Once meaningful restoration practices are reasonably initiated we can then move on to the war scars left by the State’s conflict with the Tamil liberation movement
As the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (and empathy groups) organizes memorial events every November for
Bodies of suspected JVP members burnt using “tyre pyres” were a common sight during 1987-90 terror period.
thousands killed during the political emergency of 1987-1990, how may the Sri Lankan State contribute to such efforts? What took place during 1987-90 is an upheaval in which at least 40,000 to 60,000 men and women are conventionally estimated to have been killed.
The atmosphere of extra-legal government and violence which the State maintained as a political philosophy has, by now, been widely documented and analyzed. Therefore, to inquire after how the State involves itself in victim remembrance three decades after the conflict is a pertinent question.
The short answer is that so far the State’s response to its role in the 1987-90 violence is one without much remorse and one that disregards the need for transformative post-conflict restoration.
Despite its being the most powerful player in the conflict the State has so far done but the bare minimum and moved on to other matters (like the north-east civil war). Immediate post-conflict, in the mid to late 1990s, the State set up four geographically-defined commissions of inquiry which looked into over 27,500 complains of forced disappearances. Later, through its funds, a reasonable number of victim families were compensated by the state. While victim groups organized numerous vigils and commemorative events the memorial sites in Seeduwa and near the parliament in Battaramulla stood out. The latter was later torn down in 2012 in favour of a state-initiated beautification project.
However, post-conflict transformation and justice is a far cry from Commissions of Inquiry and monetary reparation. Of their own, these acts, too, make a significant contribution.
But, if post-conflict social transformation can be likened to a game of cricket, what the State has done regarding the victims of 1987-90 – from a restoration perspective – is to bat the first 15 overs.
To heal social wounds and to inculcate attitudes and safeguards that address personal and collective trauma takes time. The healing of war-induced ruptures rests on proactive measures.
But, in the 1990s and the 2000s, the State busied itself fighting a second war instead.
In a career accumulating sins, there was no time or thought for retribution. Gradually, the State seemed to bank on the promise of amnesia that sets with the passage of time.
In a recent statement carried in the news Human Rights activist Brito Fernando observed how, thirty years on, most families of the 1987-90 victims were now reluctantly agreeing to monetary compensation in place of truth and justice.
In a country where the scheme of justice is often slowed or stalled, for ordinary civilians – whose best years were given to a struggle in the name of their loved ones – this is disheartening news.
In my opinion, the State needs to be daring in recasting its role in negotiating with the humanitarian tragedy of 1987-90.
A few long overdue proactive measures need to be essentially set in place. For a start, the State must step forward and admit its role in the violence and apologize to the people and the victims for extra-judicial excesses that went out of hand.
The acceptance of such responsibility is not an act of shame. On the contrary, it is an honest first step for a sincere dialogue with the world. The State is the custodian of the country’s law and constitution. At the expense of thousands, it is the dominant player who brought the war to a close in 1990.
While the State has allowed the JVP a space for commemoration from as early as 1991 (an allowance that was grudged the northern and eastern families who mourned their dead after the civil war ended) these commemorations have seldom amounted to anything beyond didactic gatherings with propaganda and speeches. Despite the JVP’s growing credibility in Sri Lanka’s contemporary political floor, the party’s vision of justice and restoration has been one of short sight. Soon after its breakaway from the JVP, the Frontline Socialist Party published a confessionary document which, to this day, remains a lonely re-assessment of the violence from within the rebellion. In a different cricket game, unable to visualize the bigger score, the JVP and the FSP are also batting for the first fifteen overs.
I like the State to step forward and declare a national day of remembrance and take a leadership role in commemorating 1987-90. It has to be on the State’s agenda to encourage people to re-imagine and work-through the conflict past.
The State can begin by restoring the language of conflict. Whereas pro-government media has taught the people to use phrases such as “JVP rebellion” or “JVP conflict” in referencing the 1987-90 violence, the State can interfere and introduce an alternative usage which – while admitting its role in the violence – nullifies prejudice aimed at one party.
Since the conclusions, pro-establishment writers like C.A. Chandraprema (in “The JVP Insurrection 1987-1989”), Rohan Gunaratna (in “Sri Lanka: A Lost Revolution?”) and AC Alles (in “The JVP 1969-1989”) draw from the violence in question are partial and flawed the State has a role in encouraging alternative mappings of the conflict – especially those coming from victims and survivors – as public discourse.
Once meaningful restoration practices are reasonably initiated we can then move on to the war scars left by the State’s conflict with the Tamil liberation movement.