Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Sri Lanka needs truth, not a national forgetting

By Dilan Thampapillai | ABC

Like most children of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora I have almost no experience of the Sinhalese as human beings. The breadth of my experience has been confined to a friend here, an acquaintance there, but no widespread human contact with a range of people in Sinhalese society. I suspect that many Sinhalese people, particularly here in Australia, are in a similar situation regarding the Tamils.

The situation in Sri Lanka itself seems much the same from some accounts.

I raise the point about human contact because it is so vital to empathy and understanding. It is the absence of empathy that has given both sides a fairly vitriolic view of each other. The lack of real contact as equal human beings allows unhelpful stereotypes to prevail. An entire generation of Tamils brought up on the news reports that they have seen from Sri Lanka and the commentaries that they receive from the Tamil community might likely perceive the Sinhalese as violent and criminal. Similarly, the Sinhalese fed a diet of stories from government media about the Tamil Tigers might view the Tamils as terrorists and troublemakers. Racism grows in the absence of understanding.

None of that excuses or fully explains the violence in Sri Lanka. But it is relevant to the war crimes that were likely committed in Sri Lanka in the last stages of the civil war. But why else would Sinhalese soldiers, many of whom likely couldn't speak Tamil and who hadn't met Tamils before, commit atrocities against Tamil civilians? Why else did Tamil insurgents, many of whom would never have known a Sinhalese person other than as a soldier, go and kill Sinhalese civilians during the war?

The Sri Lankan Government is eager to deny that crimes were committed and has done everything that it can do to stymie an investigation. The United Nations Panel that released a recent report on war crimes in Sri Lanka was not even allowed into the country. The Sri Lankan Government has also done everything it can do to erase the conflict by demolishing Tamil Tiger cemeteries (despite their clear historical value) and resettling Sinhalese people in the North and East of Sri Lanka onto properties owned by Tamils.

The Sri Lankan Government wants to forget the Tamil Tigers. This is understandable – the Tigers came close to breaking Sri Lanka as a nation. Bear in mind that the Tamil Tigers, who at any one time had a fighting strength of just about 6000 soldiers, were able to fight the Sri Lankan Army and control swathes of territory for over 26 years. In military terms it was an extraordinary achievement. They were outnumbered 20:1 but they beat back the Sri Lankan Army invasions time and again. Sri Lanka was forced to launch a massive invasion into its own country to defeat them and even then it only managed it with substantial assistance from China and Pakistan in 2009.

However, in trying to forget the Tigers, Sri Lanka is forgetting the lessons of its own history. It is worth remembering that the Tamil Tigers existed because of the injustices perpetrated by the Sri Lankan Government. The Tigers were a violent and flawed organization, to say the least, but they enjoyed popular support amongst the Tamils because they provided armed resistance to a brutal government.

Instead of denying the truth Sri Lanka as a country needs a full investigation of the war crimes that took place in the last stages of the war.

Both communities are too big to ignore. Both sides suffered horrible losses in the war. Virtually every family was affected in some way or another. There are 14 million Sinhalese. There are about 2.5 million Tamils left in Sri Lanka and the diaspora, with children, likely matches that number. There are about 80 million Tamils worldwide. You can’t throw a stone in Asia without hitting a Tamil – and knowing our culture he’ll likely throw it back. So this issue isn’t going to go away.

With the truth comes closure.

It won’t suit Rajapakse, it definitely won’t suit Palitha Kohona and a host of other Sri Lankan politicians and military leaders, so it probably will not happen. But it would not suit the Tigers either.

The reason for that is that a full and proper investigation would disclose the true extent of the crimes committed by the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers. In doing so, it would explode the heroic warrior myth that currently sits around both camps.

It would raise some very difficult questions about the Tigers. For example, when it was clear that the war was lost why did LTTE recruiters feel that it was necessary to round up children to serve in combat? Why did the Tigers shoot at fleeing Tamil civilians?

An investigation would temper the triumphalism in Sri Lanka. After all, how many rapes occurred whilst women were in Sri Lankan custody and why did they occur? Why did Sri Lankan Government officials fail to investigate? How many executions took place? Who took part in them and how much did the Sri Lankan leadership know? What about the shelling of civilians?

In the absence of truth the myths and the suspicions will grow. It is better that the full horror of the war be investigated and discussed. That would be way better than maintaining these polarized positions of ethnic hate. I suspect that if the full and detailed truth came out we would see a picture of deeply flawed individuals committing terrible acts in a horrific conflict. As bad as it would be, it would share a commonality with so many other military conflicts.

Both communities need the truth. With the truth comes closure and with closure comes the prospect of a real reconciliation. It’s an issue that is bigger than the perpetrators.

Dilan Thampapillai is a Lecturer with the School of Law at Deakin University.


Bookmark and Share

1 comment:

MJ said...

For the first time in my life I have heard someone speak sense of the situation in Sri lanka. You have given me hope that all Sri lankans can look forward to a brighter future. If only there were more people like you. No racism, no bias just analysing the facts. Thank you!

Post a Comment

© 2009 - 2014 Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  © Blogger template 'Fly Away' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP