Sri Lanka remembers to forget

Celebrations to mark the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war perform the function of collective forgetting. If the country looked back at recommendations made in the past, Sri Lankans might understand better how to go forward.

Ambika Satkunanathan
21 May 2013

On 18 May 2013 the government of Sri Lanka ‘celebrated’ the fourth Victory Day, or as the state-owned newspaper the Daily News referred to it, ‘Humanitarian Victory Day’. On the same day in Vavuniya in the North, members of the public along with politicians organised an event in memory of those who lost their lives during the last stages of the armed conflict in 2009. The government ceremonies were a show of pomp, military might and triumphalism. In these celebrations, although state forces that lost their lives were remembered and honoured, any mention of civilians who were killed and those who are still missing was absent.

This is not surprising. As Marita Sturken states in her paper on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and memorialisation in American society, ‘discourses of public commemoration have become inextricably tied to the question of how war is brought to a closure’. The commemoration events held on 18 May are an extension into the post-war era of the ethos upon which the war strategy was founded, and the manner in which the armed conflict was brought to an end.

An example of this is the government's plan to ‘erect nine monumental Stupas (Buddhist commemorative monument) in each province of the country in appreciation of the noble service rendered by the armed forces and Police to defeat terrorism and bring lasting peace to the country’. The happy union of militarisation and Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is evident in the message posted on the Ministry of Defence website, which calls for donations for the building project and directs those with inquiries about the project to officers at the Ministry of Defence, which is co-ordinating the project. The title of the project is ‘Sandahiru Seya: The triumphant Stupa’.

Forced forgetting

At the crux of the government’s theory of reconciliation lies the need to ‘move on’ and ‘bring closure’, all euphemisms for closing off public discussion about violations of human rights and humanitarian law during the last stages of the armed conflict. According to this theory, forgetting is an integral aspect of bringing about reconciliation. On the contrary, acknowledgment, remembering and memorialising are important components of any reconciliation initiative, and should be viewed as forms of symbolic reparation. As the report on ‘Memory and Memorialisation in post-conflict Uganda’, published by the International Centre for Transitional Justice, states, ‘Symbolic reparations aim to show understanding of and empathy with pain and loss and acknowledge suffering and injustice’.

Arthur Danto, quoted in Sturken, points out that, ‘We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget. Monuments are not generally built to commemorate defeats; the defeated dead are remembered in memorials. While a monument most often signifies victory, a memorial refers to the life or lives sacrificed for a particular set of values’.

The statues of soldiers, guns and armoured tanks that one sees dotted all over the North are therefore monuments, built to remember the great war victory, not memorials. Scant regard is paid to the need to acknowledge and commemorate the loss of lives, property and livelihoods, and the suffering and trauma of the war affected population, particularly those caught in the last stages of the armed conflict. If anything, the use of the word ‘celebration’ to describe the ceremonies on 18 May, defies the public to even feel grief, let alone express it. Even families of the Sri Lanka armed forces are expected to show only pride in and happiness about the achievements of their departed family members; they too are expected not to express their loss, loneliness and grief.

Like in most post-war contexts, the question of who can be remembered is controversial. For instance, can families of slain LTTE cadres engage in private memorial activities to remember their loved ones, not in order to glorify or remember the LTTE, but to remember the individual as a family member? On 18 May, the Daily News quoted the Army Commander of the northern Vanni region, who declared that ‘Any citizen has the right to commemorate their loved ones but no one can commemorate terrorists who were disloyal to the government.’ Hence, families whose loved ones were members of the LTTE (whether they joined voluntarily or were forcibly conscripted) will likely not observe his or her death anniversary in a visible manner due to fear of state censure and harassment, since the act is viewed as an act supportive of the LTTE, and hence a threat to national security.

Even within communities the act of remembering and forgetting can cause tension, conflict and animosity. For instance, former LTTE cadres state that during the armed conflict they were willing to sacrifice their lives for the armed struggle, yet now due to numerous reasons, including military surveillance, their sacrifices are not remembered or respected by the Tamil community, and they often receive little community support in re-integrating into society. It could be argued that the sections of the Tamil community which supported the LTTE are ‘forgetting’ due to fear of state retaliation, or did the community always have a utilitarian relationship with the LTTE?

Many former cadres claim that at rehabilitation centres they were instructed to forget the past. Yet, constant interrogation by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) and surveillance and monitoring of ex-cadres force them to remember their past. Some cadres said ‘they asked us to forget the past and now when we are trying to move forward, they won’t let us. They continue to ask us about our time in the LTTE’.

Internecine violence has also not been forgotten by the Tamil people. Even today, there are those who express anger towards the LTTE, as well as non-LTTE armed groups that were responsible for violations in the past; this is often directed towards former members of these groups who now hold positions of power within the government. In terms of reparation, internecine violence raises many complex questions. For instance, who apologises and provides restitution for the violations committed by the LTTE and other Tamil armed groups? Who apologises and provides restitution for the crimes committed against the Muslim community by the LTTE? What is the role of Tamil political parties, particularly members of these parties who were previously members of armed groups? What about the right to reparation of the families of those who disappeared during the JVP insurrection?

Reparations and reconciliation

The discourse on post-war reconciliation has largely been silent on the issue of reparations. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights ‘it is generally understood that the right to reparation has a dual dimension under international law: (a) a substantive dimension to be translated into the duty to provide redress for harm suffered in the form of restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and, as the case may be, guarantees of non-repetition; and (b) a procedural dimension as instrumental in securing this substantive redress.’ It further states that ‘While, under international law, gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law give rise to a right to reparation for victims, implying a duty on the State to make reparations, implementing this right and corresponding duty is in essence a matter of domestic law and policy.’

Therefore, not only does the state have to accept that gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law have taken place but it also needs to acknowledge that doing so is its duty and that persons who have suffered such violations have a right to reparation. Contrast this with the President’s speech at the Victory Day celebration in which he claimed external forces were attempting to destabilize Sri Lanka through calls for ‘independence of the judiciary, media freedom and human rights’

Reparation initiatives seek to recognise victims as equal citizens and include a variety of measures, both material (such as compensation for lost property) and symbolic (public apologies and memorialisation), and individual and collective measures. In contrast, the government’s strategy is based on a notion of benevolence of the victor towards the Tamil population, disregard of the need for a political solution to the ethnic conflict, and the supposed provision of economic benefits.

On 18 May, the Tamil newspaper Thinakkural reported that a woman in the North had killed her three young children and attempted to commit suicide due to what appears to be extreme poverty and inability to care for the children. This illustrates the lack of acknowledgment of the continuing marginalisation of the conflict-affected population, which suffers poverty and systemic discrimination. Instead, the conflict-affected population is afforded the opportunity to become part of the state military apparatus, i.e., they are recruited into the army or absorbed into initiatives implemented by the Civil Security Department that is within the purview of the Ministry of Defence.

According to the Ministry of Defence, this is proof of peace, reconciliation and a new life for those previously oppressed and impoverished.

Looking back to move forward

The chapter on Restitution/Compensation in the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a Commission of inquiry that was established by President Rajapaksa in 2010, is disappointingly short, lacks depth and provides no definition of restitution or compensation. By focusing only on the Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority (REPPIA) and setting out its shortcomings, including lack of funds, which prevent it from paying claims received, the Commission disregards other forms of compensation/restitution that may be required and desirable.

In this regard, it is useful to study the recommendations of past Presidential Commissions, some of which are surprisingly bold.

The Presidential Commission on Ethnic Violence 1981-1984 which was established in 2001 and published its report in 2002, states that compensation is a right and not charity and must be fair and adequate and not nominal or a mere token. It reiterates that every effort must be made to restore the ‘human dignity’ of victims, and that the victim should not be made to feel s/he is receiving charity but is rightly receiving minimum legal dues. It even recommends that delay in the discharge of this duty by the state should be dealt with by the payment of simple legal interest on the amount of compensation, and urges expeditious payments.

The 2001 Commission warns that, ‘For a nation already confounded by political conflicts, ethnic confrontations and constitutional turmoil, the mood for reconciliation can be unnecessarily edged away, by failing to effectively support national reconciliation at the grass root as an on-going process parallel to the peace negotiation.’ It also calls for the need for public recognition of the trauma and suffering the victims had to endure.

The All Island Commission on Disappearances which was established in 1998 and reported in 2001, focuses on symbolic measures of reparation such as the construction of a wall of reconciliation inscribed with the names of those dead and disappeared, whether victims of subversive acts or acts of the security forces. It does not mention the LTTE or the security forces by name, but lists Maaveerar (LTTE martyrs) cemeteries and the memorial in Embilipitiya in the South to the students who disappeared during the JVP insurrection, as examples of memorialisation. The Commission stresses the need for national acknowledgment of the wrongs done, and recognises that another insurrection is a possibility unless the needs of the affected persons are addressed. 

With regard to compensation, it makes a bold recommendation that it should be paid to all irrespective of categorisation of the person as a terrorist, and recommends the amendment of the Public Administration Circular that prohibits the granting of compensation if a court has declared a person a terrorist. The Commission states that this is ‘morally incorrect’ as it amounts to segregation of certain families of victims as ‘terrorist by relationship’. It proposes that the entire society should share responsibility for helping families of the affected and recommends a 2% tax towards this.

The Commission on Disappearances in the Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces which was established in January 1988 and published its report in 1997 notes discrimination in the payment of compensation in cases where a person was thought to be a terrorist and states that ‘endemic discriminatory practices are to the detriment of the well-being of dependents of disappeared persons’. It points out that there is no definition of terrorist provided by the state, resulting in the police providing clearance in this regard, i.e., it is not a judicial determination.

The Commission also recommends that those who lost their jobs due to time away from work due to searching for disappeared family members should be re-instated if they could prove the period of absence was spent trying to ascertain the whereabouts of the disappeared person. The Commission calls for the reversal of proof in the case of custodial torture, and urges the recognition of rape/sexual assault in custody as torture. It also notes evidence of sexual violence and points out it is used as a tool to control a community.

In Sri Lanka we might consider beginning our attempts to ‘commemorate a war for which the central narrative is one of division and dissent, a war whose history is highly contested and still in the process of being made…’ not only by looking at the past – at the violence, loss, violations and grief – but also to the past, at the progressive and rather bold, if unimplemented, recommendations of past Presidential Commissions.      

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