Following the killings of the entire LTTE leadership there is a strongly expressed feeling among Sri Lankans, within the country or outside, that their deaths particularly that of the leader, Prabakaran, should not be a matter for mourning. I beg to differ!
That there were the most extreme forms of violence practiced by both the rebels and the state forces is the issue of real concern. That the political and legal systems of Sri Lanka have not developed to an extent that it is possible to deal with any conflict, particularly a conflict between the communities living within the country, is a matter that cannot be separated from the way in which all actors in the present conflict have behaved. The test of civilisation in modern times is the nature of the political and legal institutions within which people live and not their so called traditional cultures. If the situation of Sri Lanka is such that no such civilised political
and legal systems exists, the actors for the state and those citizens
who have taken to violence must be judged within the framework of this total situation.
Moral and legal responsibilities
This does not remove the moral responsibilities of those who have
acted with barbarism either on behalf of the rebel groups or on
behalf of the state. Each must answer morally for their actions
despite the colossal defects of the political and legal systems
within which they have acted. For this each must answer separately.
It is not exculpatory for anyone to claim innocence on the basis that
such actions were done on behalf of the rebel group or the state if
the acts themselves, are immoral or illegal even in the situation of
a ‘war’. However, those who have made moral decisions which are wrong and which may have brought them to the ultimate loss of life due to these very wrongs, do not forfeit their human status and therefore they still deserve to be mourned. Prabakaran was a citizen of Sri Lanka and a human being and there is no way of saying in an ultimate sense that he was not ‘one of us.’
I am a Sinhalese by birth and as I reached my adulthood I told myself that this should in no way affect my judgement on anything. In the latter part of my life in particular, I have lived with many races and nationalities belonging to all continents. At no stage the fact of whatever race or nationality these people belonged to has been a matter affecting any judgement, though the ethnic and cultural differences of people have played an important role in the enjoyment and enrichment of each other. And I have asked myself, if this be the case, why should my judgement regarding the communities of my own country be any different to this?
In terms of the strongest cultural tradition of Sri Lanka which is
Buddhism, perhaps the story of Angulimala is to the point.
Angulimala, a bright student, was treated badly by his guru because
of a misunderstanding created by jealous and rival students in the
mind of the guru about him. The guru instructed Angulimala to bring
him a chain of fingers. The finger hunt resulted in Angulimala having
the reputation of being the worst murderer in the region because he
killed everyone he met to take their fingers. One day however, the
Buddha confronted him, facing the risk of assassination himself. In
the process Angulimala was brought to his knees, made to understand his predicament and changed his ways. The moral of the story is two-fold. That Angulimala’s behaviour was conditioned and that despite of his atrocious criminal acts he was still a human being to be dealt with.
In the Christian tradition there is the story of the stoning of an
immoral woman where the Christ told the crowd, those who are without sin, throw the first stone.
This does not imply that the moral and legal wrongs done by the LTTE under their leader should be forgotten or forgiven. All the moral and legal issues of atrocious crimes need to remain the top priority of the national discourse until such time as the whole nation
understands the implications of all these issues, so that measures
will be developed in order to avoid their repetition in the future.
In the case of the rebellions of the JVP in 1971 and 1986 to 1991 no
such discussion took place and, in fact, attempts at all such
discussions was deliberately suppressed. Therefore the repetition of
similar and even worse behaviour happened again through the LTTE.
The problem of dealing with moral and legal issues is that no one can
take a holier than thou attitude. It is not possible to discuss and
resolve and the moral and legal issues of rebels without discussing
the legal and political responsibilities of the state. If the state
itself avoids criticism of its own behaviour and has no will at all
to change that behaviour with the improvement of political and legal
institutions, then the criticism of the rebels become a farce. Such a
refusal to discuss state responsibility can only be a ploy to continue
with the defective political and legal systems for the benefit of some
The threat of more repression on everyone
Thus, out of the fight against rebels there is the real possibility
of the emergence of a state with greater powers of repression which
would be used against the entire population. It was the campaign
against the communists in Germany which was utilised by Hitler to
build one of the world’s worst authoritarian systems. It was the
fight against the bourgeoisie and the internal party groups of the
left opposition lead by Trotsky that was utilised by Joseph Stalin to
create an authoritarian system which was even worse than that of
In the aftermath of Prabakaran’s death the exhibition of his body and
the jubilation that was shown reflect badly on the sort of ‘headhunter
mentality’ of some tribes who kept the heads of their enemies,
captured in battle as trophies of their strength and glory. When the
political and legal institutions fails to live up to required
standards a sub-stream of consciousness that remains from the past
can surface, as Hannah Arendt in her extensive studies of various
authoritarian regimes in the recent past has demonstrated. It was the
surfacing of such tendencies which made even the concentration camps possible. Thus, it is not only in countries with less developed
political and legal systems that this can happen but even stronger
systems can degenerate under certain circumstances. The sub stream of consciousness from the past in south Asian societies, including Sri
Lanka is conditioned by the unwritten laws of the repression of the
caste system in which disproportionate and collective punishment is
an integral part, as amply demonstrated by the recent popular novel,
the White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga.
That there was such violent conflict in our own country is a matter
for regret and sadness. That there are no attempts to improve the
political and legal systems so as to be capable of dealing with the
differences and the conflicts is a matter for even greater sadness.
That the defeat of the LTTE is being manipulated so badly as to
further destroy whatever remains of the political and legal system
evokes even worse premonitions for society. How the workers, farmers, the middle class, those who represent dissent and opposition and those who are engaged in providing public information and creating public opinion through the media will be dealt with in the future in Sri Lanka is even more frightening to think about.
Celebrations of a failure
There is no real victory to celebrate, but instead tremendous
failures to worry about. And if the artificial celebrations that are
organised are meant to fool the people again then these celebrations
will, in fact, be glorifications of failure. The last thing that human beings can rely on is their common humanity and the last thing
that the citizens of a nation can rely on is citizenship. The fallen
rebels as well as fallen soldiers are, in fact, bound by the bond of
humanity and citizenship. They all need to be mourned. That is the
least bit of decency that anyone can demonstrate. I mourn for all of
them, including Prabakaran.
Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong