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On Forgiving And Forgetting

By Dr. Devanesan Nesiah

Pre-Independence, our Island was among the most peaceful lands in Asia. For some centuries there had been no large-scale ethnic riots in our Island, apart from the anti-Muslim riots of 1915. Even the 1915 riots lacked the scale and brutality of some of the anti- Tamil, JVP led and state led anti-JVP pogroms that we experienced since the mid 1950s.

The distinctive feature of the post-independence pogroms is that very few of the perpetrators have been identified or punished. What we have often witnessed is either denial or justification of the violence, and the surviving victims and their loved ones being asked “to forgive and forget”. Is this possible, or even desirable?

This question has been addressed over the last few decades in several countries of Africa and Latin America through a wide range of Truth Commissions. A central focus of these Commissions was on Truth Telling with a view to identify the victims and perpetrators, the nature of the crimes, and also as an exploration of the circumstances that led to these crimes.

The formula for the mix of retributive and restorative justice has varied from country to country. Most Truth Commissions offered partial amnesty, but this had to be earned by the individual perpetrator through public, face to face Truth Telling, direct to the victim/victim’s family.

Blanket amnesty was never offered; nor were the victims and their loved ones urged “to forgive and forget”.

The nature of the crimes (killing, torture, rape etc.) was such that forgetting was impossible. Moreover, the publication of the Commission reports, with details of every crime dealt with ensured that the relevant facts were disseminated worldwide, not suppressed.

We have never had such a Truth Commission in Sri Lanka involving the confessions of perpetrators. Many of those who are urging the establishment of a Truth Commission in Sri Lanka may have very little knowledge of what it entails; many of those who do may want not a Truth Commission but a cover up Commission. How many perpetrators would make full confessions? How many of them would be willing to implicate those of their colleagues and superiors who may be unwilling to confess?

Even among the victims, how many will dare to go public with their accusations against an identified perpetrators? A genuine Truth Commission will be possible only after an appropriate transformation of the nature of the state. There are, as yet, no signs of such a transformation in our country.

In his sermon at the Cathedral of the Colombo Diocese of the Church of Ceylon on Sunday 19th January 2014, Rev. Michael Lapsley, a well known South African anti –apartheid activist, who lost both hands and an eye when he tried to open a letter addressed to him, spoke of forgiving and forgetting. He could find no Biblical basis for the frequently heard urge “to forgive and forget”. How can he forget when he has lost both hands and an eye?

How can he forgive an assassin who had not identified himself or confessed or asked for forgiveness? In his research he discovered that the word “forget” occurred frequently in the Bible, almost invariably preceded by two words. These words were not “forgive and” but “do not”. The Biblical prescription is not “forgive and forget “but, rather, “do not forget”.

Rev. Michael Lapsley   went on to suggest that the Biblical appeal ‘not to forget’ was intended not to take revenge, but to reconcile and redeem. These are not possible if you forget.  Forgiveness too is not possible unless the perpetrator confesses and seeks forgiveness from the victims. A genuine Truth Commission could help to bring reconciliation to Sri Lanka, as in several other countries, but if the objective is to suppress or cover up the unwelcome Truth, it would be counterproductive.

Any healing would then be on the surface; underneath, the wound would continue to fester. If a woman had been raped or had her husband or child murdered, she cannot and should not forget. This holds in personal matters but also on communal issues.

We see this elsewhere in South Asia. The issues involved in Pakistan separating from India and, in turn, Bangladesh separating from Pakistan has not been addressed, and the wounds continue to fester, erupt and spread from generation to generation.

This could continue indefinitely and foul up the history of the region.  We in Sri Lanka need to do better than that; but if we continue to avoid addressing the underlying issues and grievances, we too will get locked up in long term conflict. To avoid any misunderstanding I need to clarify my view on “forgiving”. Forgiving is necessary and an integral part of all the great religions. The problem is with “forgetting”, including the phrase “forgiving and forgetting”. Forgiving is essential, forgetting is not.

12 Comments for “On Forgiving And Forgetting”

  1. Manuelpillai

    It is very easy to say ‘forgive and forget’ and escape the consequences.Murder is a murder and when it is proved he cannot claim that such murder was committed by others too and that they have not been brought to book and the best thing is to ‘forgive and forget’.Did God ever say”forgive and forget”? According to the bible God is forgiving on account of His Son’s death on behalf of a sinner.

    • Chandra

      Please do not drag out dated Bible and non existent God to this important discussion.

  2. Sangaralingham

    Politicians seem to take advantage the concept of forgive and forget to their heart but not let citizens take that seriously as they are not moving in the right direction to give leadership to the citizens from coast toast to sea to sea.

  3. It is all well and good to advocate forgiveness but who are we to forgive .
    Those who lost there dear ones ,were injured,humiliated ,robbed and do not know where their family members over the years since 1956 are the ones who should decide.They come from every nationality and all prts of th country.
    More importantly even if they is arevwilling to forgive and even forget all atrocities what good will it make when there is no willingness to recognise past mistakes by political parties that goverened our country and individuals who held and hold positions of power.There is no hope of forgiveness paving the path for peace in the country when one looks at the impunity with which actions were taken against innocent people in the pretext of crushing rebellions and fighting terrorism.
    Before we talk about forgiveness and forgetting it is important for all those who are responsible for all the carnage over the past 60 years to come clean,own up all their mistakes and accept that all inhabitants of our beautiful country are equals and have the same right as any one else irrespective of their nationality or religion.

  4. Richard Kaz

    Any Truth Commission appointed by the current GoSL will be a ‘Cover-up’ Commission. You do not have to be a genius to figure that out.

    • Asoka

      Same as how Nobel Peace Prize giving to murderers of the world. One time Senator Edward Kennedy said “Prices for Crises”. USA first Muslim converted to Christian and black President received Nobel Peace Prize also. His one hand with Nobel Peace Prize and other hand full of Missiles (Drone attacks)

  5. K.Anaga

    One may forgive but shoul’nt forget the harm or good done. If you will not forget you wil be ready to react appropriatly to any evntualities.

    • VOX. POPULI

      To err is human ,to forgive is divine.
      If one harms me and seeks,forgiveness,I will certainly forgive.
      This is the “golden thread in the fabric of all religions”. BUT I WILL NEVER FORGET!!!!!!

  6. warren

    we can forgive but we cant forget but for how long do we want all the people to keep this hate as long we do not forgive and try and help the people they need to start a new life just by staying out of this country and not sending the funds that they need we are only killing them do not take this un forgiveness to your next life

  7. krishan canagasabey

    I agree with the writer, there is no point in a truth commission as long as the people who gave the orders remain in power. Sri Lanka is unlike the rest of the world, the people who did it dont see it as worth talking about, for them life is better the less said.

  8. Tony of Sydney

    Dear Dr. Devanesan Nesiah (Writer of this article). Love your story Dr Nesiah. You are a legend. I live in Sydney Australia and reading this article quoting the bible verses, I truly believe you are a legend. Reading some of the points “Chandra” has quoted I am so embarrased that this man is a 1st class brainless stupid man. Chandra,Mate, I suggest you read the context of the article and the Bible verses quoted are extremly real. I believe you are a ideot who have not studied much. I have lived in SL till I was 20 years and now in Australia for the past 28 years and I believe if there were more people like this writer in SL. SL, will be a better place than what it is at present. Learn from this person and get better all you bias people.

  9. gamarala

    If Nesiah’s family had been affected by killings and rape,will he still preach ‘forgiveness’?
    The army is “selling” ‘death certificates’ for Rs. 100,000 to explain missing persons to their families. Recently these have been re-labelled ‘certificates of absence’.
    This is the first time worldwide in any nation affected by war.
    Nesiah is the latest ‘recruit’ by the government for its corps of ‘whitewashers’.

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