An apology to Tamils

Print edition : August 27, 2004

President Chandrika Kumaratunga. - REUTERS

ON the eve of the 21st anniversary of Sri Lanka's worst anti-Tamil pogrom, President Chandrika Kumaratunga extended a state apology to the nation and handed over a compensation to 30 of the more than 900 identified victims of the state-abetted carnage.

The apology and the compensation, though belated, gain significance in the context of an emerging political hardline against a state apology. The hardliners maintained that the July 1983 "riots" were the result of "terrorist ambush" in Jaffna, which claimed the lives of 13 soldiers, a day before the carnage commenced in Colombo and other parts of the island.

Apologising for the second time (the first was during her address to the nation on Sri Lanka's 50th anniversary), Kumaratunga described the incidents of July 1983 as "the most shameful crimes ever perpetrated on this nation" in which nearly 1,000 people were killed and more than 18,000 properties (mostly belonging to the Tamils) destroyed.

July 1983: Property damaged during the anti-Tamil pogrom in Colombo.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

"Only very few nations," Kumaratunga said, "seem to have had the courage or the right leadership to accept the blame for their moments of shame." As she was gearing up to recommence peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Kumaratunga said "the Sri Lankan state should come of age, look the truth in the face and make a national apology, first to all the victims of that day in Black July and then beyond them to the entire nation."

Conceding that "it is late, but I think it is still not too late", Kumaratunga said, "we cannot forget, we cannot blind ourselves to the mistakes we have made; we will have to accept collective guilt for the wrongs, and then move forward."

The "collective guilt", she said, was on both the "state of Sri Lanka for the horrors perpetrated upon one section of our peoples 21 years ago and at other lesser moments" as well as "all the others on the other side of the divide who have used young children as suicide bombers". The "justifications" that may be put forward, such as retaliation for having "been wronged", the President said, would not find acceptance.

The "state apology" was not received well by the LTTE, with one of its regional leaders, describing it as "insincere" and as one directed by political convenience. The issue of a state apology, quite crucial in any conflict-ridden society, however, was lost in the larger problem of uncertainty on the peace front.

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