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.
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.
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.
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