The Sri Lankan people have sat and watched this war for years. A jury of peers could judge this war, yet foreigners have to be our conscience. When Mahinda Rajapaksa says that no civilians have died we know that it is a lie, but we say nothing.
We also know that the Presidential Committee on Lessons Learnt is unlikely to reiterate anything beyond ‘everything went fine.’ The opponents of these panels may be right to say that this is an internal issue and at the same time, the panel’s supporters may be right to say that the truth must come out. The only thing really wrong is that so few Sri Lankans seem to care.
Perhaps in surprise or gratitude, many Sri Lankans are content to ignore the corpses under the rug. The A9 will soon be a carpet with memories buried underneath. Each kilometer from Medawachchiya to Mannar to Mullaitivu, however, was paid for dearly in blood. When Mahinda says that each soldier marched with a gun in one hand and a human rights charter in the other, that is a lie. Each soldier marched with their gun in both hands and for good reason.
The LTTE defended their dominion with mines, suicide cadres and a brutal cunning that sought to exploit any glimmer of humanity. They hid among civilians, in hospitals and herded hostages precisely to draw an international wave disproportional to their force. Near the end, they had no hope of fighting their way out, horror was their only weapon and they tried to exploit the world’s humanity to perpetuate the inhumane.
But it didn’t work. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and General Sarath Fonseka were determined to win at any cost and they pressed relentlessly ahead, squeezing the LTTE into a smaller and smaller space, popping civilians out the side, dead or alive. It is unlikely that the Army targeted civilians, but they certainly didn’t refrain from killing the LTTE. Indeed, General Fonseka once set the metric of the war in terms of cadres killed.
The government was determined to win at any cost and they did. They won at a very high cost of lives. This may be justifiable, but that’s not what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to rewrite history to say that none of this ever happened and that simply isn’t true. The truth is that many civilians were killed to end the war; countless women and children maimed and human rights trampled in order to grip the gun tighter.
The narrative the Rajapaksas are trying to sell is that the war was absolutely just, that civilian casualties are absolutely zero and that there’s absolutely nothing to see here, move along. This is false, but it may stick simply because Sri Lankans don’t seem to care.
In the JVP insurrection, thousands of innocent Sinhalese were tortured and killed to route a great many bad apples. If the Sinhalese didn’t demand truth for their own families, it seems even more unlikely that they’d demand it for Tamils they’re not related to. In that sense the apathy isn’t genocidal, it’s just pathological. In America they said that the tree of liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. In Sri Lanka any blood seems to do, provided there is enough of it.
Mahinda has repeated this lie long enough and to enough approving silence that it is beginning to sound like the truth. If you watch government TV enough, it probably is the truth. As time and development advance people will simply forget and move on. Indeed, many people are trying to and they could, if not for a persistent buzzing in their ears.
Western countries, in the course of enslaving, colonizing and genociding numerous races, have developed a conscience. They developed it too late for the Native Americans or African tribes or Japanese masses, but they have developed it nonetheless. Today the UN and the European Union have seen fit to support a panel to try to find some truth among the shrapnel and, in truth, they may be right. We do need accountability and— to take the literal text of their statements — this panel can be a valuable resource for the Sri Lankan people.
Sadly, the apathy of the Sri Lankan people is so great that the only visible supporters of this panel are diasporal elements that want to divide Sri Lanka and locals with nothing to lose like General Sarath Fonseka. Being foreign is inherently toxic, but having little local support makes this panel about as effective as Che Guevera in Bolivia. But that is not their fault. The fault truly is ours.
Whether its fatigue, latent racism or the numbing effects of 30 years of terrorism, the Sri Lankan people seem happy to live the lie. Not all Sri Lankans, of course, but there is no groundswell of support for truth and reconciliation. Instead we’ve elected leaders who promise lies and development. No foreign panel will work for the reasons both sides proclaim. This is an internal issue for Sri Lanka. Any panel is just a resource for the Sri Lankan people.
The tragedy is that the uncounted deaths of thousands of our fellows is not an issue that Sri Lankans seem inclined to sort out. The findings of any panel will not be read or believed. Sri Lankans know and are content to know what happened in private and to completely ignore the issue in public. The people who’ve lost families are too scared to talk and the ones who haven’t are too resigned. So Mahinda Rajapaksa can lie and say no civilians were killed while most of the country just bobbles their heads. Not no or yes, just whatever. OK.
In reality, of course, this is not OK. This island is too small to share it with ghosts and at some point we must allow their souls to rest. Like JHU Minister Champika Ranawaka apologising on behalf of the UNP for the burning of the Jaffna Library, at some point a UNP government will apologise for the SLFP’s conduct of this war. The lecturing UK government is only now apologising for the 1972 killing of civilians in their Bloody Sunday. So perhaps a report a year after the war is just too ambitious. In another 40 years the truth may come out in full.
For now, however, this is the lily white bed Mahinda Rajapaksa has made from us. International bogeymen may be hiding under the bed, but never you mind. Like Rip Van Winkle, the Sri Lankan people seem content to slumber for another 40 years. For the few, however, it is vital to keep up the record and keep up the fight. It was a lie that set our country free, but it will take the truth to truly unify us as a nation.