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Panel: Pluralistic Perceptions of Truth and Justice: TJ in South East Asia

The Office on Missing Persons, the UN Human Rights Council and the Women Next of Kin of the Disappeared in Postwar Sri Lanka

Dr. Chulani Kodikara, Research Fellow, The School of Law, Queen’s University, Belfast

Since the end of the civil war between Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, hundreds of Tamil women whose family members disappeared during the war have been waging a struggle for truth and justice. Following years of denial of disappearances, a successor government elected in 2015 inaugurated an internationally supported transitional justice programme, while co-sponsoring a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council, committing to establish four transitional justice mechanisms including an Office on Missing Persons (OMP). In keeping with the resolution, it also initiated a Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) to consult victim-survivors on the design of these mechanisms. In this paper, I explore women’s engagement with this consultative process and the OMP. I show that the next-of-kin of those who disappeared during the war engaged with the CTF in strikingly higher numbers than other persons affected by atrocities. Moreover, of all the mechanisms proposed, it was the OMP that resonated the most with war survivors. In the context of a long history of broken promises by the Sri Lankan state, one of the recurring demands made by the next of kin of the disappeared was for international involvement at all levels of the OMP. Yet, when the OMP was eventually established, this demand was ignored.

Since then, the women-next of kin of the disappeared are demanding for a purely international truth and justice mechanism from the ‘international community.’ But can international law and institutions fulfil their demand any more than the Sri Lankan state?

Transitional Justice, International Law, and Regional Particularism in Southeast Asia, with a Case Study in Cambodia and East Timor

Fangyi Li, Edinburgh Law School

Transitional justice has been extensively practiced in Southeast Asia in the 21st century to address its violent past. In contrast to a narrow, rights-based understanding of transitional justice associated with Western liberalism and legalism that dominates transitional justice responses at the international level, Southeast Asia has witnessed broader, and more pluralistic perceptions of justice shaped by local and cultural specificities. In East Timor, families of massacre victims’ ideas of harm are attached not only to the event of loss itself, but also to a ‘disruption in social and cosmological relations’ which cannot be captured by a liberal, individualistic paradigm (Sakti 2013; also Robins 2015; Kent 2019). In Cambodia, Khmer Buddhist teachings object to dwelling on the past and deem the demands for rights as ‘illusive attempts to aggrandize the self’ (Harris 2005; also Pham et al. 2011; Bennett 2018; Kidron 2021). This paper reviews culturally-grounded views and practices of transitional justice in Cambodia and East Timor which have been subject to intensive and extensive international involvement in their post-conflict transitions. It seeks to understand to what extent these local developments are manifestations of regional particularities in Southeast Asia, with particular focus on the concept of ‘Asian values’ put forward by Southeast Asian governments. Moreover, this paper aims to unpack what scope there is for concerns and priorities of those affected by violations to inform the liberal legalistic model of transitional justice, which, according to Mochizuki (2007), is the precise issue that requires further examination.

Kaleidoscopic Actions and the LLRC: Truth And Time Through Archives of Truth and Investigative Commissions

Sanjna Girish Yechareddy, Masters candidate in Anthropology and Sociology, Graduate Institute of Geneva

How and where are investigative and truth commissions documented, archived and remembered? What does their preservation (or lack of it) tell us about how truth and time are conceptualized in transitional justice measures? This paper attempts to answer these questions in the context of the archives of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in Sri Lanka. Though not constituted as a truth commission, the LLRC labelled was as an important transitional justice mechanism at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war by the Sri Lankan state. The records of the LLRC were taken down from the official government website, with only the official report published. A partial collection of records of proceedings and testimonies retrieved from official websites was constructed into an online database by Groundviews – a citizen journalism group. This paper puts forth the concept of “kaleidoscopic actions” to understand each of these interventions on and with the records of the LLRC. Here, the kaleidoscope represents the instrument constructed by various actors – from the government to civil society actors. The fragments of glass used in these instruments represent the records mobilized in these actions – in both their digital and physical form which are mobilized in these actions. To the viewer operating the kaleidoscope, no two exactly similar configurations of the records can be “seen”, allowing for different conceptions of the truth to arise. Through studying these kaleidoscopic actions we see how these different efforts to preserve (not alternatively, erase) records of these commissions complicate our understanding of what it means to preserve the “truth” over time. By paying attention to these dynamics around the records of these commissions, we can arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the cyclical relationship between truth and time – which is crucial to evaluating transitional justice.

Marginalised and Neglected: Perspectives from Ethnic and Religious Minorities on Sri Lanka’s Transitional Justice Process

Dr. Farah Mihlar, Senior Lecturer in Human Rights, Centre for Emergency and Development (CENDEP), Oxford Brookes University

Transitional justice in Sri Lanka emerged from victim demands for accountability for war-time atrocities, however they became sidelined by a top-down process. Particularly undermined were the ethnic and religious positioning and grievances of victims, which had been a structural cause of the country’s three-decade conflict. Through empirical research conducted in Sri Lanka I will demonstrate how ethnicity and religion were intrinsically linked to victim and perpetrator identities and how this resulted in differential demands of transitional justice. Conflicting positions on justice, especially between the country’s largest ethnic minority, Tamils and the smaller Muslim population led to competition for victimhood. I will also explore how the secular nature of the internationally shaped process undermined the identity of victims and more importantly the ethnic and religious bias of the state. Consequently, during the transitional justice process, majoritarian Buddhist extremism was strengthened resulting in violence targeting Muslims and creating new victim groups. I will conclude by arguing the need for transitional justice to better reckon with identity and minority status of victims.