As my doctoral dissertation deals with Sri Lankan Tamil activism in Canada, I was asked by a few people why I had not yet weighed in on the recent Channel 4 documentary, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, which in conjunction with the United Nations Report released in March, provides a devastating account of war crimes committed by both Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
My answer often was that I had not yet gotten over my moment of sheer speechlessness. What is left to say that has not already been said by clips of bound Tiger rebels being summarily executed, or passing shots of Sinhala soldiers tossing dead bodies onto the back of trucks, or merciless video of screaming Tamil civilians running from bunker to bunker as shells fell nearby, or recordings from cameras stalking the hollow cries of a mother clutching the tiny body of her bleeding child. No, there was nothing to be said.
Then came the Sri Lankan government's rather farcical attempt to downplay both the UN Report and revelations of the Channel 4 documentary. Rajiva Wijesinha, an MP in the Sri Lankan parliament, told Al Jazeera that while he is "not saying that everything in it is fake," he believes much of the Channel 4 footage to have been "manipulated" and went on to argue that it "seems quite possible that much of what was shown was in fact done by the Tigers." When asked about the deliberate shelling of hospitals, Wijesinha responded that they had evidence of the LTTE placing heavy weapons near hospitals and "if" such shelling actually happened, it is a "great pity."
Similarly, Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the United States, Jaliya Wickramasuriya, told PBS NewsHour that the footage in the documentary is "not authentic." When asked about the deliberate shelling of no-fire zones during the final months of the conflict, Wickramasuriya responded: "All this is propaganda. Lots of people can say lots of things."
While the government response was predictable, another line of argument has recently gained some fanfare. This peculiar position, as most recently articulated by Amjad Mohamed-Saleem in Groundviews, argues:
"The release of this documentary and other reports provides unwarranted distraction from the main issues that the government (and any government in a post conflict country) should be held accountable for including: steps taken towards reconciliation, stemming the rising cost of living, tackling corruption and trying to ensure law and order."
While I agree with the overall vision, I cannot help but demand that those responsible for heinous atrocities not be allowed to walk, head held high and cleansed of wrong doing, beside me while I take these "steps" towards reconciliation. An individual, regardless of whether they are dressed in SLA or LTTE uniform, cannot kill your family, and then flippantly tell law enforcement officials who come to arrest him that they are living in the past.
As such, some of the current arguments for reconciliation, while commendable in principle, have mutated into a rather immoral and circular conversation-stopper. Those pushing for reconciliation tend to argue that there are extremists on both sides who wish to perpetuate tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Placing themselves between Tamil separatists and Sinhala nationalists, the "reconciliationists" often present their view as the moderate or center position. However, simply placing yourself in the middle does not make you a moderate. Like with all relationships, reconciliation most genuinely arises after apologies, acknowledgement, and forgiveness.
The Sri Lankan government has neither offered an apology nor a statement of regret, but rather continues to insist that it had a policy of zero civilian casualties, and, ipso facto, any evidence of civilian deaths is either doctored, manipulated, or part of a broader conspiracy.
The government has also attempted to reframe the conflict, including the last months of the war, as simply one theatre in the overall global 'war on terror'. This is all in addition to the government's dismal efforts at post-war reconciliation.
As Jayadeva Uyangoda recently argued in Asian Survey, the "preoccupation with regime consolidation over reconciliation constituted the core of Sri Lanka's political trajectory in 2010." In light of these developments, to demand a conversation on reconciliation is to put the cart before the horse.
To even enter these topics into the conversation with many reconciliationists, one risks being branded 'divisive'. While this perspective is often presented as being open to dialogue, and accepting of other points of view, it has become painfully evident that for many individuals pushing reconciliation, the parameters of the discussion are pre-set and involve willfully ignoring any call for truth, and dismissing the need to bring those responsible to justice.
I argue, then, that the argument for reconciliation, in its present form, is a kind of post-war pacifism that is too convenient for the victor, and ultimately disrespectful to the innocent.
As such, the call for reconciliation has, regrettably, come to resemble the Sri Lankan government's demand that life be allowed to simply move forward. Many in the Tamil diaspora in Canada and abroad proceed to rightly dismiss this call as nothing more than majoritarian rhetoric masquerading as the 'moderate' position. If there is to be reconciliation, then, it seems clear that there must first be a substantial rethinking of the concept itself.
(Note: this is part 1 of 2 articles dealing with Sri Lanka. The second will take up the issue of war crimes with a specific focus on the actions of the LTTE).