by Kalana Senaratne
Does the shaking of hands, a hand-shake, this decent act of touching human flesh, mean anything, anything significant and meaningful? In the realm of politics and public engagement of politicians, this act has come to mean very little; in fact, it almost amounts to nothing. After all, a president and a former army commander shook hands too, smiling. After all, politicians across the divide shake hands too. Shaking hands for the camera, they go on to say and do things that cause disharmony and disunity.
But a recent confrontation in Boston, a different kind of confrontation, ended in a way that would have pleased many, a hand-shake which looked genuine, at least for a fleeting moment. This ‘confrontation’ took place, as the video clips online suggest, at a presentation delivered by Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Ma. Gen. Shavendra Silva, in Boston-USA, on 29 January, 2011.
What seemed to be significant about this presentation was not what MG Silva had to say, but what happened during and after it. We are shown a few people gathered in front of the place where Maj. Gen. Silva was delivering his address, a few men carrying small placards. One read: "Please don’t allow war criminals in US: War criminal is here, find him and arrest him". Another placard read: "Genocide cannot be buried!!! Don’t look away". Some of these protesters were wearing T-shirts which had the words: "Stop Sri Lanka’s Genocide of Tamils". During a short altercation that ensued, one person stated that they "don’t like to talk to criminals". Another said that Maj. Gen. Silva was a coward, and not war hero, as he was (according to this protestor) responsible for the shooting of those who surrendered with white-flags.
But then came the invitation, perhaps from those who had organized the event: an invitation for the protesters to go in and listen to Maj. Gen. Silva speaking. While one seemed to hesitate, another expressed willingness. Thereafter we see them come in, sit down and listen to what MG Silva, whom they had called a ‘war criminal’ a few minutes before!
An interesting interaction, a lively debate, seemed to have followed Shavendra’s presentation. Among the protesters was Ms. Suba Sunderalingam of what is known as the ‘Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam’ (TGTE), who, inter alia, asked for MG Silva’s views concerning the ‘war-crimes’ accusations levelled against him and the Sri Lankan armed forces by numerous human rights organizations. Others, too, raised questions about old incidents said to have taken place in Navali etc.
While the responses could have been guessed by anyone there was what seemed to be an interesting observation by him, which in essence went as follows: that violations of humanitarian law or the commission of alleged crimes, if true, cannot be hidden forever. Evidence of such crimes, if committed, would surface one day. Having stated so, he went on to state that the allegations levelled so far were bogus, and that if anyone was responsible, the government and the military would take action.
While this is certainly a standard response, what is perhaps worthy of appreciation is the stark truth that Maj. Gen. Silva stated: that if crimes have indeed been committed, they cannot be hidden; they will surface. How could that happen, one may think, if journalists were barred from reporting?
But then, how could reports be written and produced by various organizations alleging the armed forces in particular since journalists did not have access to those areas? What of the credibility of such reports?
How, and in what way, would this ‘evidence’ surface, or would such evidence surface, if any crimes have indeed been committed as some allege through disgruntled elements within the armed forces? These are some questions that seem to arise.
What is also to be appreciated is what Shavendra stated in his interview with ‘Boston-Lanka’; that, the troops were well informed of international humanitarian laws, through training conducted by the ICRC in particular. The intention had been to win the war while respecting rules and norms of IHLs, and as claimed by him the troops did respect IHLs.
This assertion then means something important, even though some might wish to disagree with what was stated above: that the Armed Forces were mindful of the IHLs. This runs counter to the claim made by some about the non-applicability of IHLs during internal conflict situations.
To return to that confrontation in Boston: we see, finally, the person who had earlier accused Shavendra and called him a coward, and not a war-hero, extending his hand; a gesture which was welcomed by the latter, leading of course to that shaking of hands, between the accuser and the accused. A ‘confrontation’ which ended on a peaceful note, a confrontation which showed much tolerance being practised by all participants (Does this come close to what the ancient religious teachers meant by ‘tolerance’? Would the great teachers have been pleased to witness such a confrontation? Would they have blessed those participants: Sri Lankans in Boston, the blessed people?).
But then, with the passage of time, one begins to wonder: Were those protesters truly convinced? Or, were they left with no alternative, given that they were outnumbered within the hall? Were they, like politicians doing so for the camera? One hopes not, but one never knows for sure. Where was TGTE’s Suba? Did she not stay to shake the hand of Maj. Gen. Silva? Had she left, convinced and happy, or lunconvinced and disgusted?
Whatever the answers to those questions may be, the kind of interaction one witnessed in Boston is to be encouraged. It is time for those who were truly there, the armed forces-personnel themselves, to tell their story, which is more convincing than those told by politicians. This however, in turn, makes the stories of the civilians who were trapped in the battle-field, vitally important, too.
But, in the diplomatic arena, the audience would need to be of a different blend. ‘Preaching to the converted’ is of little use. Those who should be addressed are not only those who would hold posters that say: ‘You are our war-hero’. It should be those who say precisely the opposite: ‘You are a war-criminal’. A small start has been made, and Maj. Gen. Silva seems to be encouraging such interaction and engagement, as he noted during his presentation. For now, all those who participated ought to be thanked, even congratulated.