Would reconciliation process work in post-conflict Sri Lanka?
By Satheesan Kumarasamy
July 21, 2015

Despite growing pressure from the international community (IC), little has been done by the Sri Lankan government to end one of the world's oldest ethnic conflicts, even though the bloody civil war ended in 2009 with over 140,000 civilian deaths. The IC has demanded an impartial Truth and Reconciliation Commission (T& R) to investigate abuses committed by both warring parties. A genuine truth and reconciliation with the determination to seek a fair and reasonable justice to the wounded is the fundamental objective of T & R. A restorative framework based on the methodology of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission will scrutinize whether the T & R would be meaningful to examine in Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict. The restorative approach is a method to transform the hatred and revenge, and to build community by emphasizing reconciliation and seeking accountability for rights abuses. The question "What is needed for meaningful reconciliation in Sri Lanka?" is to be answered appropriately.


Ever since it gained independence from Britain in 1948, the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka off the southern tip of India has been devastated by ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil populations. From 1948 to 1977, Tamil leaders protested, through constitutional means, against the discriminatory political behavior of the Sinhala rulers. The various acts that came into force during this period were aimed at progressively making the Tamils second-class citizens, under the belief that these steps toward redressing the imbalance created by the British regime were necessary to win favor with extremist elements among the majority Sinhalese. The unitary arrangement in Sri Lanka led to legislative discrimination against the Tamils by the Sinhalese majority. This resulted in a demand for federation which, in the 1970s, grew into a movement for an autonomous Tamil country. The situation deteriorated into civil war in the early 1980s. The ethnic conflict involved the Sri Lankan Tamils, of whom the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) claimed to be the sole authentic representative until the 2009 defeat by the Sri Lankan State armed forces. Before the advent of the LTTE, successive Sinhala governments, with the aid of extremists, met the peaceful campaigns of the Tamils with violence, murder, rape, and looting in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1979, 1981, and 1983. When all peaceful engagements failed, the young Tamils decided there was no option but to launch a military campaign for self-determination. Over 20 Tamil militant groups were formed. Eventually, the LTTE became the sole militant group to fight the Sri Lankan State armed forces. All other Tamil militant groups were destroyed by the LTTE in the so-called 'brotherly' fight to determine the authentic leadership of the Tamils. The members of other militant groups wiped out by the LTTE either fled the country and/or joined the Sri Lankan government and helped the Sri Lankan government fight the LTTE. These militant groups are currently very active in Tamil areas as paramilitary groups helping the Sri Lankan armed forces. On October 30, 1990, LTTE trucks drove through the streets, ordering Muslim families to assemble at Osmania College in Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. There, they were told to exit the city within two hours. The entire Muslim population was expelled from Jaffna. In total, over 14,400 Muslim families, roughly 72,000 people, were forcibly evicted from LTTE-controlled areas of the north. This included 38,000 people from Mannar; 20,000 from Jaffna and Kilinochchi; 9,000 from Vavuniya; and 5,000 from Mullaitivu. Most of the Muslims were resettled in Puttalam District. The expulsion still carries bitter memories among Sri Lanka's Muslims. This was considered LTTE's gravest mistake. The LTTE carried out many high-profile attacks during their 30 years of military campaign for an independent state for Tamils, including the assassinations of several high-ranking Sri Lankan and Indian politicians, as well as most senior Sri Lankan ministers and military commanders. LTTE pioneered the use of suicide belts, and used light aircraft in some of their attacks. The LTTE primarily attacked military camps, then progressed to economic targets to weaken the Sri Lankan State, creating a sense of fear among the Sinhalese. The most condemned LTTE attack was on the renowned Buddhist temple in central Kandy in 1998, with 11 people killed and 23 wounded. The Sri Lankan State armed forces used shelling, bombardment and other forms of military attack against the minority Tamils, who are the majority in their native northern and eastern provinces. The UN said that in 2009, just before the end of the war, 80,000 to 100,000 civilians, mostly Tamils, were killed. A UN statement released in 2012 found that approximately 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed during the last few months of the final stage of the war, which ended in May 2009. Rights abuses during and after the war have been questioned by the international community, since the Sri Lankan government launched military attacks against civilian targets and in no-fire zones where thousands of Tamils, including LTTE political leaders, were shot in broad daylight. International human rights groups have called it a war against humanity. While international pressure was mounting for the UN to intervene to protect the civilians, the UN was claiming the Sri Lankan government was targeting the LTTE soldiers and not the civilians. Immediately after the war ended, the UN statement said that only 7,000 civilians died in the final phase of the war. After severe criticisms from the international community, including western countries and human rights organizations, the UN appointed a team of experts to investigate the abuses; this team of experts found that 40,000 civilians died. The international community and the rights groups contended that the casualty figure was not accurate, after which the UN appointed an internal review commission that investigated the UN's own investigations and found that the UN deliberately ignored Sri Lanka's huge-scale human rights violations. The UN Secretary-General's internal review panel found that 70,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final phase of the war. In this context, the question of T& R comes into play, especially to examine whether the South African TRC could be a model for Sri Lanka, even though the South African context was different from the Sri Lankan situation in that, in South Africa, the majority population was discriminated against by the minority; in Sri Lanka, the majority Sinhalese discriminated against the minority Tamils. However, it is meaningful to find an alternate to conflict through reconciliation, whether it is significant in Sri Lanka to end the three-decades-old military struggle and the latter three decades-old political struggle by the Tamils.


The problems of violations and abuses of human rights and war against humanity have been the central issue over the past two decades. Today, T & R commissions have become a decisive element of the response of states, especially those going through political transition, to serious acts of human rights violations with impunity occasioned by a history of prolonged conflicts and hostility. "What is needed for meaningful reconciliation in Sri Lanka?" is a question embedded in the post-war conflict in Sri Lanka because the leadership of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa crushed the LTTE in May 2009, but he will remain in power until 2015. With this in mind, transitional justice won't work because the regime that should be held accountable for war crimes will not investigate itself. Although the government can investigate the rights abuse issues through impartial investigators, it is reluctant to do so. Within this context, the question of what is needed for meaningful reconciliation is vital because the international community has been urging the Sri Lankan government to allow third-party investigators. The UN appointed an investigating team that discovered credible evidence that the warring parties in Sri Lanka during the war committed human rights abuses. Even though the war was won three years ago, there has been no progress in addressing the grievances of the affected people, especially rights abuses. Seeking an alternate and meaningful justice through commissions like that of T & R in South Africa could be a possibility. It can be singled out as one of the best or, as previous commissions, the T & R process in Sri Lanka would be the best-case scenario but not the best healing process. So this question is crucial to study what possible elements would create meaningful reconciliation.


The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a successful one. Peace-building experts argue that, if contemporary conflicts have social ties and relations, then reconciliation is the most suitable response to serious human rights violations. For example, Bishop Tutu argues that reconciliation and forgiveness is the way to achieve peace. He argues that it is crucial to find alternative forms of conflict resolution, such as transitional justice, restorative justice or retroactive justice, that move away from criminal prosecutions towards truth seeking and reconciliation. Tutu claims that restorative justice reflects the African way of healing and nurturing confidence and rebuilding social relationships at the expense of exacting vengeance. His notion is the entire community affected by the crimes must have a say in the delivery of justice. Restorative justice is a very good theory to support in the case of Sri Lanka because it is an attempt to restore peace by bringing erstwhile antagonists together so society can move forward. Bartley (2002) pointed out that, despite various definitions of restorative justice, all of them contain three principles: "Crime is seen as something that causes injuries to victims, offenders and communities. It is in the spirit of ubuntu that the criminal justice process should seek the healing of breeches, the redressing of imbalances and the restoration of broken relationships; not only government, but victims, offenders and their communities should be actively involved in the criminal justice process at the earliest point and to the maximum extent possible; and, in promoting justice, the government is responsible for preserving order and the community is responsible for establishing peace”. The restorative theoretical framework was successful in South Africa, but the question of what is needed for meaningful reconciliation in Sri Lanka is primary. Since no transitional justice has occurred in Sri Lanka, it is unlikely the present regime would take any meaningful actions. On the other hand, the previous governing party, the United National Party (UNP), also inflicted heavy casualties among the Tamils during their regime. Thus, the present regime would seek justice on the same lines. For example, the two main political parties, the UNP and the SLFP (the current party), have on various occasions come into power and both have the same policy with regard to the Tamil national question. The primordialist theory is vital to analyse because it offers one simple explanation of ethno-political conflict. For primordialists, ethnic identity is natural and thus unchallengeable, as both culturally acquired aspects such as language and religion, and genetically determined characteristics such as pigmentation and physiognomy are the key in shaping ethnic identity. A.R.M.Imtiyaz argues in his paper that primoridalist theory offers one simple yet powerful explanation of ethno-political conflict. He argues that "primordialism's socio-biological strand claims that ethnicity, tied to kinship, promotes a convergence of interests between individuals and their kin group's collective goals. On the other hand, opponents of promordialism such as Misha Glenny argue that ethnic conflict is a product of modern politics in which political leaders exploit the masses for their own political ends. The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka can be argued both ways. Even before Tamil nationalism emerged in Sri Lanka following laws enacted against the Tamils by the Sri Lankan government, the kinship ties among the Tamils of India were strong.

(To be continued)

(The author can be reached at e-mail: satheesankumarasamy@yahoo.com)

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