Epitomising the troubled state of Sri Lanka post-conflict, an impassioned panel spent Wednesday night disputing the truth. Facing an equally ardent audience, they proved that the country has a long way to go before reconciliation will become a reality.
Chaired by BBC Hardtalk’s Stephen Sackur – who summarised the evening’s topic as “highly contentious [and] still hugely controversial” – the discussion first focused on two films broadcast by Channel 4: Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields and Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished. Callum Macrae, director of both, clashed repeatedly with Professor Rajiva Wijesinha MP, government advisor on reconciliation who dismissed Channel 4’s work as illegitimate and “sordid.”
Wijesinha stated that while the film was not necessarily false, he believed it to have been “doctored”, although did at times direct his criticism at an earlier Channel 4 news item rather than the films under debate. Macrae rejected the suggestion that he had been an apologist for the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) as “nonsense”, and was later backed by an audience member who described a “very clever propaganda film [by the government] refuting the Channel 4 film” as “an excellent piece of editing.”
Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka researcher, weighed into the debate by describing the government’s “merely cosmetic” act of lifting the state of emergency last year, and recounted ongoing disappearances and systematic torture. Foster served as a voice of calm in the panel – although criticised by Wijesinha as “avenging”, her measured tone helped her avoid heckles steeped on other panellists.
In December, Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission released a report on atrocities committed during the civil war. Foster said on careful reading the report was “good”, although pushed for the government to move forward with the Commission’s recommendations.
While the panellists failed to agree on the portrayal of war crimes by media and human rights groups, they broadly stood for legal remedies. Wijesinha deflected a question from Sackur about whether anyone had been prosecuted for wartime atrocities, but stated clearly that he was frustrated by delays in pushing the judicial process forward.
Arun Thambimuttu, a Tamil political activist, argued that atrocities were widespread over a 30 year period rather than just a few months, and committed by all sides. Recognising this, Jan Jananayagam, spokesperson for Tamils Against Genocide (TAG), stated that prosecutions must cover the breadth of the war:
“The judiciary has failed. I don’t agree that the government has an opt-out clause; that because they didn’t deliver justice for 30 years they won’t do it now.”
The international community has taken a much lesser role in post-conflict resolution and by all accounts momentum from within Sri Lanka seemed lacking.
“The international law which governs the behaviour of all governments around the world applies to Colombo, and that is something we cannot escape from,”
Sackur reminded Wijesinha, as tempers seethed throughout the room.
After two hours, a ceasefire was called on the divided panel. One audience member summarised the withering hope of reconciliation:
“If this is the reaction you get sitting in London; what chance do you have?”
Watch the full event here: