By Laksiri Fernando –
I am not speaking as an outsider. I am an insider to the Sri Lanka Reconciliation Forum, Sydney (SLRF). However, here I express my personal views and they are not necessarily the views of the Forum. Let me first begin on some common premises.
First, we commonly believe that reconciliation here (in Australia or Sydney) is largely a function of reconciliation there (in Sri Lanka). Second, we also believe that reconciliation here can influence reconciliation there. Reconciliation here is a value or objective for us and reconciliation there is also a value for us. Third, we also believe that there is a possibility that the SLRF – as an organized group of professionals, academics and concerned people – possibly could influence reconciliation in Sri Lanka in policy terms however modestly. That is what we are trying to achieve and that is the purpose of this meeting, as I understand.
I would specifically like to refer to principles 5, 7, 8 and 9 of our Statement of Beliefs. Let me add that these were drafted at the inauguration of the Forum in 2009.
- Universal respect for the rule of law and good governance, which has been deteriorating over several decades, needs to be restored in order to become a modern nation.
- Genuine reconciliation is a prerequisite to stability and durable peace. Prosperity will follow only if there is stability and durable peace.
- We can reconcile at the individual level until the government of Sri Lanka chooses to become a party to the reconciliation process.
- Together as Sri Lankan people we can persuade the Government of Sri Lanka to participate in the reconciliation process.
What do we mean by reconciliation? As a dictionary definition it means the ‘restoration of friendly relations.’ It goes very closely with the definition of peace. Like peace, reconciliation has two main connotations: negative reconciliation and positive reconciliation. One can argue that these are also two stages especially when there has been a war or a violent conflict. Reconciliation does not mean lukewarm relations but positive and active friendly relations. This is a very minimum definition for this discussion.
Even when there was ‘hot war’ in Sri Lanka, ethnic relations in Australia or Sydney were not hot, or not that hot, unlike some other countries. Therefore, when the war ended, I think we were in a position to take one step forward. I am not aware of any other country where Sinhalese and Tamils got together in a Reconciliation Forum. I may be mistaken. However, it was a positive development and all credit should go to the founders of the Forum. From this step or this experience, the SLRF also understood that negative reconciliation is not sufficient.
Our weakness, however, has been our size or impact. We couldn’t reach out as we wanted to. We couldn’t reach out for the broader sections of the Tamils or the Sinhalese. We couldn’t reach out to the Muslims. Of course we have physical or human limitations as we are mostly working people, but I am not talking about that.
We had different explanations for the situation. One explanation was that we are too political. A related explanation was that we are not undertaking enough social, cultural or welfare activities. People appeared to be interested in different things. All these may be true. Last year we apparently found a solution, I believe, to this problem to have different Strands. This Strand Concept allowed us to employ diverse approaches and that was a good development.
Situation in Sri Lanka
But my main submission today is that these limitations were/are largely conditioned by the situation in Sri Lanka. Let me be very brief. I believe we all know about these facts, although we interpret them differently.
The war ended in 2009 and there was a feeling or illusion that the conflict ended. That was based on the theory or feeling that the ‘national problem’ was merely a terrorist problem. That slowly became the dominant thinking of the last government. Others, even some within the government differed. They wanted to go beyond and resolve the conflict for a lasting peace. There were obstacles irrespective of some efforts (i.e. LLRC). The conflict or disagreements between the communities continued. New conflicts emerged or created on the Muslim or the religious front.
The war itself was a sticking point; particularly the way it was conducted at the last stages. There were so much of consequences of the war. These consequences still remain. There was triumphalism. Then there were war crime charges. No credible investigation was conducted. The foreign policy of the country was not helpful to resolve the situation internationally. There was an illusion that (mega) development projects could heal the conflict. Behind this belief, there was a theory based on crude economic determinism.
There was a breakdown of democracy and good governance even after the end of the war. One aspect of this development was the way the Chief Justice was impeached. The move away from democracy or good governance became a political policy. Sri Lanka almost became a pariah state.
There is a change. Some say it is a paradigm change. It is still early to say whether this is 50%, 75% or Just 25%, to mean a marginal change. It is definitely not 100%.
It is exactly one moth today since the presidential election. This is little less than 1/3 of the projected 100 Days. After that there will be parliamentary elections. The Manifesto or the Diary of Maithripala Sirisena didn’t propose a political solution for the ethnic conflict. Nevertheless, the TNA decided to support the common candidate. This is interesting. I believe they understood that democracy and good governance would open up new possibilities for reconciliation.
The SLMC broke away from the government and actively supported the common candidate. Even without that decision, the Muslims would have supported Maithripala Sirisena. CWC continued to support Mahinda Rajapaksa, nevertheless the Hill Country Tamils overwhelmingly voted for the common opposition candidate.
There should be some reason why the minority communities overwhelmingly supported a common opposition candidate. This is something that people who aspire for reconciliation should take into clear account. Of course, one can have a conspiracy theory to explain. But that kind of a theory or phobia is not helpful for reconciliation.
What about the Sinhalese voters? Obviously, they didn’t overwhelmingly support the common opposition candidate. The majority supported the previous president. But compared to 2010, there was a clear swing of voters around 8-10 percent even in the South.
It is not correct to say that the election was contested on the issue of reconciliation. Not at all. It was contested on the issues of governance/democracy and cost living/development. However, it was clear (and now clearer) that democracy and good governance are closely linked at least to the first phase or opportunities for reconciliation. This is one reason why the civil society should make sure (and demand) that the present government should stick to the rules of good governance.
Those who believe in good governance and democracy invariably believe in reconciliation. Good governance is something which goes beyond formal democracy. There can always be a ‘dark side to democracy’ (Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy) which can only be countered by good governance. It means justice, universal human rights, equality and fair play for all sections of society. When you have democracy and good governance, it is easy to go for reconciliation.
Let me give you some examples. When Maithripala Sirisena gave his first press interview he naturally talked about ‘national unity and reconciliation.’ This was also the case when he came for the TV dialogue called Satana organized by Sirasa thereafter. The latest is President’s address at the Independence Day. Let me just quote one statement.
“We could not link the hearts of the people in the North and the South even though the sound of terrorist guns were silenced by the security forces in 2009. There is no point in accusing individuals for the failures in the past but what is more important is to rectify failures and mistakes. The war was ended physically and now we should enable the co-existence of all ethnicities.”
As I have mentioned earlier, there was/is no agenda on the part of the government on how to resolve the ethnic conflict or achieve reconciliation. However, there is a road map to achieve and establish good governance. Of course there can be deviations and contradictions. There can be even reverses. Already there iss a deviation as the President has renewed the ‘public order’ police functions for the armed forces. We hope that this would be withdrawn by the beginning of next month. People have to be vigilant and bring pressure on the government. But there are indications that already there are some steps taken in the positive or right direction.
When we assess the ‘change’ what we can see is not only a mere government change. On the one hand, this change has been brought about by a coalition of parties. Although the TNA was not a party to this coalition, they are now participating in the National Executive Council. The TNA sits with the JHU and the JVP. The vision appears to be a national coalition or a national government even in the future. On the other hand, there had been fairly a strong movement from the civil society to bring this change. If I may mention some of the actors, NMSJ, BASL, FUTA are important. Artists and other professional groups also took a positive part. I believe that they will be active in the future.
Let me conclude with a question and a proposition.
Do we or do we not consider the change of regime in January as a new opportunity for reconciliation? If we don’t we may work as before. If we do, it may be necessary for us to change the way we work and the pace we work. Otherwise it might again be a lost opportunity. What we have to pursue are the last few principles of the ‘Statement of Belief’ of the Reconciliation Forum that I quoted at the beginning, as suitable to today’s circumstances.
[The above is the text of a panel presentation at a Sri Lanka Reconciliation Forum meeting in Sydney on 8 February 2015.]