A dream of reconciliation for Sri Lanka
In the first days of a new year in January, 2009, Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge sat down to write. The corruption-fighting father-of-three had long been violently targeted, and held little doubt that his life would be short.
“Is it worth the risk?” the editor of the Colombo-based investigative newspaper The Sunday Leader wrote in an editorial. “Many people tell me it is not.”
“But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.”
Three days later, on the morning of January 8, 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge was shot dead.
“He was followed by four motorcycles, they had black helmets on, black leather jackets, boots,” the journalist’s brother Lal Wickrematunge told the ABC in Sydney.
“They surrounded the vehicle, stopped it, smashed the windows. They used what is called a gun that they cull sheep with, it’s a spring-loaded pointed metal that comes out and withdraws back into the barrel. They kept it against his temple and shot him.”
‘I was numb’
For 15 years, the brothers published The Sunday Leader despite physical threats, assaults, law suits, and the firebombing of the presses. Though they knew the risks, nothing could have prepared Lal Wickrematunge for his brother’s assassination.
“I was numb, but at the same time I felt that what we all feared right through had come to pass, and was the dream of bringing Sri Lanka to the right path was going to end,” he said.
Now, Lal Wickrematunge has settled in Sydney, where he is trying to live out his brother’s legacy. He’s the Sri Lankan Government’s recently-appointed consul-general, and he is reaching to Sri Lankan Tamils across the city.
It is a local attempt at ethnic reconciliation in one of the world’s largest Sri Lankan migrant populations.
“I feel very strongly that everybody is born equal,” Mr Wickrematunge says. “If everybody had a choice where they were born, it would have been different. We don’t have a choice.”
Mending a divide from afar
On a winter’s night at his home in Sydney’s Canada Bay, Mr Wickrematunge is hosting an unusual gathering.
Among the dinner party guests at the home of the diplomat are two former attorneys-general of Sri Lanka, Shiva Pasupathy and Sunil de Silva.
These two men were close colleagues in their homeland but watched much of the civil war that tore Sri Lanka apart between 1983 and 2009 from afar.
“Before the war ended, the suspicions, the mistrust between the majority Sinhala community and the Tamil community continued even outside Sri Lanka,” Mr Wickrematunge says.
“The diaspora groups, be they Sinhalese or Tamils, viewed each other with great suspicion.”
“But I’m very pleasantly surprised that in Sydney, Sri Lankans have come a long way from the time of the strife, to accept that reconciliation is an absolute necessity. The willing support that we’ve had among the Sri Lankans to get together as one community and call themselves Sri Lankans first, is quite wonderful.”
Mr Wickrematunge’s appointment as one of two Sri Lankan consuls-general in Australia six months ago was something of an act of reconciliation in itself from the Sri Lankan Government and President Maithripala Sirisena.
For years, Mr Wickrematunge has led a campaign in Sri Lanka for justice for his brother’s murder. Seven years on, it’s clear that the loss of his brother is still raw.
As he sits with his guests around his Sydney dinner table, his voice cracks as he asks the men to rise to their feet and observe a moment of silence.
“May I request that we stand up and say a prayer in whatever religion we follow for all those who have passed away during the strife and the conflict which we had,” Mr Wickremantunge says.
A long way off prosecuting war crimes
The prayer follows a briefing for the guests on what unfolded recently at the UN Human Rights Council, where Sri Lanka gave an update on its progress on reconciliation.
The nation this week passed legislation to establish an Office of Missing Persons, but it’s a long way off from the establishment of a judicial mechanism to investigate and prosecute war crimes that were carried out in the end stages of the war by operatives on both sides of the Sri Lankan conflict.
Sri Lanka last year co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council resolution that committed the country to the establishment of a credible justice process that would include Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.
In an oral update on Sri Lanka’s implementation of the UNHCR resolution in June, UN human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein praised Sri Lanka’s “positive and productive engagement” with UN human rights mechanisms.
But he raised concerns that Sri Lanka appeared to be resisting the participation of international judges, prosecutors, investigators and lawyers in the judicial mechanism that it eventually establishes to probe allegations of human rights abuses and international crimes.
There were also concerns raised at Sri Lanka’s slow progress on reconciliation and redress.
As they discussed the update at the Human Rights Council over dinner, some of Lal Wickrematunge’s guests also said they believed the reconciliation process was progressing too slowly in their homeland. But Sunil de Silva said it was important that redress mechanisms be carefully planned.
“They say that justice delayed is justice denied, but it’s always preferable to justice extradited,” Mr de Silva said. “So therefore you’ve got to make sure that what you are doing lasts the test of time.”
Fellow former attorney-general Shiva Pasupathy, a former legal advisor to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, is now preparing to advise the Sri Lankan Government on its constitutional changes.
He says that in his adopted country of Australia, the Sri Lankan High Commission has made special effort to reach out to minorities.
“This has not happened before,” Mr Pasupathy said. “It will make a lot of difference in the attitude of different communities.”
Sri Lankans living in fear in Australia
But outside the leadership community, there are many Sri Lankan refugees living in acute fear in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.
Lawyer Daniela Gavshon compiled testimony from war victims as part of the Sydney-based Public Interest Advocacy Centres’s International Crimes Evidence Project.
She says there are many victims of war living in Australia who want to tell their stories as part of an eventual judicial process, but much work will need to be done to ensure victims have confidence in any judicial mechanism.
The International Crimes Evidence Project found a high likelihood that war crimes were committed by both sides in the Sri Lankan conflict.
“People witnessed things, people were victims to heinous, heinous crimes and they can give that information that can form part of an evidence base for future prosecutions,” Ms Gavshon said.
“There are two reasons why people will engage in a transitional justice mechanism, one is if they believe it’s independent and impartial, both in practice and in perception, and the other reason will be if they feel safe to do so.
“And without a foreign presence it’s very hard to see how people will feel safe to participate and how the government is going to be able to deliver fair and just outcomes and a just process, given the track record it has, unfortunately.”
As the slow process towards truth and justice grinds on, though he is far from his homeland, Lal Wickrematunge remains determined to continue to build relationships between Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim Sri Lankans in Australia.
And though he hails from the Sinhala majority, it’s a project that would have been dear to his lost brother’s heart.
“The original dream of bringing Sri Lanka as one nation, one people, was our intention,” Mr Wickrematunge says.
“Our editorials constantly reminded people of that. And I think if we can do that even now, that would be one of the greatest achievements, which is what I am trying to do even here in Australia.
“If we do that, as for me, it would be realising Lasantha’s dream.” (ABC)