By Laksiri Fernando –
The recent formulation of a ‘National Reconciliation Policy’ is a major step towards the objective of reconciliation, approved by the Cabinet, although we have not yet seen the full document. It is important that the Cabinet approval came on the 2nd May, just eight days before the Vesak day of this year. As predominantly a Buddhist country, the Buddhist philosophy could play a major role in reconciliation in Sri Lanka, if the right efforts are taken in that direction.
The majority community anyway has a major responsibility to offer the ‘hand of friendship’ both to the Tamil community and the Muslims, among other minority communities. The reciprocity of those communities is equally important in making reconciliation a reality and that is why the concept of ‘unity’ should always be attached to ‘reconciliation.’
Necessary Policy Areas
The following policy areas can be considered essential or important in a national reconciliation process in any country. This does not mean that all areas can be handled simultaneously. Given the prevailing political conditions and resources available, some may take more priority than the others.
- Bi-partisan, constitutional/legal or Parliamentary approval of a national reconciliation policy.
- Implementation of devolutionary mechanisms to accommodate minority/peripheral concerns.
- Implementation of bilingual/multilingual policies in official matters and in education.
- Adoption of reconciliation education in school curricula.
- Promotion of multiculturalism as a political culture.
- Inclusion of ethic/minority sensitivity and representation in the public media.
- Flexibility or exemption from dress codes on religious grounds.
- Affirmative action for disadvantaged groups.
In addition to the above general requirements, there can be immediate specificities that needs to be addressed because of past conflict/s or historical conditions. In the case of Sri Lanka, those are enormous and largely related to the results of the nearly 30 years of war. These are the killings, disappearances, disabilities, psychological trauma, displacement, family ruination, land alienation etc. The affected populations are from all communities, but it must be admitted that the most affected/suffering are from the Northern Tamils and then the Muslims.
The danger however is that when a country is engaged (or pressured) in addressing the past, and mostly intractable issues, many of the other policy areas might get neglected or distracted. What might be desired is a proportional balance between the two. There should be more emphasis on the present and the future. If I may quantify, one third of effort for the past and two thirds of effort for the present and the future.
What Is in It?
If I understand correctly, the formulated National Reconciliation Policy (NRP) has addressed many of the specific issues based on the past reports of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), Udalagama Commission and the Paranagama Commission. This is important because if the grievances persist without addressing them, it is difficult to achieve reconciliation under such circumstances. Another grievance obviously is the heavy military presence in the affected areas, which is also a matter to be resolved. Even this can be resolved, through a formula developed based on (1) the number of districts (2) the population of a district and (3) the number of personnel required, based on the security risks of a particular district. What needs to be ameliorated is the overwhelmed presence.
The National Reconciliation Policy has apparently drawn from the initiatives so far taken by the various government agencies and ministries in ameliorating some of the above grievances and beyond. In that sense, it has declared that the purpose of the NRP is to ‘bridge the gaps,’ ‘coordinate the efforts’ or rather give a ‘policy framework’ for all the above. The present article in addition to emphasising the above, wishes to open a brief discussion on what were outlined as the eight essential policy areas for national reconciliation.
Bi-Partisan Parliamentary Approval
Since a national policy is now endorsed by the Cabinet, it is important that it goes before Parliament, sooner or later, for open discussion and endorsement.
All available information points to the fact that the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) has consulted many stake holders, the ‘government officials, provincial councils, civil society, academics, youth, women and victims.’ However, there is no indication that the political parties were consulted, although the provincial councils represent some of these parties, if all members were consulted. Among the list reported, the religious leaders (sangha and clergy) also do not appear as a consulted group. Be as it may, what is necessary to emphasise is the necessity to adopt a bi-partisan approach on the matter of reconciliation as much as possible, however much it would be difficult in practice. Otherwise its success is not guaranteed in the long run. Balancing of policies is also necessary to prevent a backlash.
The efforts to formulate a New Constitution is a great opportunity to incorporate basic principles of reconciliation and multiculturalism into the fundamental law of the country. What needs to be avoided, however, is the over-writing or over-doing reconciliation in the constitution. Otherwise, approval at a referendum might be in jeopardy. As I have been advocating in recent times, a middle path might be the best.
Sri Lanka has provincial devolution under the 13th Amendment. There is a lot that can already be done within the existing system, if necessary pollical consensus and realism could be developed. Undoubtedly, there are areas where clarifications or more clear demarcations are necessary (police, land, financing etc.). Cooperative devolution might be the best framework for reconciliation. It neither gives ‘ivory tower’ conception to the provinces, nor dictatorial power to the centre. When conflicts arise, the matters should be negotiated and settled. And even otherwise, the national government and the provincial councils should act in cooperation, ensuring responsibility and accountability to the people.
Devolution must go deeper into the local levels. The local government institutions might be the best framework. It is not only in large areas of provinces that grievances and unevenness exist, but in localities of smaller areas that can be covered by local government. The smaller and scattered minorities of Muslims and hill country Tamils must benefit. This is also can be a remedy for caste discrimination that is not addressed by many national or provincial level reconciliation programmes and structures.
Trilingual Language Policy
Implementation of a trilingual policy (Sinhala, Tamil and English) might be the best policy for Sri Lanka. It can be ambitious. Rural youth, men and women, should be equipped with all three languages. In the medieval Sri Lanka, temples were the centres of Shad Basha. Now it could be the centres of Thri Basha. Investments by both private and public sector should be encouraged even linked to small business development. The language learning even could be enjoyable. There is a lot that can be done through a proper language policy for reconciliation. As it was advocated previously, ‘a language revolution’ is necessary for both reconciliation and development.
All efforts should be taken to conduct all public events in three languages as much as possible and as necessary. The national anthem can be sung in all three languages.
Reconciliation Education in School Curricula
The schools could be centres of reconciliation in two respects. First is to allow Sinhala-Tamil-Muslim schools as much as possible in areas where all three communities live. Second is to formulate school curricula to promote reconciliation beginning with the primary education. Based on the understanding of different cultures and values of human rights, it could discourage suspicion, intolerance and misunderstanding. The National Institute of Education (NIE) has a special role to play along with the National Education Commission in this endeavour.
This is undoubtedly a long-term project with teacher training and text book writing. Universities and academics also could play a major role in reconciliation and ethnic harmony. Assistance from UNESCO should be sought.
Promotion of Multiculturalism
Promotion of multiculturalism could be an artistic and creative endeavour. Art, music, drama (particularly teledrama), cinema and literature (novels and short stories) should be utilized for the promotion of multiculturalism. It should also be promoted as a political culture. Sinhalese and Muslims should be able to contest elections in the North, while Tamils and Muslims contesting in the South. This is already happening in Colombo. Cosmopolitanism should be an ingredient. Multiculturalism should be promoted without threatening any culture, language, religion, customs or a way of life in a particular area.
While the understanding between the Sinhala/Buddhist and Tamil/Hindu cultures are historically close, there are apparently deep-seated prejudices and misunderstandings about Islam. Multiculturalism should make efforts to iron out these misunderstandings. Religious leaders of all communities should take part in the promotion of multiculturalism. The purpose of multiculturalism should not be to separate different cultural communities into their own spheres, but bring them together for a united Sri Lanka.
Media Policy for Reconciliation
The public media – TV, Radio and Newspapers – could play a major role in reconciliation. Often, they play the opposite at present. The private media also should be encouraged for the same end of reconciliation. In Australia, there is a special publicly funded media organisation, the SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) with TV and radio for the promotion of reconciliation and multiculturalism in the country. There can be a similar service in Sri Lanka.
Media is effective in reconciliation. On the matters of licensing, there can be policy conditions preventing ethnic/religious backbiting and for the promotion of reconciliation.
Respect for Religious/Cultural Dress
This particularly applies to the Muslim community in the country. They should be allowed to dress as they wish. Restrictions should not apply, like in some European countries. It is up to them to moderate their attire suitable to necessary conditions. Dress codes in schools and government offices or public functions should be flexible to accommodate diversity.
Taking affirmative action for a specific (ethnic) group can be controversial in still a ‘poor’ and an ‘underdeveloped’ country. In a sense, all are disadvantaged, in some way or the other, under the circumstances. However, there are clear (urban vs rural) unevenness among regions. District quota system for university admissions is one such scheme to address the situation, although controversial and at times misused. Similarly, an income threshold can be identified as a criterion for affirmative action, particularly among the estate workers/communities.
In conflict investigations, caste discrimination can be identified as a major cause of social disharmony. It is oppressive. Both in the North and the South, socially discriminated caste groups apparently had played a major role in rebellions/insurgencies. Therefore, some form of affirmative action needs to be taken to address this issue. In addition, there can be a special branch of the National Human Rights Commission to address the caste discrimination. These measures can go a long way in addressing reconciliation in the country.