Sri Lanka’s fledging transitional justice process is in trouble already. It’s getting impossible to paper over embarrassing public differences between the country’s President and its Prime Minister on the issue of war crimes. Sceptics of course say neither man really acknowledges the gravity and scale of the atrocities committed.
The most immediate crisis is over interviews the President gave to the BBC and Al Jazeera in which he rolled back on the country’s commitments in Geneva regarding international involvement in a special court yet to be set up. Tamil victims don’t have faith in a process that’s purely domestic – it’s not a question of ability and professionalism – but one of trust, given many of the alleged war criminals are still in positions of power.
Worse still, the President now says there were no war crimes, perhaps just a few human rights violations by the odd rotten apple in the military. No matter that a UN investigation has been very clear the violations were systematic and widespread and could result in convictions for war crimes and crimes against humanity when tested in a court. But perhaps not in the court currently envisaged for Sri Lanka.
The best people in the new Government seem to be looking for a compromise between the victims and the perpetrators, without really knowing what that looks like. They are not seeking truth or justice. They are seeking a deal. Deep rooted reform – that would benefit Sinhalese as well as Tamils – is not on the agenda.
For the Tamil victims abroad none of this is any surprise but it is still another disappointment to add to the stockpile amassed over thirty years. A new report by Freedom From Torture gathers the views of 8 Tamil torture survivors in London about what justice for them would look like. What’s striking is how connected they are to Sri Lanka and concerned about people worse off than them back home. The compassion, the commitment to making the world a better place and the strength they exhibit are remarkable from people who have been subjected to horrific acts aimed at systematically destroying them as individuals. But they’re survivors, brave and resilient enough to be able to speak out at all in a closed, anonymous group. A shining example of what expert care, a secure environment and time can do to heal at least some of the wounds. Not everyone has reached this point on the journey of recovery.
There’s the young mother in the UK who is still dangerously suicidal six years after she was gang raped by the security forces. Her only crime is she tried to help people in the IDP camps pass messages out to their families. She is the victim of a past violation. But it’s not past for her. It’s present every single day.
Or the boy in Scotland who tried to kill himself last week before anyone could find out the details of what he endured in late 2015 that made him flee. There’s the Tamil accountant who was so traumatised by being raped with a coca cola bottle in detention that he slept rough in London until the police picked him up. All these people only wanted to help other Tamils and now they desperately need help themselves.
Or the mother and toddler who were kept naked together in a dark room in 2009. For weeks she was sexually abused in front of him and she still had to try and breastfeed him as he was starving from the war. Every time the phone rings she thinks it’s someone with information about her husband who’s disappeared after surrendering.
These survivors have to swallow the fact that they will likely never receive truth or justice. The past haunts them every single day but their suffering is rapidly being buried in the public memory – another stinking layer of the compost of Sri Lanka’s past. It’s not only the President who denies all this ever happened.
Singing the national anthem in Tamil at Independence Day may seem a huge step forward in Colombo, but what does that mean to someone who’s been kept naked and dirty in the tiny dark torture cells of Joseph Camp for months on end listening to others screaming while not being raped and tortured themselves?
For the survivors, transitional justice is not about deal making. They have agonising questions about those they love – did they die frightened and in pain or are they still alive somewhere? It sounds improbable so many years later but there is a Tamil woman whose husband turned up last year, living in the same country in Europe but having lost all contact while they were both in detention. He saw her on TV. It might be called a happy ending if they hadn’t both been tortured.
Women have to live, hiding from their children the fact that they were brutalised and raped by countless men. Keeping a traumatic secret like that from those you’re close to is not easy. It’s not something reparations will erase or a bit of devolution of power will fix. The architects of the future Sri Lanka don’t spend time with these victims and that’s perhaps why they are able to regard the process as a series of political trade offs. Aided of course by healthy doses of denial.
Lead photo: A Tamil mother weeps during a protest organised by the Tamil families of the disappeared in Mullaithivu, coinciding with Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, February 4, 2016 / Courtesy: Tamilguardian.com
The former BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka, Frances Harrison is the author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War, published by Portobello Books (UK), House of Anansi (Canada) and Penguin ( India).