On 18th May 2009 Sri Lanka’s protracted 30th year old war grinded to a bloody halt in Mulliwaikkal, a narrow strip of land between the Nandikadal lagoon and the Bay of Bengal in Mullaitivu district in North East Sri Lanka.
Eight years after the war, the last LTTE bastion of Mulliwaikkal, a poverty stricken fishing village, does not bear the mark of any magical resplendence of peace based prosperity. Instead, its population spread out sparsely amid some of the still standing ghost like half bombed out houses, Mulliwaikkal is one of the few areas in the North which have not completely wiped out the vestiges of war as in main Northern cities such as Jaffna.
Commemorating their dead on May 18th is a practice that Tamils in North carried out in Mulliwaikkal, either on low or large scale while in Colombo the day is generally celebrated by the State as a day of victory, at times with large scale military related participation. Although war related grief by Tamils could not be expressed openly in many instances during the former regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa this changed somewhat during the regime of President Sirisena, elected on January 8th 2015. Although the main commemoration of the Tamils who died in the war, took place in Mulliwaikkal Thursday, organized by the Northern Provincial Council and presided over by the Chief Minister of the Province C. V. Wigneswaran, a court order had been obtained by the police preventing the holding of different event planned in the Mullaitivu district following information that the organizer was connected to the LTTE.
The commemoration led by the Northern Province Chief Minister was dedicated to observing the alleged “genocide” which took place there in the closing stages of the war, but as practiced in the past years there was no mention of Tamil civilians reportedly shot by the LTTE as they were fleeing to military controlled territory to escape the last bout of fighting.
In an effort to bring the Muslims and Tamils under a single umbrella, Wignewaran kept using the term “Tamil-speaking people” and said that all Tamil-speaking people should unite to remember civilian deaths every year on May 18. He made no mention of the terror Muslims had suffered at the hands of the LTTE, such as the massacre of over 147 Muslims as they were praying in a Mosque in Eastern Kathankudy in 1990.
Wigneswaran is known for his rabble rousing and repeated calls for international investigations into charges of ‘genocide’ and war crimes by the government military. This reiterated call came earlier in the week in a statement released by him.
Wigneswaran declared that whether the perpetrators of the war crimes are punished or not, an international investigation into the “war without witnesses” will bring out ‘true stories.’ According to the UN, based on what it called “credible” reports, about 40,000 civilians were killed in the last phase of the 2006-2009 war. The number of dead is however a matter of conjecture with no independent account having taken place and the Lankan government asserting that only around 8,000 had died. What is pertinent is that Wigneswaran does not refer (at least on public platforms) to the human rights violations of the LTTE on the Sinhalese, Muslims and its own people, which included the shooting of Tamil civilians leaving LTTE territory to army controlled areas in May 2009.
The above scenario explains the saga of Sri Lanka for the past eight years where it has been caught between Tamil and Sinhala politicians who have highjacked the sorrow of civilians; both Tamils and Sinhalese as well as Muslims who had gone through untold suffering on account of a man made war. This highjacking is what is responsible for making the word ‘reconciliation’ a mockery. It remains an over hyped word that gets bandied about mainly in the Capital Colombo, mainly within an elite circuit. In regard to the Tamil people who were trapped between the LTTE and the military for over thirty years, there is little evidence that eight years have brought them redress whether it is political or economic or psychological and it is clear that speeches such as that of Wigneswaran have not helped them.
Sri Lankan society remains pitted between the Sinhalese (majority) who are rabid about protecting the military from any ‘tarnishing’ whatsoever and the Tamil polity who leads the Tamil people towards the agendas of the Tamil diaspora. Although there are a straggling few ‘moderates’ in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) along with those who alternate between being moderate and immoderate in their political views (largely influenced by the Tamil diaspora). Incidentally, Wigneswaran too was touched with a faint malady of a bipolar disorder of sorts when he appealed to the Tamil diaspora in a meeting with them around September last year, to be progressive in their approach in working towards the future and not the past. This kind of philosophizing is an extreme rarity for the Chief Minister of the North who has since that brief lapse reverted to being his usual self. It is pertinent to mention that foreign visits of Tamil politicians for diaspora led events are funded by the Tamil Diaspora.
It is a distinct reality in Sri Lanka that calls such as for the establishing of international tribunals and foreign judges to judge war crimes, have overtaken a genuine representation of the problems that the North-Eastern people face as they struggle to restore a semblance of normalcy in their lives. The most seriously affected are the large numbers of war widows and disabled whose dire struggles often get missed out in the larger political discourse.
Interestingly, deviating from shying away from links to the LTTE leader, as was the practice in the years after the war, there is a rising trend by some ‘moderate’ Tamil politicians to pay eulogy to the memory of Prabhakaran as the case of Tamil politician, V. Anandasangari. A former member of parliament and leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), Anandasangari lived a large part of his life evading death at the hands of the LTTE for being ‘independent’ in thought. But today, eight years after Prabhakaran’s end, Anandasangaree is paying slavish allegiance to Prabhakaran’s memory.
Claiming recently that accusations about him being against the LTTE leader was ‘all wrong’ and that he was always a supporter of Prabhakaran, Anandasangaree’s amnesia tinged eulogy comes in the background of some Tamil political leaders such as M. A. Sumanthiran, member of the TNA being heckled at recent Tamil diaspora events held abroad when he was attempting to be ‘moderate’ as far as sanity allows in diasporic platforms. This signifies the unseen hands that prompts Tamil extremism and thereby crucifies any chances of reconciliation in the country.
A similar trend follows Mahinda Rajapaksa whose shadow is strongly present in the current political context, as seen in the crowd he and his Joint Opposition managed to attract at the May day rally this year. Ironically it is the UN and its calls for war crimes investigation that provides political sustenance to the likes of Rajapaksa and his supporters.
Issues affecting civilians such as the release of civilian land held by the military and the removal or minimization of military presence in the North-East as well as the release of the remaining LTTE suspects held without charge are seen by those supporting Rajapaksa as calls for encouraging the ideology of separatism.
Out of the 60,000 odd acres taken over by the armed forces in the Northern Province during the war, 30,000 acres have been returned since May 2009 but the process of giving back the rest is slow causing frustration and triggering agitations in the North. The economic fallout of this is direct for Tamil civilians most of whom are agriculturists and small scale entrepreneurs in rural areas and goes unrecognized by the State as a serious socio-economic issue. Sri Lanka has failed in the past eight years after the war to build up trust to the level that Tamils, especially former cadres are enlisted to the government military as done in Nepal as part of a National policy where former Maoist cadres were taken into the State army. Although some Tamils have been recruited to the police force, there is no consistency in this regard.
A clear fact is that Sri Lanka has missed the first bus to establish a genuine and holistic trustbuilding process that should have been initiated soon after the war, capitalizing on the former President Rajapaksa’s famous statement that there ‘were no more minorities.’ Although Rajapaksa is credited with initiating large scale infrastructure projects such as re-establishing the Jaffna – Colombo railway services and roadways linking the North and South, these links have not been maximized to facilitate cohesion between the Sinhalese and Tamils. A Tamil government official responsible for promoting entrepreneurship and industry in the North in an interview with the writer pointed out how Sri Lanka has failed to use local tourism for reconciliation. Instead what occurred was that the Sinhalese from rural villages who visited North-East soon after the war, often did so with subtle State encouragement that bolstered the war victory mentality.
What was lacking in the past eight years in a Buddhist country that Sri Lanka is, is a truly compassionate, a truly holistic, a truly unafraid power to trust in order to ensure that no civilian of the country will need to take to arms again. This vacuum has allowed ultra nationalists of every genre to reign. The very suggestion of the removal of the military from the North or changing the face of the Lankan military by absorbing Tamils and thereby making it a truly Lankan army would be dismissed by most Sinhalese as being naïve and foolish. Thus, eight years after the war, Sri Lanka has failed to initiate the deep contemplation of life that Buddhism entails and to bring together on a common platform former LTTE cadres, LTTE supporters, government soldiers and civilians on all sides of the divide. It has been said many times that Sri Lanka should usher in a Truth and Reconciliation commission on the lines of South Africa but what is important to remember is that in South Africa the model followed was where perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa represented the heartbeat of political leadership that genuinely led and inculcated a social psyche that recognized the atrocities that took place at a time of mayhem, motivated people to accept responsibility and importantly motivated victims to forgive. This is what is absent in Sri Lanka where many initiatives that carry the tagline of reconciliation is carried out largely as part of an international gig where Sri Lanka is keen to obtain carrots and avoid the sticks. In Sri Lanka the word reconciliation is caught between local based political survival and an international based dependency for economic survival.
Following President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe taking leadership of the country in January 2015, many government offices were established dedicated to reconciliation alongside the upteen number of NGOs that have been functioning for years dedicated to the same causes. But what is represented in air conditioned offices is not reflected in the everyday grass-root life of people in the North-East where poverty is harrowing and there has been no specific post war policy on development based on uplifting the lives of those pauperized by war. Nevertheless, a new National Policy on Reconciliation and Co-existence introduced in May 2017, offers hope. It has taken into account the rights of a wide range of vulnerable groups who had been affected by the conflict.
Introduced by the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), headed by former President Chandrika Banadaranaike Kumaratunge, the National Policy will be the state policy on national reconciliation and co-existence, which will serve as a guideline for carrying out national reconciliation programmes throughout the country for all stakeholders, including ministries, government institutions and NGOs alike. The introduction of conflict awareness at school level and integrating conflict sensitivity to the school curricula is one component of the policy, alongside many others.
However, what remains to be seen is the practical implementation of this policy. In this light the journey is still long for Sri Lanka.