As part of its ongoing peace building effort, NPC conducted four Truth Forums in Jaffna, Batticaloa, Kandy and Matara. In each of these districts, inter religious committees that had been set up several years earlier were tasked with identifying those who had been victims in the past and persuading them to share their stories with the larger community. This was to generate empathy for the other within the larger community. It was also to convey the message that civil society itself needs to take on responsibility for assisting the victims, rather than leaving it all to the government. When people share their stories of enforced victimhood and what happened to them and to their loved ones it generates empathy in the listeners who get to know at first hand the sufferings that others have gone through.
Another reason for organising the Truth Forums was to prepare the general population for the anticipated government appointed Truth Commission. In responding to the international demand for accountability of past violations of human rights and war crimes, the government has said it will establish a Truth Commission to be a part of the reconciliation mechanisms. Over 40 countries that have suffered war and mass violations of human rights have appointed Truth Commissions over the past four decades to deal with post-war issues of justice and accountability. The purpose of these mechanisms is not only to placate the international community’s sense of justice and accountability. It is also to involve the people in the process of transformation that accompanies an attitudinal shift from a divided past to a shared future.
What was significant about the Truth Forums was that they were taken seriously by all who participated in them. Between 80 to 100 persons drawn from different walks of life, including public servants, members of community based organizations and media attended the events in each of the places where they were conducted, which were presided over by retired judges or public servants. The time frame of the story telling by victims was not limited to the last phase of the war. It also included the suicide bombing incident that took place in Matara in 2009, the eviction of Muslims from the North in 1990 and the JVP insurrection of 1988. Over and over again those who spoke, either as victims or as observers said this must never happen again. The victims who testified will be expecting some remedial measures to be taken to address their urgent needs.
Apart from saying never again, those who participated in the Truth Forums said that something had to be done to address the needs of the victims. Government servants who attended, though not in their official capacities, pledged that they would do what was in their power to help the victims from within the structures of government. Community leaders said they would see what they could do to follow up on the disclosures made. However, along with these positive indications of the willingness of the community to take on the task of reconciliation, there were also intrusions of harsher realities. The ability of civil society organisations to solve people’s problems cannot be compared to that of the government. In one location, the manager of the conference hall was visited by the security forces. They questioned and intimidated him so much that he said he would no longer provide facilities for such a programme.
The positive outcome of the civil society led Truth Forums points to the promise of the government’s Truth Commission which is about to be established. It also suggests that instead of a single and centralised Truth Commission, a decentralised process of truth seeking could also be envisaged. Alongside the main Truth Commission there could be local level Truth Commissions that are entrusted to local community and religious leaders and which feed into the government-led truth seeking process. The conviction that the violence and human rights violations of the past must never again happen can capture the mass imagination to facilitate constitutional reform that unlocks the door to a lasting political solution to the decades long ethnic conflict.