The politics of script-flipping

By Malinda Seneviratne

Not too long ago, there was a call for an international inquiry into allegations of war crimes. The call came from both within the country and without. From within it was the usual suspects, the rights-fixated NGOs and outside it was their international counterparts, backed of course by the West, primarily the USA and Britain. The UNHRC was where these voices gathered into a chorus. The chorus was actually an echo of pro-LTTE groups, again within and without the country.

Resolutions were passed with predictable tokenism concerning the LTTE. Threats were issued. Sanctions were in the air. The then Government and through it the people of Sri Lanka were put on notice.

The writing was clear. Sri Lanka was to be punished for defeating terrorism. Sri Lanka was to be punished for orchestrating the greatest hostage rescue operation in remembered history. Context was buried. Evidence was manufactured and cleverly enhanced, once again with deft blend of suppression and enhancement of fact as per intended effect. Reliability of source was absented in all this. Cogent rebuttals were disregarded. Sri Lanka would be hanged.

What was not too difficult to understand even back then seems impossible to reject now: it was not about war crimes, it was not about truth, not about transitional justice. It was about brining pressure on the then Government with the clear intention of replacing it with a regime that was more friendly to these accusers, and to some of them, particularly those sections of the international community that have no moral authority to talk of human rights violations, a more pliant political establishment.

True, the UNHRC chief, Prince Zeid, has issued a curt and unsympathetic statement. True, the matter is not off the table. But then again both the President and the Prime Minister have demonstrated Rajapaksa-like gumption in their responses.

Whereas there was talk of hybrid courts earlier and later this was diluted to mention of ‘international observers’ today the men at the top are saying ‘out of the question’.
Today, even those who screamed about independent inquiries are shrugging shoulders and saying ‘probably not politically possible’. They’ve gone further. They’ve dug by relevant ‘facts’ they probably pretended to be ignorant about when the previous regime was being flayed left and right at the UNHRC. Take this observation for example: ‘Hybrid courts are not necessarily the answer. The hybrid court system established in Cambodia in 2003 has delivered only three convictions after 14 years of effort and the cost has exceeded USD 200 million. In addition, there were instances of the foreign judges and prosecutors publicly disagreeing with each other and resigning from their posts along with allegations of government pressure on them.’ Today they have suddenly discovered the dictum ‘politics is the art of the possible.’

But it is the truth. A truth that’s convenient now but was conveniently suppressed back then. The truth is that apart from the Right to Information Act there has been no notable achievement by this government over the past two years in terms of correcting systemic flaws. They’ve claimed however that judicial independence gained with regime-change, but that’s hogwash. The judiciary is as good (or as bad if you wish to put it that way) as it was. Talk about introducing mechanisms to “strengthen domestic mechanisms” have not got from proposal to realization. Indeed, there was a lot more of such talk during the previous regime. If it was a question of trust, well then this lot is as untrustworthy as the previous.

And yet, there are issues that will not go away. The Prime Minister has revived the notion of a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’. There is an individual and societal need to know what really happened. There has to be ‘closure’ as those in the West put it.

Easy to say, hard to do. People cannot be hanged on a charge. There has to be substantiation. In the case of ‘missing persons’, there are terrible stories and there’s fabrication. The one has to be separated from the other. With proof, though. In the case of those ‘disappeared’ during UNP rule in the late eighties, there were vigilante groups doing the dirty, masked men answerable to no one. The who, what and where are never easily established. However, where such establishment is possible, prosecution is non-negotiable. In Cambodia, it is estimated that 1.5-3.0 million people were killed. The number unaccounted for in the last stage of the fighting in Sri Lanka ascertained with any semblance of logic is less than 7,000 and this includes LTTE cadres killed and civilians who escaped the LTTE and somehow bypassed the security forces in the first five months of 2009. If the Cambodian exercise yielded just three convictions, it simply means that truth is a hard to come by commodity.

The dead will not return. The living are forced to live with their grief and hopefully with some form of relief. The other day, it was revealed that in the matter of redressing the grievances of those who had been ‘politically victimized’ by the previous regime, most of the beneficiaries had been ‘found’ by lists submitted by politicians, i.e. their loyalists rather than the truly aggrieved. Some have petitioned that they’ve been overlooked.

It’s easy to say ‘Those who work on behalf of victims of violations know that victims do not wish to wait long for justice and also need to be compensated quickly in order to get on with their lives. Those who are victims do not wish to wait for years for justice to be done.’ The truth is that people have to get on with their lives regardless and have done so throughout history. Who are these victims, anyway? Is ‘victim’ anyone who claims ‘victimhood’? It ‘being a Tamil’ a necessary criteria to plead victimhood? There’s nothing to stop the brother of an LTTE cadre who died in action from claiming he or she had ‘gone missing’ and demanding compensation. It would be cost-effective to treat every claim as genuine but that would mean that justice and truth really do not matter.

The truth is that the LTTE abducted children, the LTTE invited war, the LTTE killed Tamils (and Sinhalese and Muslims) and held some 300,000 Tamils hostage. They were rescued by the Sri Lankan security forces. LTTE cadres who were apprehended were rehabilitated, provided with opportunities to further their education or acquire marketable skills and reintegrated into society. That’s as ‘general amnesty’ as any that can be expected in today’s world. Hospitals and schools were built, so too water supply systems, roads and railways. That’s as ‘reconstruction’ as any that can be expected from a country like Sri Lanka.

Now if this government bats on till the end of its term and somehow gets re-elected in all likelihood what’s written above would be like a script for what would probably be uttered on the subject of reconciliation — if indeed that subject retains currency that long.

However if tomorrow (or say sometime later this year) President Sirisena cobbles together the requisite numbers and forms a government with the Joint Opposition (JO) effectively replacing the UNP with the JO and with either Mahinda Rajapaksa or a proxy as Prime Minister, come September in all likelihood Prince Zeid will change his tune and those who said politics is the art of the possible will flip the script. Just like that. It’s like that. So much for ‘truth’ and ‘justice’.

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