“Let bygones be bygones”: A glance at the Post War Sri Lankan Political dilemma

Last night the world lost who I would consider without a doubt the greatest political leader of our time, Nelson Mandela. A man so respected around the world by every political leader despite differences in ideology, a father to a nation who lived and ruled by example rather than words. Today he is gone in person but his legacy will live on for generations to come both in South Africa and elsewhere in the world as a man who did his bit for this world.

In 1990 then South African Apartheid government released Mandela after he served 27 years of rigorous imprisonment.  Soon after his release the world was amazed by what he had to say, ‘Let bygones be bygones. Let what has happened pass… Take your knives and your guns and throw them into the sea’. Followed by this remark the world witnessed the establishment of the world’s most successful reconciliation commission to date ‘(The Truth and Reconciliation commission) which was considered an alternative approach to the post world war Nuremberg trials for addressing the woes of the victims of the stark atrocities committed during the Apartheid era. This was established in 1995 led by former Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  Although the reconciliation commission had its ups and downs it enabled the country to get through the transitional period after decades of violence. The idea was to fight violence with non-violence, to forgive and forget, to ‘let bygones be bygones’.

Having said that I will take this occasion to look at an issue that is troubling my country Sri Lanka: war crimes and human rights violations during the final phase of the war in 2009.  The international community seems to be adamant about making sure the bleak past of the Sri Lankan war remains current in their agenda. Not letting bygones be bygones. It’s most recent episode being the commonwealth meeting.

About three weeks ago between the 15th and 17th November, Sri Lanka hosted the 23rd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).  This meeting was subjected to international scrutiny months prior to it being held. Human right activists, various political leaders and prominent peace figures such as Nobel peace prize winner former Archbishop Desmond Tutu advocated world leaders not to attend the meeting. This was in protest against the government’s failure to address the alleged war crimes committed during the final phase of the 26 year old war and also for it’s delayed response to the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report.  This resulted in three leaders, namely Canadian, Indian and Mauritian boycotting the meeting. However what drew the attention most was the attendance of the British Premier and moreover his ultimatum that if the GoSL fails to carry out an investigation into alleged war crimes committed during the last phase of the war then the UK will use its powers at the UN human rights council to probe for an international inquiry into the matter. These recent incidents demand unravelling bit of history behind the Sri Lankan conflict.

Sri Lanka was granted its independence in 1948 after four centuries of colonial rule first by the Portuguese in 1505, second in 1658 by the Dutch and finally in 1796 by the British empires. A country that was never united was first united under the British rule in 1815. The British employed the ‘divide and rule’ policy in order to ensure that there would not be collective uprising against the British Empire within the country. Further under the British colonial rule the elite Tamil feudal class enjoyed the privileges such as better accessibility to education, jobs etc which was equally enjoyed by the elitist Sinhalese feudal class. This was also followed by an emergence of a capitalist class mainly located in Colombo, engaged in trade. Both Tamil and Sinhalese polity, which mainly comprised of these elitist groups during the final years of the colonial empire worked rigorously to achieve freedom for the country.  Finally in 1948 it was granted to them. But the British left the country in the hands of the majority Sinhalese creating a rift between not the general Tamil and Sinhalese populace but the elitist groups of the society comprised of both communities who in the years to come would take the country to one of the longest running civil wars in the world.

But ‘ let bygones be bygones’

I will not go into details of what happened between 1948 till 1983 here. The history records the war dating it back to the 1983 subsequent to the riots that erupted in Colombo taking large numbers of innocent Tamil lives in an event orchestrated mainly by the Sinhalese polity who was facing economic turbulent times affecting political stability.  Those who fled the country after the 1983 riots formed one of the strongest Diasporas in the world mainly located in Canada, Britain and India[1]. Between 1983 till 2001 the Tamil Diaspora in UK was able to openly finance the war that war carried out by the LTTE in Sri Lanka for a separate state[2]. It was only in 2001 the British government took measures to ban the LTTE as a terrorist outfit (The year 2001 marked the demise of many terrorist outfits around the globe after the 9/11 attacks on the center of the world’s capitalist empire). However between 1983-2000 the LTTE  carried out over 50 suicide bomb attacks in the Sri Lankan soil killing thousands with significant number of Tamil and Sinhalese political leaders including R. Premadasa in 1993, the country’s president at the time. Around the same period the LTTE also assassinated Rajiv Gandhi the former prime minister of India in 1991. But the organization continued to be openly financed in countries like Britain and Canada during this period. Lets not forget that Canada banned LTTE as a terrorist outfit only in 2006.

But ‘let bygones be bygones’

In May 2009 the Sri Lankan military struggle between the GoSL troops and the LTTE came to an end. This was achieved not only because the GoSL was strong enough to defeat the LTTE but because by the time confrontations started in May 2006 LTTE was financially paralyzed to finance a war in the advent of the post 9/11 bans that were imposed and the launch of the war against terror campaign. The GoSL at this juncture grabbed the opportunity to destroy the LTTE. In the process undoubtedly many innocent lives were lost.

Here one is confronted with the ultimate causal dilemma, whether it was the chicken or the egg that came first. Because it appears if it wasn’t for the financing that took place between the 1983- 2006 period the LTTE wouldn’t have been there to be defeated in the first place and then there wouldn’t have been a final stage of war to inquire into.

I have only one question; who actually were responsible for the conflict in Sri Lanka and its aggravation into a Civil War in the aftermath of 1983 riots? The Sinhalese state and the LTTE alone?

Should we let ‘bygones be bygones?’

[1] Guneratne, R (2003) Sri Lanka: Feeding the Tamil Tigers In Ballentine, K et al (eds) The Political Economy of Armed Conflict, London: Rienner. Pp 197-224

[2] ibid


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