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.

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July ‘83 and National Reconciliation

869508809DI-P13--31-8-(p)-ksnSome decades ago I quoted Santayana’s dictum that a people who cannot remember its past is doomed to repeat it. I cannot remember the exact words. Shortly thereafter President Jayewardene repeated the quotation, and it was much in vogue for some years. Now, in writings on July ’83, the idea that a people who cannot remember its past is doomed to repeat it has been powerfully revived, though the quotation has been forgotten. A convenient and convincing illustration for that idea has been found in the ongoing racist anti-Muslim hate campaign and anti-Muslim action, which some weeks ago led to widespread fears of a repetition of the July ’83 pogrom, this time against the Muslims. All that can be seen as the consequence of a failure to remember the past, specifically the horrors brought to us by racist anti-Tamil action, particularly in July ’83.

I now want to make what seems to me a crucially important clarification of what Santayana probably, or almost certainly, had in mind in making his dictum. An erudite philosopher, Santayana could hardly have been unaware of the fact that a people often remembers its past selectively and with distortions to suit its present and future interests. I suppose that is what Henry Ford had in mind in declaring, “History is bunk”. Some would argue that all history is purposive, not an unbiased record of what really happened but future-oriented interpretations meant to serve the interests of a people. However, it is incontrovertible that some things did actually happen in the past, and commonsense tells us that our interpretations can be right or wrong to varying degrees. So, what is important is not just to remember the past, but to try to remember it as it actually was, not as we would like it to have been.

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Strengthening the Human Rights Commission

I was delighted last week to be told that the Human Rights Commission was receiving assistance from the Asia Pacific Centre which coordinates work with National Human Rights Commissions. When, following my appointment to convene the Task Force to promote and monitor action on the National Human Rights Action Plan, I met the HRC, I had been told that such assistance had been requested. I asked for a meeting, since I believe that the HRC is one of the core elements in the promotion of Rights in Sri Lanka, but I heard nothing, and later I was told that they had said they were too busy to meet me.

It was fortuitous that I found out they were present. During the Council of Asian Liberal and Democrats Congress that was held at Colombo, I noted the presence of the UN and on checking was told that a number of UN Human Rights personnel were staying.

The Ministry of External Affairs knew nothing about this, but I then checked with the UN Resident Coordinator who was helpful as always, and said he thought it was the Asia Pacific people who were working with the HRC. The chairman confirmed this, and kindly arranged a meeting for me at short notice.

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