Sri Lanka’s Conflict, Peace, and the American Myth

by William Martz

1983-2009 saw Sri Lanka in the midst of a civil war, an era encapsulated by daily fear, loss, and bloodshed. Since peace was restored following the SLA’s 2009 victory over the LTTE much has been commented upon in the press about the war. One commonly proponed discourse in this country asserts that the conflict should be condensed into a struggle of good vs evil; a simplistic approach that wholly neglects a comprehensive vision. Whilst many remain loth to accept a holistic viewpoint, they are liable to promote further grievance and ignore long established differences. Thereby undermining the propinquity for reconciliation, prosperity, and a lasting resolution.

Last month the Island published an article written by Mr. Neville Ladduwahetty (The Island, Need to Rebrand SL Conflict, published in two parts on 21st Oct and 24th Oct 2016), in which the author scrutinizes the branding of the conflict. He criticizes the west – most notably the US – as overtly sympathetic to the Tamils, and thus as a friendly supporter of the LTTE. Yet in fact the US promoted integration and only rescinded military aid to the Sri Lankan government in 2007 when it was determined that human rights violations had taken place. This is a standard position for the US to take in such situations (an American policy not unique to Sri Lanka) and should not be misconstrued as support for the LTTE. Yet it is a commonly suggested notion expressed in Sri Lankan media, and widely accepted by many people.

Just because many in the West found themselves empathetic towards an underrepresented Tamil population does not mean that those same people condoned or even tacitly sympathized with the actions of the LTTE. It is clear that the LTTE was a terrorist organization, the view and definition officially espoused by the US and other Western states. It is also commonly accepted in the US and the West that the Tamil areas of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka had been economically neglected and politically deprecated by successive governments in Colombo. Both aspects tend to be acknowledged simultaneously.

It is often asked why the West is so critical of actions taken by the SLA during the conflict, and so eager to hold the government to account. Subsequently asserting that equal criticism is not placed on the LTTE. Yet are governments not always held to a higher standard than terrorist organizations? Two wrongs do not make a right, alluding to the self-evident notion that a polity ought always to strive to hold itself to a morally justifiable standard. Government presumably operates within the law, terrorists inherently do not. It is a grave fallacy to condone the acceptability of any civilian losing their fundamental rights – or a reasonable expectation to protection – no matter their ethnicity, religion, or geographic location. In the current climate it seems almost convention to opine that the end justified the means. But when this argument is given there should also be a recognition of the ethical ambiguity contained within. What the outside world saw was governmental marginalization of an ethnic minority whilst also acknowledging the terroristic acts committed against the Sri Lankan people. It is important that one narrative is not set in stone unable to be adapted as time progresses.

In what world can a duality not exist? It is without doubt that the LTTE should be classified as a terrorist organization, yet it is also widely understood that Sinhalese areas garnered preferential treatment, and that Tamil areas were underserved and not prioritized for investment. It is not a matter of altering the mood of people in the West; seeing victims where they should see terrorists. Simply because some were terrorists does not mean that others were not victims. The two are not mutually exclusive.

It is important to realize that innate personal opinions are often prejudiced, and should not be conveyed as abject fact. Emeritus Professor Siri Hetigge noted last month in a piece on education and ethnic tension in the Daily Mirror that “many people are looking for evidence to prove their point of view rather than to uncover any objective truth… the discussions are influenced as much by objective analyses as by ideological biases and personal interests” (Daily Mirror, Failed Education and Persistent Ethnic Tension 24th Oct 2016). A very forthright statement that reflects upon an important observation, and one that is frequently discarded or ignored.

The acknowledgement of this trend demonstrates a perspicacious outlook, and can be related to a realization that the rhetoric associated with the portrayal of Sri Lanka’s conflict may come from personal feelings, or to promote specific agendas. The general consensus in the West is that indiscriminate violence was perpetrated concurrently. Yet this is an issue where a generality of the Sri Lankan media seems greatly reticent to accept or even acknowledge. It is the stringency with which this implacable attitude is held and propagated that much of the outside world finds so disquieting. There seems to be a singularly focused sentiment that seeks to adamantly justify certain actions, this expression is then often manifested in popular opinion. Personal beliefs and perspectives should always be valued, yet people should still be wary of the partisanship that vehement attitudes and rigidly held opinions may engender.

As Dr. Paikiyasothi Saravanamuttu said “The issue here is whether the two sides became the mirror image of each other in trying to win a war, and that’s what all these allegations are about, and I think that’s what the country needs to know, in terms of as to whether the end really did justify the means, and as to whether the means have sown the seeds of a future conflict… Can you have national unity without reconciliation? Can you have reconciliation without accountability? You know, we may never get justice in terms of what has happened in this country, but will we get the truth? So that if we are to forge ahead into the future, we will have a good idea as to where we are starting from,” (Excerpt from Al Jazeera interview 20th Apr 2011).

A statement that holds as true today as it did when said. Leading to the question of whether a final reconciliation is possible? This is certainly of the utmost importance for a successful Nation, but if it is to be actualized it must be mutually desired with open attitudes. The extended SLA presence in the Northern Peninsula causes tension and draws the ire of many, as does the building of Buddhist shrines in the North. The lack of significant effort to restore seized lands and expediently secure the right of return for the displaced – problematic issues that disproportionately affect the North and East of the country – are present day dilemmas that contribute little to rapprochement or amity, and are not continuously sustainable.

The past must be heeded, and intransigence discarded for foresight if an enduring peace is to be maintained in perpetuity. The violence and tumult experienced and felt by so many should not be seen as an anachronism. If needs are not met then anger rises, if suppression is then used to control that situation it may only lead to increased resentment, especially along ethnic lines. Thereby only increasing the likelihood of a renewed separatist threat. Grievances must be taken seriously – a house divided cannot stand – thus the integral importance of genuinely addressing fundamental issues. The Sri Lankan government has taken important steps in this endeavor such as creating the Commission on Truth Seeking, the Office of Reparations and Institutional Reform, and the Office for Missing Persons. Success however depends on such initiatives being enacted full heartedly, inclusively, and not mired in bureaucratic slowdowns and/or political hurdles.

Author’s note: I am an American currently serving a period of internship at Godfrey Cooray Associates law firm in Negombo. The opinions expressed in this article are derived from my study of political science, experiences traveling in Sri Lanka, research, and conversations held with a diversity of people within the country.

Special thanks to Godfrey Cooray-Senior Attorney at Law, Aravinda Fernando-Attorney at Law, Ruwantha Cooray-Attorney at Law, Rukmal Cooray-Attorney at Law, Roy Fernando-Attorney at Law, Ranusha Wijesinghe-Attorney at Law, Amelka Ranaweera, Vishmi Wickramarathne, Rumanwalee Cooray, and all their colleagues at Godfrey Cooray Associates for their help, guidance, and support.