The political economy of “Paangshu”
By Uditha Devapriya
For well over a month, Paangshu has been the talk of the town. Initially shown to a select audience during the yahapalana regime, then given a public release two months ago under the current government, it continues to win overwhelmingly positive reviews.
Meera Srinivasan of The Hindu correctly considers it as “perhaps the first mainstream Sinhala film to foreground the struggle of a missing person’s family.” Of course, the missing person happens to belong to the majority Sinhala community rather than the minority Northern Tamil community, since Paangshu isn’t about the war up there; it’s about the war down here, in the South, one that, over three years, killed as many people as, if not more people than, those killed over three decades in the conflict with the LTTE.
That reason alone makes Paangshu worthy of more than a cursory review, which is what I came up with last Saturday. I say that because of the muffled backlash it has received from those who object to its perception of the political history underlying it, which not many directors have forayed into. For Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s film delves into an experience most from my generation didn’t live through: while my contemporaries came face-to-face with the war against the LTTE, only their parents and grandparents encountered the war against the JVP, in all its horrific complexity.
And yet its relevance to the search for the missing from that other war – the 30 year one – can’t be denied. The missing then, as with the missing now, continues to be missed, and to be unaccounted for. As an elegy on reconciliation, Chandrasekam has made a great work, certainly a brave one. My problem, however, has nothing to do with what he’s made. Rather it has to do with the selectivity of some of those who praise it.
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Wars don’t just arise. They may be rooted in ethnic, religious, even caste differences, but fundamentally, they reflect economic differences.
The second JVP insurrection (1987-1989) differed from the first (1971) owing to the wave of sympathy it created among the Southern youth for the JVP. The first insurrection had been carried out mostly by undergraduates, the sons of a petty bourgeoisie who later became ideological vessels for the establishment.
As Gamini Keerawella once observed in an essay on the JVP, by 1967 the party had begun to recruit vast sections of the petty bourgeoisie, distancing itself from the rural proletariat from whose ranks it had got in its membership until then. The insurrectionists thus couldn’t hold for long after their uprising. By the end of the 1970s, they had begun to transit to the establishment, reflecting if not betraying their class interests; one of these ex-JVPers now describes the insurrection, no doubt with the wisdom of hindsight, as “a stupid rebellion poorly executed.” What this means is that the class composition of the first insurrection was considerably different from the class composition of the second.
Rohan Gunaratna’s book on the 1987-1990 uprising, the most scholarly account of it written so far, relegates the economic roots of that conflict to the background. My chief complaint with an otherwise comprehensive study, its lack of a proper assessment of the economic backdrop against which the insurrection played out gives to that insurrection the character of a spontaneous uprising. Similar complaints can be made of studies of other conflicts from other regions, but in this instance, it has led to commentators to view the second insurgency in terms of the first, as a backlash against the Indo-Lanka Accord, and to draw parallels between it and the war against the LTTE.
To put it simply, what transpired from 1987 to 1990 cannot be explained without reference to the policies of the regime that crushed the insurrection. The uprising was the result of a multitude of factors: a ban on eco-friendly chena cultivation; the diversion of land to what one outfit today refers to as “Western boondoggles” (J. R Jayewardene’s “robber barons”); the devaluation of the rupee which deflated severely the value of food stamps (by as much as half from 1979 to 1981), thereby leading to the malnourishment and impoverishment of vast swathes of the working class; and the “Indianisation” of the civil war.
Added to that, the crushing of the Left, the crippling of trade unions, and the proscription of anti-government political groups all left behind a vacant space. These groups soon found themselves squeezed out of the democratic framework. It was against that backdrop that the Indo-Lanka Accord, despite the opposition of several government figures, was signed, immediately sparking off a wave of discontent across the South.
In class terms, the second insurrection thus came to differ from the first. Even in caste terms it was different: most of those arrested in the 1971 insurgency, as Gananath Obeyesekere documented at the time, hailed from higher castes (in fact 58.5% of them were Goyigama), whereas many of those who took part in the 1987-1990 uprising came from depressed communities. That is not to say caste factors always militated against those higher up in the hierarchy – indeed, there were cases of upper caste insurrectionists campaigning against lower caste officials – but all the same, it refracted class discrepancies. At any rate, class or caste, the war was protracted and fought over economic reasons.
The difference between the JVP uprising and the war against the LTTE – which many critics, in their reviews of Paangshu, seem to be comparing to each another – comes out here. While the State, as Susantha Goonetilake notes in Recolonisation, engaged in a “class war on the poor” in the South, in the North it was pitted against a separatist movement led by a community that, in economic terms, had suffered much less under successive regimes than the two most discriminated groups in 20th century Sri Lanka: estate Tamils and Sinhala peasants. By disenfranchising them and stripping them of citizenship, the UNP had robbed the former of an opportunity to take up arms. The latter, on the other hand, grabbed that opportunity the moment the political crisis reached its peak.
There were two ideological routes you could take at this juncture: you could either support the Accord or oppose it. By supporting it you took the side of the UNP, or a considerable section of the party which accepted it, and of the Old Left, which endorsed it because it saw India as a countervailing influence against the State. On the other hand, by opposing it you took the side of the Sinhala nationalists, or of the JVP.
It was simply difficult not to choose. The closest historical analogy I can think of would be the case of an ex-Jacobin living under Napoleon in France: he couldn’t have supported the Bonapartists, but then he couldn’t have supported the Holy Alliance either. And yet he had to take a side. Gambling on anti-government sentiment, the Old Left thus chose to support the Accord, severely underestimating the extent of anti-Accord sentiment.
In my essay on the Jathika Chintanaya written to the Midweek Review months ago, I pointed out that as much as their support for the Accord brought the UNP and the Old Left together against the JVP in the insurrection, no such intersection of interests brought the JVP and the Sinhala nationalist groups to a common platform. The result was that, with the proscription of anti-UNP student groups, the JVP, lacking an ally, took the fight to the streets alone.
The South soon turned into a violent battleground; it wasn’t because of the war in the North, after all, that The Economist called Sri Lanka “the bloodiest place on earth.”
Given the Old Left’s endorsement of the Accord and, later, the 13th Amendment, it was only to be expected that it would not only help form anti-JVP hit squads, but also affirm the NGO sector’s demonization of the JVP. Since Susantha Goonatilake has recorded this in his study Recolonisation, all I will say here is that much of the NGO intelligentsia, which purports to stand up for the radical youth today, branded the JVP then as not just chauvinist, but also anti-Tamil. It took Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mangala Samaraweera – both from the South, occupying diametrically opposed political positions today – to take the names, the details, of those made to disappear by paramilitary squads to Western capitals.
This remains, then as now, a blot on the conscience of NGO intellectuals; their failure to give equal coverage to the Northern war and the Southern insurgency (Witharanage 1994) led to a distorted view of what was happening on the ground. Meanwhile, right until their separation from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s coalition in 2006, even the most liberal commentators here went on labelling the JVP as Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist. Only when the JVP broke away from Rajapaksa’s coalition and began to endorse what is, for me at least, a pseudo-Marxist-lumpen ideology did these commentators abandon that stereotype.
The failure of the NGO-cracy to identify the root causes of the insurrection is symptomatic of its inability to view that uprising in class rather than ethnic terms: a failure that explains why it could, while opposing a neo-fascist regime, interpret the JVP’s opposition to Indian intervention as chauvinist, and worse, anti-Tamil. Those who write on Paangshu without recalling the callous lack of sympathy towards the insurrectionists, displayed by what the late Prins Gunasekara described as “local human rights magnates”, should thus bear in mind the political economy, the horrific complexity, of the period depicted in the film. For history, as we all ought to know, is too precious to be forgotten.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sri Lanka conflict: ICRC footprint
For some strange reason Sri Lanka never asked the international community to examine a report released by the UN Country Team that dealt with the situation in the Vanni from Aug 2008 to May 13, 2009. That report, prepared with the help of the ICRC and the national staff of the UN and NGOs, placed the number of dead during this period at 7,221 and wounded 18,479 (both civilians and LTTE). The UN findings contradicted the Report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts (PoE), which was more like a handpicked kangaroo court out to hang Sri Lanka on Accountability (section 134). As to how it plucked the figure of an estimated number of dead at 40,000 civilians (section 137) out of nowhere, when Amnesty International placed the number of dead at 10,000, is anybody’s guess.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
‘Humanity in War: Frontline photography since 1860’, an ICRC publication that dealt with wars and conflicts, included two photographs of Sri Lanka’s war against separatist terrorists.
The Island recently received a 247-page book from Ruwanthi Jayasundare, Head of Communication at the International Committee of the Red Cross – ICRC, Colombo. One of the pictures taken in 2007, in the eastern Batticaloa district, depicted the scene in a camp for the displaced.
Dominic Sansoni captured that scene at a time the military had been making steady progress in the Eastern theatre of operations where major battles erupted in August 2006. Incidentally, Dominic is the son of the late Edward Claude Sansoni (18 November 1904 – 1979), the 32nd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. Justice Sansoni, during his retirement, also presided over a Presidential Commission of Inquiry that looked into the incidents which took place between 13th August and 15th September 1977, soon after the UNP was swept into power with a record 5/6th majority in Parliament, and findings of that Commission, released in 1980, might be a dispassionate eye-opener to the roots of the ethnic conflict.
The other picture (published in this page) that had been taken by Alfred Grimm, for the ICRC, in 1991, at an undisclosed location, illustrated the severe difficulties experienced by the military on the northern front.
Having lost the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to the Jaffna peninsula to the LTTE, the year before, within months after the Indian Army completed its withdrawal in March 1990 (July 1987 to March 1990), the Army had to depend on the ICRC to arrange transfer of bodies of officers and men killed in action from LTTE-held areas to government controlled regions in the North and East.
That pathetic picture of coffins placed on a dilapidated jetty before being loaded to a vessel carrying the ICRC flag aptly reflects the much repeated adage that a picture paints a thousand words. A senior retired Navy officer asserted that the picture could have been taken at the Point Pedro jetty that had been under LTTE control at that time. Obviously, the ICRC preferred to use PPD to please the LTTE as the neighbouring Kankesanthurai harbor had been under Navy control throughout the war.
In some instances, the LTTE refused to arrange the transfer of bodies overland. Instead, the group insisted on the ICRC’s involvement as part of its overall strategy meant to humiliate the military, struggling to cope with the onslaughts.
Alfred Grimm’s still image explained the developing precarious situation in the northern theatre of operations, at that time, in the wake of the Army losing all detachments north of Vavuniya, right up to Elephant Pass, on the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road. It would be pertinent to mention that the Army had to launch the largest single amphibious operation ‘Balawegaya,’ in 1991, to thwart an LTTE attempt to overrun the Elephant Pass base after laying siege to it. There hadn’t been such a large operation until the combined armed forces brought the war to a successful conclusion on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in 2009.
In the Jaffna peninsula, the entire military deployment was restricted to the Palaly-Kankesanthurai sector and the Jaffna Fort at a time the international community believed the LTTE could ultimately overwhelm the government forces. Having been in touch with the ICRC since its initial deployment here during the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure (1989-1993), the writer felt the Geneva-headquartered organisation, too, believed the LTTE couldn’t be defeated militarily by our security forces.
The Interim Secretariat for Truth and Reconciliation Mechanism (ISTRAM), busy in building required legal and policy framework, operational procedures and guidelines for the proposed Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation (CTUR), should examine the gradual development of the conflict in proper context to ensure a precise narrative.
Fifteen years after the end of the conflict, ISTRAM faces a daunting task, especially against the backdrop of various interested parties seeking to influence the overall process. The crux of the problem is, in the absence of a proper government strategy, all stakeholders seemed to be bent on holding the military and police responsible for alleged atrocities perpetrated during the conflict, while numerous wily deadly acts, committed by terrorists, are hardly ever mentioned, even though even the US Federal Bureau of Investigation called the LTTE the most ruthless terrorist organisation.
Canada, playing politics with voters of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, has, without any inquiry whatsoever, blindly declared that the country committed genocide during the conflict All major political parties there have bent backwards to appease the Tamil electorate and they are going to increase pressure on Sri Lanka as the next Canadian federal election approaches. The election is scheduled for Oct 20, 2025, or before, and already the Tamil electorate is exploiting the situation to tarnish Sri Lanka even more with their wild allegations that are lapped up by Canadian politicians with an eye on Tamil votes.
The recent attack on Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) office, in Canada, by obvious terrorist sympathisers, for them having been part of a Tamil Diaspora team that met former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and continuing controversy over a statement attributed to incumbent Canadian High Commissioner here, Eric Walsh, by the President of the Canada branch of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), over the Himalayan Declaration, propagated by the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), underscored how important the Tamil Canadian vote is for unscrupulous politicians.
The recent declaration by Canada’s Conservative Party leader, Pierre Poilievre, that he would take Sri Lanka to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and appoint lawyers to pursue charges against “accused” war criminals in the International Criminal Court (ICC), should be examined against above apt background.
Obviously, most of these people are only out for revenge from those who defeated LTTE terrorism, in the battlefield, and not reconciliation by any stretch of the imagination, as happened in South Africa, where despite white rulers having treated blacks worse than animals under apartheid rule, the black and other oppressed people there were willing to forgive and forget things done to them far worse than anything that happened in Sri Lanka.
Premadasa invites ICRC
Let us examine the deployment of ICRC here in late 1989. By then, the JVP terror campaign had run out of steam. A few months after the arrival of ICRC here, the Army captured and executed JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera. At that time, the Indian Army, too, was deployed in the North East and controversy was brewing over President Premadasa’s declaration that India should immediately call off its Sri Lanka mission.
President Premadasa invited the ICRC to meet humanitarian needs caused by the second JVP terrorist campaign and equally murderous government response to it at a time President Premadasa was having a honeymoon (May 1989-June 1990) with Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Just months after the ICRC’s arrival, the government eradicated the JVP, but fighting erupted in the north in June, 1990, paving the way for the group to expand its operations to cover the entire country. The ICRC deployment covered the area under government control as well as the LTTE-held area. The ICRC played a significant role with President Premadasa’s government in disarray in the wake of the LTTE’s resumed violent campaign to divide Sri Lanka was making rapid progress.
By then the Indian Army had left our shores following a spat between President Premadasa and then Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi.
A case in point is the ICRC’s high profile intervention to declare a demilitarised zone in the area covering the Jaffna Fort and the Jaffna hospital in the last week of July 1990, several weeks after the LTTE launched Eelam War II. The LTTE made repeated attempts to overrun the isolated Jaffna Fort, at that time held by the Sixth battalion of the Sinha Regiment. The ICRC pushed for a tripartite agreement involving the government, the LTTE and the ICRC on the basis that such an understanding could prevent the battle for the Dutch-built Jaffna Fort from jeopardizing the lives of those seeking treatment at the premier medical institution in the peninsula, as well as its staff.
However, the audacious LTTE disregarded the ICRC. Prabhakaran sensed an impending significant battlefield victory. The LTTE fought hard to force the beleaguered troops to surrender. Finally, President Premadasa authorised the military to break the siege on the Jaffna Fort. The ICRC hadn’t been happy with that move but what no one really anticipated was Premadasa’s government quirky decision to vacate the Jaffna Fort two weeks after having ended the siege at great cost. Nearly 50 officers and men made the supreme sacrifice and over 100 were wounded in that operation to break the siege. Did they die in vain? What made Premadasa to vacate the Jaffna Fort in late Sept 1990? The Army moved to Jaffna Fort in 1985 as Indian trained terrorists intensified attacks in the Jaffna peninsula. Don’t forget half a dozen terrorist groups, including the LTTE operated at that time.
By the time of Eelam war 11 entered its fourth year in 1993, the ICRC had quite a substantial presence in the North-East.
ICRC negotiating for policemen’s release
The LTTE massacred several hundred policemen after they were ordered to surrender to the Tigers by President Premadasa’s government. However, some of them, approximately 50, including several Tamil law enforcement personnel, were held in detention camps in the north. Some of them were lucky to communicate with their families, through the ICRC.
Dominique Dufour, who succeeded ICRC head in Colombo, Wettach Pierre ,in late 1992, on a number of occasions provided useful information regarding policemen in captivity. Dufour was willing to be quoted and once explained to the writer, at his Colombo office, the ICRC’s efforts to help the detained men communicate with their loved ones against the backdrop of disagreement between the LTTE and the government regarding the families visiting the captives. During Wettach Pierre’s tenure, the ICRC made a determined bid to take families of captives to the north in a ship. According to Dufour, there had been 39 policemen and one soldier (Languishing in Tiger captivity: The forgotten 39, The Sunday Island, Oct 11, 1992).
The ICRC’s role here should be examined, taking into consideration Sri Lanka’s readiness to secure assistance provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Medecins Sans Frontieres, in addition to several other relief organisations. The UNHCR launched its mission here in 1987, two years before the arrival of the ICRC on the invitation of President Premadasa. The MSF first positioned personnel here in 1986, the year before the signing of the Indo-Lanka accord that paved the way for the deployment of the Indian Army. The MSF called off its Sri Lanka mission in March 2004 in the wake of the signing of the secretly arranged Ceasefire Agreement between Sri Lanka and the LTTE by the Norwegians. It was signed by then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe without the approval of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, even though she was the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. But, the MSF returned nine months later, after the tsunami disaster struck Sri Lanka, and remained till the end of 2005.
The MSF re-deployed in the war zone in 2007 and remained here till 2012. On the part of Sri Lanka, there had never been an effort to block foreign assistance reaching the Tamil community in the North-East. In fact, successive governments went out of their way to ensure the supplies reached civilians though they knew the LTTE siphoned a significant portion of the relief sent.
ISTRAM must be aware of ground realities in those days – one such instance had been the UNHCR’s efforts to arrange food convoys across the Jaffna lagoon, using the Sangupiddy ferry.
The then UNHCR’s senior protection officer in Colombo, Dr. Peter Nicolaus, explained to this writer their negotiations with the LTTE to open a supply route, via the Jaffna lagoon, at that time the scene of frequent clashes between Sea Tigers and Navy patrols launched from the Nagathivanthurai naval detachment. The Sunday Island received a briefing after Dr. Nicolaus and UNHCR’s regional legal advisor Bo Schack on Dec 09, 1992, discussed the issue with Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s theoretician and Yogiratnam Yogi in Jaffna (Major role for international relief organizations in NE war, The Sunday Island, January 3, 1993).
None of those shedding crocodile tears for the Tamil community today dared at least to appeal to the LTTE not to block food convoys. Instead, they cooperated with the LTTE efforts to compel the military to give up control over civilian entry/exit points, namely the Elephant Pass causeway, the Sandupiddy-Pooneryn ferry, Kilali route and Kombadi and Orriyan points.
The LTTE later informed the senior Jaffna-based UNHCR officer that food convoys couldn’t be allowed through Sangupiddy unless the government vacated the area to facilitate the international relief effort.
The government, if it is so keen to establish the truth should undertake a thorough examination of developments throughout the conflict.
The high-handed LTTE refused to drop its prerequisite (vacation of Pooneryn-Sangupiddy area by government troops) even after Western powers intervened. In Feb 1992 Dr. Nicolaus told the writer that UNHCR gave up their efforts, disclosing the UN organisation went to the extent of offering to send a delegation from Geneva or New York to Jaffna to discuss the issue at hand (Opening ‘safe passage’ to Jaffna peninsula: Despite appeals Tigers refuse to negotiate with UNHCR, The Island, February 18, 1993).
Later, the LTTE indicated its willingness to drop any perquisites for the opening of a safe passage and participate in negotiations. Dr. Nicolaus confirmed this development. However, at the end the ferry remained non-operational while the Navy and Sea Tigers battled it out in the Jaffna lagoon.
In early Nov 1993, the LTTE smashed through Pooneryn and Nagathivanthurai defences, thereby ended the siege on the Jaffna peninsula (Re-opening of Pooneryn ferry: Tigers drop Army pull-out call, The Island March 21, 1993). The Navy abandoned Nagathevanthurai.
ICRC’s role during Eelam War IV
Sri Lanka never made an honest attempt to build a proper defence against war crimes accusations. In the absence of a cohesive bi-partisan strategy on our part, those campaigning against the war-winning country built a strong case on the basis of repeating the widespread lies that Sri Lanka waged a war without eyewitnesses. Successive governments never bothered to at least examine how the wartime presence of major international NGOs and the UN could have easily countered those allegations as they bore witness as to how the war was conducted.
ISTRAM should examine all relevant factors, especially records of international NGOs and Indian medical teams deployed in the East during the last phase of the offensive against the LTTE on the Vanni east front. It would be silly to entirely depend on claims and allegations made by those who are still smarting from the battlefield defeat of the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit with conventional fighting capabilities at the hands of the security forces despite overt and covert help extended to them by the West and Western-funded NGOs operating from Colombo. They literally built up the LTTE image to the level of invincibility.
Special attention should be paid to the World Food Programme (WFP) records and that of the ICRC as they proved the existence of a sea supply route to Puthamathalan, the last LTTE-held area in the Mullaithivu district. As soon as the land supply route to Mullaithivu had been closed due to intense fighting, the government, the ICRC and WFP launched an operation on February 10, 2009, to move supplies by sea and then use the same vessel to evacuate the wounded to Pulmoddai where they were handed over to the Indian medical team.
The final ICRC vessel reached Puthumathalan on May 09, 2009, just 10 days before Prabhakaran was killed on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Actually, the war ended on the previous day when the Army brought the entire Mullaithivu district under its control. Prabhakaran, his wife Mathivathani, daughter Duvaraga and younger son Balachandran had been hiding within the Army controlled area as the Army declared the war over. Prabhakaran’s eldest son Charles Anthony was killed in a separate confrontation just before the Army declared the end of war.
It would be the responsibility of ISTRAM to establish the total amount of food, medicine and other supplies moved to the LTTE-held area overland and by sea during January 1, 2009, to May 09, 2009. That would help establish how Sri Lanka allowed the international community to facilitate supplies, though there could have been shortcomings.
The ICRC (international staff) also had access to Puthumathalan until May 09, 2009 whereas the UN (international staff) maintained presence in the war zone till January 29, 2009, and those wounded civilians evacuated from Puthamathalan under ICRC supervision were handed over to Pulmoddai-based Indian medical team.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka never argued its case properly before the international community. Let us hope ISTRAM succeeds in reaching consensus on the Sri Lanka narrative.
Message from a Cell Death
By Lynn Ockersz
‘Death couldn’t be proud’…
Nor could wily despots,
Over the cruel snuffing out,
Of a resplendent flame,
In a cold, Arctic cell,
Ironically in the land,
Of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky,
But this light heralds anew,
Evergreen political values,
Of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,
Not omitting Human Dignity,
But his inspirational life,
Will speak to us down the ages,
Constantly reminding humans,
That the Sword of the tyrant,
Could never prevail,
Against an unyielding conscience…
That Socrates, the exemplary sage,
Will always upstage Machiavelli.
Groundwork for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation Commission underway
Dr. Elias Joseph Jeyarajah, represented the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) at the recent launch of district level workshops for ‘National Conversation’ based on the Himalaya Declaration. The first inter-religious coordination committee promoting conversations on the merits of the Himalaya Declaration was held in Kurunegala on February 09.
In spite of opposition from various quarters, particularly an influential section of Tamil Diaspora, the organizers went ahead with the project. The participation of US-based Dr. Jeyarajah, one of the eight-member group that met President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo in early December last year underscored the importance of the occasion.
A spokesperson said: “It was the first of the five planned workshops meant to train 150 interfaith clergy and civil society members as coordinators. They will be the key resource persons who will facilitate the planned 25 districts’ conversations, in the coming months. These workshops will all be two-day workshops, spread around the country. Next one will be in Kandy, then in Batticaloa, Matara and Vavuniya.”
About 30 persons received training at the Kurunegala workshop. Participants at Kurunegala workshop included those from neighbouring Puttalam and Anuradhapura districts. The participants comprised clergy from Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic and Christian religions and civil society members.
Sangha for Better Sri Lanka (SBSL) that participated in the GTF-led initiative in December last year subsequent to Nepal talks was represented at the Kurunagala workshop by Ven. Madampagama Assaji Tissa Thera, Ven. Prof. Pallekande Rathnasara Thera, Ven. Kithalagama Hemasara Nayake Thera and Ven. Siyambalagaswewa Wimalasara Thera.
In addition to the above mentioned persons, Visaka Dharmadasa and staff from Association for War Affected Women (AWAW) participated, backed by professional facilitators Indika Perera, Dr. Dayani Panagoda, and Nagaratnam Vijayskanthan who also provided translations.
Dr Elias said “It was wonderful to witness the continuation of the Nagarkot (Nepal) dialogue. Heard very favourable comments about Himalaya Declaration from most participants.” It would be pertinent to mention that Dr. Elias, during the war and after, campaigned extensively against Sri Lanka.
Each district will be represented by five inter-religious persons and a civil society member – in total six per district. Therefore, from the 25 districts there will be 150 coordinators. Once all five workshops are completed, the national conversation would begin, the spokesperson said.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Interim Secretariat for Truth and Reconciliation Mechanism (ISTRM) faces a daunting challenge in securing support for the Bill for establishing a Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation (CTUR).
A meeting called by ISTRM, at the second floor of the Chartered Bank Building ,on February 09, 2024, to garner support for the vital Bill, revealed the deep discontent among an influential section of the stakeholders.
Former External Affairs Prof. G. L. Peiris, MP (now aligned with the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya), Emeritus Professor of Law Savitri Goonesekere, ex-member of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, and one-time member of Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Mirak Raheem, as well as Executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC) Dr. Jehan Perera, pointed out the deficiencies and weaknesses in the latest process against the backdrop of past failures.
Prof. Goonesekere was severely critical of the criminal justice system and the failure on the part of successive governments to address legitimate grievances of the people whereas Raheem underscored the responsibility on the part of the government to win the confidence of those affected by the conflict. Rahim didn’t mince his words as he pointed out that the government efforts lack credibility.
They commented on the Bill after Director General of ISTRM Dr. Asanga Gunawansa, PC, and Head of the Secretariat’s Policy Division Dr. Yuvi Thangarajah explained the ongoing process meant to create an environment conducive for the CTUR to commence investigations as soon as President Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed it on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council (Wickremesinghe is annoyed with the 10-mmeber CC over some key appointments, including that of the IGP. A dispute between the President and the CC can cause a debilitating constitutional crisis ahead of the forthcoming presidential poll.).
Journalist Nilantha Illangamuwa and Nilanthan Niruthan of the Centre for Law and Warfare expressed their views on the Bill, with the former frowning on the NGO agenda.
Dr. Gunawansa’s declaration of the government’s readiness to withdraw the Bill that had been submitted by Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, in consultation with President Wickremesinghe, in case discussions with various stakeholders proved the need for significant changes, triggered quite a sharp response from Prof. Peiris, the only lawmaker at the meeting.
Prof. Peiris questioned the rationale in gazetting what Dr. Gunawansa called a concept paper. The internationally renowned law academic declared that an assurance to introduce amendments at committee stage of the Bill couldn’t be accepted against the backdrop of the disgraceful conduct on the part of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena and the government parliamentary group in passing the ‘Online Safety Bill’ without accommodating specific recommendations made by the Supreme Court, he alleged.
Regardless of the absence of consensus among the participants regarding the CTUR Bill, the discussion helped the ISRTM to comprehend the issues at hand and perhaps may influence Dr. Gunawansa’s team to re-examine the Bill. Several civil society representatives, in addition to those mentioned above, and an official of ONUR (Office for National Unity and Reconciliation), promised to submit their comments in respect of the CTUR Bill. The Office of Missing Persons (Parliament passed OMP Act on August 11, 2016) and Office for Reparations (The Office for Reparations Act No. 34 of, 2018 was enacted and came into operation on October 22nd, 2018. This was the second statute adopted by Sri Lanka in line with the Geneva dictates. The first was the OMP Act).
Since then the Yahapalana government co-sponsored a disgraceful accountability resolution against one’s own country at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Oct 01, 2015, altogether Sri Lanka has seven Acts, the seventh being the ONUR Act passed recently.
Dr. Wasantha Bandara, an outspoken critic of the Geneva-led process, has alleged that the enactment of CTUR law would put in place a treacherous system that could be used to subject senior military officers, both retired and serving under foreign jurisdictions. However, Dr. Gunawansa, without making a direct reference to Dr. Bandara’s concerns, declared that there was absolutely no basis for such an allegation.
However, on the basis of still unsubstantiated accountability allegations not subjected to judicial process at any level, notably the US and Canada, have unilaterally taken punitive measures against selected Sri Lankan political and military leaders, possibly under perceived feelings of superiority because their Westerners, the same way they are behaving towards the hapless Palestinian Arabs, who are being butchered day and night. But here they have conveniently not resorted to any action against war-winning Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka other than the US denying visa to the Sinha Regiment veteran. So like kissing Western justice, it appears to go by favour.
Post-war Tamil Diaspora clash
The writer brought the recent arson attack on Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) office in Canada to the notice of ISTRM as it was carried out by elements opposed to the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) entering into a fresh dialogue with Sri Lanka on the basis of what is widely referred to as the Himalayan Declaration with the backing of a section of the Buddhist monks (Sangha for Better Sri Lanka).
The CTC-backed GTF initiative (Dec 7-15, 2023 visit) received significant support but an influential and violent section of the Tamil Diaspora reacted angrily. They were especially piqued by the visiting delegation paying a courtesy call on wartime President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The result was the attack on the CTC office on January 27th. The incident shook the Canadian Tamils of Sri Lankan origin and caused concern among the Tamil Diaspora.
The bone of contention is Raj Thavaratnasingham of the CTC joining US, UK and Australia based representatives to promote what GTF spokesperson Suren Surendiran described as a national conversation involving all communities.
In spite of the Canadian High Commissioner in Colombo Eric Walsh declaring Canadian support for the latest initiative, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Gary Anandasangaree condemned the GTF-CTC effort.
The Tamil Guardian in a report, titled ‘A betrayal beyond belief’ – Tamil Canadians vent their fury at CTC after meeting with Rajapaksa,’ quoted Anandasangaree as having said: “The recent engagement by the Global Tamil Forum and the Canadian Tamil Congress with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is deplorable.
According to the report posted on Dec 18, 2023, the Member of Parliament for Scarborough Rouge Park questioned why the Tamil Diaspora delegation met Mahinda Rajapaksa against the backdrop of both him and ex-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa being sanctioned by Canada for gross and systematic violations of human rights.
President of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Canada branch Thangavelu, in an e-mail sent to the Canadian Minister, about a week after the attack on the CTC office, has questioned the failure on his part to denounce what he called a despicable and cowardly act.
Thangavelu pointed out several matters to the Canadian Minister. (1) Those responsible for arson attack on the CTC office called its members Tamil traitors for backing the Himalayan Declaration that has received the backing of a significant section of the Buddhist clergy (2) alleged lawmaker Anandasangaree joined Canada-based LTTE rump (3) Anandasangaree’s comments to the Tamil Guardian were not acceptable (4) challenged Anandasangaree’s claim that the CTC declared it represented the Tamil Diaspora (5) reminded Anandasangaree how those LTTE remnants campaigned against him at the 2015 general election. Calling them ultra-Tamil nationalists, Thangavelu recalled how they campaigned for a Punjabi, whereas the CTC threw its full weight behind Anandasangaree (6) disruption caused by pro-LTTE elements at an indoor meeting organized by Canada TNA on Nov 20, 2021 where the main speakers were TNA MPs M.A. Sumamthiran and Shanakiyan R. Rasamanickam. Thangavelu identified Deva Subapathy of the National Council of Canadian Tamils as the person who directed the attack (7) international community under any circumstances wouldn’t intervene in Sri Lanka to carve out a separate Tamil Eelam State (8) referring to the South African complaint to the International Court of Justice over Israeli military campaign may constitute genocide, the TNA Canada Chief questioned the rationale in trying to drag Sri Lanka before ICJ and International Criminal Court (ICC) as the country was not a signatory to the Rome Statue that created the ICC and (8) the threat of fresh Sinhala colonization in predominately Tamil speaking areas, particularly in the East where the Tamil community is a minority.
Anandasangaree has chosen not to respond to Thangavelu’s e-mail so far. Perhaps our High Commissioner in Ottawa Harsha Kumara Navaratne should try to arrange Anandasangaree to visit Colombo in the near future. The Canadian Minister should seek to play a positive role in post war national reconciliation here than being trapped in the vote banks of immigrant communities.
India’s culpability and other matters
The writer drew attention of the ISTRM to the necessity to amend the Bill as it didn’t take into consideration the covert Indian intervention that caused terrorism here, leading to a conventional conflict and the presence of the Indian Army in the Northern and Eastern regions of Sri Lanka during July 1987-March 1990.
The gathering was told that the truth seeking process would be meaningless unless the period during which India trained thousands of Sri Lankan youth in India during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as the Premier received attention.
The attempt made by Indian trained Sri Lankan terrorists to assassinate Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in early Nov 1988 was also highlighted to underscore the importance of a wider investigation as successive Sri Lankan governments made some desperate and foolish efforts to reach consensus with thd Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the conflict. The writer recalled how President Ranasinghe Premadasa, during the 1989-1990 period, funded terrorists to the tune of Rs 125 mn, and millions worth of arms, ammunition and equipment.
ISTRM must realize that killings occurred during the raid on the Maldives, the killing of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in South India, in May 1991, and the killings during the deployment of the Indian Army here as well as the killings ordered by India in the run-up to the July 29, 1987 Indo-Lanka peace accord, cannot be ignored.
If ISTRM bothered to speak with sitting TNA MP Dharmalingam Siddharthan, he would tell them how TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization), another group trained by India, assassinated his father V. Dharmalingam, and his colleague M. Alalasundaram, both Jaffna District MPs, on the night of Sept 2/3, 1985. MP Dharmalingham, in an interview with the writer, in 1997, alleged that the TELO abducted and killed two MPs at the behest of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in the aftermath of the failed Thimpu talks to put the blame on the LTTE.
Dr. Yuvi Thangarajah, the co-author of ‘The Politics of the North-East: part of the Sri Lanka Strategic Conflict Assessment 2005 (2000 – 2005)’ the current head of the ISTRM’s Policy Division can direct the investigation in the right direction.
The report produced by Yuvi Thangarajah and Liz Philipson, with the financial backing of the governments of the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and Northern Ireland, Asia Foundation and the World Bank, dealt with the LTTE that believed in its strength to achieve its objectives through military means. Dr. Thangarajah, having dealt with the issues at a time the LTTE wielded immense conventional military capacity witnessed the eradication of that power within less than three years (2006 August-May 2009). Now the academic can play a significant role in shaping the investigation, if he really wanted to or allow the probe to disregard important matters.
The writer brought the following events/developments to the notice of ISTRM: (1) the releasing of approximately 12,000 combatants taken into custody after the collapse of the LTTE on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in April-May 2009 (2) why presidential pardon shouldn’t be granted to those who had been convicted by courts and others (3) the TNA’s responsibility for LTTE’s atrocities, including recruitment of child soldiers and violence in the North-East after the R. Sampanthan’s political party in 2001 recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people (4) killings carried out by the LTTE exploiting its relationship with the government. A case in point is the unsuspecting SLAF airlifting LTTE gunmen from Mullaithivu to Colombo who carried out the assassination of TULF leader Appapillai Amirthalingam and Vettivelu Yogeswaran, both MPs (5) thousands of persons listed as missing here receiving foreign passports, in most cases with new identities and (6) How many Tamils perished in fighting among various groups during the conflict as well as total number of LTTE cadres executed by the organization on charges of treason.
It would be the responsibility of the government to ensure a comprehensive investigation that would establish the truth. ISTRM should consider what former Indian High Commissioner J.N. Dixit revealed in 2004 ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha.’
Dixit found fault with Indian Premier Indira Gandhi on two foreign policy decisions. One of them was the Indian intervention here. Dixit declared that her active support (it meant recruiting, arming, training and deploying thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil youth across the Palk Strait) to Sri Lankan terrorists (he called them militants) was based on the principle that she could not afford the emergence of Tamil separatism in India by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils.
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