Catch 22: To Reconcile or Not to Reconcile

‘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

A Ministry for Reconciliation is needed to implement LLRC recommendations

NEW DELHI, January 10: Sri Lanka should create a Ministry for Reconciliation to implement the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in its recently-released report, a Presidential Adviser has suggested.
The suggestion was made by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Adviser to President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Reconciliation, in a presentation on “Reconciliation, Sri Lanka and the World” made here today at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a leading private think tank.

There is need for concerted action across the board to achieve genuine reconciliation. “Those anxious for reconciliation should endeavour to support government in setting up mechanisms to work quickly and imaginatively towards the goals laid out in the LLRC report. Unfortunately, there seems no urgency at the moment about implementation, or even allocating responsibility for the different tasks,” he said.

According to Prof Wijedasa, what certainly will not work is a Committee of Ministry Secretaries, chaired by someone without executive authority in this regard. “Rather, there should be a Ministry for Reconciliation, charged with fulfilling the recommendations of the Commission as best possible. I would also suggest that it be given a limited life span, of two years perhaps, after which it should have made itself redundant,” he said.

But whoever may head such a ministry, he said there is need of an efficient and experienced Secretary, and dedicated staff, though very few would suffice given that the bulk of the actual work would have to be done by other Ministries.

However, current lethargy, as exemplified for instance by the failure of the Ministry of Education to even think of mechanisms for increasing the supply of competent language teachers—- despite the clear commitment of the President to building up a trilingual society—-makes it clear that innovative ideas and ensuring their implementation would have to come from a dedicated agency.

Prof Wijesinha’s own view is that the recommendations of the Commission can be fulfilled very easily, provided initiative and imagination are brought to bear, along with the will to succeed.

The process of a political settlement too can be expedited if action is taken immediately on recommendations in this regard that are not controversial. For instance, the mechanism of a second chamber to promote regional input into national legislation could be put into operation straightaway. Of course, better training on legislative principles for potential members will be needed.

“We should also be ensuring proper training for local government representatives so that they can use more effectively the powers and resources they do possess, to resolve problems that should not require intervention by distant officials and politicians,”he added.

Reconciliation will not be difficult to achieve, and the LLRF report shows the way. Prof Wijesinha said: “We should not be distracted by insistence on retribution and stress on major political problems, when we can so easily deal with the root causes of resentment and, through setting mechanisms of empowerment in place that are generally acceptable, move on to solutions for more contentious issues.

He went on: “But we should also recognize that the failure thus far of government to work consistently in required areas, to have followed intensively the interim recommendations of the Commission even if common sense had not already indicated the way, has led to suspicions which government must assuage through committed action. As the Commission makes clear with regard to Reconciliation, ‘the responsibility for being the prime mover of this process lies squarely with the Government.’”

January 10, 2012, 9:36 pm/ BY S VENKAT NARAYAN/ Our Special Correspondent


No India-China rivalry in Sri Lanka: Prof Wijesinha

China has made it clear to Sri Lanka that the primacy of our relationship with India is understood, says Wijesinha

Elizabeth Roche

 New Delhi: China has conveyed to Sri Lanka that it understands the primacy of the relationship between India and the island nation, a Sri Lankan MP and adviser to President Mahinda Rajapaksa said Tuesday. The India-China rivalry in Sri Lanka was predominantly a Western construct, Rajiva Wijesinha said, adding that at times some Sri Lankan groups too played up the perceived rivalry.

Wijesinha, on a trip to New Delhi ahead of a 16-19 January visit to Sri Lanka by Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna, was also critical of his government’s slow pace of reintegrating minority Tamils into the Sri Lankan political mainstream as he stressed the need to fasttrack the reconciliation process between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese after the end of the almost three-decade-old civil war on the island nation in May 2009.

“Efforts to present Sri Lanka as a bone of contention between India and China are largely self-serving… given the tendency of the West to function in terms of binary opposites,” Wijesinha said, with regard to China.

“This is also understandable given the manner in which they fought the Cold War but China has made it clear to Sri Lanka that the primacy of our relationship with India is understood. If rivalries on the lines of those that dogged all of us during the Cold War are to develop, they will be primarily economic in character and played out in Africa and similar fields for large-scale investment without any need for hostilities in South Asia,” Wijesinha said in a speech at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

The comments mirror those of Sri Lankan foreign minister G.L. Peiris and others against the backdrop of increasing Chinese investments in Sri Lanka seen as being within India’s sphere of influence.

Many experts and commentators have expressed concern over increased Chinese activity in India’s periphery—in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal besides the disputed part of Kashmir administered by Pakistan.

According to Wijesinha, Sri Lanka had first offered the contract to develop the Hambantota port—seen as the most prominent symbol of Chinese economic engagement in the country since the end of the civil war—to India. The first phase of the port in southern Sri Lanka, completed in 2010 by the China Harbour Engineering Co. Ltd at a cost of $360 million, includes a high-quality passenger terminal, cargo handling, warehousing, bunkering, provisioning, maintenance and repair, medical supplies and customs clearing facilities.

“India said it could not do this, so it was given to China,” Wijesinha said, adding that India was involved in the dredging and refurbishment of the Kankesanturai port in the northern part of Sri Lanka. “India is now moving on this very quickly, previously it was slow,” he said.

He warned that some Sri Lankan groups too could take advantage of perceived India-China rivalry if India and the West were seen to be working together to pressure Colombo on the reconciliation process.

Wijesinha admitted that the Sri Lankan authorities could move more quickly on the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)— set up by the Colombo government at the end of the civil war broadly along the lines of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the early 1990s. He sought the creation of a separate ministry tasked with fulfilling the recommendations of the report with a limited time span of about two years after which it should be declared redundant.

The LLRC recommendations include investigations into allegations of human rights violations during the last phases of the civil war, increased media freedom and a speedy redressal of the grievances of the Tamils that sparked the civil war decades ago.


Meditation Programme for Ex-Cadres – Life is a JOURNEY and Not a destination

The Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation(BCGR) organized a meditation programme for the ex-combatants residing in the rehabilitation centres. The programme was conducted in Maruthamadu in Anuradhapura, Poonthottam in Vavuniya and Senapura in Welikantha over a period of 3 months. Around 645 participants attended the programme. The beneficiaries of the BCGR undergoing rehabilitation are offered a wide range of skills development programmes including Plumbing workshops, Electrical courses, Masonry programmes and Carpentry courses. These courses enable them to learn skills in preparation for livelihood initiatives. The BCGR also co-ordinates with other institutions to secure loans for small businesses. The Meditation program was headed by Ms Suhila Raja who is a counseling specialist and has been working with the BCGR in conducting psychosocial programs for ex-combatants. The programme include a wide range of meditation techniques which enable the participants to focus their minds on positive, happy and peaceful situations. They also learn sun prayer and deep breathing. Participants are encouraged to utilize peer counselling techniques to discuss their experiences with other beneficiaries and anchor them within themselves. They engage in soul dance, music and art activities. Participants say that the programme helps them to “develop meditation skills” , “learn to be happy and peaceful” , “accept life and move forward”, “heal and move away from pain” and “find a balance within themselves”. The programme puts forward the concept LIFE IS A JOURNEY and NOT A DESTINATION. Participants learn to accept this philosophical concept and are able to deal with their emotional side and seek balance and contentment in life.

By Dr.A.S.A.Safras

Perspectives on Reconciliation

The Reconciliation for Peace Section of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies convened a panel discussion on the topic entitled ‘Reconciliation – the way forward: an assessment of ongoing initiatives, a listing of productive possibilities’ on 15 December 2011 at the Institute of Policy Studies in Colombo. The speakers comprised the Presidential Advisor on Reconciliation, Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, M.A. Sumanthiran, Member of Parliament and Tamil National Alliance, Mr Eran Wickramaratne, Member of Parliament, Mr V. Muralitharan, Deputy Minister of Resettlement and Chaired by Ambassador Javid Yusuf, Founder-Secretary General, Peace Secretariat for Muslims and Senior Advisor, Ministry of External Affairs.

Panel of speakers

Presidential Advisor Professor Rajiva Wijesinha commenced his presentation by stating that there is a need to overcome the bitterness and suspicion that prompted the terrorism that plagued Sri Lanka for three decades. As much has been done to boost infrastructure development in the North there is a lack of knowledge and awareness of what has been done and this can affect the dividends of such initiatives from being reaped. The putting on record of what has been done would also serve the additional purpose of clarifying what remains to be done. As a prerequisite for development there is a need to provide teachers in the North with the essentials. Another area he identified as needing focus is coherent planning with regards to what is being provided. He proposed a model whereby soldiers worked together with those who need work as one that would assist considerably with reconciliation. Through working and playing together people establish lasting relationships, which has led to efforts to encourage project work as a component of the many educational exchanges that are taking place. The same principle applies to adults.

Reflecting on failures, Professor Wijesinha stated that one major problem faced in Sri Lanka is the lack of a clear agenda for the North and the role of external assistance. Since 2010, we needed to have moved from our request for humanitarian assistance to our need for development assistance. While commending the treatment of surrendees he said that much more needs to be done. He highlighted that more should be done for employment, vocational training, and training in entrepreneurship. He identified key areas where urgent and concerted efforts are necessary, namely, the need to pay more attention to the problems faced by women and children in the conflict areas; the need for conceptual changes in which the government policy on national languages is implemented; the need for a swift movement to arrive at a political solution – by dwelling on the many areas where consensus is within easy reach, so that there is realization that there is little that divides us, and much more that binds us together.

Ambassadors, Foreign & Local delegates present

Mr Sumanthiran stated that he viewed the GoSL’s mode of operation as being contrary to the process of reconciliation. He stressed the fact that there was a lack of clarity on the matter of post-war reconciliation with regards to aspects such as what the definition of reconciliation that the GoSL will be adopting, with whom or between whom the GoSL’s seeks to effect reconciliation, and why reconciliation was seen as a necessity in the first place. He cautioned against the GoSL seeking to reconcile the government security forces with the LTTE leadership or with the Tamil community in general while according little or no place to the victims in the reconciliation process. Speaking on the issue of justice, he remarked that while the GoSL has chosen the route of restorative justice, he is of the view that both restorative and retributive justice is necessary for any genuine reconciliation to take place as the two are not mutually exclusive operations. Both the aforementioned approaches need to be victim-centred. He stated that the GoSL ought to caution against dealing with causes that are relevant only to a certain period of the conflict. Rather, what is needed is a tracing back to the period of 1956 when the violence against Tamils began.

He called on the GoSL to respond to two reports that have been tabled in Parliament that incorporated the concerns of the Tamil peoples; to acknowledge the gravity of the national languages issue as a root cause of the conflict; and to take serious action to apprehend the assailants who attacked a TNA meeting while in progress. This he said was a prerequisite if meaningful reconciliation is to take place.

Mr Eran Wickramaratne began his presentation by stating that he saw reconciliation as having two aspects, namely relational and political aspects. While the majority community tends to favour the former, the minority communities favour the latter. However, both are equally critical prerequisites for reconciliation. Speaking on the relational aspects, he highlighted that creating a sense of inter-dependence between all communities is crucial if minority communities are to feel a part of the fabric of the nation.

The current development drive being witnessed in the country, he said, should not be a substitute for the restoration of dignity on the victims and survivors of the conflict. For there to be true reconciliation he went on to identify the following components as necessary – truth, justice (which is not revenge) restitution, acceptance and dignity. Recognition and acknowledgement of past mistakes were imperative to moving forward.

He noted two positive developments in the current political context – the shift in perception from viewing the conflict as a terrorist problem to acknowledgement of the need for a political settlement; and rather than operating through a top-down approach of political patronage and proxies there is now a recognition of the need to engage elected representatives by the Tamil community.

He urged the strengthening of political will for implementation of the language policy similar to the South African model; the need to dismantle the current perception that any entity that asks for accountability is somehow and in some way related to the LTTE movement; the identification of the problem as much wider than that can be covered through GoSL negotiations with the TNA; stressed the importance of demilitarization where the people are not viewed as subjects but rather as citizens under a civilian administration highlighting the need for the strengthening of the establishment of the latter form of government.

Mr V Muralitharan commenced his presentation by stating that the currently ensuing blame-game is a significant setback and obstacle to moving the country towards reconciliation. He recommended that while there is no doubt that the GoSL has faltered on some accounts this does not mean that the many achievements should be ignored. Any shortcomings by the GoSL ought to be taken up constructively with the relevant authorities. He went on to note the important role that the international community has to play in supporting the process of reconciliation. Pointing out that, as the conflict was a long-drawn out affair, the fallouts cannot be addressed overnight and that reconciliation is a process which by definition takes time, effort and patience, the Deputy Minister of Resettlement opined that any route to moving the country forward ought not to focus on the past issues, concerns and violations as such an approach will only resurrect old memories and negativities.

Audience compromising of INGOs, NGOs & government officials

Mr Javid Yusuf proposed the formulation and drafting of a National Policy on Reconciliation that is arrived at with consultation of all communities and concerned persons while addressing the root causes of the conflict. He went further to state that as the Tamil community is a bruised and wounded community there remains a need for a state-led initiative on individual and collective healing. This is closely linked to his analysis of the conflict as being one between the Tamil community and the state rather than one that was deliberately designed to oppress the minority communities by the majority Sinhalese community. He commended the GoSL’s efforts in the Northern and Eastern rehabilitation and resettlement processes and called on the GoSL to take the important next step by reaching out to the Tamil community to address their concerns and grievances. The Muslim community has oft been caught in the cross-fires and hence need to be taken seriously in any endeavour to move the country forward to lasting peace and stability. Mr Yusuf urged the minority communities to reposition themselves – by conducting themselves as equals. This can be achieved by ceasing to speak only on issues affecting their respective communities but rather to speak on national issues and leading national campaigns.

By Salma Yusuf