Karuna Amman walks into the commission, an improbable brunette at his side. This former warrior, warlord, some would say war criminal, is now thoroughly domesticated, clad in a suit too big and speaking English a tad bit inadequate. He never hits a flow, never perceives the cracks in his interrogators’ colonial legalese, to their fault. Some have called Karuna a puppet, and the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission led him mercilessly.
At some points, Karuna would say an answer they didn’t like and the commissioners would just ask over and over until he agreed. In one case, they were asking if Norway gave money for LTTE arms. Karuna said they gave money but that everybody knew the LTTE was spending on arms. That everybody included you, me and the Pope, but the Commission seemed intent on indicting the Norwegians. They kept asking till Karuna, essentially agreed.
For a national commission, one striking feature is that the LLRC is largely conducted in English. This is not a complaint, just an observation. It is also important to note that I think the LLRC, while biased, is doing very good work. Just visit their website. www.llrc.lk, click on ‘Activities & Events’ and you can view transcripts of an awful lot of the public sittings. They have also gone directly into the North and spoke directly to affected people. Whatever the LLRC’s faults, it is doing good work.
The issue with the LLRC is that the lessons have already been learnt and reconciliation is largely out of its purview. From attending the sessions a few times, it is clear that the main lesson is that the CFA was a bad idea and that everyone involved was to blame. Their questioning rarely ventures into the latter phases of the war, except to praise its decisiveness.
This is obvious in the mandate of the Commission, which is “[to find] the facts and circumstances which led to the failure of the cease-fire agreement operationalised on 21st February, 2002 and the sequence of events that followed thereafter up to the 19th of May, 2009.” It is also obvious in their questioning. It is also, generally, obvious. No commission appointed by the President is going to indict the President or his conduct of the war.
Anyone — especially in the diaspora — expecting a commission on the actual war, isn’t going to get one until there’s another president. Anyone asking for an international commission is, in my opinion, politically tone-deaf as such a commission would destabilise the government we have and replace it with nothing. The only immediate commissions have been against people that lost wars, essentially the only enforceable war crime. Everything else takes time and it takes the perspective of history.
This current LLRC is essentially manufacturing history just as Mahinda has masterfully branded the war and continues to brand it through parades and events and even reality shows starring the military. The LLRC, however, is also recording history and making it available online which I think is a good thing.
Out of the sessions I’ve seen, Karuna did not perform well, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was not questioned with any vigour and many others were forgettable. Some people, however, did say what they thought, even controversially and reading the sessions from public sittings in the North is eye-opening. There are pleas from mothers to release their husbands from arrest and the questioners — much to their credit — get the names and documentation to look into it.
This is not reconciliation along the lines of the famous South African Commission, but there is also no amnesty either. For example, when Karuna was asked about the infamous slaying of surrendered police officers in the East under his command, he simply said he wasn’t there. What else would he say? People are speaking with extreme caution because the commission offers no amnesty, because it has a transparent bias and because it’s obvious who pulls the strings. They are speaking, however, which —if you read between the lines — is something.
Coming back to Karuna, however, the man simply has very little to say. He says that he joined the LTTE after A/Levels when he first saw refugees from the 1983 riots in Batticaloa. Later he speaks better (according to my friend) in Tamil, but with no particular increase in valuable content. Karuna’s narrative is essentially that bad politicians caused ‘83, he joined the LTTE after that, did nothing terrible, tried to reason with Prabhakaran to take a peace deal and left when he couldn’t. Now he thinks Mahinda has done well to end the war and that they are working together to build the peace.
The commissioners went ahead and filled in the gaps they need for their report — about the flaws of the cease-fire and the flaws of the facilitators in particular. On the whole, however, this is the general lesson learnt. Reconciliation is, essentially, everyone reconciling themselves to Mahinda.