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If Sri Lanka wants true reconciliation, simply blaming the Tigers is not enough

by Namini Wijedasa

THE Sri Lankan government’s defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009 ended a three-decade war that took tens of thousands of lives. But only now is the government beginning to acknowledge its huge human cost.

Art by Karen Barbour-courtesy:

Two weeks ago, a government-appointed reconciliation commission released a long-awaited report, giving voice to the war’s civilian victims for the first time.

From August 2010 to January 2011, hundreds of people appeared before the commission in tears, begging for news of their loved ones, many of whom had last been seen in the custody of security forces. A doctor spoke of how they managed to survive under deplorable conditions in places “littered with dead bodies and carcasses of dying animals.”

In October, I visited a rural school just 6 miles from Mullivaikkal, on the northeast coast of the island, where the army finally crushed the Tigers — an area still off-limits to civilians. The government says there are too many land mines to allow resettlement; critics say there are too many bodies in mass graves.

The classroom had a new roof, but more than two years after the war ended, its walls were still pockmarked with shrapnel, a window was shattered and the floor was cracked. Most students’ uniforms were discolored; many wore flip-flops and carried tattered bags. A 7-year-old with a deep scar across his back stared at me. A shell had landed while his family slept and his sister was killed, he told me in a thin voice.

One child after another spoke of injuries and deaths caused by shelling; of lingering wounds; of forced conscription by the Tigers; of poor widowed mothers; and of family members missing after being taken into state custody.

Since Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain in 1948, members of the island’s Tamil minority have insisted that they face linguistic, educational and employment discrimination from the Sinhalese majority, which controls the government.

The Tigers — a sophisticated, well-financed guerilla group that formed in 1976 and pioneered the technique of suicide bombing — sought to redress their grievances by violent means, with the goal of establishing an independent Tamil state. They routinely recruited child soldiers, killed Tamil dissenters and massacred Sinhalese and Muslims. In 1991, the group went so far as to assassinate the Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, for having sent Indian troops to Sri Lanka in 1987 to enforce a peace accord. The Tigers held out against the Sri Lankan military until they were decisively defeated in May 2009.

Some journalists called Sri Lanka’s final battle with the Tigers a “war without witnesses.” Aid workers were asked to withdraw from the conflict zone months before the government defeated the Tigers. Only handpicked reporters, mostly from state media, were allowed to embed with troops. Those journalists knew what they must not write, for fear of losing access. The others relied on organized tours that were meticulously choreographed by the army — producing sanitized war coverage with the gory bits tucked away. As a result, there was no outside scrutiny of the controversial war.

But that did not mean there were no witnesses. As the army attacked, hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped in between. They were the Tigers’ “human shield,” and a source for forced conscripts, including children. They were also witnesses.

More than 950 people testified before the commission and nearly 5,000 submitted written statements. Survivors spoke of displacement, incessant shelling and morbid fear. The commission’s report depicts a country where the rule of law is crumbling and where abductions, enforced or involuntary disappearances, protracted detention without charge and attacks on journalists continue. It proposes depoliticizing the police, disarming illegal armed groups and allowing a more independent media.

While the commission makes sensible recommendations and exposes grave atrocities committed by the Tigers against ordinary people, it also demonstrates that government troops shelled no-fire zones in order to neutralize rebel attacks from within.

The report is a valuable document, but regarding the war’s terrible final weeks, it is largely an apologia for the army. The commission admits only that “civilian casualties had in fact occurred in the course of cross-fire,” and blames the Tigers for most of them. The commission asserts that the government was confronted with an unprecedented situation — a massive human shield — that left it no other choice but to respond as it did.

However, on three separate occasions the government declared no-fire zones, giving the illusion of safety to hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians who fled into them. The rebels also went in, set up their heavy weapons among innocent men, women and children and proceeded to attack the military with gusto. The army retaliated and large numbers of civilians were killed.

Sri Lankans no longer need to pretend that the army didn’t shell zones where civilians were encouraged to gather, or subscribe to the fantasy that no innocents died when shells landed on or near hospitals.

If Sri Lanka wants true reconciliation, simply blaming the Tigers is not enough. The government, and the country, must take responsibility for the dead, mend the lives of the survivors — whatever their ethnicity — and stop the vicious cycle of ethnic strife by arriving at a political solution that meets, if not all aspirations, most of them. Until then, the end of the war will not bring true peace. []


  1. Gord says:

    Gord Larry

    January 1, 2012 • 7:33 am Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Srilanka saw the last 28 years. No need of any more discussions & talking. Hope Srilanka will not face a compressed 10 years of the last 28 years by it’s stupidity & arrogance. Be real Srilanka.
    Please do not under estimate the last 65 years of the SL Tamils.


  2. Candidly says:

    If the LLRC report is seen by some as an apologia for the army, as the author puts it, it’s fair to say that the detailed perspective of the Sri Lankan government, its armed forces and its people needed to be put to the people of the world. This is because until now the UN’s Darusman Report, and others issued by the International Crisis Group, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and media such as the UK’s Channel 4, have all signally failed to give even the semblance of consideration to the enormously difficult task that the Sri Lankan government had in dealing with the fanatical political movement that was the Tamil Tigers.

    The world must constantly be reminded that Tamil Tiger ideology was based on the rejection of all morality and they acted only on the principle that anything was justified in pursuit of its leaders’ dreams of a pure Tamil-only state. That “anything was justified” philosophy was taken to its ultimate horrible conclusion when the Tigers began using their own people as hostages, human shields and human bombs. As far as I am aware no other political movement in recent history has used the people it claimed to represent in such a stomach-churning way. The Tamil Tigers were, in that sense, the world’s largest, most fanatical, and best organised death cult in recent times.

    Those who want to see reconciliation in Sri lanka also have to be realistic and accept that though the Tigers may be crushed as a political movement in Sri Lanka itself, their ideology will still prevail amongst thousands of their former adherents in the northern region of Sri Lanka, as well as overseas. Examples of other communities that have fallen prey to fanaticism and extremism show that this only really changes as a new generation grows up in conditions more conducive to the development of democratic and multi-ethnic ideas. So patience and caution is inevitably to be exercised by everyone concerned as this is a long drawn out process and there are no quick and simple solutions.

  3. silva says:

    Please keep writing the truth.
    This vicious conflict can be solved by journalists fearlessly spreading the truth.

    Happy New Year, Namini.

  4. Native Vedda says:

    No Truth No Reconciliation

  5. Sellam says:

    Yes I agree with Namini. President Rajapakse and his brothers have to take responisbility for reconsilliation. It is their actions and not words which would pave the way for the Tamils and those who have suffered would make room for reconcilliation. Let them be truthful, sincere in their deeds.

  6. Wellington says:

    In a country of half baked doctors holding prominent positions and misleading our citizens by providing twisted information using bombastic words to confuse the readers with the sole purpose of the group to remain in power, Namini is one of the few, who boldly writes thought provoking articles in a simple language for the common man to come to terms with the reality of the situations prevailing in our country. The Srilankan society needs her service. Will she be honored is another question? I am sure that she would find solace as reward and she would not barter her knowledge and conscience for bare bones and bread crumbs as some of the doctors do.

  7. Chinese Charm says:

    Mursder of ICRC person in Tangalle Tells the International community and the people should know that Sri lanka has Trained and brain washed the entire Singhala community on lies, irrational murders, and rapes. There are more than a million singhala jungsters Trained on murder and irrational killings and rapes with their military training. That is what they did in Haiti. The Un still employ them as peace keepers. The UN think Raping is part of peace keeping. Under the influence of alcohol and drugs the killers could not differintiate the Tamils and foreigners. so they killed and raped the Israelite and the russian girl. For the singhalese killing Tamils is a charity and earns blessing from the budhist and catholic clergy hence from the Heaven.

  8. Ajith says:

    Hi Namini,

    You are a true sri lankan!!. Unfortunately you are a very few in the singhalese majority. I was in Sri Lanka in the last two weeks. Sri Lanka can be summed up in one sentence “Misery is common and prosperity is elusive”.

    It does not matter whether you are a tamil or singhalese if you are a common man you will face misery. It does not matter if you are a singhalese or tamil but if your with MR you will face prosperity.

    It does not matter whether you are a singhalese or tamil but buying a house no matter in which part of the country is elusive if you are a common man. It does not matter if you are a singhalese or tamil but if you are a corrupt govt official or connected to the govt you can get even a free land set up your business and run.

    Finally the most important thing. It does not matter whether you are a singhalese or Tamil finally India & China will screw us blind and leave the next generation with nothing. They will unite as Sri Lankans when its too late!!.

    We are a country which misses opportunities every time and this is another one again cos we fight over irrelevant things and give the relevant things to anyone and everyone for nothing.

    Which is why I feel this poor nation will always have “misery in common and find prosperity elusive”. Why was Dutugemunu great ? Is it cos he killed a tamil king or was it that he showed humility even in victory ? What did he do to the families of the tamil king he defeated ? Unfortunately we dont know the definition of reconciliation hence why our tear drop country is still shedding tears.



  9. Sivakumar says:

    There is a news that the slain LTTE chief Prabhakaran turns up on French postal stamps. What has the so called “clever” diplomat Dayan Jayathilake got to say about this.

  10. Naman says:

    Tamils who are alive today knows all the atrocities committed by armed Tamil terrorists(Liberators of Tamils) and that committed by State Terrorism.
    What the CIVILISED SRI LANKANS demand now is justice for each and every one and not a selective one. Those with MR being above the justice and able to commit crime has to cease.
    Let Tamils live without fear and allow them be useful members of Sri Lankan society

  11. Karolis says:

    Dear Namini,

    Here’s a completely different take on more or less the same issue. Pl see:

    You must give the government time. The bloody mess created by the
    LTTE= Tamil diaspora, with total disregard to the lives of the ordinary people, IS NOW being addressed. Jaffna and Sri Lanka are moving foeward at a good pace.

    By the way please stop the lecturing Sri Lanka, following the BRITS and the AMERICANS, about how and when things should be done. This discussion should be local – in Sri Lanka, where it matters. New York Times is irrelevant.

  12. Kanian Poongkunran says:

    Namini Wijedasa,

    Thank you very much for writing this article in Newyork Times. I agree with you and I appreciate your courage. We need writers like you to awake the conscience of our leaders.I wonder how our political scientist cum ambassadar Dr. Dayan Jeyathilake would respond to this message.


  13. Gramberg says:

    Oi Dayan, did you read Wellington’s comments?

    Namini does not need any bogus honours, Wellington. She is respected, and that is a lot more than what the bombastic half baked doctors can claim.

  14. Soma says:

    No accountability for only one side No reconciliation

  15. victim says:

    Chinese charm has put the whole problem of the sinhalese in a nutshell.

  16. Soma says:

    Ealam will be on a stamp.

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