The Nitty Gritty of ‘Moving On’: National Reconciliation Unit

Even as the world focussed on what the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) would produce after months of hearings, President Mahinda Rajapaksa set up a ‘National Reconciliation Unit’ to facilitate the work of his Adviser on Reconciliation. All these in addition to the natural processes of reconciliation that the end of conflict engenders, boosted of course by concrete policies to put in place necessary infrastructure, resettle the displaced, clear landmines and reinvigorate economic activity, not to mention the rehabilitation and reintegration of thousands of ex-combatants – a practice unheard of in many parts of the world when it comes to people affiliated with terrorist organisations. The Advisor’s terms of reference included monitoring and reporting to the President on progress with regard to the Interim Recommendations of the LLRC, and promoting appropriate activities for this purpose through the relevant Ministries.

The Nation’ spoke with Pushpi Weerakoon, Coordinator of the Unit, on the mandate, work and challenges of this body.
Q: Could you elaborate on the power, authority and capacity of the unit?
The Office has no powers or executive authority. Apart from two minor staff, it has only an IT officer. MP’s secretary and office aide also contribute. However, much support is provided by members of the Reconciliation Youth Forum that comprises committed youngsters worked in the North and East in related activity developing initiatives and record achievements.

In addition to the Reconciliation website, http://www.peaceinsrilanka.org, we have started a blog – http://www.reconciliationyouthforum.org – and a You Tube channel – http://www.youtube.com/reconcile sri Lanka. You can also follow us on twitter @rcncilesrilanka and on Facebook on Sri Lankan Reconciliation Youth Forum.

Other initiatives include Civil Society Partners for Reconciliation which brings together relevant government organisations with civil society and ambassadors and non-governmental organisations (Rotary, Save the Children etc) to suggest initiatives. This has led to a project in sustainable agriculture to support ex-combatants. We hope that Japan would support it through IOM. In addition, a proposal for vocational training in Mullaitivu with socialisation and soft skills on the lines of the programmes Aide et Action is now being materialised in Vavuniya.
We have also set up a body called Religion, Education and Pluralism to develop educational initiatives as suggested when the Adviser was appointed, and feel this is particularly important in view of the vision advanced by the President in his budget speech.

Based on recommendations of some of these groups, we have set up District Reconciliation Committees in three Northern Districts and hope to do the same in the other two as well. We had productive input from the local officials who attended about problems and possible solutions with the police. Some committed social workers also actively contribute.

We have initiated discussions with UNESCO about school activities, and begun a discussion group on international relations though we are awaiting a response from the Ministry of External Affairs in this regard. We were pleased that an NGO which was sending young parliamentarians abroad initiated a familiarisation session in this regard, and hope we could start something within Parliament too, perhaps through the Friendship Associations, since there are a number of young parliamentarians with the capacity to develop into excellent international communicators if only we do some initial familiarisation with relevant issues.

We do not really influence policy, since we need to liaise with the Secretary to the President. However a meeting is planned shortly to enable us to move ahead.

Prof Rajiva Wijesinha (Advisor to H.E. the president), Pushpi Weerakoon (Coordinator- Reconciliation Unit), Vedha Karuppiah (IOM rep Jaffna) & Kapila (Aid et Action Project Manager) with the staff & students of the Aid Et Action ilead vocational centre during their cultural show)

 

IOM partners with the Reconciliation Unit to provide Logistic support. IOM & Reconciliation Unit colleagues at the Kilinochchi IOM compound.

Q: What are the main obstacles to reconciliation as per your mandate?

The main obstacle is the absence of any sense of urgency amongst those who should be working actively to promote reconciliation. Most ministers and officials with whom we discuss matters are sympathetic but have not really conceptualised the manner in which reconciliation initiatives, as laid out in the President’s letter of appointment, should be carried out. Since we have no executive powers, we cannot really act, and often it takes a very long time to get responses.
However, we have had excellent and swift assistance from the Governor and District Secretaries of the Northern Province, and we hope the DRCs will develop apace. But we also need input from line ministries about streamlining activities and coordinating with other relevant actors, whilst also developing better mechanisms to record and analyse the ground situation.

Q: How do you understand the idea of ‘reconciliation’?

My guru, the father of conflict transformation, Prof. John Paul Lederach calls it “a meeting ground where trust and mercy have met, and where justice and peace have kissed.” In simpler terms, it’s about bringing people together to move them beyond the past through reestablishing trust and normalcy, forgiving each other, in a justifiable society where the previous belligerents would be able to coexist peacefully. In Sri Lanka, a successful reconciliation process would pave way to victims and offenders of both the main fractions of the conflict not only to coexist peacefully but also to work for the betterment of our next generation. It should rekindle mutual respect among ethnicities such as Sinhala and Tamil and also among different fractions of single ethnicities such as Northern and Southern Tamils and Muslims. All communities should accept excombatants/beneficiaries, military and the police, war widows and disabled into their localities with open arms. There should be a positive atmosphere for the natural day-to-day activities to progress without fear and prejudice. Most importantly the youth who are cut off from the rest of the country for over two decades and made to think the southerners were of different nature, must mingle together and share their values and cultures to disperse the misunderstandings. Even though such a process will never be achieved over night, even small steps taken without delay could lay a foundation for a lasting relation.

Pushpi met a group of Kilinochchi youths who attended the Rotary National Youth Exchange program in Colombo this July

Q: What are the programmes in the pipeline?

The meetings held in Vavuniya and Kilinochchi to set up the reconciliation units provided a forum for a greater number of government officials in the education, health, agriculture , army and the police to vocalise their concerns. An urgent need for safe houses (currently the only safe house available is in Jaffna) for young unmarried mothers, education on sexual and reproductive health, income generating activities for war widows, vocational training for youths, lack of English and Maths teachers, lack of extracurricular activities and cultural exchange programs in the schools, need for Tamil speaking WPCs and security concerns for all including ex-combatants were raised at the forum.

To address these issues we have requested the GA and Zonal directors to provide us with lists of Maths, Science and English teachers available in the area. Police officers present at the meeting were to provide with a list of councellors available and also circulate notices within schools with information on how to join the police force. The government officers were also advised to take an account of the child rights promoting officers and Women development officers available. We also suggested the authorities to implement community structures for the safety of women and children and have consultative meetings in the police and issue a monthly report. The agricultural officers were encouraged to approach private sector to implement and enhance corporative centres among local farmers.

Our civil society and youth forum members have now begun to collect resources to implement projects to address some pressing issues raised at these two initial meetings. Among them would be a setting up of computer centre in Mullaitivu, vocational training centre in Elenkopurm village in Theravil GN in PTK and a cultural centre in Trincomalee. We have already located a rundown building to be refurbished in PTK and an orphanage in Kilinochchi which has potentials to house a vocational training centre. Rotary club of Colombo Mid Town and East, several private computer companies, foreign colleges and individual diaspora members have already expressed their interests to join us to set up these initiatives.

Setting up the Reconciliation Unit in Vavuniya in the presence of Educational, Agricultural, Health officers, Army, Police and Religious representatives.

Meeting the government agents and setting up of the Reconciliation Unit in Kilinochchi

With the students at the Kilinochchi MV College Psycho social Happiness centre

Key Programmes of the Unit:

• Developing and promoting programmes to rehabilitate and reintegrate former combatants as concerned and productive citizens of a united Sri Lanka.

• Promoting initiatives in relevant ministries to encourage national and international cooperation for these purposes

• Advising institutes concerned with the promotion of international relations with regard to programmes to strengthen and develop appropriate knowledge and skills.
• Encouraging development of activities in the link language and in particular projects to ensure interaction between different communities.
• Devising and promoting programmes to develop teaching and teacher training with the link language and initiate international volunteer support for this purpose.
• Assisting in promoting initiatives to ensure protection of human rights and develop training programmes for this purpose, and disseminate information regarding progress in this regard.
• Supporting the efforts of the armed forces in community development initiatives in the North and East and promoting special initiatives in this regard.
• Ensuring widespread communication of government initiatives in reconciliation and human rights.

Source: http://www.nation.lk/2011/12/18/na2_4.htm


Former Combatants cruise down the Kelani River to draw attention to Climate Change

A Cruise down the Kelani River was organized by environmentalists from August 17th to 29th 2011 to draw attention to climate changes that are occurring with ever increasing frequency, and to spread the message that caring for the environment is an urgent imperative.

A multi-ethnic and multi-religious group of 21 youngsters participated in the cruise, amongst them two former combatants who were undergoing rehabilitation with the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation (BCGR). The CGR Major General Chandana Rajaguru and Dr. ASA Safras, Rehabilitation Healthcare Coordinator for BCGR, attended the ceremony to launch this undertaking.

The cruise commenced at Sri Pada, the mountain which is the source of the Kelani River. During the twelve-day boat ride down the river, the 2 former combatants representing the rehabilitation bureau had the opportunity to join their colleagues in various environmental observations, yoga classes and leadership training sessions. They also too full advantage to mix with people from other ethnicities.

The 12-day 150 km cruise was an excellent opportunity to educate the people on both banks of the river on the need to safeguard its waters from pollution. The cruise terminated near Crows’ Island at Mattakkuliya, the point at which the Kelani River empties into the sea after its meandering journey.

Bureau of the CGR

Taking Those Baby Steps: The Positive Role of the Diaspora in Reconciling Sri Lanka

The word ‘Diaspora’ has a negative connation in the majority of Sri Lankan minds due to the various implications they have had not only on the civil conflict, but up until recently, in the post-war aftermath. ‘The Sri Lankan Diaspora is either apathetic or extreme’ – this is a common thought and maybe in some instances not entirely unfounded. The intention of this article is not to focus on the negatives but to look at the potential the Sri Lankan Diaspora community can have on reconciling Sri Lanka. It all boils down to an honest human touch and that is the very attitude with which, Diaspora Lanka Australia and Jeremy Liyanage (Director and main coordinator) continue their work in Mannar.

Lunch in Mannar


Diaspora Lanka came to being following a delegation to Australia by Sri Lankan business people who sought Diaspora investment in small and medium business enterprise in regional Sri Lanka. Interested parties gathered together in one group with the belief that whether Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, Sinhalese or any another ethnic group, a durable peace can be achieved through a Diaspora commitment to the future development of Sri Lanka. I met the group in July 2010 when I accompanied them on their visit to Mannar in order to scope out the potential for Diaspora investments in the area. It was seen that Mannar needed extensive preparation for the incoming post-war development in order to reap benefits and avoid exploitation and the group was also faced with the fact that the people in the area were mistrustful of ‘foreign’ groups raising expectations and then never returning. Some of the group was shocked by this reality and I was certain that we had seen the last of them. However, I’m glad to write that I have been proven wrong and what has followed is truly a success story.

Focus Group


It is not within the scope of this article to go into depth about all the work Diaspora Lanka has been involved with in Mannar but here are some of the highlights. Several sustainable projects have been implemented; among them, a youth-instigated project to computerize the SME sector led by a youngster who is supported by Diaspora Lanka; development projects including the purchase of boats for a fishing co-operative and women’s development initiatives; developing advocacy mechanisms to address local issues; small discussion groups with banks and the Chamber of Commerce in relation to access to credit and a community visioning program, ‘Mannarin Marumalarchi 2022’ (Reawakening Mannar), comprising village and community-wide workshops, survey and competitions. Several focus groups have been conducted to stay in touch with people’s views and experiences on the ground and a submission has also been made to the LLRC based on these discussions.

Focus Group


All these programs are done through partnership with local people and organizations and that is the key to its sustainability. Jeremy has visited Mannar on numerous occasions since that first visit and he has also managed to create awareness and interest on the positive role Diaspora can play back in Australia. Most importantly, he has become friends with the people of Mannar and he says ‘It has not all been hard work. I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. I have been shown extraordinary hospitality (and put on more kilos as a result), been a spectator at a cricket tournament organised by the youth-run Star Eagles which Diaspora Lanka co-sponsored, been invited out for meals, road and boating trips and have significantly widened my networks, sowing the seeds of a long-term relationship with this unique part of Sri Lanka.’

Meeting with the Mannar Chamber of Commerce


The work Jeremy and Diaspora Lanka Australia has done in Mannar shows by example how the moderate Sri Lankan Diaspora community can get positively involved in reconciling and developing a post-war Sri Lanka. Actions speak louder than words and the key lies in starting on a small scale and working directly at a grass-root level. It’s great to dream of moving mountains but we all need to start somewhere and all it takes is the will and the determination to do so. As Jeremy will also attest, the support will follow in abundance.

By Selyna Peiris

For more information on Diaspora Lanka, follow this link:
http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001538180810

Giving Security a Human Face: Japan supports Human Security efforts in Northern Sri Lanka

Human Security has been traditionally thought as embracing two freedoms, namely, freedom from want and freedom from fear. It is believed that such efforts carry potential to significantly contribute towards a nation’s peace and development agendas.
In pursuit of such aims, the Government of Japan has implemented three projects in the North of Sri Lanka in an effort to provide impetus for efforts to bring about human security for the citizens in the area. The three projects have been implemented through three local organizations, namely, Sarvadoya, Sewalanka, and the Halo Trust.

Nursery


The first project called the ‘Project for Ensuring Long Term Food Security of Resettled Communities in the Northern Province’ utilizes 16 million LKR for the rehabilitation of 60 agricultural wells, 3 irrigation channels and construction of 30 agricultural wells in Oddusan, Maritimepattu DS divisions in Mullaittivu District and Kandavalai DS division in Killinochchi.
Through the development of such infrastructure the communities in the areas are benefitted beyond the mere project cycle where the establishment of an enabling environment for over 2500 families has helped stabilize living conditions through the enhancement of access to water and improved facilities for farming.

Farmer with his crop of Pumpkin


The second project has a different focus. It empowers local communities in the start-up of livelihood options through the provision of agricultural and fishing equipment, construction and rehabilitation of 5 community centres and 55 wells in Maritimepattu and Oddusudan in Mullaittivu and Vavuniya North. This intervention called the ‘Project for Supporting the Initial Socio-Economic Needs of Resettled Communities in the Northern Province’ allocates 23 million LKR benefiting over 2500 families.

Local women fetching water from the new wells


The third initiative contributes to the resettlement of over 20,000 persons in Jaffna and Killinochchi through assistance to demining projects in the communities. This is aimed to foster safer living environments so that inhabitants can dwell with stabilitiy of mind and proceed with day-to-day activities free from fear. An amount of 59 million LKR allocated under this project builds on previous demining projects for early resettlement of internally displaced persons supported by the Government of Japan amounting to 2350 million LKR to date.

Besides the above three projects that come under the Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Projects, the Government of Japan has provided 42 million LKR for a demining project implemented by DASH, a local demining organization. This has benefacted over 5000 persons in the Killinochchi district. Yet another initiative supported by the Government of Japan in the North is the improvement of central facilities of the Jaffna Teaching Hospital, the construction of the Vavuniya-Killinochchi Transmission Line, and rehabilitation of resettled communities in Mannar and Jaffna districts.

New well


These projects targeting the grassroots communities as beneficiaries have reaped immediate dividends for communities in the North of the country. Often referred to as ‘people-centred security’ or ‘security with a human face,’ human security places human beings rather than states at the focal point of security considerations. The distinguishing characteristic of human security interventions such as those described above is the emphasis on the complex relationships and oft-ignored linkages between demining, human rights, development and peace.

By Salma Yusuf