A MEETING of a truth commission took place in Kandy on Sunday in which I was an observer. This was not the truth commission promised by the government to the international community in Geneva in October 2015. Rather, it was an unofficial body, a citizens’ truth commission, set up by the district inter-religious committee of Kandy. The district inter-religious committee had previously been involved in mitigating the violent situation that had arisen Kandy in early March 2018 and which lasted for a week in defiance of police curfews declared in the district. The DIRC members influenced the government officials, relevant religious leaders and academic persons in the area to take necessary action to solve the problem. In the midst of the troubled period, the DIRC also held a media conference to request all communities to be peaceful and to avoid escalating the problem.
After the riots had ended, the DIRC decided to appoint a citizens’ truth commission (an unofficial truth-seeking mechanism) to find root causes of the incident that had taken place in Kandy. The members appointed as commissioners were Justice WMPB. Waravewa, retired judge, Professor SA Kulasooriya, Professor Milton Rajaratne, attorney at law Chrismal Warnasooriya, Professor Amarakeerthi Liyanage, AMLB. Polgolla, retired GA, Kandy, Dr MB Adikaram, retired director general, Mahaweli Authority, Dr Kanchana Kohombange, attorney at law MKM Shahin Hasan, SL Weerasena, retired director general, agriculture department and university lecturer R Ramesh. The commissioners assigned two expert committees to collect the evidence from the victims as well as from the other people in the areas where the most serious incidents had taken place.
The investigation conducted by the commission was preceded by a public notice in the national newspapers announcing the setting up of the citizens’ truth commission, its terms of reference and the names of its commissioners. The final hearing of the commission, which I observed, was to review the information of expert committees and also to give opportunity for those who were interested to submit further evidence. The proceedings of the entire hearing were conducted in public with the news media in attendance. Most of those who attended the final meeting of the truth commission in the heart of Kandy city were those who believed in the values of pluralism and people’s participation in governance and represented a cross section of society, which demonstrated the essentially democratic, pluralistic and human rights respecting nature of the Sri Lankan intelligentsia.
THE truth commission held in Kandy is evidence of the silent majority who could be won over to the cause of peace-building and national reconciliation if there were sufficient political champions of those concepts as opposed to champions of crude ethnic nationalism. This silent majority is too often forced to watch silently and with disapproval even as atrocities are perpetrated in their names by others. As this was a nationally advertised and public event there were also unlike-minded people also in attendance. There was some concern amongst the organisers that there might be attempts to disrupt the proceedings. But this did not happen. Those who wished to participate constructively in the truth commission were too strong in their presence and in their position for the proceedings to be derailed.
Explaining the rationale for the setting up of the truth commission, the coordinator of the Kandy district inter-religious committee, Gamini Jayaweera, said that shortly after the anti-Muslim riots the government had announced that it would set up a commission of inquiry to engage in fact-finding to ascertain the truth of what happened, whether it was spontaneous, or organised, and if so who was behind the riots. But the government’s inquiry has yet to happen. The police investigations also appear to be at a standstill. Although several of the ground level perpetrators have been arrested by the police, the master minds behind the scenes still remain at liberty. In this context of continuing impunity for the master minds, last week, an independent state institution, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka led by its chairperson Professor Deepika Udagama spent three days in Kandy engaging in fact-finding. This was commendable as the Human Rights Commission did not wait for information to come to it and instead went out proactively to search for the truth.
The setting up of the citizens’ truth commission can be seen as a civil society response to the failure of the government to find and publicise the truth of what lay behind the anti-Muslim riots. There appears to be a general reluctance on the part of the government to get to the truth of violence that has occurred in the past. The apprehension of the government to probe the truth can also be seen in its reluctance to establish a truth commission to find out what happened during the course of the war. The general public, however, are not averse to such findings. Last year another civil society initiative led by the National Peace Council in partnership with the district inter-religious committee took place in Kandy in the form of a truth forum, which looked into the human rights violations that had taken place in the past, which was well received by those who participated, which provided the inspiration for the present citizens’ truth commission process.
UNFORTUNATELY, there seems to be a continuing apprehension on part of the government that a Pandora’s box of revelations will emerge from truth seeking mechanisms that cannot be put back into the box. As a result, the promises made by the government at the landmark session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in October 2015 still remain unfulfilled for the most part. The joint resolution at that session, which was co-sponsored by Sri Lanka stated that the government would set up a truth commission, an office of missing persons, an office of reparations and a special court on accountability to deal with the outstanding issues of the war. Three years later it is only the office of missing persons that has seen the light of day. The problem is that establishing the reconciliation mechanisms, and getting them going, does not appear to be a priority of a government that has many other problems to deal with.
On the positive side, the government has been acting more decisively in recent times to pass new legislation with regard to accountability issues, especially after the defeat of the no-confidence motion against the prime minister. Three recent examples are the passage of the judicature act, and presentation of amendments to the bribery commission act and the clearing of hurdles to the national audit bill. All of these changes in the laws will strengthen the systems of accountability. Through these measures the government is giving the law enforcement agencies the necessary tools to act against those who are law breakers. The lacuna to fill is to instil in the law enforcement agencies the confidence that they have the political backing to take action.
The district inter-religious committee of Kandy’s decision to conduct a truth commission is as testament to the space that the government has created for constructive actions, but which it is not doing itself. The members of this committee have become champions of reconciliation and shown leadership and initiative which is presently lacking in the government when it comes to dealing with issues of healing the traumas of the past. The success of this civil society initiative and its acceptance by people is an indication that this micro level initiative can become a macro level initiative if taken on by other civil society groups. There could be a plethora of civil society truth commissions where people mobilise themselves to discuss and find answers to those issues that are central to their lives and pressure the government to give its own answers.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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