from the North.