Towards Reconciliation

Rajiva Wijesinha

Adviser on Reconciliation to HE the President


Four years after the conclusion of conflict, Sri Lanka still has a long way to go to achieve Reconciliation. This is unfortunate, given the enormous efforts made by government to improve facilities for the people most affected by war. But it is not surprising that, as indicated by the results of the last election held in the Northern Province, we have failed to win hearts and minds.

That would not have been difficult had a concerted effort been made. But this requires planning, and unfortunately planning is not something Sri Lanka has been good at. For over three decades now, we have tended to respond to events or rather to crises. The one exception was the care with which, in the period after 2005, we approached the conflict, with all branches of government working together and care taken to ensure the dissemination of clear and convincing information. Following the conclusion of the conflict however all that broke down, and propaganda, often based on parochial electoral considerations, took over, with little attempt at intelligent analysis of ground realities.

Thus we seemed to believe that reconstruction alone would suffice, and reconstruction that placed a premium on cement rather than people. This is on par with the worst delusions of capitalism as elevated into a political philosophy, the assumption that prosperity will trickle down. But this does not work, and Sri Lanka may in the end have to pay heavily for the failure to conceptualize with sensitivity of those who took on responsibility only for construction and not for consultation, who concentrated only on resettlement and not rather on restoration.

Unfortunately the draft National Reconciliation Policy my office prepared was ignored, perhaps because I had consulted with members of the main opposition and the main Tamil parties, the United National Party and the Tamil National Alliance, in preparing it. This openness led to my being characterized by Sinhala extremists as the representative of the TNA in government ranks, while it should be noted that Tamil extremists were using similar language of those in the TNA willing to talk and work together. But the capacity to sow distrust is endemic in Sri Lankan politics, even though it ultimately proves self-destructive.

In the draft policy we noted three areas in which work was necessary. The first was:

1. Recovery and Equitable Development

While we noted the importance of reconstruction, we also pointed out that it was necessary to ´Formulate a national policy on development which guarantees equitable development and resource allocation to all communities, and ensures that local communities are consulted in the development process´. We also noted the importance of swift action with regard to implementation of the current national languages policy, in particular with regard to recruitment of police that will enable satisfactory community servicing.

One obvious example of inadequacy on the part of government was the failure to set in place training programmes that would enable those affected by conflict to participate fully in reconstruction. Despite an enlightened Minister of Youth Affairs and Skills Development, vocational training facilities are thin on the ground in the North. Though it was known from the start that construction workers would be needed, little effort was made to inculcate skills that would be needed.

Even now, when the Ministry of Education has finally awoken to the need for better vocational training, the facilities for this have been introduced in only a few schools nationwide, with no effort made to encourage others to start such work. No efforts have been made, despite the commitment of government to trilingualism, to encourage language centres in hitherto deprived areas. And there is no policy to ensure that vocational training is accompanied by the acquisition of soft skills that would promote profitable employability nationally as well as internationally.

Little effort has been made to promote small and medium scale industries and cooperatives that would add value to the agriculture that has been largely successful in the former conflict affected areas. The Ministry of Industries has difficulty thinking outside the box, and the Ministry of Agriculture, though aware of the need for value addition, has done nothing about this. Again, the need for imaginative thinking and cross-cutting planning is needed, but with top heavy top down systems in place, there is little prospect of the consultation and planning required for the participatory prosperity Reconciliation requires.

The second area in which reforms were essential was:

2. Political Participation and Administrative Accountability

We felt that this should lead to empowerment of the people, not merely politicians. So, whilst ensuring implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, we sought clarification of ambiguities to ensure full responsibility for policies and for functions at appropriate levels on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity. This would entail also devolution to and empowerment of local authorities as provided for in the law. This however also requires better training of officials, both elected ones and those appointed to coordinate work at District and Divisional levels.

In pursuit of this, with support from the UN, efforts are being made to promote collaboration between the Ministries of Local Government and of Public Administration. Given the particular importance in situations of enhanced vulnerability of women and children of coherent protection systems, the Ministry of Child Development and Women´s Affairs has set up Women and Children´s Units in each Division, but concerted action, with full involvement of all relevant officials, is essential for the system to be effective.

We need therefore to ensure formal consultation mechanisms with clear feedback. Public participation depends on perceptions of effectiveness, and for this we must have an independent and responsive Public Service, and also bilingualism in the Public Service and other professions serving the public. We have also, to promote public confidence and involvement, also sought a law that guarantees the right to information.

We also requested a Second Chamber of Parliament based on the principle of equal representation for all Provinces, an idea the President has affirmed, but which seems of little interest to the politicians around him who see any alternatives as threats to their own powers.

The third area we thought important was:

3. Truth, Justice and Reconciliation

We did not see fulfilling this as an opportunity for witch hunts, of former terrorists or of members of the armed forces, but rather as a way of atoning for suffering and bringing closure to those in uncertainty and denial. Whilst it is important to investigate and prosecute wrongdoers including security forces implicated in deliberately targeted death or injury of civilians, more important are mechanisms that facilitate the acknowledgement of losses and suffering on all sides, accompanied by expressions of empathy and solidarity. We have suggested the issuance of a joint declaration acknowledging the tragedy of the conflict and apologising to the victims of the conflict as a collective act of contrition by the political leaders and civil society, of both Sinhala and Tamil communities.


Implementating such a policy coherently requires a solid institutional framework. Though, when we formulated the policy, in 2012, we thought existing structures could handle the work, it has become increasingly clear that a dedicated Ministry is essential. The failure to move swiftly on the National Human Rights Action Plan, which was approved by Cabinet over 2 years ago, is largely due to the absence of a specific Ministry, since in 2010 the Ministry of Human Rights was abolished (along with the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation, two aspects of the fear of Sri Lankan governments of policies and monitoring based on principles).

More recently, though the Action Plan based on the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was adopted by Cabinet, the delay in formulating it, the delay in setting up a coherent implementation mechanism, and the constraints now suffered by the officials responsible, have also made clear the need for a dedicated Ministry for the purpose. Recently government finally implemented one very important recommendation, namely removing the police from the Ministry of Defence, but instead of taking the opportunity to establish a Ministry of Law and Rights Protection, it set up a Ministry of Law and Order. Thus an opportunity was lost to present the police as protectors of the people and their rights.

This is a pity because recently the police, under an energetic and highly respected Inspector General, has transformed the concept of community policing, which has led to much better relations between police and people in conflict affected areas. Indeed the mechanisms for consultation set in place in the Eastern Province, involving also the participation of officials concerned with health and education, provides a model for addressing issues of particular concern to the people, whilst indicating the importance to government of opportunities to listen to the grassroots.

Sri Lanka has suffered inordinately because of the paternalistic, majoritarian approach that its political structures encouraged. This model did have its successes as is evident from the high Quality of Life indices that Sri Lanka enjoys. But we have enjoyed such quality of life for several decades and we did not improve it as we should have done, given the many advantages the country enjoys.

So too the paternalistic model pursued in the last four years in the conflict affected areas has had great successes and it is a pity that these have not been recognized (though it is also possibly our fault in having killed off the communications systems that held us in such good stead during the conflict period). But we must also recognize, as the recent election in the North shows, that we have to do much better to ensure the participation of people in decision making, and wider satisfaction with the prosperity we must ensure for the areas that suffered so much in the past.

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