Eight years hence

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.

Shakespeare

There are seventy-one mentions of ‘Army’ in the four hundred and ninety-one-page final report of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF), released earlier this year. One paragraph is worth flagging in full.

“The Army representatives also stated that although they had achieved the Government’s objective under its political direction and in difficult and challenging circumstances, they felt a lack of solidarity and support at present. They stated their support for a truth-seeking process and if there is any evidence of criminal activity, for the prosecution of the guilty. Given that as far as they were concerned, no criminal activity had been undertaken, they saw no need for amnesty either. Whilst they insisted that civilians were not deliberately targeted and that a policy of zero-civilian casualties was followed, they conceded the possibility of civilian deaths on account of civilians being caught in the crossfire. They also denied that sexual violence was used as a weapon of war. The Air Force reiterated that no crimes were committed and no illegal weapons used.”

Reading the full report, there is a revealing divide between the responses of the armed forces and the thousands of others whose testimony is reflected in it. The military is concerned with the end of the war, and the circumstances that led to its violent denouement. Testimonies by citizens who appeared in front of the CTF, as noted in the final report, are almost completely around the involvement of the army in violence that ranges from extra-judicial killings and abductions to the destruction of homes, fertile land and acts that subject hapless citizens to incredible indignity, intimidation and indifference. Much of this testimony covers a period of time after the end of the war. There is a clear ethnic divide both in how the army is perceived, with the most disturbing testimony coming from Tamils. Reading the report around testimony given by Sinhalese who had suffered the violence of ’71 and ’89, it is clear that lines of empathy are drawn. Those who have suffered violence in the South, recognise how much worse it would have been in the North.

And yet, the report itself and the testimony in it, is already forgotten. The very Prime Minister who commissioned the report has distanced himself from it. Tamil and Sinhala translations of the full report, promised in January, were never released by the government. Public awareness of the report, through mainstream media, was overwhelmingly limited to the role of foreign judges in justice mechanisms, and more precisely, the intemperate pushback against this. The perceptions of the army, based on individual testimonies of violence, remain hidden, even as they are recorded in what some have called one of the most comprehensive processes of public consultation on transitional justice ever to be conducted post-war.

Last week, the State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene said that no one would be allowed to discredit the security forces, who had fearlessly safeguarded this country. The Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva used the collapse of a building in Colombo to lavishly praise the army. The army both men venerate, and go to great lengths to protect, is unrecognisable from the army reflected in the CTF report’s testimonies. And therein lies the rub. The south, even eight years after the end of the war, aren’t aware of the degree to which the army has eviscerated trust in the North, not just by what is alleged during the end of the war, but in how it has acted with impunity after the 19th of May 2009, as an instrument of systemic racism, the suppression of dissent and violent land grabs, the scale of which isn’t still evident in the South. An entity portrayed as and largely revered in the south as saviours of the nation are agents of gross violence in the north. The disconnect could not be starker.

In fact, those who know it most acutely could well be the army itself. Their website is replete with press releases around how the army is involved in activities it thinks wins the hearts and minds of those in the north. I have no doubt many soldiers who engage in this work, do it with the genuine belief they are contributing to positive change. I also have no doubt that not all of these activities, no matter how insensitive they seem to outsiders, are undertaken with malevolent intent by the army. They do aim to do good. In the interactions with Police, Navy, Army and Airforce personnel as part of a diploma course in peace and conflict studies I taught at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies around 2005/2006, not a single one said they enjoyed war, killing or making enemies of the Tamil people. Everyone in class, over repeated batches, claimed they were the ones in the frontlines who had the bear the brunt of promises made by politicians in Colombo. The recognition that the army can be a meaningful participant in reconciliation is anchored to those in its rank and file who followed orders they didn’t agree with, and want now to make amends for a violence they were instrumental in meting out.

But this is also the limit of the ‘rotten apples’ theory – the belief that the worst atrocities were committed by a select few. Fearful of electoral pushback or worse, assassination, no government for the foreseeable future will take meaningful measures around accountability. It simply will not happen. The fiction of the army as saviour and hero will continue, in media, textbooks, public life and discourse, memorialisation, policy and politics. The disconnect will grow in the north. The question is what this gives rise to in the years to come. The CTF’s final report suggests that those asking simply for closure, if not given what they deserve, will invariably seed a violence born out of not out unwarranted hate, vindictiveness or unjust cause, but a hopelessness, grief, trauma and fear, the very validity of which continues to be questioned. Eight years after the end of the war, it bears repeating that so much of what gave rise to violence in the first place remain topics no one really wants to talk about openly.

The fate of the CTF report is indicative of how resistant government is to holding the army in particular accountable, or even remotely associated with a behaviour, over decades, that clearly suggests it is above the law. The end continues to justify the means. Chief architects of a violence that matched the ferocity of the LTTE continue to be rewarded and protected, even as the Foreign Minister decries in parliament the previous regime and its efforts to protect those accused of war crimes through diplomatic immunity. The more vehement the opposition to accountability, the more destined we are to repeat history. I believe elements within the military’s rank and file know this better than most, despite their public positions. Reconciliation’s future in Sri Lanka in inextricably entwined with how and to what degree the army is involved. One risks disappointment to hope that wiser counsel will prevail over expedient gain, self-interest, and ultimately, a cancerous guilt.

###

Published first in The Sunday Island, 21 May 2017.

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