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Towards healing and reconciliation - part 2

(Continued Oct. 6)

by Devanesan Nesiah

It was never acknowledged, but the authorities and political leadership clearly knew all along that the facts were as reported by me. Foreign governments, international agencies, and the population overseas had access to the correct facts, but the population of Sri Lanka continued to be deliberately misled, with major negative impact on human life, national security, unity and reconciliation.

The Report goes on to question why the State did so little so late to prevent or suppress the riots:

The whole of Sunday was available for the Government to anticipate troubles and take precautionary measures, as preparations went under way for a State sponsored funeral for all 13 soldiers together in the city's main crematorium and cemetery - the Kanatte at Borella. Why were no such precautionary measures taken? (para 101). The Government had adequate opportunity, as it prepared for the kanatte funeral, to decide on a precautionary curfew to be imposed soon after the funeral, which the government failed to do, resulting in the eruption of violence in Borella that same evening following the funeral". (para 102)

"As the fire in Borella raged through the night, easily visible from the Ward Place residence of President Jayewardene, hoodlums from nearby Wanathamulla saw truckloads of armed soldiers in the affected areas watching the inferno without a single shot being fried. The message that night was clear, there was no question of preventing trouble-makers creating trouble (para 103). Further, the question arises as to why the Government failed to declare the curfew on the morning of Monday 25th July, when trouble had already broken out in several parts of Colombo, in addition to the troubles that had occurred in Borella the previous evening?" (para 104).

On the Welikade Prison massacres the Report states: "There can be no doubt that events that occurred within the well secured precincts of the Welikade Prison on the 25th and 27th July 1983 in which 53 political prisoners belonging to the Tamil community were brutally done to death and the traumatic experiences of those who escaped death would constitute the most agonizing moments of challenge to the collective conscience of our nation. (para 197)

"The assailants were the prisoners who acted with the complicity of certain prison officials and were able to act because of the complicity. The victims who escaped were available to testify (para 211). We regret to find that the Government had failed to prosecute those involved in the crimes of July 25th and 27th. There is no evidence that investigations commenced by the Borella Police had been proceeded with beyond the stage of the inquest. The efforts of the Commission to trace the Police records turned futile, with the IGP informing that these records were not traceable. It is the responsibility of every Government to ensure that perpetrators of crimes are punished and that no one acts with impunity or gets away without accountability. The Government of the day had failed to discharge these obligations. (para 212)

It is clear from the Report that several prison officials and Army personnel were complicit in the massacres. There is evidence in the report to suggest that the massacres were planned and executed by some prison and other officials, and that those even higher up were involved in the cover up. The Army personnel present at the site first refused to save the lives of the victims, and then intervened to prevent the injured from being taken under police escort for emergency medical treatment (thus effectively ensuring their death).

The Report pays tribute to both Superintendent of Prisons Leo de Silva, and to Ms. Suriya Wickremasinghe for their contributions to unravelling the events that occurred at Welikade (para 213). At the inquest into the massacre of 25 July, Leo de Silva, who was able to identify those involved, began to reveal incriminating details but was not permitted to do so. The evidence of his son Lalanath de Silva is set out in the Report.

"(At the inquest into the massacre on 25th July) the Magistrate stopped his evidence halfway, which his father believed was because his father was going to reveal the truth. (At the inquest into the massacre on 27th July) Mr. Lalanath de Silva said, his father was not called to give evidence at all, although he was the officer-in-charge on that day.

He gave evidence that sometimes thereafter his father was not given his promotion, his arrears of salary or his increments. He believes that this was because of his father 'standing-up and wanting to speak the truth about these incidents'. His father filed Application No. 150/88 in the Supreme Court under Article 126 of the Constitution and the case was settled by the State with his father getting his dues. He referred to paragraph 13 of the Petition in which his father had referred to the Magistrate stopping his evidence at the first inquiry and dispensed with the petitioners evidence at the second inquiry. He also referred to a departmental inquiry commenced by his father into the Welikada prison incidents, which was stopped by the Department on the alleged instructions from the Ministry of Justice.

The then Commissioner of Prisons and the Magistrate are no longer living. He said further, that his father was confident that he could identify the prisoners who participated in the incidents but no efforts were made to identify the miscreants. (para 173) Overall, the Report comes down hard on the Government of the day:

"We have faulted the then Government, in several places of this Report, for both acts of omissions and commissions, in the run up to the events that resulted in the communal conflagration of July 1983. But, more importantly, the Government was guilty of gross negligence in failing to appeal to the people for restraint, peace and calm on July 25, 26 and until the evening of July 27. There was not a single leader of Cabinet rank to at least appeal to the lawbreakers to stop violence, apart from the Government's failing to perform its fundamental obligations to protect the life and property of its citizens, even by recourse to force. There were witnesses who testified that this was due to the complicity of a section of the Government in 'teaching the Tamils lesson', for the terrorism in the North". (para 111)

The Commission was appointed belatedly, and with a restricted mandate and limited resources. Prompt, effective implementation of the recommendations is essential. What other steps could be taken to prevent recurrence of ethnic violence and to promote national unity and reconciliation?

There can be no enduring and comprehensive reconstruction, physical or social, economic or political, local or national, without reconciliation; and there can be no true reconciliation without all sections of the population collectively examining, diagnosing and working out remedies to eliminate the cancers that have eaten into our society. The nature of these wounds is such that healing will not occur the mere passage of time; rather, they will continue to fester if unattended.

This exercise could be led by a post-conflict Truth and Reconciliation Commission established with an appropriate mandate. Such a process would be time bound, but its prescription could include the institution of commemorative processes and memorials to help us to address the causes and consequences, and to prevent the recurrence of those ills.

These could cover an annual programme of Remembrance and Reconciliation of the pogrom of the last week of July 1983, as well as memorials of collective mourning and reconciliation at the sites of the massacres and other ethnic violence / attacks on major non-military institutions such as at Mawattegama, Anuradhapura Railway Station and many other places (August 1977), Jaffna (August 1979), Jaffna Public Library (31 May 1981), Jaffna (23 and 24 July 1983), Kent and Dollar Farms (November 1984), Murunkan (04 December 1984), Valvettithurai Public Library (09 March 1985), Akkaraipattu (May 1985), Anuradhapura (14 May 1985), Kituloothuwa 914 April 1987) Pettah (April 1987), Jaffna Hospital (21 October 1987), Valvettithurai (02 August 1989), Rufuskulam, Thirukkovil (11 June 1990), Veeramunai Pillaiyar Temple Refugee Camp (12 July 1990), Kurukkal Madam (12 July 1990) Kaththankudy Mosque (03 August 1990), Eravur Mosque (12 August 1990), Estern University (05 September 1990), Sathurukondan (09 September 1990), Mailanthanai (09 August 1992), St. James Church Refugee Camp, Jaffna (November 1993), Navali RC Church (09 July 1995), Nagarkovil (21 September 1995), Ampara (October 1995), Central Bank (January 1996), Kilivetti (11 February 1996), Jaffna (July and August 1996), Jaffna (January 1997), Dalada Maligawa (early 1998), Gonagala (September 1999), and Katunayake International Airport (July 2001).

The above are some of the major incidents of attacks on civilian targets and killings of non-combatants. But it is premature to decide on the manner in which these deaths and disasters should be commemorated. This can be done only after peace is established and the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission sets out its proposals.

All that can be said at this stage is that these and many other tragedies need to the addressed collectively on an all island basis with a view to healing and reconciliation, without prejudice to any steps that may be taken to secure justice. There should be no blanket amnesty. Rather, a balance needs to be struck between what Bishop Tutu, in his foreword to the report of the South African Truth Commission, referred to as 'retributive and punitive justice' and 'restorative justice which is concerned not so much with punishment as with correcting imbalances, restoring broken relationships, healing, harmony and reconciliation".

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