by Dr M.A. Mohamed Saleem
Sri Lankan conflict that spanned over three decades causing several thousands dead, massive disruption of social order, and destruction to economic capacities and infrastructure may take many years to rebuild. Sri Lanka has been a peaceful country, and adopted majority-based democracy for governance. What did not happen is that the majority community fell short of acknowledging that they had a responsibility to protect and assist the minority communities. Equally, the minority communities failed to demonstrate that they too have responsibilities to protect the nation’s integrity and sovereignty.
Government’s failure to foresee people’s discontent manifested in various forms and attempts to take corrective measures ultimately led some groups towards armed insurgency. Violence with impunity has become a common currency in Sri Lanka today even to deal with trivial differences. Suspicion and distrust between and among the different communities are displayed openly, and the perception of the "other"- the Sinhalese of the Tamils, the Tamils of the Sinhalese, the Tamils and Sinhalese of the Muslims is fed on hate and insensitivities for varying beliefs. Thus, each ethnic group promoted its own ethnic identity instead of working towards a common identity as Sri Lankans. It is in this complex socio-political and charged environment that we are now searching for reconciliation.
Reality of reconciliation: We have no alternative but create an environment to heal wounds and mobilize people from every corner under a single vision of rebuilding our country, Sri Lanka, that will truly belong to all its citizens. It is to assist this country on a new track of peace and prosperity that the Lessons Learnt and Rehabilitation Commission (LLRC) has been constituted. Knowledge of where and how mistakes were made are helpful to guard against repeating them but it will not be effective unless there is genuine remorse for the mistakes committed and willingness to avoid new mistakes. Given the different lenses through which each community perceives the present situation in the country, arriving at a common platform for reconciliation is a major challenge. From their own perspectives people ask - for what and with whom should they reconcile?
* Do we have to reconcile with those who propagated a system that deprived us from being equal citizens with equal rights and opportunities or do we have to reconcile with those who promised to deliver us into another land of our own and deceived us?
* Do we have to reconcile with those who planted explosives in the bus that left no trace of our families or do we have to reconcile with those who caused suffering and wished our doom by attacking banks, airports, power stations, refineries etc?
* Do we have to reconcile with the ones who squeezed us with fire power into a narrow land strip, and thereafter inhumanly contained us in makeshift detention pens?
* Do we have to reconcile with those who chased us out (even without a milk pack for infants clinging on us in fright) from our homes we had built over several decades of co-existence and reduced us to paupers overnight?
* Do we have to reconcile with those who desecrated places of worship and killed those who stood in prayer?
* Do we have to reconcile with those who did not reciprocate goodwill, and instead, massacred our unarmed policemen who willingly surrendered?
* Do we have to reconcile with those who pulled out our religious leaders off their vehicle and guillotined heads off in broad daylight?
These questions keep cropping up as one passes through village after village and, what question is asked depends on which part of the country one is in.
Challenges: Reconciliation starts with forgiveness and it has to emerge from the individuals. Therefore, only people at the grassroots will have the discretion to overcome their distrust and fear of co-existing with the ‘enemies’ by acknowledging claims of the other side and move forward from the divided past to redesign a shared relationships for the future. Unfortunately, what is happing on the ground today does not give confidence that this country is really serious about reconciliation. Lessons we may learn from the past may be important but, equally, emerging new issues may nullify the search to regain trust and confidence for renegotiating values of co-existence among the different communities:
* Socio-political recognition: There are a number of war victims in every village who would have lived a normal life had there been peace. Now they are maimed, traumatized, widowed, and orphaned, and the traditional sympathy and support to them through extended family ties have diminished. There is resentment against the ‘perpetrators’ from everyone connected to these victims for their plight.
* Lost livelihood and economic opportunities: People deprived of livelihood due to damaged institutions and economic infrastructures including essential irrigation schemes, mined farmlands or land grab, inaccessibility to farmlands or markets continue to suffer as a result of intense security checks. Still there are a lot of restrictions on recruitment for jobs, and war victims in the Northern and Eastern provinces complain of outsiders – meaning people from the southern provinces - who are given free access (by the government) to areas which, in the past, had provided livelihood largely to the local people.
* Brain drain: Large number of skilled and trained workers and professionals fled the country. There is a shortage of skilled people in many fields and it will significantly impair implementation of post-conflict development plans. Particularly the Northern and Eastern Provincial administration has to be satisfied with the less competent workers and/or is made to accept the officers thrust upon from outside (the provinces) to implement plans and this is causing a lot of discomfort and frustration.
* Governance deficit: There is unease about a growing ‘impunity’ culture by which laws are selectively applied and law enforcement authorities are no longer viewed as the protectors of the civilian population
* Structural support: The war-victims in the resettlement villages feel that they need a voice (though any village institution) and an authority to make a choice (through planning and implementation) of their own village programmes. People in the resettlement villages feel helpless to express their aspirations for rebuilding lives.
Emerging threats for reconciliation
a) Accountability: Lack of accountability and control mechanisms will lead to further abuses of state resources for personal gain and perpetuation of power. Continued culture of giving priority to prestigious instead of essential projects raises concerns whether the government will ever commit or take responsibility for a fairer system of sharing resources.
b) Suppression of Dissent: The common man is shocked and lives in panic on account of the suppression of press freedom. Intimidation, violence and even murder are increasing in order to curb dissent. The current situation in the country is such that any agency (local or foreign) can be closed abruptly or a public servant can be tied to a tree for not showing up for duty. Also, charges can be framed against anyone, and conviction fast tracked.
c) Alienation renewed: - Triumphalism has increased among the majority Sinhala community but, the Tamils take it as a show of Sinhala superiority over the Tamil community. Thus, Sinhala-Tamil divide remains wide and deep. Some say that a political solution to the ethnic conflict is no more on the government’s agenda. Even with the mega projects that are underway to kick-start the economy in the Northern Province, the Tamils are disappointed and feel sidelined in local job recruitments while it is alleged that foreign and Sinhala contractors are given preferential contractual terms.
d) Monuments & Human dignity: - In the recent past, many "victory monuments" have come up at various locations in the northern and eastern provinces: placing of Buddha statues in places predominantly inhabited by other communities has become common. Such actions cannot create the space for reconciliation. Also, acts such as bulldozing cemeteries in the north does not augur well to heal wounds, and such actions are not expected in a country like Sri Lanka where people are still largely guided by spiritual tenets.
Common basis: There is overwhelming gratitude in this country for blotting out terrorism but, early enthusiasm to forget the past and get on with life is waning under the strain of new issues. What can be the common basis for reconciliation? Can there be a set of fair rules and justice systems that everyone can trust when applied across all social behaviors and for sharing of economic, political and social endowments in the country? Can these be achieved within the existing constitution or should we look out for something else?
Appearing before the LLRC the Mahatma Gandhi Centre submitted that the goal of reconciliation can only be achieved when people are allowed to start the process. Formation of People’s Councils in every village, based purely on development interests sans party affiliations under the collective supervision of village elders and religious leaders was suggested as a common platform for reconciliation to take root.
It is only in such common platforms social justice and community values of mutual respect can be restored, and changes can occur from hatred to forgiveness which is the basis for true reconciliation. Sri Lanka needs a new structure for the spirit of reconciliation to take root and prosper. In the words of Eckhart Tolle "If structures of human mind remain unchanged we will always end up re-creating fundamentally the same world, the same evils, same dysfunction".