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Sri Lanka’s memory wars thwart reconciliation

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Special To The Japan Times

Six years after the end of the civil war that claimed at least 70,000 lives between 1983 and 2009, Sri Lanka appears to have made little progress on reconciliation between its ethnic Tamils and Sinhalese majority.

In the war-ravaged northern provinces, large swathes of land are designated high-security zones and remain under military occupation. As a result, many displaced families are still waiting to return to homes located in these areas even though the security threat seems negligible.

State security forces finally defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 and killed the Tiger’s leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. In the final days, thousands of civilians used as human shields were also slaughtered. This massacre is the subject of controversy concerning the death toll — the government estimates it at 9,000 while the United Nations claims 40,000 were killed — and how best to pursue accountability, either via an international tribunal or some domestic process. The U.N. Human Rights Council delayed the release of an investigative report on the civil war at the request of the new Sri Lankan government out of concern that international pressure might spark a counterproductive backlash.

In January this year, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa suffered a surprise election setback as voters ousted the strongman who ended the civil war, amassed power and riches while turning the government into a family business. One of his Cabinet ministers, Maithripala Sirisena, ran against the Rajapaksa Dynasty and won, a bold move that might have landed him in prison or worse had he failed. Many hope Rajapaksa’s departure will facilitate a full reckoning and accountability, but that may prove elusive.

Although the military has been pressured to return confiscated land in the north to its rightful owners, it is clear the new president is stepping gingerly around the state’s powerful security forces. He has not repealed Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, which grants them sweeping powers of arrest and detention that have nurtured a cocoon of impunity. And on June 26 he dissolved parliament and called early general elections that are likely to be held in mid-August, sparking worries about a Rajapaksa comeback.

Before my first trip to Sri Lanka in 2002, I read “Broken Palmyra,” a book that dissects the Tamil crisis that sparked civil war and the Indian military’s ill-fated intervention. It is a heartfelt account of the Tamil community’s torments, the hypocrisy of its leaders and the cynicism of the Sri Lankan and Indian governments.

In 1989, the LTTE allegedly killed one of the book’s four authors, Rajani Thiranagama, because she exposed how the group deliberately maximized civilian deaths for propaganda purposes and revealed, as only a former insider could, its sleazy and nasty operations. The four authors were colleagues at the University of Jaffna and members of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), a group that was established in 1988 to document human rights violations. Following the killing, Rajan Hoole, one of the other authors, went into hiding while continuing his work for UTHR-J documenting atrocities committed by all sides.

On that 2002 trip I found a recently published book by Hoole titled “Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence & Murder,” which delved bravely into the political machinations of all the main organizations and actors, exposing a web of deceit, ruthlessness, thuggery and irresponsibility that seemingly damned everyone with a gun. He was especially unsparing of the Tamil Tigers, but also flayed Sinhalese politicians of various stripes. At that time I met the renowned sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke at his home in Colombo. He had read both books and expressed his admiration for a man willing to put his life on the line in standing up to “the self righteous nationalisms” that were devouring this enchanting island.

By sheer luck, on a recent visit to Jaffna I managed to meet Hoole and discovered he had just published a third book — “Palmyra Fallen: From Rajani to War’s End” — commemorating his colleague’s assassination. He assesses various theories about her death, concluding that LTTE leader Prabhakaran ordered her killing as part of an internal power struggle. But it is much more than a personal tribute, providing a comprehensive and sweeping assessment of Sri Lanka’s trauma, communal polarization, civil war and the toll exacted, one that places the LTTE in the dock alongside the state.

Hoole is a mathematician with a razor sharp intellect and precise manner of speaking. After two decades in hiding, he returned to his post at Jaffna University, but recently retired in disgust with university politics and an institutionalized embrace of what he dismisses as a Tamil victimization identity. The vice-chancellor even tried to prevent him from giving a talk about his book.

Hoole thinks the LTTE was a criminal organization guilty of widespread atrocities and that it is responsible for countless Tamil deaths and has much to answer for regarding the final slaughter. In his view, the LTTE was a fascist organization and Prabhakaran was despotic and vicious. He killed off rivals, suppressed dissent, recruited child soldiers, trained suicide bombers and used tens of thousands of civilians as human shields in 2009 as the Sri Lankan military encircled his depleted forces. Their massacre, Hoole says, was an avoidable tragedy instigated by Prabhakaran’s irresponsible actions.

Hoole does not exonerate the Sri Lankan military and indeed, at considerable personal risk, he has meticulously reported on their war crimes and human rights abuses. But, he argues, the state’s sins are well known and widely reported while the LTTE’s grisly record has not received the attention it deserves, especially now that many Tamils are glorifying the Tamil Tigers. Hoole asserts that the LTTE had a number of chances to cut a deal with the government that would have been acceptable to the Tamil population, but walked away from compromises that would have spared the nation so much sorrow and loss.

It is no wonder that Hoole is an awkward witness for those trying to promote a black-and-white narrative of victimized Tamils versus oppressive Sinhalese. Hoole thinks this victimization narrative is an obstacle to reconciliation because it shifts all blame onto the government and military while averting eyes from the Tamil community’s complicity and responsibility. He hopes to promote self-reflection and reconciliation based on an unbiased assessment of the facts, but faces an uphill battle against identity politics that are stoking the embers of self-righteous nationalism.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.