With anti-government protests raging all over the Middle East, and even in the peaceful Maldive Islands, the large pro-government May Day rallies on the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka, must have been viewed with some puzzlement by foreigners.
However, fling together a state-controlled media, the provision of free transport by the state, and the whipping up of ethno-nationalist fury by a president who proclaims himself as the one who “rid the island of terrorism,” and we have a heady cocktail of jingoism. The same jingoism that is recognizable all around the world (not least in the U.S., revived after the killing of bin Laden).
We are approaching the second anniversary of the end of the bloody, 30-year-old conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE).
Two weeks ago, the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon released the report of the expert panel he had appointed to advise him on human rights issues in relation to the last phase of that war.
The panel of experts has declared that there are credible allegations that both the government and LTTE committed serious human rights violations, including some that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
They have called on the U.N. secretary general to immediately set up an independent, international mechanism to investigate these allegations.
The evenhandedness of the report has been obscured by a hysterical state media, which lampooned the report as an attempt to whitewash the “terrorism” of the LTTE. The president lashed out in predictable fashion, invoking the bogey of “an international conspiracy” against the country, and running to Russia and China for support.
The May Day marchers who went on the streets had, in all probability, not read a single sentence of the report. But this mindless exhibition of “patriotic” fever, stoked by political maneuvering and erupting in mob violence, has been a common feature of political life in South Asia.
Wars are always “messy” affairs; and apportioning blame for acts of criminality is fraught with bias. Those who stand idly by, without intervening to save innocent lives even though they have the power to do so, are also guilty; but they can never be prosecuted before human courts.
Those who blindly obeyed unjust orders are as guilty as those who issued the orders, as the post-World War II Nuremberg and Tokyo trials made utterly clear.
No one has access to the complete truth. Whatever punitive justice that can be achieved is always partial, imperfect and unsatisfactory, this side of the Eschaton.
But to do nothing is much worse: it is to wrong those who died unjustly as well as their families. And it is to evade the moral responsibility expected of legitimate government; and the public confessions without which the restoration of trust and reconciliation between communities is impossible.
Any attempt to prosecute the president and his regime before an international court may lead to another bloodbath against minorities and civil society groups who have campaigned for political accountability.
And such prosecutions will have to extend, as the report makes clear, to those in the Tamil “diaspora” of Western countries who actively funded the LTTE war machine as well as those governments that sold heavy artillery to the Sri Lankan army during the last stages of the war, knowing that such artillery would be used in heavily civilian areas.
However, the government can “save face” by immediately acting on the recommendations of the expert panel, including the repealing of the Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which continue in force two years later and which the president has used to strengthen his powers); resolving outstanding disappearance cases; ensuring due process for remaining LTTE detainees; and providing relief measures for victims and survivors of the conflict, including by publicly accounting for civilian deaths and facilitating the recovery and return of human remains to their families.
It can engage with opposition parties and civil society groups in meaningful dialogue toward greater political devolution, accountability and transparency.
Despite the claim, in some circles, that national reconciliation has been “set back” by the release of the U.N. report, the sad fact is that precious little has been done on the part of the regime and its supporters since the war’s end to address the root causes of that war.
Mindlessly calling it a “war on terrorism,” or demonizing the LTTE, has been a way of refusing to face honestly, and take responsibility for, the acts of political mismanagement and state violence that has plunged Sri Lanka into political backwardness and social stagnation.
The crisis the nation faces is fundamentally a moral and spiritual one: whether we have the resources within our moral traditions to accept the evil within us and not only in the “enemy.”
Who in the majority Sinhala community has the humility and courage to suggest that the country “celebrates” the second anniversary of the end of the war with a day of national mourning for all who died – the civilians on both sides, the armed forces and even LTTE cadres (many of whom were as manipulated and deceived as the May Day marchers on the streets of Colombo)?
To say such things in the present climate is to risk one’s life. But that is the kind of action that discipleship to Christ entails for us today.
Secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka.