‘Reconciliation’ is now the latest buzzword in the ever-dynamic political spectrum in Sri Lanka. This follows on from its trendy predecessors including ‘war’, ‘peace-process’, ‘cease-fire’ and ‘devolution’ to name a few. The urgent question in Sri Lanka today is what happens if or when ‘reconciliation’ is discarded for ‘revolution’? As a nation we have been bitten, scared and scared but have we learnt? This article attempts to look into the present process of ‘reconciling’ Sri Lanka and while reading I ask you to remember that we are a land like no other.
The recently released Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation (LLRC Report) outlines the varied issues and concerns impacting post-conflict reconciliation. These include land issues arising from return and resettlement, livelihood issues and unemployment, the need for people’s participation in governance, the law and order situation in the North and East, the continued existence of illegal armed groups and compensation for war victims to name a few. The report also discusses the grievances of Tamil and Muslim minorities as well as that of the Sinhala villages adjacent to the former war zones and in its analysis shows that the prevailing grievances are similar or even identical to that faced by these communities over 30 years ago. For example, the need to give effect to the rule of law, the urgent need for devolution of power, inclusive language policy, education and equal opportunities to minority communities, to name a few, are seen as essential ingredients to promoting reconciliation and maintaining the peace in the country. It seems to me that Sri Lanka has completed one full cycle and that we have this unique opportunity of being back in square one. At this juncture, it is not an enlightened revelation to state that we need to address the grievances of the present society if we are to avoid yet another violent insurrection. I do not doubt that it is a difficult and long-drawn process and we need to dig deep into our dirty laundry to really resolve the core grievances. A good start is to understand rehabilitation, reconstruction and resettlement is only a part of reconciliation and that true reconciliation can only occur when there is acceptance and forgiveness at the grassroots of our violent past. It also needs to stem from the grassroots as the people will know what they want and what can and cannot be compromised and it is this wish that needs to be implemented.
Recently, I attended a panel discussion organised by the Consortium of Human Rights Agencies (CHA) to listen to Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, the Advisor to the President on Reconciliation present a critical assessment of the ongoing initiatives, mostly by the Government, for reconciliation in Sri Lanka. I do not wish to go into depth here as this information in found in many a publication. What was more interesting was the ensuing responses by the rest of the panel consisting of Mr. M. A. Sumanthiran from the Tamil National Alliance, Mr. Eran Winckremarathne from the United National Party, Mr. V. Muralitharan former LTTE commander and now a Member of Parliament and Mr Javed Yusuf, Attorney-at-Law. Apart from the fact that visually the panel truly represented the political divisions in Sri Lanka at present, their opinions also brought to light the diverse attitudes toward reconciliation in the Sri Lankan context. It was clear that to work towards a reconciled Sri Lanka, the different fractions in our community needed to be able to agree on what reconciliation actually meant in our country. It was also clear that a definition that encompasses the diversity of our community needed much compromise and commitment. I am convinced of Mr.Wickremarathne’s use of the term ‘relational reconciliation’ as the surest way forward in our present situation as reconciliation needs to start at the grassroots and should not be left for mere debate between the politicos. It’s about time that we Sri Lankans took the responsibility to our own hands and start to work at a ground level to build trust within our communities and take ownership for the future of our country. If one really thinks about it there is nothing a warm Sri Lankan smile and our knack for hospitality cannot do. By saying so, it is not my intention to belittle the grievances and issues obstructing progressive talks at present but to merely draw attention to the fact that, if there is honesty and commitment, inclusive solutions are not impossible either. One thing is however certain – true reconciliation in Sri Lanka cannot be achieved by mere infrastructure development, resettlement of ex-combatants or compensation for war victims and unless our peoples are given dignity, Sri Lanka can never be their home.
Uniting Sri Lanka!
My advocacy for ‘relational reconciliation’ is not idealistic and there are many local initiatives at grass-root level which are working effectively at making the much-needed difference. One that is close to my heart is Sri Lanka Unites. SLU is a youth movement committed to the cause of hope and national reconciliation and has mandated itself to mobilize young people from across the country, empowering them to seek better solutions and be advocates for sustainable peace which the organisation feels is a necessary step in conflict-transformation. The organisation has a simple ideology – making friends and staying friends and in that way has a network of over 4500 student leaders from every district and community in Sri Lanka. They organise several events over the year, namely the Future Leaders Conference, mentoring weekends, school assemblies and a road trip across the Island; which enables young students aged between 15-18 to meet each other and in this way overcome the apprehension many young people in this country have about others in different communities. At these events, students not only get an opportunity to interact with others from different communities but the structured programs gives them an opportunity to discuss about why Sri Lanka is divided and what it would take to remain united. Asking for forgiveness and forgiving in return, one message is loud and clear – they are determined to live in a peaceful and united Sri Lanka. What is also unique about SLU is that by nature it is a de-centralised organisation which encourages leadership in each ‘generation’. Student leaders from the participating schools are guided to start their own SLU clubs and are then encouraged to conduct their own activities without specific management by the central SLU team. There have been examples of clubs in Kurunegala partnering with schools in Jaffna and conducting health camps for the Jaffna community on their own initiative. What is absolutely beautiful about this experience is that despite the difficulties in communication, the purity of the hugs and smiles between the students when they meet is a true symbol of the possibility of an everlasting peace. Furthermore, students who have graduated into universities have taken the initiative to start the SLU university chapters and several Diaspora communities have also started SLU chapters in their respective countries and cities abroad. A happy virus – young people who are willing to and capable of leading their communities are coming together in one united platform. Most importantly, through them, the idea of a united Sri Lanka without violence and difference is spreading across the Island and beyond. Of course, the nitty-gritty still exists, however, there is now a space being created where friends can one day sit together and discuss with trust how we Sri Lankans can live together and that our differences are not seen as divisions but embraced as diversity. SLU shows that actions speak louder than words and the key lies in starting on a small scale and working directly at a grass-root level. They did not wait for governments or oppositions to give them answers but instead chose to act. It’s easy to blame or complain and 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 Prashan De Visser, President of SLU and the rest of the team will tell you, the support will follow in abundance.
The power of human relationships should never be underestimated. It is in fact the negative influence of such relationships, which led to the JVP and LTTE youth insurrections in the first instance. Whatever forms these insurrections later took on, it boiled down to youth being dissatisfied and mistrustful of the system and the ensuing unemployment and economic grievances merely accelerated the situation to violent breakout. Political dogma added an ethnic divide. The present generation are lucky to the extent that we know what went wrong, what the consequences of violent revolution are and now we have the opportunity to correct it. It is of course easier said than done and I don’t think any one of us have the answers. What is imperative is that we, the peoples of Sri Lanka, work together in finding those solutions to reconciling our nation. It is our responsibility. My only hope is that we work fast enough to prevent violence from flooding our beautiful island once more. The future yet remains ambiguous but what is certain is that the time for action is now.
by Selyna Peiris