Bridging the narratives in Sri Lanka
Instead of victory memorials, Sri Lanka needs a monument to commemorate all casualties of the war
In the hot plains of the Vanni, a larger-than-life stone soldier emerges out of a block of concrete, an AK-47 in one hand and the Sri Lankan flag in the other. Hardly visible from the ground, a dove sits on the machine gun. This is a “victory memorial” created by the Army after the end of the hostilities between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Army in May 2009. Beneath it, two plaques commemorate its creation. They are in Sinhala and in English, but not in Tamil, the majority language there.
Travelling through Sri Lanka, five years after the end of hostilities in May 2009, I was confronted with starkly different perspectives. For many people in the South and West, the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) brought an end to a constant climate of fear. It was a time when parents would take different buses to the same destination in case one blew up. The last few years have also jumpstarted economic development, notably in industries such as tourism, transport and construction, according to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. In Colombo, construction sites for new luxury hotels compete with each other. Consequently, many Sinhalese do not see urgency in addressing allegations of war crimes.
Leftovers of war
Among those in the North and East, the leftovers of war still dominate daily life in various ways. The economic boom after the war is particularly pronounced here. New roads, rail links, administration buildings and private investments including Jaffna’s first mall demonstrate an impressively quick development. Still, the newly refurbished Kandy and Mullaitivu roads are dotted with military cantonments. Checkpoints are often manned by the military instead of civilian police forces. The dominant war memory in this area is not of any victory, but of the bitter loss of husbands, children and siblings to the forced recruitment of the LTTE or the indiscriminate firing of the Sri Lankan Army, as human rights organisations consistently allege.
These narratives continue to divide Sri Lankan society. The first step in effective communication is finding a common language. In post-conflict reconciliation, this common language has to bridge those diverging narratives about the nature of the hostilities. Shrill claims of Western imperialism by Sri Lankan ministers and Sinhalese neo-colonialism by Tamil diaspora activists cannot provide the fertile ground for constructive engagement on outstanding allegations and reports of human rights violations on both sides of the conflict.
Overcoming the most extreme narratives and moving closer to reconciliation does not require either the Sri Lankan government or the Tamil leaders to abandon their political identities. The Rajapaksa brothers have built a significant domestic legitimacy around their defeat of “terrorism,” as the memorial plaques say. Admitting that Sri Lankan soldiers and officers committed “excesses” (a formulation used, for example, by the Congress manifesto) at the end of the war would only taint the already discredited notions of a “zero-civilian-casualties policy” during the “humanitarian operation” purported by the Sri Lankan Army. A proud victor with strong electoral support among the Sinhalese can afford to admit mistakes, and punish those responsible (even if the very top will be spared for now).
The Tamil National Alliance should ensure that its members and elected officials make a credible cut with any Tamil Tiger history. If it really wants to lead “the Tamil people through a painful process of introspection,” as a statement on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ recent report said, it should speak more frequently about the grief of Sinhalese and Muslim families that lost family members to LTTE attacks.
Building a memorial in Colombo for all persons killed during the war and those still missing would be a good start. Even if it is too early to agree on many other aspects, Sri Lankan communities should acknowledge the realities of grief, no matter for which ‘side’ the person fought or died. It would be important to erect such a memorial in the capital to underline its central importance for the “new Sri Lanka” that billboards boast about. It could even include shrines of all four major religions in Sri Lanka, as a recent photo exhibition in Colombo showed how Buddhists and Hindus revered the same goddess under different names.
Beyond the high diplomacy in chic Geneva, where the UN Human Rights Council mandated an independent investigation in March into war crimes allegations, this should help expand the public space for an open, transparent and respectful political debate in Sri Lanka. It should build on strong international support for the trilingual policy as well as people-to-people exchanges between different communities. With these initiatives, the exchange between the Sri Lankan government and South Africa on a truth-seeking mechanism should lead to an institution as independent as possible from state influence.
Taking reconciliation seriously would also help the Sri Lankan government deflect international pressure. Already, members of the business community fear repercussions in terms of decreasing investments, terms of trade and even sanctions if Sri Lanka continues to ignore these calls. The recent Provincial Council elections, where the government United People’s Freedom Alliance coalition lost seats to the opposition despite retaining its majority, seemed to demonstrate that the Rajapaksas’ anti-Western rhetoric is failing to cover up remaining economic and political problems.
What India should do
If India finds that its recent abstention in the Human Rights Council has given it renewed leeway in Sri Lanka, it should use it to press the government on tangible reconciliation efforts. This should also help to achieve India’s long-standing goal of political devolution in Sri Lanka, as the government would take the Northern Provincial Council, elected last year, more seriously. Progress on reconciliation would also make both the government as well as Tamil leaders more amenable to negotiations on increased powers for the provincial councils under the 13th amendment.
Owing to consistent international pressure, the Sri Lankan government has started to address some problems, however imperfectly, including by appointing a missing persons commission, investigating a case where (Sinhalese) female recruits appeared to have been mishandled by their superiors, and gradually releasing land from high security zones. Many of these actions go back to the government’s own action plan on the implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
Serious reconciliation requires mutual acknowledgement of past abuses and mistakes in an atmosphere of trust and forgiveness. Glorious victory memorials and a sole focus on economic development will not be able to heal the country’s wounds.
(Gerrit Kurtz is with the Global Public Policy Institute, Berlin.)