Reproduced below is an Open Letter to all Sri Lankans from Basil Fernando (photo at left), Executive Director, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong. Born in Sri Lanka, Basil Fernando graduated from the Faculty of Law of the University of Ceylon, Colombo, in 1972. He practiced and taught law before moving out of Sri Lanka to hold several United Nations-related posts, including appeals counsel under the UNHCR for Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, officer-in-charge of the Investigation Unit under the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia and chief of legal assistance at the Cambodia Office of the U.N. Center for Human Rights.
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 persons.
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 Hitler.
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