The rampant violence that engulfed the Tamil people 23 July 1983 and days that followed discredited Sri Lanka internationally and signaled the brain-drain among the Tamils that would impact the future economic and political trajectory of the country. It also led to a costly and brutal war that lasted until May 2009, tore up the fabric of society and undermined the national economy.
Underlying both the anti-Tamil pogrom and the protracted war stemmed grievances of the Tamil people and the failure of their attempt to draw attention to them in a peaceful and non-violent manner. However, 32 years later, conditions in Sri Lanka have changed so that a political solution has become a viable prospect. The experience gathered in the work done by the National Peace Council for over two decades convinces us that our fellow citizens are now more willing to accept, and commit themselves to, a political solution that ensures justice and security to all.
We should also not forget those who saved the Tamils from those who incited and carried out the pogrom of July 1983. There are many accounts of Tamils, including NPC members, attributing their escape from injury and death to their Sinhalese and Muslim neighbours. We are grateful to those who risked their own lives to allow Tamils to hide in their homes or take them to places of safety.
During the past six months we saw an encouraging reduction of the fear psychosis in society and positive steps taken towards the reintegration of the ethnic and religious minorities into the mainstream of society. However, the early dissolution of Parliament on June 26 due to the political deadlock between the government and opposition means that many of the unresolved issues that existed prior to the presidential election continue to be present for exploitation by racist extremists.
In this time of commemoration of Black July, public attention is focused on the forthcoming general elections. Election campaigns provide an invaluable opportunity for public education. We call on our political leaders who seek genuine change in the country to bravely and honestly address the key issues that Sri Lanka as a country needs to resolve.
From the perspective of the National Peace Council there are several key issues impacting the future of the country that relate to relations between the ethnic and religious communities which require attention by the political parties in their election manifestos and in their campaign statements. These are,
• The issue of post-war accountability and reconciliation. We believe that the truth of what happened during the three decades of the war must be known to the people, and accountability sought, with reconciliation rather than punishment as the primary goal.
• There needs to be appropriate compensation and reparation to enable the conflict affected populations a fresh start in their lives, with the institutional reforms to sustain this change.
• The rights of ethnic and religious minorities need to be guaranteed and protected both through the rule of law and the manner in which future generations are educated to respect the diversity and pluralism in our country.
• Speech that incites hatred or violence against those of other ethnic or religious communities needs to be prohibited by law.
• There needs to be a just political solution in which there is a fair sharing of power between the ethnic and religious communities through the devolution of power, but also including mechanisms for power sharing at the level of the central government in a manner that recognizes the plural nature of our society.
These are sensitive issues that have evaded resolution for decades and therefore the resolution of these problems must be done in consultation with the people and by taking them into confidence and not by ignoring or by-passing them. After the general election, the new government that is elected will need to face many problems and find solutions to them. The people need to be told of the problems that should be solved for the country to march forward. People’s participation in national problem solving will ensure that the solutions agreed upon are implemented and will be sustained in the longer term.
*Statement by National Peace Council