SRI LANKA: Indigenous insensitivity and the reconciliation commission 

The BBC Sinhala Service reported today of a press conference held by the Minister of Media, Keheliya Rambukwella. At this press conference he was questioned on the announcement by the government about a commission for reconciliation and lessons learned. He was questioned as to whether the commission will be something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa.

The Minister’s answer was that the South African experience and the bringing of Norway as mediators and the like are all alien experiences to Sri Lanka. He said that, in this particular instance, the government will look to an indigenous approach, something home grown, something of Sri Lanka’s own to the issue of reconciliation and lessons learned in terms of the recent conflict.

As this is the position of the government it is worth examining the indigenous approaches to truth and reconciliation to the Sri Lankan context. From various approaches through government commissions there is overwhelming agreement that all the commissions appointed so far, have failed to address the serious questions that have been affecting Sri Lanka in the conflicts in the recent past. The commissions have been condemned by international organisations such as Amnesty International as well as by local human rights groups who have published extensive reports and analysis on the workings of these commissions.

From the point of view of mandate as well as the selection of the commissioners and the work they have carried out, it is not difficult to form an opinion that these commissions were not meant, first of all to engage in a genuine investigation to find the truth of what has happened, or to address the problems of law and morality concerned. They did not deal with the ways to avoid the possibility of the recurrence of similar incidents in the future.

In fact, all such commissions to date have been exercises of denial. Their purpose was to create confusion in the minds of the people at times when the people are seriously expressing concerns about the problems that are a result of these conflicts such as forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, abuse of power, illegal arrest and detention and many other forms of arbitrary use of power which has caused enormous suffering to the people.

Therefore any repetition of the immediate past in terms of truth and reconciliation would be to repeat the traditions of denial, instead of trying to achieve anything positive. Then we should go back and ask as to whether there are / local traditions of truth telling in the midst of conflicts. I think it is not difficult at all to answer that question.

Sri Lanka’s ancient tradition is set on a caste based social structure. The political scientist and the sociologist all agree that the centuries of social organisation of Sri Lanka was based on the hierarchical model of caste. Caste does not recognise the equality of human beings and is based on the legal premise of disproportionate punishment for different categories of persons. While any crime against the upper layer is considered the most heinous, any violence to the lower layers of society are not considered crimes at all. Such was the caste doctrines in India and such was the doctrines that have been deeply entrenched in the Sri Lankan psyche. The country does not have tradition of truth telling and seeking reconciliation after periods of crises.

Some may argue that the religion of Sri Lanka is Buddhist and Buddhism has a rich tradition of truth and reconciliation. That Buddhism has that tradition is undeniable. It is one of the greatest traditions in terms of seeking truth and reconciliation.

However, this is not the living tradition of Sri Lanka in terms of social relationships. Even the monks themselves are divided into castes and the deeply entrenched tradition of cast remains in the Sinhala and Tamil communities. Therefore in the living reality of Sri Lanka, there has never been a time since the Polonnaruwa period at least, when there was a tradition truth seeking and reconciliation.

Therefore talking of a commission in indigenous terms is clearly dangerous. The first time this was introduced into the political discussion in Sri Lanka was in the 1972 Constitution and it was called an autochthonous constitution. What was this indigenous, autochthonous constitution? It displaced the supremacy of the parliament. In fact, this constitution destroyed whatever had been built in terms of freedom of expression and the duty of the judiciary to protect the individual from the arbitrary actions of the state.

That indigenous tradition was continued in the 1978 Constitution. This created the indigenous dictator. Sri Lanka abandoned the liberal democratic constitutional model altogether. The separation of power concept was given up in favour of the absolute power of the executive president. After that came the undermining of the judiciary on an unprecedented scale and also the undermining of the parliament. All these are aspects on which enough has been written in detail and the purpose of this statement is not to go into the details of that discourse. But the fact that this indigenous tradition is a tradition of dictatorship and authoritarianism and the suppression of the rights of the individuals is quite clear.

The problem that Sri Lanka faces is one of an indigenous tradition of the total suppression of people which has been the cause of the violations that Sri Lanka is trying to deal with now. The development of the indigenous tradition of suppression also provoked the indigenous traditions of rebel movements which also resorted to the most barbaric modes of violence. Both in the south in terms of the JVP rebellions and in the north in the Tamil movements culminating in the liberation tiger movement saw, the barbaric use of violence. Thus the indigenous traditions of the state using barbarous violence and the local rebels using also using violence are what the country has seen in the past.

What the Minister’s statement clearly indicates is that this commission is going to be a farce. It is going to be a repetition of the traditions of denial, the suppression of truth and trying to strengthen the local suppression that has been going on with the help of the people who are willing to support that tradition. Therefore it will not be a surprise that the so-called commissioners would be those who have a long record of being engaged in the suppression of all attempts of people to seek justice and find ways of dealing with a barbarous, indigenous past.

Please also see:

SRI LANKA: The Asian Human Rights Commission cautiously welcomes the move for the appointment of a commission for truth and reconciliation

SRI LANKA: A new commission for restorative justice to deal with difficult past practices of abuse and violence

SRI LANKA: How genuine will be the proposed Commission for Reconciliation?

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-075-2010
Countries : Sri Lanka,