Can the TRC model work in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lankans are debating whether their nation could successfully adapt a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) mechanism for post-conflict healing.

For Sri Lankan northerner Kalaiselvam, the sights and sounds of peace have replaced those of war.

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Yet nearly five years after Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict ended, things still aren’t quite right, said the Mullaitivuresident who lost many friends and relatives during the war. For Kalaiselvam and many others in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil north, questions related to the war and its underlying causes remain unresolved.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) could change that, he said.

“I think if all parties– including the Tamil parties– have a say in this, it might benefit us and even help address various grievances of our minority community,” Kalaiselvam, 47, told Khabar South Asia.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, who heads a Colombo policy think-tank, said such a dialogue could contribute to progress and healing.

“Unfortunately we are not addressing the sources of conflict. In fact, we are sustaining and reproducing them at present,” Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, told Khabar.

“Whether it be a TRC or something along those lines, if this were possible, there is no denying that the war has ended but the conflict continues and we are in danger of going back to the past.”

The government faces UN Human Rights Council pressure for alleged war crimes during the final stages of the conflict. Last month, the council voted to investigate Sri Lanka’s wartime conduct. The government has since said it will not co-operate with the probe.

Talking TRC

Sri Lankan and South African officials met recently to explore the TRC national reconciliation concept. By early June, Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s special envoy to Sri Lanka on the TRC issue, is expected to visit, the Sunday Leader reported.

Sri Lanka is still discussing the possibility of adapting the TRC model, but nothing has been finalised, according to government spokesman and Minister Keheliya Rambukwella.

Nonetheless, the TRC issue has many Sri Lankans examining whether the South African model could work. Under that model, perpetrators who committed politically motivated acts of violence would receive immunity in exchange for testimony.

Public opinion

Saravanamuttu is among those expressing doubts about the model’s applicability to Sri Lanka.

A mechanism for establishing the truth is needed, but people victimised or traumatised by the war cannot be expected to forget and forge ahead, he said.

“In any event it is difficult to conceive of a situation in which the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is the main Tamil political party in the country, will agree to a blanket amnesty and to waiving prosecutions,” Saravanamuttu added.

In an April 27th Sunday Leader interview, TNA MP Suresh Premachandran said: “In Sri Lanka, the war is over, but the conflict is still alive. What we want is a political settlement. After that they can establish a TRC or any other measures for further reconciliation, where Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese live together.”

However, Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, executive director of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS), a think-tank affiliated with the Ministry of External Affairs, is more optimistic.

“It would have to be a customised process for Sri Lanka because the South African and Sri Lankan situations are different in many ways,” Abeyagoonasekera told Khabar.

“Like Tutu, our religious leaders could also play an important role in helping achieve reconciliation. Also, building a wholesome relationship with our own diaspora community is essential,” he said.