“Truth must be told. After all, it is the truth that will set everyone free. But, for truth to be told, there needs to be a change in attitude”, are words from my first speech in Parliament and three years later we have yet to see a change in attitude. We have seen instead, a vigorous effort to garner and concentrate power in the executive, to eliminate dissent and make blanket denials to any call for justice regardless of who makes the call, be it citizen, political opponent or the international community. Instead of engaging in truth seeking, justice and reconciliation, this country is persistently dealing with crises of rule of law and encroachment on the independence of democratic institutions.
Truth and justice are essential components of the larger programme of reconciliation. Reconciliation in its simplest of meanings is a resolving of differences. It is a process initiated by acknowledgement and understanding. The launch of a domestic commission for reconciliation was in itself an acceptance that there existed an alienation of communities based not only on social and economic disparity, but on the offer of protection and the suppression of the search for justice. It was and is an inequality that conjures an image of ‘the other’. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which was set up to address many of these issues, despite its shortcomings, identified several institutional obstacles to justice and reconciliation. However even the proposals of this home grown process were met with trepidation and rejection. It has become near impossible to engage in a process of reconciliation where there is no acknowledgement of differences, or of the inequality that persists amongst communities in this country. True reconciliation requires a bridging of differences. It requires positive measures to secure and protect the equality of all citizens, to ensure physical and emotional security, and dignity in their lives. For many of those affected by the war, regardless of the community, emotional security lies also in understanding what has happened to their loved ones. The failure to seek the truth and put to rest the distress that haunts their every waking moment, is to create a community of people who live in limbo, who are unable to move forward in their lives. There is a responsibility on us to look after their interests and assist them, and a greater responsibility on the government who has the power to provide the mechanisms to address these issues. These are not issues that can be masked by infrastructure development and intermittent handing out of welfare. Development which forges on without taking into consideration the many inequalities experienced by our communities only leads to greater frustration and disillusionment.
Reconciliation is also about establishing a shared multi-ethnic identity and equality is key to such an exercise. Where there is disparity in treatment based on community lines, there is no space to forge shared identities. To this extent, reconciliation is an internal affair. It depends very much on a commitment and willingness to engage, which unfortunately we are yet to experience.
The victory, four years ago on the 18th of May, in its very first impressions brought a sense of relief that the bloodshed was over. In the long term, it also bore hope for an opportunity to rebuild and regain dignity of life. The victory that was commemorated last Saturday, was a remembrance only of these first impressions. Security is not only about the absence of war, it is also extant in the physical well being of having a home, food and occupation. Without these components how can people rejoice in being alive? The celebrations, on victory day, saw no acknowledgement of milestones achieved in rebuilding and securing dignity of lives of all those affected by the war. It saw no celebration of a successful truth-telling mechanism that was helping communities to heal. Moreover, it saw no mention of freedom, but emphasized an absence of fear as its greatest achievement. It was also disappointing to observe the assail by the state media on the remembrance ceremonies held in the North, in spite of the LLRC recommendation for a day of mourning to express solidarity and empathy with all victims, and the need to ensure freedom to conduct religious ceremonies. It is a victory that is being remembered only for its disturbing display of triumphalism – a victory, which in a sense has lost its way. It has become another source of difference between the communities in this country.
What was boldly paraded as a ‘Humanitarian Victory Day’, must be evaluated against the reality that is. What is the humanitarian victory that restrains a community from singing the national anthem in its own language, a constitutionally protected national language? What is the humanitarian victory that makes blanket declarations that there have been no enforced disappearances, which fall on the ears of the thousands of mothers and wives who continue to search for their loved ones, and to this day, feel unsafe to share their stories? What is the humanitarian victory that turns out, on a scale of 6000 acres, thousands of Tamil speaking people from their lands? The fear of losing one’s land is strikingly captured in the poem quoted in the President’s speech last Saturday, “Never did we know what fear was. Never were we bothered about life, but for our land”. I imagine this is the very thought passing through the minds of the thousands whose lands are sought to be acquired. These realities have fuelled uncertainty and fear amongst a people who have lost much of their productive lives to the strains of a protracted war and are still to rebuild their lives four years on.
Sri Lanka has failed to seize the many opportunities that have come its way to engage in true reconciliation. There has been no leadership on reconciliation, protection of human rights and democracy. On the contrary, the several measures to deny truth telling, the failure to protect its citizens and failure to uplift the lives, especially of displaced communities, continue to deepen the fissures of distrust and disquiet. This failure is not the result of ill-wit or mismanagement, but the existence of an overriding interest. This interest is manifest in the accumulation of power, the 18th Amendment and the refusal to devolve meaningful control. This is also an interest that quells opposition through the control of media, impeachment, detention of political opponents and rule by threat of PTA. It is a narrow parochial self interest which bodes badly not only for the minority communities who must suffer the brunt of its effects, but eventually also for the majority populace.
The author, M. A, Sumanthiran (B.Sc, LL.M) is a Member of Parliament through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), practicing senior lawyer, prominent Constitutional and Public Law expert and civil rights advocate