Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for May 2011

Buddhists all over the world celebrated Vesak this week. It is the commemoration of both the  birth and the attainment of Enlightenment (nirvana) by Gautama, the Buddha. In Sri Lanka, a society that prides itself on being the missionary centre of Theravada Buddhism, this year’s festivities merged with nationalist triumphalism over the “defeat of terrorism” and hysterical denunciations of “foreign interference” vis a vis allegations of war crimes (see my last post).

If, to Western observers, the alliance of Buddhism with militarism and ethnic jingoism seems extraordinary, it is because, ever since the nineteenth century, Western textbook depictions of Buddhism have often served an anti-Christian polemical purpose (e.g. contrasting “Buddhist tolerance” with “Christian bigotry”). Despite Buddhism’s theoretical commitment to ahimsa (non-violence) rarely has a Buddhist leader dared to challenge state violence. Often the sangha (the Buddhist clergy) has encouraged it, and monks have been in the forefront of mob attacks on churches and foreign embassies. No Buddhist leader, monk or layperson, has hitherto called on the state to acknowledge that not all civilian casualties in the war were caused by “terrorists”.

In an editorial on the UN Secretary General’s advisory panel’s report on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, the British newspaper The Guardian wrote: “The point is that truth and accountability, let alone international justice, are not divisible. One country’s ability to bury the evidence of war crimes endangers how civilians are treated in all other conflicts. A single failure of international justice is also a collective one.”

Quite so. And it is precisely why I have been maintaining that the UN’s silence over war crimes and human rights abuses committed by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel in the Lebanon, the Indian army in Kashmir, or Chinese troops in Tibet, make it all the more difficult for those of us in countries like Sri Lanka to convince our own people, let alone ruling regimes, that “truth” and “accountability” are not slogans wielded by the powerful against the weak, but fundamental to the moral order which constitutes our very humanness.

Tragically, Christians in the powerful nations who are most eloquent about “truth” have limited it to religious apologetics. Rarely, if ever, does one hear the call for truth expressed in the public square, whether local or global, in the way the Hebrew prophets did. This divorce of apologetics from social-political ethics, the divorce of issues of truth from  justice and accountability, lies at the root of the crisis of credibility of evangelical Christianity in these nations.

I have observed how, on my recent speaking tour of American universities, my appeals to Americans to be more outspoken about their own human rights abuses at home and abroad were often met with “stony silence”. How encouraging, then, to read of more than 250 of the US’s most eminent legal scholars having signed a letter protesting against the treatment of Bradley Manning, the alleged WikiLeaks  source, saying his “degrading and inhumane conditions” are illegal, unconstitutional, and could even amount to torture. The list of signatories includes Lawrence Tribe, a Harvard professor considered to be the country’s foremost liberal authority on constitutional law and who taught the subject to President Obama.  Manning is awaiting a court martial in Quantico marine base in Virginia. He has been jailed since last July, charged with multiple counts relating to the leaking of thousands of secret documents to the WikiLeaks website. Until this letter was issued, he was kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, checked every five minutes under a so-called prevention of injury order, not allowed to exercise, and stripped naked at night apart from a smock.

Among the documents alleged to have been leaked a year ago by Manning are the Guantánamo files. These were obtained by the New York Times and shared with the Guardian and National Public Radio, which is publishing extracts, having redacted information which might identify informants. The 759 US military dossiers reveal how many prisoners were flown to the Guantánamo cages and held captive for years, some on the flimsiest grounds or on the basis of lurid confessions extracted by maltreatment.

The Guantánamo system often focused on extracting intelligence, less on containing dangerous terrorists or enemy fighters. Among inmates who proved harmless were an 89-year old Afghan villager, suffering form senile dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had been an innocent kidnap victim. The 14-year-old was shipped to the prison in Cuba  merely because of “his possible knowledge of Taliban local leaders.” An al-Jazeera journalist was held at Guantánamo for six years, partly in order to be interrogated about the Arabic news network.

Obama’s inability to shut Guantánamo has been one of the White House’s most internationally embarrassing policy failures. The range of those still held captive includes detainees who have been admittedly tortured so badly they can never be successfully tried, informers who must be protected from reprisals, and a group of Chinese Muslims from the Uighur minority who have nowhere to go.

It is easy for Christians in the US or Europe to highlight the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of Buddhists, or the way Buddhism has been co-opted by the Sri Lankan state. Our critique would carry weight only if we attended to the beams in our own eyes; and this is where the silence of our brethren in the West over abuses of power in their own nations is a massive obstacle to our own credibility.

With anti-government protests raging all over the Middle East, and even in the peaceful Maldive Islands, the large pro-government May Day rallies on the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka, must have been viewed with some puzzlement by foreigners.  However, fling together a state-controlled media, the provision of free transport by the state, and the whipping up of ethno-nationalist fury by a President who proclaims himself as the one who ‘rid the island of terrorism’, and we have a heady cocktail of jingoism. The same jingoism that is recognizable all around the world (not least in the USA, revived yesterday after the killing of Bin Laden).

We are approaching the second anniversary of the end of the bloody, 30-year old conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). Two weeks ago, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon released the report of the Expert Panel he had appointed to advise him on human rights issues in relation to the last phase of that war.  The panel of experts has declared that there are credible allegations that both the government and LTTE committed serious human rights violations, including some that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. They have called on the UN Secretary General to immediately set up an independent, international mechanism to investigate these allegations.

The even-handedness of the report has been obscured by a hysterical state media which lampooned the report as an attempt to whitewash the ‘terrorism’ of the LTTE. The President lashed out in predictable fashion, invoking the bogey of ‘an international conspiracy’ against the country, and running to Russia and China for support. The May Day marchers who went on the streets had, in all probability, not read a single sentence of the report. But this mindless exhibition of ‘patriotic’ fever, stoked by political manoeuvring and erupting in mob violence, has been a common feature of political life in South Asia.

Wars are always ’messy’ affairs; and apportioning blame for acts of criminality is fraught with bias. Those who stand idly by, without intervening to save innocent lives even thought they have the power to do so, are also guilty; but they can never be prosecuted before human courts. Those who blindly obeyed unjust orders are as guilty as those who issued the orders, as the post-World War II Nuremberg and Tokyo trials made utterly clear.

No one has access to the complete truth. Whatever punitive justice that can be achieved is always partial, imperfect and unsatisfactory, this side of the eschaton. But to do nothing is much worse: it is to wrong those who died unjustly, as well as their families. And it is to evade the moral responsibility expected of legitimate government; and the public confessions without which the restoration of trust and reconciliation between communities is impossible.

Any attempt to prosecute the President and his regime before an international court may lead to another bloodbath against minorities and civil society groups who have campaigned for political accountability. And such prosecutions will have to extend, as the report makes clear, to those in the Tamil ‘diaspora’ of Western countries who actively funded the LTTE war machine, as well as those governments that sold heavy artillery to the Sri Lankan army during the last stages of the war, knowing that such artillery would be used in heavily civilian areas.

However, the government can ‘save face’ by  immediately acting on the recommendations of the Expert Panel, including the repealing of the Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which continue in force two years later and which the President has used to strengthen his powers); resolving outstanding disappearance cases; ensuring due process for remaining LTTE detainees; and providing relief measures for victims and survivors of the conflict, including by publicly accounting for civilian deaths and facilitating the recovery and return of human remains to their families. It can engage with opposition parties and civil society groups in meaningful dialogue towards greater political devolution, accountability and transparency.

Despite the claim, in some circles, that national reconciliation has been ‘set back’ by the release of the UN report, the sad fact is  that precious little has been done on the part of the regime and its supporters since the war’s end to address the root causes of that war. Mindlessly calling it a ‘war on terrorism’, or demonizing the LTTE, has been a way of refusing to face honestly, and take responsibility for, the acts of political mismanagement and state violence that has plunged Sri Lanka into political backwardness and social stagnation.

The crisis the nation faces is fundamentally a moral and spiritual one: whether we have the resources within our moral traditions to accept the evil within us and not only in the ‘enemy’.  Who in the majority Sinhala community has the humility and courage to suggest that the country ‘celebrates’ the second anniversary of the end of the war with a day of national mourning for all who died-  the civilians on both sides, the armed forces and even LTTE cadres (many of whom were as manipulated and deceived as the May Day marchers on the streets of Colombo)?

To say such things in the present climate is to risk one’s life. But that is the kind of action that discipleship to Christ entails for us today.


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