Art And The Artist: Foil For Transitional Justice In Sri Lanka

September 26, 2019

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls,”- Pablo Picasso

Every so often, citizens are plunged in to the depths of despair with the prevalence of genocide, human rights abuses and other such mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. The worn out surrounded by the rubble of the once established trust between the citizen (now victim) and the State barely stands. It is in instances such as these when Transitional Justice (TJ) comes into play.

“Many of these mechanisms … heavily relied and continue to rely, on either time or money.” Consider criminal persecutions. Logistically, the recovering State would only have the liberty to try “a tiny percentage of those responsible for human rights abuse.” This is attributable to limited financial resources a rebuilding State would be privy to and secondly the inevitable obstacle of time.

Similarly, “if truth commissions want to finalize their reports before the next generation arrives” their selection of victims must be streamlined by selecting a handful of victims to voice out their testimonies. In both instances, individuals and groups feel excluded, and keep certain truths unexamined.

Thus, ‘The Arts’, an ancient but unforgotten tradition of expression was reawakened. The arts always has and will contribute towards real life story – telling, brining out the rarity of raw emotions that other means of TJ tend to censor, avoid or oversee.

This paper dwells into the role of an artist in transitional, transformative and social justice after or during mass violence in light of the events that transpired in the era of civil conflict and the subsequent post – conflict era which materialized in 2009.

Elie Wiesel contends, “If the Greeks invented tragedy, the Romans the Epistle, and the Renaissance the sonnet, our generation invented a new literature, that of testimony.” The arts, spark up the victims’ imagination, opens up recluse memories, uncovering hidden traumas of the past. In the context of TJ, the arts create “a time and a space to remember, to mourn, to forgive, to heal, and to glimpse a new future.”

As a catalyst mechanism and an important tool of information and reparation tool, arts has the potential to act as a foil for the standing TJ mechanisms : Truth and reconciliation process, public lustration, public apology, psychological reparation, demand for public access to governmental records, and others. Thus, an artist, be it a writer, director, singer, actor, dancer or performer have and inevitable underlying role not only in the process of nation healing but also as a foil for the standing TJ mechanisms.

Poetry is undoubtedly one of the most predominant forms of expression of raw sentiment. Prof. M. A. Nuhman in his article titled “Ethnic Conflict And Literary Perception: Tamil Poetry In Post-Colonial Sri Lanka” gives an overview of poems written in the era of conflict.


First their look pierced her like a thorn

Then their terrible hands seized her arms

They raped her senseless body

It happened

At the open space of white sand

The poem ‘Krishanthy’ is an elegy written by promising young poet Vinothini in response to a 1996 incident in Jaffna, where Krishanthy, a young school girl was captured at an army sentry point followed by rape and her subsequent death. The experiences in the poem are pluralized and with the exception of the title, does not mention the ethnicity of the victim. The poem talks about the gruesome fate that tragically awaits females most often than not in a situation of armed – conflict and is certainly a mass atrocity. Reading even a translation of this poem leaves a permanent memory of what is not to happen again. This is a testimony of all women who find themselves in the middle of war-torn circumstance, by no fault of their own.

A Letter to My Father

What did they do to you?

Did they shoot at you?

Did they hack and cut your body into parts?

A Letter to My Father, by poet H. M. Jabir in his teens, as means of releasing grief and pain and in memory of his father, brutally murdered by the LTTE along with 12 other innocent villagers at Valaichchenai in June 2002 when the Memorandum of Understanding was in effect. This a plight of what not only a son would feel, nut also what any living relative of the disappeared/ deceased would go experience in the time following such disappearances. Civil disappearances and murders are an atrocity prevalent in any and all armed – conflict environments and thus the plight of the poet is indeed universal. Poetry has always been an outlet for raw sentiment and suffering, encapsulating the audience in real life experiences, leaving them with a strained heart. Poetry is known to create empathy irrespective of former racial/ ethnic segregation. Understanding the lives of the victimized is a massive step forward that would enhance the processes of reconciliation and memory preservation.

Next we dwell into cinema, a wider audience and is said to be not only thought provoking but also visually and phonetically stirring. In an environment where conflict prevails, audio – visual mediums, particularly cinema is employed as a central tool of propaganda. Unlike poetry, cinema and the light cinema wishes to paint with regards to certain social groups purely depends on the deeper pockets and source of the film’s funding. State sponsored cinema would invariably bare the voice of the State and the State would further proceed to critically acclaim and recognize the efforts of independent cinema ironically, only if the work portrays state ideologies. Cinematic works that refute State ideology have been publicly denounced by the State.

For instance, Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Ahasin Wetei (Between Two Worlds) is a surreal abstract treatment set against a post-war milieu where anarchy is the rule of thumb. The film vehemently denounces events advocating violence that have transpired in Sri Lankan history, be it ancient or recent. The film, as a result of refuting State ideologies did not gain access to the general public in Sri Lanka as it was thus denounced and only screened at one time screenings such as the 2009 Venice Film Festival, its premiere Kandy International Film Festival, thus leaving whatever potential benefits of this cinematic work to towards TJ undiscovered.

In stark contrast, Sthuthii Newatha Enna (Anticipating Re-arrival) by Sumith Rohana Thiththawella, Handa Yata (Under the Sun and Moon) by Bennet Ratnayake among many other releases gained substantial access to the public, resulting in these cinematic productions being commercial successes. It is of the view that “all the films screened so far have been failures in a cinematic and artistic sense, they were ‘made popular’ (instead of ‘becoming popular’) by various means … promoted by the State media.”

While brazenly romanticizing the conflict between the Sinhala and Tamil communities, stark majority of locally produced films in the post – conflict era staunchly endorses Sinhala – Buddhist nationalism, patriotism, and “construction of a hegemonic memory in a masculine history.” Lederach in his works explores reconciliation and states that reconciliation fails when we start separating ourselves from others, projecting ourselves as more superior and dehumanizing anyone who is not part of our social group. Sadly, most post – war Sri Lankan cinema is guilty of the afore mentioned vices. Thus, the potential of cinema as a tool to aid towards TJ dissolves.

One of the main stakeholders of the civil conflict that transpired are the members of the armed forces. TJ focuses on all citizens in this period of transition and thus the paper would now focus on artistic efforts to aid members of our armed forces.

Founder and Artistic Director of CenterStage Productions, Jehan Aloysius in an interview presents a very interesting insight. He worked with Rana Viru Sevana and formulated performance techniques disabled soldiers. They performed renditions of Tchaikvsky’s ‘Swan Lake’and ‘Nutcraker,’ receiving international acclamation and opening an avenue for these individuals to travel around the world as performers. The arts have evidently aided in healing traumas of the past.

Playback Theatre is another notable theatric experience that fights for social justice and highlights the importance of empathy in this period of transition. In 2017, Introspection in partnership with Sunayra Lanka initiated open Playback theatre sessions. Here, audience members would explain to a group of actors their intimate, memorable, grievous experiences which would be reenacted under the direction of the said audience member. In post – conflict Sri Lanka, this event was a heart – warming way of showing audiences members who fled the island during the war that his peers, the other members of the audience understood the intricate emotions and mindset they experienced during the time of turmoil.

Finally, this paper would like to bring to light a novelty theatrical experience by Mind Adventures Theatre Co. “Paraya” directed by Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, was staged in 2013 and 2014 was staged against the backdrop of former Hotel Rio, a bombed – out ruin next to the current Rio Cinema. island of Sri Lanka finds itself at a crucial point in its history. The play follows ten interweaving characters whose narratives play out simultaneously, offering the audience a chance to follow any character, wherever he goes. The characters are set in an isolationist Sri Lanka under the rule of an all-seeing, unseen Great Leader.

The arts and the artist have set the task of aiding TJ in motion inter alia by the afore mentioned illustration. There is still a long way to go as presently the audience demographics are not wide enough to substantially steer TJ in Sri Lanka. However, it must be admitted that, regardless the audience demographics, the arts and by extension artists creates “a time and a space, to remember, to mourn, to forgive, to heal, and to glimpse a new future.”

Asela Rekewa is Lead Counsel of Rekawa Associates, formerly Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Wildlife and Sustainable Development, Chairman Disciplinary Committee, Sri Lanka Cricket, Private Secretary and presently Board Member Sri Lanka Atomic Energy Board. He has an Advanced Diploma in Transitional Justice from the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies and is currently reading for his LLM in Criminal Justice Administration at the Open University of Colombo.