In Sri Lanka, as a presidential election approaches, the mood is outwardly gung-ho. Both main candidates claim credit for defeating the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and ending a decades-long conflict. President Mahinda Rajapakse, who with his brothers, Gotabaya (the Defence Secretary) and Basil (a senior presidential advisor) has been running the country, is being challenged by General Sarath Fonseka, a former army commander.
Yet behind the bravado and bold promises is the shadow of past violence. Many are in denial about the effects, but unless the grim legacy is at least acknowledged, future unity and stability may be undermined.
The government, in recent months, has faced disturbing revelations about actions taken during the war (in some of which the ex-commander is implicated). The United Nations recently confirmed that, in its experts’ view, video footage showing soldiers killing Tiger prisoners was authentic, but the Sri Lankan regime continues to insist that it was faked.
In December 2009, evidence emerged indicating that Tiger leaders were murdered while surrendering. Despite their own crimes against humanity, if the allegations are true, this was illegal, depriving their victims of the chance to see them brought to trial where their misdeeds would be exposed, and may deter future rebels from surrendering. This too was brushed aside by the authorities, who also stand accused of recklessly endangering Tamil civilians who were used by the Tigers as human shields.
It is not only in the course of war that state violence has led to cover-ups. Journalists have also been targeted. A year after the murder of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickremetunge in broad daylight in Colombo on 8 January 2009, his widow Sonali wrote, “as with the 13 other dissident media workers brutally slaughtered since President Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed the presidency just four years ago, there has been no serious investigation of his murder. And I am confident there will never be one. When the state kills, it kills with impunity… Sadly for our country, I believe the worst is yet to come. It is now open to doubt whether the victory over terrorism, achieved after terrible bloodshed and loss of life, both civilian and military, will turn to ashes as the government subverts democracy so as to consolidate its stranglehold on power.”
And on 2 January 2010, the fourth anniversary of the murder of five Tamil students by soldiers in Trincomalee, for which the killers were never brought to justice, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna)(UTHR(J)) – which has been critical of all parties in the conflict – pointed out in a report that:
The end of the war, despite the huge cost in human misery among combatants and civilians, ushered in hopes of the fruits of peace. These are however, marred by virulent divisions jostling behind a culture of impunity. The latter long antedates the present regime, to which both leading players contributed in equal measure…
Our history is one where emergent armed groups, frequently infected by the authoritarian and fascist tendencies of their nationalist peers, have repeatedly been decimated by indiscriminate state terror. The political culture remains ugly, despite the rulers’ rhetorical commitment to democracy and the rule of law as a legitimising ritual…
There can be no reconciliation in this country unless the truth is faced about systemic violence and the violence of rebellion from which all sections have been victims at different times.
A history of violence
As UTHR(J) made clear, many have been guilty of unlawful violence in recent decades. Governments led by different political parties, and rebels – not only the Tigers but also the Southern-based Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), now a mainstream party – have kidnapped, killed and driven people from their homes. While some people focus on Sri Lanka’s “ethnic conflict”, in fact much of the violence has been within ethnic communities, for instance Sinhalese soldiers slaughtering Sinhalese youth and Tamil militants torturing or assassinating dissidents in their midst.
Some Sri Lankan voters are at present so glad that the fighting has ended that they do not much care what methods were used, and are ready to excuse the occasional abuse of power by those they regard as conquering heroes. But their own liberties are at stake and, as Sri Lanka’s recent history has bloodily demonstrated, when channels for legitimate dissent are blocked, sooner or later violence may result.
Buddhism and truth
Ironically, the presidential candidates have energetically sought to appeal to Buddhists, the largest faith group in the country (and practically all of whom are members of the majority Sinhalese ethnic community, though not all Sinhalese people are Buddhists). They have sought blessings at temples and tried to win support from monks. Yet not lying is central to Buddhist ethics, along with not killing. The other religions commonly practised in Sri Lanka – Hinduism, Christianity and Islam – also place a high value on truth.
Some modern Buddhists may think that the Buddha was naïve, or that his teachings cannot be applied in today’s political conditions. Yet in ancient India where the Buddha lived and taught, politics could often be a dirty and brutal business. He knew all too well the ways in which deception could gradually erode the characters of those practising it, as well as causing harm to others. There are important lessons for present-day Sri Lanka.
© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. Savi is an Ekklesia associate.