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Reflections on post-war truth and reconciliation

A columnist in the Island is worried about the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation in terms of composition and mandate (see ‘Are democratic freedoms necessary?’ in The Island of May 29, 2010). Here’s the relevant whine:

‘While the appointment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is to be welcomed, the mandate given to the Commission specifically requires investigation into the circumstances leading to the failure of the Cease-fire Agreement and the ‘events following’ up to the end of the war, raises questions. This mandate could be interpreted as to mean placing emphasis on investigating the mistakes made by the then UNP government in signing the CFA rather than about eliciting the truth and forging reconciliation. We trust this is not the intention and the Commission will work towards forgiveness and national reconciliation. It consists of eminent persons in their own right. The only expatriate in the Commission reportedly delivered the D. A. Rajapaksa Memorial Lecture recently. Two others presently hold public office. We trust that they will all show true independence and will make their investigations and recommendations free of any political interference or biases, because we know that the local members of the Commissions are persons of integrity.’

Ok, ‘composition’ is not that worrying for this person (Shanie) as is the requirement to investigate the circumstances leading to the failure of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the events that followed right up to the end of the war. Shanie is worried that this might be taken as a requirement to place emphasis on the mistakes made by the UNP Government. When Shanie says ‘we trust this is not the intention’, the subtext is, ‘I worry that it is!’ That kind of language-nuance fools no one.

Shanie wants the Commission to focus on forgiveness and national reconciliation. How can we get to ‘forgive’ though, if we don’t get to ‘wrong’, ‘wrongdoer’ and ‘wronged’? Is the proposal one of skirting error and fault? How did we get from ‘Truth and reconciliation’ a few months ago to ‘Forgiveness and Reconciliation’ and what is the logic of deleting ‘lessons’ from the exercise? Isn’t openness the bedrock on which the edifice of reconciliation can be built? Or are we to bury inconvenient truths and trip over bones that will not remain buried and ash that will refuse silence and cry out in anguish at the most embarrassing of times, preferring instead to play with the playable and go home?

Truth. Reconciliation. Lovely, lovely words. Their conjugated form is an import that was demanded by a lobby that had a clear business interest. Conflict-resolution in war times is good money for some. End conflict and you remove need for such programmes. There needs to be another ‘thing’ that I/NGOs can ‘do’, appropriate to the times and equally remunerative. Truth and reconciliation are as good as anything else, I suppose.
Why didn’t these people talk of truth and reconciliation in the aftermath of the UNP-JVP bheeshanaya (‘UNP’ gets mentioned first because we are talking about a UNP regime and one that is first respondent of that monumental crime against humanity)? Why indeed was there no talk of conflict-resolution at the time, or human rights outfits? Had these things not become fashionable at the time?

We did get ‘reconciliation’ didn’t we though? Without I/NGOs and Commission, as a nation we suffered, came out of that terror and survived. How about the ‘truth’ of that time? Is it too far back in history to warrant revisitation and unearthing? Is there a time limit for truth-elicitation? Is there a clause in relevant handbooks such as ‘Only seek the truth of processes/events that took place not more than 15 years ago’?

The key word here is ‘truth’. We can’t, as I said, get to ‘forgiveness’ if there is nothing to forgive. So the who, what, when etc of error need to be obtained if the process is to get to forgiveness and indeed any meaningful reconciliation. Is Shanie worried about the truth coming out? Is Shanie saying that we don’t need to learn lessons? If not, isn’t it important to find out what went wrong from beginning to end so that we can reflect on the mistakes, figure out what kind of conditions facilitate such errors and design mitigating mechanisms?
There’s an analogy with what Eldridge Cleaver in his classic book referred to as the ‘Allegory of the Black Eunuchs’. The whites in the USA for decades and decades believed they were superior to the blacks in all aspects. This notion took a beating when it became clear that blacks were a far more athletic. The whites had to theorise an edge and said ‘yes, you got brawn but we got brain’. The white man forgot, Cleaver reminds us, that when he conceded body to the black man, he also conceded the penis and has never been able to live this down since.

This is the problem with the largely pro-LTTE, devolutionist fundamentalists what were trying to run-out Sri Lanka in the last phase of the war. These I/NGOs screamed for a ‘truth and reconciliation commission’. They forget that when they ask for truth, the relevant seeking-body could theoretically turn flash-light on them. I feel this is Shanie’s worry. The how and why of the CFA (which contributed, it has been cogently argued, to accentuating the horrors of the war and multiplying the related destruction) will expose the role of these I/NGOs. There are ‘truths’ there that these ladies and gentlemen really can’t afford to become public.

A few months before the LTTE was crushed, some I/NGOs wailed in protest when asked to leave the LTTE-held areas. They stated quite self-righteously that this would leave the areas without ‘independent’ witnesses to what might happen later. The ‘independent innocents’ were not escorted out at gun point. They were asked a simple question. A truth-related one: can you submit an inventory? They couldn’t because much of the equipment they had officially taken into LTTE-held areas didn’t go to help the ordinary people living there but the LTTE. They knew this and yet they kept giving and giving and giving. That was the ‘truth’. There was ‘reconciliation’ too. The Good Samaritans reconciled themselves to the reality that the truth was known. They quit. This is a very important lesson. If truth and reconciliation is important, then let the process not be selective. This was a long war. Many stories. A lot of culpability. Many crimes of omission. Many of commission.

I still think that we don’t need these foreign models to get to truth and to obtain embrace, but if that’s something we are going to have, then let it go the whole hog.

(Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malinsene@gmail.com)