Sri Lanka

Reconciliation vs war crimes

Oct 7, 2011

This article attempts to provide a concise analysis on national and international discourse on post-conflict Sri Lanka and will use a framework related to building a sustainable and peaceful relationship between Sinhala and Tamil communities.By Dinesh D. Dodamgoda

As we know the Sinhalese and the Tamils have similarities as well as differences. However, the relationship between the two communities was seriously fractured and they remain deeply polarised as an accumulated result of the civil conflict that lasted for three decades. The conflict had generated adverse effects on relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils: it consumed, amongst other things, many opportunities for building a peaceful relationship between the two communities; it aggravated the division between the Sinhalese and the Tamils; and thus, it was counterproductive from the perspective of reconciliation.

Key questions

As the conflict made the objective of building a genuine peaceful relationship between the two communities a more complex task, the post-conflict context has posed us two vexatious questions to answer in terms of building peace:

What is the best conceptual framework to deal with the structural and psychological nature of the post-conflict contextual complexities in Sri Lanka? What are the practical approaches and activities that can move the prevailing context positively forward and towards building a sustainable, peaceful relationship between the two communities?

Conceptual framework

The conceptual framework that has been already adopted in post-conflict Sri Lanka is the framework of international actors and it aims at assessing the country's progress on a few key issues. During his visit to Sri Lanka in May 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon raised three key issues and laid out the framework: humane treatment and speedy resettlement of the internally displaced persons, adoption of policies to achieve political reconciliation, and accountability for war-time atrocities.

Furthermore, in early 2010, a communiqué (10COLOMBO50 / 2010-01-22) between US Ambassador Patricia A. Butenis and the US Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs also referred to a framework built on four key issues to assess the progress in Sri Lanka: treatment of IDPs, human rights, political reconciliation, and accountability for alleged war crimes.

In terms of progress, the country has implemented a successful rehabilitation programme and massive development projects in the North-East, once the conflict zone. Nonetheless, the controversy arose with regard to the progress on rest of the key issues, namely, human rights, political reconciliation and war-crime accountability.

War-crime accountability

As the international discourse progressed on those key issues, the issue of war-crime accountability figured prominently. This was largely owing to the overt and covert moves of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF). It managed to convince international players either through evidence or propaganda material that the war-crime accountability issue should be given priority over other issues in post-conflict Sri Lanka. It insists that the war-crime issue is the 'key' that may open the door to other important issues such as human rights, IDPs and reconciliation.

As noted by the US Ambassador Butenis in early 2010, the obvious response of the Sri Lankan government was to start a national and international counter-campaign, accusing the international actors and the Tamil diaspora of conspiring against Sri Lanka and its war heroes.

Interestingly, the prevailing situation is creating another complex environment in post-conflict Sri Lanka and contributing to the growing anger in patriotic quarters where the involvement of international actors and the Tamil Diaspora who funded the LTTE are seen as a part of an "international conspiracy". The danger in this development is no one can say with certainty that there may not be a context, sooner or later, where this anger at the diaspora will turn towards the Tamils. Then, the ground situation can be a tense one.

The paradox

These complexities are inevitable results of weaknesses in the international conceptual framework on post-conflict Sri Lanka. This conceptual framework, in fact, is a typical approach of orthodox statist diplomacy, because it treated the task of "reconciliation" as a peripheral substance of building peace and ignored the realities and dilemmas posed by the post-conflict Sri Lankan society.

Current complexities emerged as the reconciliation task conflicted with another key issue -- war-crime accountability -- and created a paradox that generated adverse effects on "reconciliation". Pressuring the government on the war-crime accountability issue draws the anger of the patriots who hail the military victory over the LTTE and respect the contributors to that victory as "heroes", regardless of international concerns. I understand that this may irritate the normative approaches to the international framework, yet again this is the reality and dilemma in post-conflict Sri Lanka.

It is a great pity that this situation which was correctly assessed by the US Ambassador in early 2010, was not taken into serious consideration by any of the international actors. One of her communiqués stated: "There is an obvious split, however, between the Tamil diaspora and Tamils in Sri Lanka on how and when to address the [war-crime accountability] issue.

While we understand the former would like to see the issue as an immediate top-priority issue, most Tamils in Sri Lanka appear to think it is both unrealistic and counter-productive to push the issue too aggressively now.

While Tamil leaders are very vocal and committed to national reconciliation and creating a political system more equitable to all ethnic communities, they believe they themselves would be vulnerable to political or even physical attack if they raise the issue of accountability publically, and common Tamils appear focused on more immediate economic and social concerns."

However, the war-crime accountability issue was pushed aggressively forward by international actors and the Tamil diaspora and contributed to the development of the prevailing adverse context in terms of reconciliation.

A better conceptual framework?

No doubt, we are in a dilemma when identifying the most important issue related to post-conflict Sri Lanka. In my opinion, the key issue in post-conflict Sri Lanka is "reconciliation", because without building a true, peaceful relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, no other key issue will be satisfactorily addressed.

Reconciliation is understood as a process of relationship building. This takes time, especially in a deeply divided society. The country needs at least five more years, as well as a comprehensive, integrative, strategic approach to transform this deeply wounded and divided post-conflict society into a healed and a united one.

My proposition is "reconciliation" should be the main issue for a quite some time in a better conceptual framework in post-conflict Sri Lanka. Other issues should accompany "reconciliation" in a supportive, yet non-destructive and non-conflicting manner.

However, my proposition also creates a dilemma, whether or not to include 'war crime accountability" on the key issue list.

As evident, the war crime accountability issue will be incompatible and may even scuttle the reconciliation process. This is a controversial proposition; yet, my position is -- as the subject experts such as John P. Lederach and Richard H. Solomon, the President of United States Institute of Peace also agree -- that the nature of contemporary conflict suggests the need for a set of concepts and approaches that go beyond traditional statist diplomacy. We need to adopt a more pragmatic approach that guarantees a sustainable, peaceful relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils (and other minorities as well). For this, we may have to go beyond boundaries of traditional statist diplomacy.

(The Sunday Times)

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