Pardoning the War Criminals and Terrorists in Sri Lanka

The presidential pardon bestowed on the convicted war criminal, the perpetrator of the Mirusuvil massacre, Sergeant Sunil Rathnayaka has raised many an eyebrow in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, rightfully so. What he was convicted of was the killing of eight ethnic Tamils in cold blood, including a 5-year-old child, which was a heinous act under any circumstances. One could argue that the Tamil Tigers too have done even more ruthless atrocities such as the annihilation of entire Sinhalese or Muslim villages, ripping off babies from pregnant mothers, killing infants to the elderly. However, the two types of crimes cannot be compared because a member of the armed forces is expected to be disciplined within the legal boundaries. All legitimate Armed Forces are signatories of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. There is a fine line between terrorism and fighting a legitimate war. War crimes include intentionally killing civilians or prisoners, torturing, destroying civilian property, taking hostages, performing perfidy, raping, using child soldiers, pillaging, declaring that no quarter will be given, and seriously violating basic human decencies.

There is much evidence that many a soldier involved in wars, suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder.)  PTSD has destroyed many military personnel’s lives even after they complete their military service and rejoin their families. Symptoms may include nightmares or unwanted memories of the trauma, avoidance of situations that bring back memories of the trauma, heightened reactions, anxiety, or depressed mood. Some have even killed themselves. This is due to the trauma they experienced while in service. If it is so, one can imagine the trauma of a soldier who fights an ongoing war, away from the loved ones, facing the unimaginable danger and uncertainty while his colleagues are being killed or injured every passing day. This is one reason why soldiers like Sgt. Rathnayaka may have resorted to the violence of this degree.

As per the terrorists, it is even worse. They are an illegal group and have no rights of any sorts. Without proper training or the arms and ammunition, without a salary or any regular income, with the risk of being unjustly punished, sometimes with death, by their own leaders for even a minute mistake, their part of the suffering is beyond imagination. So, we should understand the plight of these people too.

The security forces and the terrorists of Sri Lanka underwent all these for almost three decades. Atrocities were committed against each other and the civilians on both sides. It is more than 10 years since the war ended. Luckily, not a single major incident has happened after the war ended to date. Even though there were attempts of the revival of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and running an effective Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam failed big time.

Especially the incumbent president of Sri Lanka is well known for his expertise in handling intelligence services very effectively so the chances of the Tamil Tigers regrouping are very low.

Why not we pardon BOTH sides who are being tried or punished for war crimes or terrorism? I know this is easier said than done. The biggest challenge is how to demarcate war crimes from politically motivated killings of journalists, whistleblowers, etc. The other big area of concern is how to set up a mechanism to release the war crimes suspects and convicts and ex-terrorists.

Once the monstrous apartheid system in South Africa was officially terminated, the nation had two enlightened leaders namely Nelson Mandela and P. W. Botha. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up and both parties forgot and forgave a lot and came to a compromise. We cannot expect the same in Sri Lanka due to obvious reasons. Besides, there will be “red tape” that would be created in appointing a commission and subsequent deliberations will only complicate things more than they already are.

The best approach would be giving a presidential pardon en masse to both parties involved in terrorism and war crimes. This will enable the two parties and their sympathizers to have an understanding of each other and learn to live and let live. The so-called Tamil Diaspora too may feel sympathetic and may have a subdued opposition to the Sri Lankan government and might even, in the long run, invest and develop Tamil areas of the island. The present challenge of the Coronavirus outbreak also has created a situation where people look at more reasons to be united than to be divided.

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