Sri Lanka: Learning it from Bangladesh!



Sathiya Moorthy     18 April 2018

For all those, both inside Sri Lanka and outside, who want an ‘instant closure’ to war-crimes probe and all, they only need to look at fellow South Asian nation Bangladesh. Full four decades and more after the ‘Bangladesh freedom war’, the nation has put those that indulged in mass-killings, with and for the Pakistani armed forces, have been tried and punished – and even executed after following the ‘due process of law’ – no questions asked.

There is more than one lesson for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans in all this. Even those that are opposed to the Bangladesh’s way of meting out justice to the innocent tens of thousands that were killed when the nation was still East Pakistan have not questioned that those that have been condemned by the nation’s judiciary were ‘innocent’ of all those crimes that they had committed.

They are crying ‘foul’ only at what they and their electoral backers are dubbing as ‘political vendetta’ by incumbent Government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – without contesting the facts and legality of the investigation and prosecution, et al.

Fair enough, if Bangladesh had to wait thus far to address the issue of ‘war-time accountability’ and war-crimes, there were reasons. First and foremost, the post-Independence Government of slain Prime Minister ‘Banga Bandhu’, Shiekh Mujibur Rahman, had his hands full, in creating a nation-State out of a public declaration months earlier, restoring a semblance of governance at all levels, and ensuring the rehabilitation of IDPs, whose numbers were legions (not to mention the 10 million that took near-permanent refuge in neighbouring India, most of them never to return).

Then came the traumatic assassination of the Sheikh on 15 August 1975. The Sheikh had really settled down in office and his country had settled down to the fact and responsibilities of being a nation-State. With him went his whole family, barring a lone daughter, who was saved only because she was not in the country at the time. Soon, the little known Hasina Wajed became the indomitable Sheikh Hasina that we now know.

There is no denying that the Sheikh had begun displaying streaks of being an autocrat, which was at least given out as the cause for his assassination.

Not at all justifiable in any sense of the term, but then a freedom-long people, of a few among them at the very least, could not take even the remotest of the kind that they had suffered at the hands of ‘big brother’ West Pakistan since both partitioned from British India, to become an independent State of Pakistan decades before the Bangladesh War of 1971.

Not a ‘basket case’

The war-time US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger may be forgiven for dubbing an independent Bangladesh a ‘basket case’ in terms of economic growth and prosperity. It was true that the US under President Richard Nixon had tried to stall the utter defeat of Pakistan Army against the Indian counterparts in the 16-day ‘Bangladesh War’ in every which way, and failed in its thoughtless attempts at it. But as a statesman Kissinger still had a point.

Instead, when Bangladesh thought of bringing those that had killed their Bengali brethren in tens of thousands, the nation had ceased to be a ‘basket case’. It was on the verge of shedding its LDC (‘least developed country) status, to becoming a ‘developing country’ in economic terms, which announcement has since been made, in recent weeks. It may be years before Bangladesh ceased to be a ‘net exporter’ of migrant labour in a big way, but then it has also systemized it all, like Sri Lanka had done even more effectively and efficiently, much earlier.

All this was apart from the political stability that long decades after war and the Mujibur assassination had entailed and ensured. More importantly, the action, when taken, was not based on an instantaneous eye-for-an-eye, emotional decision, but a studied course, deriving from the need to put at rest, a past that the nation needed to put at rest – and behind – and for good.

Tunnel vision

Whether the post-war generation in Bangladesh is taking those decisions now, but they are being taken in the name of that generation, and with their approval and electoral attestations of whatever kind. They may be victims of those war-time atrocities, but then removed as they are from those atrocities by immediacy of time and personal victimhood – or, non-victimhood, to be precise – justice is also not only being done but also seen to be done.

Sri Lanka was an ‘economic wonder’ in South Asia certainly and including South-East Asia, possibly, at the time when Bangladesh had not even been thought of – leave aside being dubbed a ‘basket case’. By not losing focus from more immediate things on hand, Bangladesh has reached the level of prosperity and ‘internal peace’ and stability that it needed before launching a ‘justice project’ with its inherent divisive content, though not intent.

Today, Sri Lanka needs to reach there before thinking anything more than political stability, even the basics of which are lacking – and is only worsening by the day. Then there is the need to accept the nation’s ‘ethnic plurality’ before anything of the ‘war-crimes probe’ kind could even be thought of.

Fast-tracking ‘transitional justice’ of the western kind can only deep-seed ethnic animus even more than already, not cure any, as their tunnel vision alone can see.

Cultural behaviour

Whoever deigned the need for and designed the UNHRC-centric war-crime accountability, probe and punishment in Sri Lanka seems to have been living in the Hammurabi era still.

They have not heard of Gandhiji’s saying ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’. Here the prevailing practices have stayed and prospered may be also because that is what the environment has always smelt of and inspired, in turn – as much as it may be otherwise, too.

What the sub-continental social behaviour culture has inculcated in the people is Buddhism’s ‘Law of Dhamma’, or Dharma, if not the Hindu ‘Law of Karma’, but then there is no place or space in either for a fast-tracked Nuremberg kind of trial, and expect it to serve as a ‘closure for all sins’.

That it’s all un-Christian does not seem to have occurred not only to those that have been preaching it from the West but also to those that have been propagating it to Asians in general and South Asians in particular.

But then, the commonality and differences between post-war Bangladesh and post-war Sri Lanka does not end there. There is no denying that the Tamils are all Sri Lankan citizens, despite the Diaspora dithering for a separate nation, from the safe confines of their western homesteads, with political backing nearer their own homes.

It is also true that the Tamils’ charges on war-crimes are all against fellow Sri Lankans, who are mostly of the ‘majority’ Sinhala ethnicity/race. The commonality ends there. There is then the difference from Bangladesh.

This pertains to the counter-charge that the LTTE killed as many Sri Lankan soldiers as also fellow-citizens, Sinhalas, Muslims – and even Tamils. There are also those that claim that the LTTE may have killed more innocent Tamils than the armed forces, whose victims were mostly from and in the war-zone, at the very least.

That way the further question, too, remains. If the armed forces personnel and others have to be hauled up legally for their alleged criminal acts of ‘war crimes’ and worse, what about all those LTTE cadres that (may) have survived the war, and may be living inside the country or outside – either as ‘reformed’ men and women, rehabilitated by the Sri Lankan State post-war, or under aliases, here or elsewhere, and in hundreds, and possibly thousands – if not tens of thousands?

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University