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Facing the Truth in War and Peace

2010 Nov 23

‘But tell me about these other wars.’
’They were the wars of nations, caused by demagogues and tyrants.’
‘Did we win?’
‘Yes, we won all our wars. All our enemies were beaten down. We even made them surrender unconditionally.’
‘No one should be made to do that. Great people forget sufferings, but not humiliations.’
‘Well, that was the way it happened, Papa.’
‘How did we stand after it all? Are we still at the summit of the world, as we were under Queen Victoria?’
‘No, the world grew much bigger all around us.’
….’Winston, you have told me a terrible tale. I would never have believed that such things could happen. I am glad I did not live to see them.’

 In 1947, Sir Winston Churchill wrote about a dream he had. He had been seated in his studio trying to paint a portrait of his father. He felt an odd sensation and turned around to see his father, then long dead, seated in the leather armchair behind him. A long conversation on a wide range of subjects followed, an extract of which is quoted above.

This imaginary conversation between father and son seems appropriate now with the issue of the horrors of war coming up in evidence before the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, and in some happenings connected to it.

It is also in this connection that this columnist has received a power-point presentation that is being re-circulated about the holocaust that took place over sixty five years ago in Germany.

It refers to General Eisenhower giving instructions to his troops when at the end of the war they moved into Germany and into the concentration camps; he asked that they take many photographs and films.

He is quoted as saying: ‘Collect as much proof, films and testimonies, because the day will come when some son of a bitch will say that such things never happened.’ General Eisenhower was proved right.

Over the last sixty five years, there have been occasional denials that the holocaust did happen. Thankfully, all the evidence of photographs, first person testimonies and of historians disprove such denials.

Let that not happen to Sri Lanka. When Al-Jazeera published what it stated were still unverified photographs of the Eelam War, the government spokesperson’s immediate reaction was to claim they were fakes. Recently, it has been repeated that there were zero civilian deaths due to offensives by the security forces.

On the contrary, there have been repeated claims by many civilians before the Commission on Lessons Learnt that their spouses who sought sanctuary with the security forces during and at the end of the war have not been seen thereafter.

There are many who claim, on understandable conditions of anonymity, to have seen civilian deaths in the final days of the war as a result of firing by both sides.

These rival claims can only be verified by an independent inquiry, either by a specially constituted panel acceptable to most independent civil society organizations or by a Truth Commission on the lines of the Tutu Commission in South Africa. It is in the interests of the government to see that such an independent inquiry is done.

The credibility of Commissions of Inquiry

The Government appointed the Udalagama Commission to probe many cases of violence and killings during the war. In each of these cases, the popular belief, though unverified, was that either the LTTE or the security forces including the Police were the perpetrators; the usually reliable UTHR did extensive research on some of these cases and came up with their own findings.

There were denials by apologists for both sides and attempts at cover-up. That is why an inquiry with an array of independent persons serving on the Commission, was welcomed.

It would have caused the truth to be revealed and enabled the government to apologise and take appropriate action if the government forces were found responsible, without any accusations of cover-up. Of course, where the LTTE was found responsible, the LTTE and its apologists would have continued to deny any wrong-doing.

But that is the way of fascist organizations and their supporters, as happened in Nazi Germany. But a responsible government has to show different values. In the end, the Udalagama Commission was wound up before it had completed its task and even their interim report on the cases where they had concluded their inquiries has still not been published. This is one reason why the present LLRC is in the unfortunate position of having to face scepticism and cynicism.

Another factor undermining the work of the LLRC is the lack of a witness protection law in our country. There have been many coming before the Commission in desperation and complaining of the disappearance of their loved ones following surrender to the goovernment forces.

But there are also others who privately report witnessing events and deaths in the final days of the war but who will not dare to give evidence unless there was guarantee of their own security.

That is why it is disturbing to hear reports of intimidation, directly and by way of photographing them, of witnesses who wanted to give evidence before the LLRC in Kayts and in some other parts of Jaffna. The government spokesperson instaed of saying that such reports would be investigated, has in characterestic fashion denied that such incidents took place. This sadly brings discredit not only to the government but to the Commission itself.

The Emergence of Militancy in Jaffna

Also during the week-end following the Commission receiving evidence in Jaffna was the obviously pre-planned and unpardonable assault on parliamentarian Sunil Handunetti and his team while they were having discussions in the house of former parliamentarian Pathmini Sithamparanathan in Jaffna.

This incident happened in the late afternoon. Anyone who has visited Jaffna would know that there are Police and military personnel patrolling all the streets.

So it is difficult to imagine such an incident taking place unknown to those in charge of security in Jaffna. This is not the first time that JVP activists have been subject to violence in Jaffna in recent times. It is not difficult to see a pattern in all this.

Someone or some group in authority does not want the JVP to enter the political arena in Jaffna. In the old days, the Federal Party and later the TULF were dominated by professionals who, though enjoying popular support, were considered by the militant youth to be too committed to parliamentary politics.

The LTTE and other militant groups blossomed because they mistakenly convinced the young people that only extra-parliamentary methods would win for the minorities any respect and understanding of their grievances.

A lack of commitment by the two major national parties in the south to politically deal with minority grievances enabled the Tamil insurgency to rise. A military crushing of the insurgeny does not make the grievances disappear. Unless this is dealt with on a political basis, the vacuum created by the defeat of the LTTE will be filled either by the JVP or another militant group.

A Second opportunity to address minority grievances

The defeat of the LTTE eighteen months ago presented the Rajapaksa government with an opportunity to address the issue of minority grievances on a political basis. Sadly, that opportunity was missed.

Yesterday’s inauguration of President Rajapakse’s second term presents him with yet another opportunity to meaningfully devolve power to the regions and thereby meet one of the grievances of the Tamils and Muslims.

President Rajapaksa must not be under the illusion that getting, by fair means or foul, some of the Tamil and Muslim political parties to join his government will make minority grievances disappear. What matters is the ground situation for the people of the north and east and as long as they find that they are less equal than the others, militancy will only grow making their parliamentary leaders being treated with increasing irrelevance.

In the aftermath of the 1971 southern insurgency, a group of public-spirited citizens formed the Ciivil Rights Movement. Its founders were drawn across the ethnic, religious and political divide with Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra as its fiirst Chairman and Mr Raja Goonesekere as Vice-Chairman.

They faced criticism from politicians who found the CRM’s interventions on human rights embarassing. One such was Dr Colvin R de Silva, then Minister of Plantation Industires and Constitutional Affairs.

In a statemnt dated 15th April 1972, the CRM stated: "According to Press reports of the debate on the Criminal Justice Commission Bill, the Minister of Plantation Industries and Constitutional Affairs referred to an organisation which ‘had even said that the time had come for them to collect money to bring relief to the families of the insurgents in custody.

’ The Minister is reported to have condemned this by comparing it to the action of anybody who collected money to help wives and children of foreign enemy soldiers at a time when their country was at war.

"The Civil Rights Movement to which the Minister was apparently referring has in fact set up a Relief Fund to aid families of persons who have been rendered destitute by the breadwinner being taken into custody under the emergency regulations.

We must point out that these persons are suspects who have still to be convicted of any offence; that at least 4,500 of them, according to the statements of the Minister of Justice, have in the Government’s own view, committed no offence whatever; and in any event, their wives and children are not responsible for anything they have done or alleged to have done.

In one of the several cases brought to our notice, both parents of a family have been in custody for the last one year, and seven children, of ages ranging from 18 to 4 years, have left without means of support……

"We believe that nobody whose natural human feelings have not been completely blunted will want innocent wives and children to suffer for the actions or supposed actions of their husbands or parents."

That was nearlky forty years ago. Yet, the attitudes of politicians enjoying power have not changed. Anybody urging the rights and a fairer treatment of detenus or offering support to their families is deemed to be aiding the "enemy" and the action of a "traitor".

On the contrary, the protection of civil rights and liberties is absolutely necessary if our or any country is to move forward. It is therefore gratifying that there still are organisations in our country like the CRM and UTHR and some prominent religious and civil sociiety leaders who continue to urge humane treatment and justice for the Tamil detunus and their families.

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