16 October, 2019

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From The Inside Out: Reconciliation Is More Than Possible

By Voices for Reconciliation –

What’s in a name?

We chose our name ‘Voices for Reconciliation’ after much deliberation, because we felt it went to the heart of our aims: the creation of a safe space for the sharing of different viewpoints, to encourage constructive and collaborative dialogue through which people could understand each other better. However, we soon began to realise that our view of what constitutes ‘reconciliation’ was just one in a host of interpretations being voiced in the discourse on post-war Sri Lanka. The dialogue workshops we run with Sri Lankans living in the UK have thrown up further proof that the word carries different meanings for different people, and we therefore think that it is vital to explore the concept further.

Since our philosophy is about sharing opinions, this article includes quotations that we have heard along the way from a diverse range of individuals. While we do not always agree with them, we do respect and value them, since they clearly illustrate that ‘reconciliation’ is not as simple a concept as people often assume.

One way to tackle this definitional dilemma is to look simply at the word itself. To re-concile seems to imply an act of healing after an injury, of mending a rupture, bridging a rift. In other words reconciliation can only occur after a trauma has been suffered. And this trauma, more often than not, seems to be relational; only opposing, antagonistic groups need ‘reconciling’. This highlights one aspect we have found key: reconciliation should be people-focused. It is about bringing together opposing groups and restoring amicable, or at least peaceful, relations between them. But what exactly does this entail?

Economic versus Political Reconciliation

No one can deny the trauma Sri Lanka has suffered after 30 years of civil war. The military conflict is over, but does building relations between Sri Lanka’s ethnicities need to be made a priority? Non-violence is clearly a basic requirement of peaceful relations, but surely peace should also incorporate a greater sense of cooperation and understanding?

Some suggest that placing a priority on economic recovery will pave a way for better relations between Sri Lanka’s communities. Their argument is that economic progress in Sri Lanka – as witnessed by expanding infrastructure and increasing tourism – will inevitably lead to greater societal cohesion. Certainly, economic prosperity, spread among all communities, may reduce ethnic tensions, and new infrastructure will physically connect and promote greater interaction between communities previously divided by a warzone. But is this enough?

The other major focus in the discourse on Sri Lankan reconciliation takes a political form. ‘Justice’ is a word that many participants raise in our dialogue workshops, often linked to issues of accountability for past wrongs. For some, justice is a prerequisite for peace, and ‘moving on’ without it implies a wholesale disregard for the suffering endured during the war. Yet for others, reconciliation, meaning the pursuit of justice, is viewed negatively as a quest for revenge that breeds further division, and is, in fact, an active barrier to the country ‘moving on’.

Just as reconciliation has become a dirty term on all sides, ‘diaspora’ is also highly problematic. To us, the term ‘diaspora’ simply means Sri Lankans of all ethnicities that live outside the island; for others it has very specific connotations meaning membership of, or sympathy with, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). What is indisputable, however, is that members of the diaspora hold the unique status of being both Sri Lankan and ‘foreign’. It is no coincidence that distrust of ‘outsiders’ has grown in the past twelve months, which have seen heated international debate about political issues in post-war Sri Lanka. As demonstrated by the response of some Sri Lankans to the UNHRC resolution and Channel 4’s documentaries, suspicion of outside interference now pervades sections of Sri Lankan society, and this suspicion often centres on members of the diaspora. As a group working on reconciliation within the Sri Lankan diaspora, we have certainly encountered – often to our surprise – a great amount of fear and animosity.

In discussions about Sri Lanka, words like ‘rebuilding’ and ‘redevelopment’, on the one hand, and ‘justice’ and ‘accountability’ on the other hand, are often used interchangeably with reconciliation. In our view, reconciliation is involved in each of these concepts, but also sits above them all. Just as the wounds of war are multiple, so the post-conflict healing processes must be multi-faceted. Economic growth is essential to helping Sri Lanka recover after three decades of war, and to healing the physical scars still present. The politics of post-war Sri Lanka is a highly contentious issue, and we are by no means able to speak authoritatively on this subject in all its complexity.  But it is clear that political needs and concerns must not be ignored. But is this enough to ‘move on’? What about the emotional and psychological scars of the conflict?

Identity and division

It is clear that understanding the nature and effects of the divisions in Sri Lanka is central to the process of reconciliation.

“Are you Sinhalese or Tamil?” Although often asked out of simple curiosity, the frequency of this question is revealing of the particular way of defining identity among Sri Lankans. It tells us of the near-dichotomous perception of Sri Lankan identity; that we must be one or ‘the other’, and that this distinction is meaningful.  It demonstrates the common disregard of the other major ethnicities that reside in the country.  And importantly, it illustrates the strength of identity defined by ethnicity rather than nationality, region, religion or any other means.

One manifestation of ethnic identity is simply cultural; through, for example, customs, food, music, and language. But our identities have also been influenced by the conflict. The experiences of our communities – before, during and after the war – have shaped our sense of allegiance to ‘our’ people, and mistrust, if not hostility, towards others. This ‘us and them’ mentality is so deeply rooted that it endures in the global Sri Lankan diaspora. Several London-based university Sri Lankan societies were actively dissolved or renamed as Tamil societies during the final stages of the war. Young people who study at the same university, who often study the same subject, remain divided.  This can also be seen in the world of sport; many Sri Lankans live for the success of the national cricket team, while many others actively support the opposing team or call for an apartheid-style boycott by the International Cricket Council on human rights grounds.

The future of post-war Sri Lanka remains such a divisive subject because we continue to be driven by emotions left to us from the war; hatred, fear, and suspicion. These polarising feelings, pushing us into camps of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are now making us fight each other for peace. Deeply felt emotions are often collective; a sense of grief or anger over the loss and suffering of ‘our people’; fear of a resurgence of terrorism in ‘our land’; relief and elation that war and ‘our suffering’ are over. Particularly among smaller minority groups, there is also a sense that ‘our voices’ are unheard and unacknowledged. These kinds of emotions can, by extension, lead to anger or mistrust directed towards other ethnic groups as a whole. One example out of many inter-ethnic grievances arose from a meeting with Muslim IDPs, who expressed to us a sense of being forgotten by both their Tamil former neighbours in Jaffna and by Sinhalese politicians who they feel give resettlement priority to the more recently displaced.

Interpretations can be based on our own experiences, those of other people or the legacy from generations past. The stories told by grandparents or parents to their children can perpetuate nostalgic memories or, conversely, instil painful warnings of cruelty and violence.

This brings us back to the necessity of viewing reconciliation through the lens of emotion. True reconciliation – identified earlier as inherently people-centric and relational – requires a deep understanding of how all Sri Lankans have been affected by the conflict, both in their own right and in relation to others.  Glossing over this in favour of reconciliation defined purely in either economic or political terms would surely result in ongoing feelings of division and distrust, a vicious cycle handed down from one generation to the next, with the ever-lingering threat of a future resurgence of violence.

Understanding and dialogue

One way to remedy past grievances is to commit to building a culture that prevents such grievances arising in the future. For this we need to create an environment in which we can raise awareness of a multitude of opinions, dispel prejudices and promote mutual understanding. For our knowledge is too often limited by our own experience; effectively, each of us knows only a part of the story, and this can have dangerous consequences.  In the context of such misinformation and mistrust, anger can become not just a barrier but a weapon against others. But instead of reacting defensively, if we take a moment to try and understand the causes of each other’s anger we might realise that we are all searching for the same underlying needs and values; security, freedom and belonging. This war was personal. Whether we were aware of it or not, whether we liked it or not, the war was fought in our name, which makes each of us a part of it. We may not be personally culpable for specific events during the conflict, or the way the war was conducted by all sides, but we are, however, responsible, as individuals and as communities, for how our attitudes and behaviours have impacted on others.

If understanding is the goal, dialogue is a tool; talking to others in a respectful manner is an important first step to rebuilding inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic relations. Personal justice can begin by having one’s grievances aired and understood by others, a reciprocal process of validation and forgiveness.

We often use a timeline exercise in our dialogue workshops which involves sharing key dates relating to Sri Lanka and how they personally affected participants and their families. This sharing of individual interpretations of the past often leads to unexpected but enlightening results. One shared date can evoke many different experiences and emotions, often based on ethnicity, opening people’s eyes to how historical events were ‘lived’ differently outside their own community.  Conversely, many different events can inspire the same emotion, regardless of ethnicity, forging bonds that transcend cultural boundaries.  The value of this exercise derives from acknowledging both the diversity and the similarity of our engagement with the conflict.

A complete process

As we understand it, reconciliation is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. It should not, and cannot, be interpreted as simply a hurdle to be jumped in the race towards a better future; we don’t believe that one can ‘attain’ reconciliation, simply because we don’t see it as something that can come about and then be set aside. Nor can reconciliation simply be ‘given’ to us by higher or external powers; it is a process we must all engage in. Reconciliation must be a significant goal in and of itself; a coming together of diverse peoples who are united by far more than that which separates us, who hold a shared recognition of past sorrows and a shared set of aspirations for tomorrow. It is not about eliminating difference but embracing and celebrating diversity; about creating a mosaic in which discrete, distinct individual pieces form a coherent whole.

Reconciliation is an end-goal that should not, in fact, ever end.  Yes, reconciliation is about the past; it is a healing process leading to mutual acceptance between previously conflicting groups, built on a foundation of equality, understanding and openness. But reconciliation is also about the future, something that should be integrated into Sri Lanka for every generation to come; it is about a way of life – one’s relations with neighbours, the way one conducts business, the way one worships. Furthermore, reconciliation works across different levels and sites; it is an internal process for Sri Lankans and an external process for Sri Lanka within a wider context; it is a top-down process led by national figures and a bottom-up process led by local communities; it is for Sri Lankans living inside the country and for those outside, who care deeply for the island and its peoples.

This whole process, with its many facets, stages and emotions, this is reconciliation.

*Voices for Reconciliation is an independent, multi-ethnic and multi-religious group made up of young British Sri Lankan professionals who share a spirit of cooperation and open communication. This article was authored jointly by A. Devendra, A. Ganesh, N. Herath, N. Jayatunga, S. Jeyaratnam, V. Pannila and D. Perera.

This article originally appeared on openSecurity in the debate ‘Is reconciliation possible in Sri Lanka’. Calls for localism have been countered by calls to uphold global standards of human dignity and social justice in post-war Sri Lanka. The debate examines what reconciliation can mean for Sri Lankans in the aftermath of 2009, ending with a strong call to move beyond the local/international dichotomy.

Previous posts related to this debate;

The Core Problem Is the Elites, Not The People

Nation-Building In Sri Lanka: The Potential And The Promise

Reconciliation Is Not Happening In Sri Lanka, And The Problem Isn’t A Question Of Time

Reconciliation In Sri Lanka Means The youth Must Lead The way

‘Reconciliation In Sri Lanka Means The Youth Must Lead The Way’: A Sceptical Response

‘What Sri Lanka Is…’: Acknowledging The Ethnic Conflict In Post-War Reconciliation

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Latest comments

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    The best perspectival piece of the many I have read on the subject. Congratulations and thanks.

    It must, however, appear in Sinhala and Tamil, in the Sri Lankan mass media.

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      Dr. Dayana Jayathilaka,
      Good see you too appearing among the commentators to this thread. Right at the moment, with signficant numbers of PS MPs publicly involving in all kind of abuses – and situation has become to appalling states as never before – so I wonder what would be your answer to all problems in the country today

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    TRY GETTING THIS THROUGH TO THE THICK SKINNED, UNEDUCATED, IGNORANT, SAVAGES AND BARBARIANS WHO ARE LEADING THE ISLAND TO DESTRUCTION

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      AGREED, BUT ???????.

      Trying to get this through to insane idotict heads is the big ??????????.

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    Thanks for bringing in the SOCIAL aspects of reconciliation in addition to the political and economic aspect which are over-emphasized.
    This is what FUTA is also trying to do – bring in the social fabric issues and humanistic dimensions of development which are at least if not more important the economic and political reconciliation, which are the two aspects that are emphasized by the Colombo regime and the TNA respectively. Civil society must emphasized the importance of social reconciliation and a humane and equitable Development (based on social and environmental impact assessments) before so-called development which currently seems to be destroying the environment and creating great socio-economic inequalities between political elites and the rest which will result in new forms of conflict and violence as evident today.
    For most ordinary people the social aspect of reconciliation is the most important and requires respect for diversity and multiculturalism and plural ethno-religious identities.
    The British Law on the Prevention of the Incitement to Racial Hatred should be an example for Lanka to discourage ethnic entrepreneurs from benefiting for hate speech against the other communities to win votes..

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      Voices for reconciliation nice work! Glad that someone is talking from the heart about emotions, but it is most important that the culprits responsible of the war and violence, be held accountable so that history does not repeat itself. As a matter of fact, we have had a lot of flag waving triumphalist emotion unleashed by the victors, while the emotions of the losing community are forced under ground because mourning the dead is banned.
      The culprits are the politicians of all parties who have command responsibility for inciting ethno-nationlist EMOTIONS during and after the war, and not the ordinary folks who are often instrumentalized by ethnic entrepreneur politicians though of course some are racist.
      Moral of tale: You nice folk need a little more analysis and a little less bleeding heart emotion, though of course bleeding hearts who focus on and analyse SOCIAL issues are most welcome to counter-balance the current money-mad “development” gold rush of the biggest culprits – the Rajapassa family of war criminals who are looting the country and land grabbing from the poor and voiceless folks..

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    The good intention of the writers of this article is appreciated but they do not seem to be taking the ground situation into consideration. Their speculation on what should be done to bring about reconciliation will not work as long as the government does not move in the direction of reconciliation in all sincerity. As I see it, the government has still not taken any genuine steps towards reconciliation. Merely repeating the need for reconciliation or addressing meetings in Tamil or Sinhala depending on the audience, will not bring about reconciliation. The people should be able to feel the change of heart from hatred based on race to one of genuine concern for each others welfare. The leaders must set the example for the masses to follow.

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    A presentation that would make many learn and hopefully think.

    Many yet perceive ‘reconciilation’as an accounting/account balancing exercise! Many others percieve it as an exercise in unravelling the ‘Truth’, without pausing to think that this truth means, different things to different people. Truth should be absolute. In Sri Lanka, truth is quite relative and hence ceases to be ‘the truth’.

    It is often forgotten that reconciliation involves the preliminary step of forgiveness. Every community has sinned. Can sin be quantitated in a meaningful matter? This forgiveness cannot be also conditional. It is not something to do with confession and absolution. Forgiveness should involve relegating the past to the past and opening a new chapter in inter-communal relationships at the personal , public and political levels. Forgiveness also should be absolute as is truth.

    Frequently ‘Justice’is demanded as a pre-condition for reconciliation. ‘Justice’for whom and what, when all communities in Sri Lanka feel aggrieved. Could any community have greater claims to justice than another? Every mother and father who have lost their child, to the war and terror, have a reason to be aggrieved and a claim to justice. Can their feelings be collectively quantitated to decide one community is more aggrieved than another? One aggrieved parent is already too many!

    Reconciliation is predicated on unconditional forgiveness. Reconciliation has to be consolidated by helping the war-affected recover their dignity as humans. Every community and every person in Sri Lanka should join in this effort. Every community and person in Sri Lanka, should decide that they will not permit the past to repeat. Every person and community in Sri Lanka should ostracize anyone or group/s trying to re-seed the past with their words and deeds. The state should establish mechanisms to prosecute and rigorously punish them. All peoples should demand that the government responds to this cry, and set in motion governance related actions to achieve this.

    Reconciliation requires a mindset that is disgusted with our ugly past and is determined to usher in a new future. This mindset should develop in every home, village, town and city and be promoted by the societal leaders, politicians, schools, universities, trade unions, religious establishments and of course the media.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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      Dr.Rajasingham Narendran that is a great piece as to how we can achieve reconciliation in Sri Lanka. My only criticism would be that the likes of politicians, religious establishments and media in the country will never genuinely want to see reconciliation in Sri Lanka. To that extent, more pressure will need to be put on academics, businesses, and victims of the past wars, to educate our society to see past the divisive propaganda of the war mongers.

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    Good intention but the wrong audience. Politicians are more powerful in Sri Lanka then comes religious influence and rule of law associated with police and arm forces. The point here is without having their consent all these discussions are hopeless, Sri Lanka ‘govern by top to bottem system’ not the otherway around.

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    Already seen lot of blah blah. Let us continue with this cacophony over to the 22nd century. By that time SL will truly be a one Family one Nation Democratic Socialist Republic.

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    Reconciliation will be possible if civic society is left alone to think,communicate & discuss among groups and individuals and decide the truth of what happened,what went wrong for past 30 years and more and decide to move forward with malice to none.
    This process is not possible in the context of the situation prevailing in the northeast, and in the south with regard to human rights and individual liberties of citizens.
    Peoples’ lives and livelihoods are daily affected by the state due to activities of the military and police.
    There are ‘disappearances’,assaults,rape of and minors,robberies,
    murders & abductions.These are reported almost daily by media and human rights activists, local and international.
    The ‘militarised society’ should be releived from bondage,overt & covert supervision & fear.
    Fully free and fair elections need to be held.
    Judiciary need to make decisions after investigation and not merely because of accusation by law enforcers. Political interfearance in law enforcement,public service and legal procedure should be removed.
    Can we dare to dream of this?

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    “From The Inside Out: Reconciliation Is More Than Possible” is an inspiring and positive article. A lot of thought has gone into it. This level of maturity is needed if the human race is to advance. Our problems in Sri Lanka should not be viewed from a “frog in a well” perspective. It is symptomatic of a universal predicament. There is a very good chance we can meet our challenges if we work ceaselessly and with wisdom and caution on finding answers. Sri Lanka can in fact be an example to others.

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    I am not an expert but I am concerned. I think it is a great article and it clearly explains the mechanics through which reconciliation could be achieved. I feel that there are two sides to the process of reconciliation, the “Motivation” and the “Mechanics”. Without motivation to reconcile it is not going to happen. An environment where people will be motivated to reconcile should evolve.

    How will it evolve?

    Who or what will be the catalyst?

    I only know to ask.

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