By Laksiri Fernando –
If there is any major issue that should not be overlooked under the circumstances of the ‘day-to-day’ controversies or disputes in Sri Lanka then that is ethnic reconciliation and peace in general. The fact that ethnic hostility or rivalry is not unique to Sri Lanka, is not an excuse to continue with that abhorrent practice. Although the causes or the origins of other problems, i.e. authoritarianism, corruption, nepotism or human rights violations, cannot be reduced to the ethnic conflict, they were undoubtedly aggravated or reinforced under the circumstances of the ethnic conflict and the war. To claim that the war was the result of ‘terrorism’ and not any ‘ethnic conflict,’ is pure self-deception on the part of the self-proclaimed ‘nationalist’ advocates, while ‘terrorism’ is more abhorrent than the ‘ethnic conflict’ itself.
It is an unfortunate fact of modern age, or even before, that people are rigidly divided on ethnic and religious lines. After all, people are all humans or Homo sapiens. Even the strict racial distinctions are disputed by modern science. There are UNESCO studies conducted on this issue. One aspect of the rigid divisions in Sri Lanka is the unscientific notions of the ‘Sinhalese’ and the ‘Tamils’ as races and not mere ethnicities. Although the ethnic divisions are a sociological fact under historical circumstances, what has aggravated the divisions or conflicts is politics or more correctly, opportunistic politics. This is the case in Sri Lanka as in any other country.
The above does not mean that ethnic communities do not exist or that they have ‘community interests’ whether they are in the majority or the minority. Ethnic reconciliation particularly means the ‘reconciliation of these community interests in an amicable manner.’ A more technical phrase would be to say ‘transforming a zero-sum game of these interests into a win-win situation.’
It is at the brink of the New Year that the ‘Yahapalana’ government had to withdraw the amendments prohibiting ‘Hate Speech.’ This situation signifies the very thin nature of the reconciliation constituency in the country. Hate speech is something that needs to be discouraged and prohibited. Given the present circumstances, mere sermons are not sufficient to do so. That is why laws are necessary. If this effort fails, it is not a good omen for reconciliation. If there are clauses impinging on the freedom of speech in the proposed legislation, then those could be amended through discussion.
It is an enigmatic problem to understand why people so ‘hate others.’ Insecurity, social alienation, emotionalism or more correctly ‘indoctrination’ could be some of the answers or elements of the puzzle. It is part of the human predicament, one would say, even in personal life. Although the humans claim for major achievements in material progress, the prevalence of ethnic and religious conflicts, crime, war, destruction and killings signify that humans are not yet fully civilized. The animals are more peaceful in their relations than the humans.
E. W. Adikaram is the foremost Buddhist thinker of modern times in Sri Lanka who tried to explain the futility of rigid divisions and ethnic rivalry. He even branded ‘communalism or ethno-nationalism as mental insanity.’ It is the Buddhist thought that inspired the UNESCO motto which says “since wars begin in the minds of men [women included], it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” There is a Chinese proverb based on the Buddhist teaching which elaborates the point further.
“When one is at peace with oneself
There is harmony in the community
When there is harmony in the community
There is peace in the nation
When there is peace in the nation
There is harmony and peace in the world.”
It is regrettable that in predominantly a Buddhist country that ethnic discrimination and conflict prevail. It is not Buddhism that should be blamed but the so-called followers. Same goes for the other religious believers. More regrettable is the way some of the Buddhist monks fanning ethnic hatred whether in Sri Lanka or Myanmar. This contradiction between ‘theology and practice’ is prevalent also in other religions exposing the limitations of organized religion/s in addressing the present day issues. At least ‘interfaith dialogues’ between them might be the answer to the situation. After all no religion is advocating violence or war except for some fake preachers.
Where to Begin?
It would be difficult to fathom where and how the reconciliation process should begin, and what the priorities are. There are and can be differences of opinion, and that is not unhealthy. What that might signify is the need for multiple approaches and initiatives. The change of the government in January, a year ago, has undoubtedly opened up new opportunities. But the progress so far is not completely satisfactory. Thus is the need for a more focused approach on reconciliation in the New Year.
The government cooperation with the UNHRC and the international community has been an important milestone since no country could address ethnic reconciliation or peace issues in isolation. Human rights are a major criteria of ethnic reconciliation. What should be avoided is the excessive internationalization of the reconciliation process as it could be counterproductive within the country. After all the conflict should be resolved within and not without. This is something even the international community should understand.
What the government has done so far, so good. The handing over some land acquired for security purposes is a good measure but not sufficient. The releasing of those who have no charges equally was necessary, although there can be minor security risks. Most important is the understanding built between the government and the TNA although the NPC or its Chief Minister does not seem to be reciprocating enough to the peace initiatives. Complete demilitarization of the war affected areas might not be feasible in the near future but it should take place in a steady fashion. My purpose is not to list all the measures so far done or not done, but comment on some of the issues relevant to reconciliation.
Despicable Violent Culture
There are hardliners on both sides. Most unfortunate is the hard feelings. Some are understandable but some are not. This has become a part of the Sri Lankan political culture with traces in South/East Asia as well. It is not long time ago a former minister threatened to cut his stomach himself if he proved wrong. The mere utterance was a violent act. It is during the budget debate another MP wanted to immolate himself in Parliament! Most unfortunate was the recent incident of a Northern school boy committing suicide by jumping to a train, leaving a note demanding the release of all ‘political prisoners.’
In all those cases, the actions committed or purported to be committed were quite disproportionate to the issues at hand. These are only a recent tip of ‘not an iceberg’ but a volcano. The feelings are quite hot, reasonable or unreasonable. What the trend signify is the underlying vortex of feelings and frustrations among a great number of people that borders on violence. The lack of understanding of peaceful means of conflict resolution or dispute settlement is at the heart of the matter. There are gaps in the existing consciousness and knowledge, it seems.
It may be the case that people in the tropics have to make an extra effort to cool down their feelings. Of course there are other socio-economic factors aggravating the circumstances of our collective psyche. The country is excessively populated and the economic circumstances are exceedingly poor for the great majority. There are frustrations related to them and these pent-up frustrations could also erupt in ethnic and political forms. Our economies are extremely consumerist and the demonstration effect (aggravated under the digital age) does not allow people to be satisfied with meeting their basic needs and pleasures. We call it the development drive even at the expense of the global environment.
Problems and Prospects
Then there are political culprits, misguided or unscrupulous. For them politics is a power game and not an endeavour for the establishment of social justice. There are more political theories in the world condoning violence, both from the left and the right, than for peace or harmony. All these adverse theories go in the name of political realism, denouncing the peace theories as utopian or unrealistic. There are various influences of these adverse theories on the people of Sri Lanka from their tender ages. It would be a mammoth task to counter these theories or false notions from the minds of the people through education and awareness.
The media can play a decisive role in peace-building and reconciliation, but the current status undoubtedly is far from it. What we can gauge from particularly the vernacular newspapers is the expression of fears, suspicions and misinformation on both sides. What keeps the emotions or hatred under control at present is the present government’s determination, largely under international pressure. The tide might change unless lasting measures are not taken to build peace and reconciliation.
There is no question that the perpetrators of violations during the war should be tried and punished. Given the fact that the perpetrators are on both sides and the whole disaster has been part and parcel of a larger problem of a conflict that has to be resolved, more effort should be placed to uncover the truth in a constructive manner. What cannot be excused at all is rape and brutal killings. Most important might be the Rehabilitation and the Reconstruction of the war affected areas and the people, for which close cooperation between the central government and the provincial councils are important. Without those, the third ‘R’ or Reconciliation might not come.
What should not be overlooked in addressing the immediate and pressing problems is the long term design for reconciliation and peace. The immediate and the long term tasks can go hand in hand. What is our road map or ‘Magga’ for reconciliation? Unless this is attended to, ‘Nirodha’ or resolution for the conflict might remain elusive and distant. That is why a firm determination for ethnic reconciliation and peace is of paramount importance in the New Year 2016.