Contexts count. Hostage rescue operations are different from wars. Responding to military aggression is different from declaring war on a country on a pretext such as the possession of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. July ’83 is different from July ’16. Clashes between raggers and anti-raggers are different from the clash that took place a few days ago at the Jaffna University. Contexts count. And they frame the assessment of responses.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) called it right. Well, almost right, but that ‘almost’ can be understood, again given the context of constituency. “We regret that several students have sustained injuries and that the Sinhala students had to be evacuated from the university and Jaffna as a precautionary measure,” was what the TNA said. The TNA, moreover, urged the evacuated Sinhala students to return and called on their Tamil counterparts to welcome them.
The University of Jaffna Teachers Association (UJTA), in comparison, fudged it a bit. They expressed dismay, concern and condemnation. They pledged to protect cultural rights. They flagged the communal element without naming names. The Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Union (JUSTA) embarrassed itself by the vagueness of its statement. They sought to ‘educate’ the public thus: “Some unwanted incidents related to the freshers’ welcome party led to violent clashes.” Drawn from an uneasy template obviously. Less understandable, but let’s leave it at that.
The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) tied itself in knots. Although calling authorities to identify perpetrators and bring them to justice, FUTA studiously (!) avoids stating the main facts. Condemnation is easy. Calling for justice is easy. However, if you want to give ‘context, seek the indulgence of an audience for a historical rigmarole and outline a sociological treatise it is silly to beat around the bush. On the face of it, for FUTA, this was just one of those clashes between two groups of unnamed (unnamable?), unidentified (unidentifiable?) university students. Sweeping ‘ethnic’ under the carpet and then urging everyone to be vigilant about ‘brutality, ethnic conflicts and violence,’ is plain silly.
No surprises then that the Minister of Higher Education Lakshman Kiriella stole a page from the FUTA handbook to pooh-pooh it all: ‘This was a clash between two students groups as it happens in any other university.’
The official position of the Government, which came to light a full three days after the clash, was slightly better than the FUTA in terms of ‘sociologizing’ the incident, but was a worse howler because it was an absolute lie. The Government Information Department said “although some people tried to stress that it was a racially motivated conflict, this was a clash between two groups of students and the government condemns the violent behaviour of some students.”
Just compare the above with the TNA statement. Dr Ranga Kalansuriya and Deputy Ministry Karunaratne Paranavithana have embarrassed themselves here. However, no one suffered knicker-twisting as the ‘leftists’. It is almost as if it were they and not the Sinhala students of the Science Faculty, University of Jaffna, who were attacked. Anuruddha Pradeep Karnasuriya describes this undressing thus:
‘It is not the Sinhala students but the leftists in this country that got the worst beating. Nothing in the recent past has made these people this vulnerable. They cannot bring themselves to say that the attack was unjustified. They can’t urge authorities to take action against the perpetrators. They cannot issue statements about the freedom of art. They cannot offer scholarly opinions on tribalism. What is this tragedy that has befallen them?’
Karnasuriya singles out Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe as an exception. There are probably others, but by and large he is correct about the malaise that has afflicted self-proclaimed leftists.
Let us also not forget that those who are quickest to respond to any clash that has even the faintest communal trace blanked out: the UN, diplomats from the USA, Canada and Europe, the BBC and other news agencies. Telling.
It is about context, yes. It is also about the truth. Truth, let us not forget is what we are told reconciliation is all about. Well, truth and justice.
The Jaffna University incident tells us that one’s political preferences and the particular incident confer varying degrees of truth-comfort. Certain ‘truths’ are privileged while others are typically downplayed or even dismissed. This is the ‘natural’ issue of power structures. However, truth-advocates cannot demand half-baked stories. Indeed, when truth-demanders utter barefaced lies or resort to scandalous and laughable distortion, they can kiss truth goodbye.
The Jaffna incident is mild and thanks to statements such as the one issued by the TNA shows encouraging signs of being resolved and more importantly forging a more wholesome embrace between Tamil and Sinhala students. If it was left to Kiriella, FUTA, the Information Department and the leftists it could have got worse. Indeed, these entities by their political jugglery still have the potential to add fuel to unnecessary fires.
What is important here is to understand the power of truth, equal in power only to falsehood, and the power of half-truth. If reconciliation is truth-based then it has to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This is where we move away from the Jaffna incident. This is where we draw from the Chilcot Report, its good and its bad.
The ‘bad’ is about gaping holes and language-comforts that give life-lines to the guilty, Tony Blair and George W Bush in particular. The ‘bad’ is also about the readiness to receive truth, i.e. by the grandmasters on the subject in the international community, namely Ban Ki-moon (UN Secretary General) and Prince Zeid (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights). Yes, that’s about an Orwellian world of human rights advocacy and what Ayca Cubukcu calls “21st century platitudes: democracy, the people, human rights”.
The ‘good’ is about (at least on paper) the mandate for the whole nine yards; the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. John Chilcot’s team had to look at the build-up, the period of engagement and the aftermath. And this is where it becomes most relevant to Sri Lanka.
Just one example would suffice to drive home the point. On October 21, 1987, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) massacred over 50 Tamil civilians in Velvettiturai. The Daily Telegraph (UK) observed editorially, ‘This massacres is worse than My Lai. Then American troops simply ran amok. In the Sri Lankan village, the Indians seem to have been more systematic; the victims being forced to lie down, and then shot in the back’. The IPKF killed doctors, nurses, attendants, patients and members of public in a 24-hour period.
The ‘whole truth’ is not only about what happened during the last stage of the historic hostage-rescue operation leading up to May 18, 2009 and all the wrongdoing that may have taken place as alleged. It is about everything that happened since the LTTE killed Alfred Duraiappah on July 27, 1975. Indiscriminate killings, crimes against humanity, suicide bombs, extra-judicial killings, shelling civilian areas, conscription of children, political assassinations, everything, everything, everything must count. And it is not about the Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE only. The IPKF and the other militant Tamil groups such as the EPRLF, EPDP, EROS, TELO and the Karuna-Faction cannot be ‘counted out’.
It’s the full truth-story that ought to count if reconciliation is to be truth-based, because there are contexts and there are contexts. There are ‘small’ contexts (like the Jaffna University incident) and there is the larger context (of the entire period of conflict and all acts that yielded dispossession, dismemberment, displacement and death). Certain kinds of deceit (such as we saw over the past few days) can be ‘understandable’ but none are ever ‘pardonable’ in terms of the truth-reconciliation matrix and certainly not the larger contexts that frame the reconciliation discourse.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.