Wednesday, August 10, 2011

No Meeting Point Of Two War Narratives

THERE are two narratives of the end phase of the war that are battling for dominance. The first is that of the Sri Lankan government that emphasises the victory over the LTTE and terrorism and the securing of the country’s unity and sovereignty. It also asserts that the war was conducted according to international law with a policy of minimising civilian casualties. The other is the account of the expert panel appointed by the UN secretary general which is a severe indictment of the Sri Lankan government’s lack of adherence to international norms in the conduct of the war. This report has drawn on the information available within the UN system and also the reports of human rights organisations.

The UN panel report, also known as the Darusman report in deference to its chairman, is over 200 pages in length. It was issued to the public in March this year. Although well written, not many would wish to labour many hours to read it unless especially motivated as students of the Sri Lankan conflict or as advocates of a position. This is not the case with the UK Channel 4 video titled ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ that made its appearance in June this year. It is of one hour’s duration and provides a graphic account of what is presented as the last days of the war. It is readily accessible on the internet to those who wish to see it, if they are prepared to brave its warning that it contains scenes that could be very disturbing.

The Sri Lankan government’s response to the UN expert panel report and to the UK Channel 4 video has, from its inception, taken the form of denials and denunciations. The material in them is described as fabricated, biased and ill motivated by a desire for revenge at the defeat of the LTTE. The sources of information are also accused of being tainted, being either NGOs or Tamil Diaspora. As a result, the notion of an international conspiracy has a wide acceptance within Sri Lanka.

In such a situation of opposing versions of the same event, the solution would seem to be a third report of an in independent group. The government has, however, sidestepped the increasingly vociferous international demand for an independent international investigation into the alleged human rights violations and war crimes by referring to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission it has appointed.

Book launch
THE Sri Lankan government has presented the LLRC as a legitimate and viable mechanism that precludes the need for an international investigation at this time, and even in the future. This is on the basis that international remedies are only necessary when national ones have failed. The LLRC has already issued an interim report and its final report is expected in November this year. The US government has given importance to the LLRC by officially informing the Sri Lankan government through a diplomatic note that it expects the LLRC’s final report to be presented for discussion next year at the UN’s Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva.
However, with the LLRC’s final report yet to be published, the government has taken additional action to counter the UN expert panel report and the UK Channel 4 video at the international level. Last week’s government launch of a book titled ‘Humanitarian Operation—A Factual Analysis’ and a video titled ‘Lies Agreed Upon’ was the government’s reply to the UN expert panel report and the UK Channel 4 video. They were both launched at a large gathering in which high ranking members of the Sri Lankan security forces were present in large numbers.

In addition, a sizeable number of foreign diplomats and media were also present. There were also a few NGOs present who had previously been excluded from government events that had anything to do with national security and counterterrorism. Their presence could be taken as evidence of a greater willingness on the part of the government to positively engage with other perspectives in a more accommodative spirit.
The government’s report and video provide an opposite perspective to that found in the UN expert panel report and the Channel 4 video. They focus on the LTTE and on its brutal methods. The government narrative goes back in time to cover the period in which the LTTE first engaged in acts of terrorism. It does not start where the international narrative starts from, which is the last phase of the war. As a result the government narrative provides a context in which the ferocity of the war in its last phase can be better understood from the nature of the LTTE which held a population of over 300,000 hostage during that period. It is worth noting that the government’s willingness to concede that civilian deaths were unavoidable and did occur during the last phase of the war has come along with the release of this report and video.

Locally dominant
THERE is no doubt that the government narrative will be the one that dominates and prevails within Sri Lanka. It will prevail regardless of the content and quality of the government report and video. This is because most people within the country experienced at first hand the fear of the LTTE’s brutal terrorism even if they did not suffer directly at its hands. The government report and video will further strengthen the feeling of people within the country that the international community is biased and anti-Sri Lanka in its targeting of the government. This will lead to a further hardening of anti-Western sentiment as it is generally perceived that the West that is seeking to punish the government for ridding the country of the LTTE.
On the other hand, that section of the international community that is urging an independent international mechanism to investigate the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war is not likely to change its position either. The government report focuses on the LTTE, its methods and actions over the years. There is no mention at all of the excesses of the government’s counterterrorism strategy of which there were so many, and also of the impunity, elements of which continue to the present time. The politically partisan nature of the government report can also be seen by its failure to even mention the break up of the LTTE by the defection of its eastern commander during the period of the much-maligned Ceasefire Agreement which was signed by the present Leader of the opposition and was brokered by the Norwegian government.

So what remains are two narratives, one that dominates internationally and the other that is dominant within the country. These two narratives are at loggerheads with each other and appear to have no meeting place. Neither of these narratives is going to be a vehicle for reconciliation in the future, as each will be fiercely resisted and debunked by the other. Therefore, it is unlikely that there will be peace-building and reconciliation by going down the road of trying to prove whether or not war crimes took place.
In this context of polarisation, the healthiest option is peace-building and reconciliation through a political solution in which Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others of smaller ethnic and religious communities, such as the Burghers, Malays and Borahs decide together what to do about the past and what the country’s shared future should be. This is what the government, together with the opposition political parties, ought to be working hard at achieving.