Sri Lanka and Kashmir: Are they ready for truth and reconciliation?

Dheera Sujan | Published on September 30, 2011 at 8:30 pm

would a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) work in South Asia? A Sri Lankan and an Indian discuss whether Sri Lanka and Kashmir/India are ready for truth, whether forgiveness trumps justice and whether their countries will ever accept that all must accept responsibility if they are to move on from entrenched conflicts.

Sanjana Hattotuwa - Founding Editor of Groundviews

The idea for such a body was born from the percieved success of the TCR used in post-apartheid South Africa and designed to help people get on with their lives after years of violence. Controversially, an amnesty was offered to perpetrators of violence in exchange for an open confession and apology to their victims. Since then many countries emerging from bitter conflicts have set up such TRC’s – with varying degrees of success.

Would such a TRC work in the context of Kashmir and in that of Sri Lanka?

In August of this year, 2700 bodies in unmarked graves were discovered in Kashmir prompting a call from the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, for a TRC. But Kashmiri activists say that it would just be another excuse for a cover up of human rights abuses perpetrated by government forces there.

And Sri Lanka is just emerging from a bloody 27 year war. And in 2009, when the government staged a final push against the Tamil Tiger stronghold in the north of the country, thousands of civilians were killed and injured. Both warring parties were blamed for the loss: the Tigers for using civilians as human shields and government forces for targeting them.

So to discuss what a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would mean in these two places, and if its even a possibility right now, I

Gautam Patel

initiated a cross border debate.n the green corner, we have Mumbai based Gautam Patel, lawyer and founder of the multi faceted blog, Prisoner of Agenda. And in the red corner, from Colombo Sri Lanka, Sanjana Hattotuwa, founding editor of the award winning independent media site Groundviews.

Dheera Sujan: Would a TRC heal old wounds or would it rub salt in them?

Sanjana Hattotuwa: That depends on how you define a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We have for the past year or so the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commissision – a mechanism set up by the government but it’s nowhere near what the TRC of South Africa was.

The LLRC hasn’t really pushed the type of reconciliation I’d like to see, linked to the exploration of human rights violations, catharsis and closure for victims of the war. Instead it’s become political and doesn’t reassure anyone that the perpetrators of the violence especially in the last weeks of the war would be held accountable.

DS: Gautam, would a TRC in Kashmir also run the danger of becoming overtly political?

Gautam Patel: Absolutely – and at least Sri Lanka has made a small step in that direction – it may not be the right direction, but we in India don’t have anything like it. In Kashmir, the problems are not just political. In a place like Kashmir, that ostensibly has a rule of law in place and yet abuse on this scale, people are going to see any form of TRC as a “get out of jail free” card.

DS: Would a TRC just be another form of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act because it would just continue a long running form of immunity?

GP: a TRC has to be a consensus between all parties – beyond that you can’t move ahead.

DS: But isn’t forgiveness essential if you want to move on?

GP: I’m not sure that you can reconcile forgiveness and justice. For example, the Gujerat racial riots of 2002 – is it going to be easy to forgive and forget?

SH: In Sri Lanka, we see an ethnic division that’s predated the war, that gave rise to the war, that was exacerbated on account of the war, and that seems to be as wide today as it was during the war. And the LLRC is doing nothing to bring these entities together.

DS: Does it come down to a choice that people will have to make – do they want truth about what happened in the past or do they want justice which means retribution and punishment for the perpetrators?

GP: People want justice – not just the truth because everyone’s version of the events is his own truth.

SH: I think it’s a combination of closure as well as catharsis. You may not need at the end of the day a mega reconciliation.

It may be a myriad of local level, grassroots processes that make victims comfortable in expressing their stories. They’ve gone through so much trauma that they may just need to tell someone about it in order to move on. But one thing is sure it’s not the LLRC.

DS: People will not come out and confess to their crimes unless they’re guaranteed immunity…

GP: that’s the most serious part of the whole thing. There has to be a built in assurance and that’s the thing that’s most often misconstrued. Both sides here have been accused of excesses and I think that’s equally true of the Sri Lankan/LTTE as it is of Kashmir or Gujerat or anywhere else.

SH: That’s very true. And also we should look at the role of the mainstream media: in both our countries, they’ve been, how shall I put it…

GP: thoroughly irresponsible?

SH: (laughs) well they haven’t been very helpful in promoting the kind of reconciliation that you and I would agree is possibly needed. What we have instead is the government media supporting the LLRC, the other media bashing the LLRC and very little nuanced fine journalism. The best journalism in Tamil, Singhala and English is actually in the alternative press and on the web.

GP: That’s interesting but I can’t say that’s true of India. But here’s the other thing – what’s in it for the local populace. Why should they do this? Are they being assured of what they were promised all those decades ago? (A reference to the UN Resolution of 1948 when it was decided that Kashmiris would have control over their own fate by a plebescite – something that still hasn’t happened) Is that ever going to happen?

DS: People are uncomfortable with hidden history, people want to know what happened to their loved ones so they can lay them at rest.

GP: Closure?

DS: Closure yes.

GP: with the assurance that a) it will not happen again, b) with a public statement of regret and c) that in exchange for immunity they’ll get an assurance that that which was promised to them politically and constitutionally will actually come to pass. Nobody is doing that.

SH: that’s a fair point – and just to bring in Sri Lanka here, part of the challenge of carrying on this process of reconciliation, is that in terms of mainstream politics, the identity conflict is still there. And it’s not just unacknowledged – it’s the Singhala majority-ism that’s dominating the rhetoric that’s coming out of government. For example, until very recently, it was actually openly said that there was a zero civilian casualty rate during the war. It’s a laughing matter for those on this programme but it has great violence for those who saw what happened on the ground. Leave aside a statement of regret – it’s not even being acknowleged that this occurred by the government.

GP: But also – isn’t a TRC necessarily a one way, unilateral, perpetrator-to-victim kind of paradigm? What we’re looking at here is something that’s required to work in both directions, because you do have civilians and armed forces officers who are also victims.

SH: Just on that point Gautam, I think it’s also eternal. In Sri Lanka, we had a 27 year old war and I think all of us, not just victims or perpetrators – are both. And I think it’s that realization that’s the hardest to accept. About a year and a half ago, I asked on Groundviews if people would countenance killing 50,000 people in the most concentrated field of conflict at the time to end the war as opposed to a prolonged conflict. And people said “yes”, they would countenance it because they were sick and tired of the war dragging on. What Sri Lanka has to go through requires us to look ourselves in the mirror – all of us, myself included and realize that we are both perpetrator and victim. That’s a really hard one.

GP: That’s right. Perpetrator, victim and even bystanders – all three would have to participate, that’s not how its being viewed here at all.

SH: I’ve not seen that either Gautam, in fact I’m seeing the antithesis of it. I’m seeing zero, and I mean zero traction. And I don’t see it coming in the near term either.

DS: I’m going to end it there – and say thanks to my guests, Gautam Patel in Mumbai, and Sanjana Hattotuwa in Colombo.

– This is the transcript of a radio interview aired on Radio Netherlands on reconciliation prospects in Sri Lanka. The programme also flags the situation in Kashmir.

2 Comments to “Sri Lanka and Kashmir: Are they ready for truth and reconciliation?”

  • Sri Lanka will nrver be ready as long as the majority has an inferiority complex and a fear of Tamil success

  • […] Konversion zum Buddhismus einen Weg fanden der Diskriminierung durch das Kastensystem zu entgehen.Das Theravada wird heute vor allem in Sri Lanka, Birma, Thailand und den Ländern Laos und Kambodsch…Insel gesandt und tatsächlich wurde der Theravada schon bald die Staatsreligion des Königreichs. […]



Sri Lanka and Kashmir: Are they ready for truth and reconciliation?

would a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) work in South Asia? A Sri Lankan and an Indian discuss whether Sri Lanka and Kashmir/India are ready ...