25 May, 2017

‘National Reconciliation Policy’ Is A Welcome Initiative

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. 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.   

  1. Bi-partisan, constitutional/legal or Parliamentary approval of a national reconciliation policy.
  2. Implementation of devolutionary mechanisms to accommodate minority/peripheral concerns. 
  3. Implementation of bilingual/multilingual policies in official matters and in education.
  4. Adoption of reconciliation education in school curricula.
  5. Promotion of multiculturalism as a political culture.
  6. Inclusion of ethic/minority sensitivity and representation in the public media.
  7. Flexibility or exemption from dress codes on religious grounds.
  8. 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.

Cooperative Devolution

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.

Affirmative Action

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.      

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Latest comments

  • 0
    7
    A sinhala person who loves his country would never write this article. Only a person who wants to make the country disintegrated and destroyed would write this article. Certainly Tamils will love this. comments by Tamils will prove it. Australia is known to be a very racist country the way it treats its’ native people. Now they are lenient with immigrents because more people means more wealth to the country. It is proven in europe, that multiculturalism did not work. Now europenas are scared about losing their cultures and the way of life that are they used. Because, muslims are islamizing and changing the cultural landscape there. with respect to devolution, many countries have federal constituions in order to govern large areas and never to devide a small island which has a over 2600 years of written history. CBK is a known enemy of Sinhala – buddhist community. Her cohorts, Mangala, Ranil, Rajitha Senarathane and LSSP are no different. They all want to fatten they themselves by sacrificing the sinhala community. Besides, CBK, Ranil and Mangala are people who worship the colonial master and try to become VVIPs in front of them.
    • 3
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      Prof Laksiri: Where on earth is this so called National Reconciliation Policy available to read? CT Editors: could you please find it and publish here?! Right now its seems to be a Secret! It took ONUR 2 year to produce and now there is lots of hype about the National Reconciliation Policy but its contents are secret.. This is not the way to do National reconciliation! If there is such a policy it should be published in all the newspapers and used to EDUCATE the masses!
      • 0
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        Mr Kalupahana, Yes, I agree. This is not a good way of promoting reconciliation. If it was submitted to the Cabinet, it should be available to the public. Even I couldn’t locate it. It is unfortunate that many in the hierarchy or position consider public matters to be their monopoly. This is a general ailment in politics and public affairs. I am not referring to any person, regime or party. I am not sure when we are going to change this obnoxious culture of secrecy, arrogance and also lethargy. Laksiri
  • 3
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    Laksiri Thanks for the list of “Necessary Policy Areas”. Successive GoSL talk a lot about reconciliation but ever in specificities. Shows that language/religion divide remains exploitable for the benefit of politicians.
  • 0
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    The proposed reconciliation by CBK of Tamil descended-Federalist who want to partition of Island of Sri lanka by installed NEW Tamil-regime in North. Then gradually in first-step completed so-called recanalization by CBK step by step expended into Eastern part. By and larger gradually an occupy whole Land of sole ownership by Tamil-feudal culture-state merger with Tamil-Nadu in Indian. Recent by visiting Modi’s mission has been proven beyond doubt that. DR…Fe… is blind on what is happing in Sri lanka under UNP -CBK and MS regime. This is also similar to BJP-RSS new plane proposed by CBK-reconciliation approved by Christian ideologist of Fernando-Lakasari of Dr……… What ever the reasons that DR,…Dr… Dr….Fernando talk on the existence of equality of those countries are non existence in any form by these nations mention by this articles. But their papers are working very well-excellent tone of sound ! In the turn of the practical side is more or less difficult to apply by enforcement authority meet reconciliation during last 70 years by end of second world WAR. Indeed is not in their so-called frame -work of Democracy at all. But Fernando want those empty phrase localized and an introduced to Poor and ignorant politics of UNP-JVP and CBK’s SLFP-Federalist to implements in Sri Lankan soil.
  • 1
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    Lets hope the intention behind this policy is a pure one. I have heard too many peace slogans sculpted by people with racist agendas. I have heard enough hate speech. I can only wish that the drafters of this are people who do a thankless job, who do not get benefits behind the door and people who are willing to scarifies their life for the sake of peaceful life within the country.
  • 0
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    Don’t you think the first step is reconciliation between Rajapaksha and Sirisena? Soma
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      सोमस जी (somass ji) नमस्ते जी(Namaste Ji) “Don’t you think the first step is reconciliation between Rajapaksha and Sirisena?” Don’t you think MR has to first reconcile with MR himself? Why don’t you advise him to sit down and meditate the whole day every day every week every month in other words 24/7/52? Since Ranil has made sure his freedom from war crime and corruption charges now he has to make peace with himself before he approaches others. You too need to make peace with yourself before we send you to your much loved Sinhala/Buddhist ghetto. You should try anger management and a rapid course in rationality. Why are the corrupt racists are agitated on 24/07/52 basis?
  • 1
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    How many people today can trace their family history beyond their grand parents? do they have birth certificates or any other proof to show that their families lived here for generations? If you really look into family history most of the people live in this country are from different ethnic groups from other countries and later integrated to main Sinhala society. Salamagama cast is one of the best examples of mass integration of Southern Indians to Sri Lankan society during Dutch period. But they don’t know their background and think that they are pure Sri Lankans. (No offense to any of my Salagama brothers here) This is the same with Tamils and Muslims as well. There are lots of Sinhalese live in Mullaitivu who were settled 50-60 years ago now become Tamils after two generations. So who knows who is from where and what their great great grand papas did? So let’s be just Sri Lankans guys…
  • 1
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    So long as there are Sri Lankans who think that Sri Lanka is the land of the Sinhalese, there cannot be reconciliation. Any government which sincerely wishes to bring about reconciliation should first make the people understand that Sri Lanka has a plural society. Every citizen should enjoy equal rights and there should be no discrimination whatsoever in every sphere of life on the basis of race, language or religion. So without making efforts to change the minds of those in the majority community who have the ‘Mahavamsa mindset’, national reconciliation would only remain a mirage.
  • 0
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    DR Laksiri Yes! I agree! This is not a good way of promoting reconciliation. It is not rocket science for an intellect of your calibre to recognise that the policy should be made accessible for all if you want to be a leading light of the policy promotion. I consider it as total dishonesty in your part for not revealing this truth untill demanded by a vigilant reader Kalupahana. How on earth you expect me, a member of minority, to reciprocate the offer of friendship from a proponent of reconciliation from the majority community when you didn’t have the courage and determination to state that the first step towards reconciliation is to provide with the policy and a link to that access in your article. daya thevi

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