By Lionel Bopage –
When ongoing conflicts have severely harmed the social fabric of a society, reconciliation becomes a journey. Creating conditions needed for healing the past wounds entails the restoration of understanding, trust and cohesion among communities, utilising all available local, national and international capacities. Even a simple mis-step could derail that whole journey, compelling everybody to go back to the drawing board. Conflicts are always complicated and can become intractable to resolve, even when peace or victory is declared.
One way forward is to design and follow a pathway that will serve as a means to prevent further conflict and consolidate a long lasting peace. Such a journey is not something that can be realised overnight, since the development of mutual understanding, building trust, and healing of trauma and hurt require time and patience. The more intense the conflict had been, the more difficult and complex this task will be.
As Lankans, it is a journey for all of us to take as individuals, families, communities, institutions and most importantly as a country. However, Lanka’s recent trajectory has strangled the measures that have been taken in the past towards such healing. Instead of reinforcing those measures they have been often misinterpreted, misjudged, sabotaged and destroyed at the whims and fancies of the diverse ruling elites, working behind the scenes to safeguard their interests and privileges.
We have been going back to the drawing board so many times because we cannot see the wood for the trees. That this has happened repeatedly in the past and is currently happening in front of our eyes in the land of our birth is sad, indeed. Yet even sadder is that nobody appears to care to do anything constructive to ‘put the train back on track’. We cannot prevent this frequent derailment from occurring unless we take full responsibility for our own actions and be honest with our fellow citizens.
Relevance to Sri Lanka
In the Lankan context, the process of reconciliation needs to deal with bolstering ties among the peoples living in Sri Lanka and those of Sri Lankan origin living overseas. Such a process will depend on the extent to which we are willing to accept and treat others as fellow human beings – as human beings who are recognised and treated with empathy, respect, dignity and fairness. At the heart of this journey is the strengthening of relationships within our plurality, recognising the diverse cultures and ethnicities. When we are not made emotive by our nationalist or faith sentiments that blind our humanity, we as people are able to accept, appreciate and respect the ‘other’, their cultures, their rights, their experiences and their dignities.
In our schools we had classmates from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Except in a few cases, conflict was mostly absent, and peace prevailed. Our bonds of friendship were based on trusting and respecting each other. It was a reconciled space, free of racism, chauvinism and fanaticism. Those relationships built decades earlier in our youth continue to grow stronger with each passing year. A major factor that contributed to such outcomes is that those relationships have been for the benefit of all concerned without being skewed to benefit only a few in the group.
In all conflict situations, whether it is within the family, community, or country, we find it difficult to forgive and forget. We do not know what we could do to make amends. Yet there are many instances at family level, where we have found some ways to reconcile. When that happens, we get together to continue to be a family, united and at peace with each other and enjoy the psychological and economic benefits that such a stress-free and secure environment can bring. Don’t we all enjoy the calmness, the harmony, and the freedom of coexistence?
Our country’s history is replete with large-scale rights violations and escalating social, ethnic and faith conflicts. When attempts were made to deliver justice by addressing the issues that led to the conflicts by developing political solutions through pacts, agreements and constitutional changes, such attempts were derailed or sabotaged by those in power, as well as in opposition, who were able to hoodwink the people to believe that such attempts will lead to the division of the country and loss of sovereignty. Recent examples include the strangulated Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations, set up in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Ironically, the preamble to the Act articulating the rationale for the enactment of the Office for Reparations states: “WHEREAS a comprehensive reparations scheme anchored in the rights of all Sri Lankans to an effective remedy will contribute to the promotion of reconciliation for the wellbeing, and security of all Sri Lankans including future generations”.
Herculean efforts from March 2016 to September 2017 to introduce a new constitution – initially supported with broad consensus within and outside the Parliament – were purposely made difficult and eventually sabotaged by those who put party politics first and the national interest last. The Interim Report of the Steering Committee to the Constitutional Assembly has fallen by the wayside.
Complexity at macro level
However, reconciliation at a community or national level is a macro level journey which is much more complex as it has to deal with more than a single issue or agenda. That needs the active support of a nation’s political, business and community structures to weave all necessary threads of reconciliation together. And the more we accept the historical wrongs done to other communities, the easier it would be for the parties to work towards healing. That will in turn lead to greater equality, equity and opportunity. So, everyone has a positive role to play.
It is a matter for all of us Lankans to take on. To make it the norm, we need to foster reconciliation in our homes, communities, schools, workplaces and institutions. Our reconciliation efforts need to encompass not only the aspects and issues relating to the long civil war, but also the current trajectories of the conflict extending beyond ethnicity, language and faiths. Regrettably, most of our political players do not seem ready to discuss a way out of this protracted and worsening issue.
Sri Lanka’s socio-economic and political agenda adopted since the 1940s initiated and intensified social conflict. The discriminatory policy frameworks and programs formulated and adopted by almost all regimes led to multiple divided communities that fragmented their holistic and humanist nature. Instead of considering all of us as citizens having equal rights, all past and present regimes treated the majorities and minorities differently. The dominant ideology has been a nationalism based on ethno-religious grounds, reinforced and fuelled by notions and agendas of national security.
Over and above this fragmented nature, human rights violations continue to occur infringing upon people’s fundamental freedoms. Despite the pledges made at international forums to address issues relating to reconciliation via a comprehensive national plan, the domestic focus is mainly on economic development and finding investments to support it. Yet, the history of such developments involving massive investments points to none other than the creation of enormous white dinosaurs that need to be maintained at taxpayers’ expense – depleting the national reserves and enmeshing us in an ever-increasing debt trap which we find hard to pay without generating enough income to service it.
The legislative recognitions offered to fundamental rights and freedoms have become a joke. Laws are bent to suit the occasion and the person. Even positive legislative recognitions are being continuously violated through creating counter legislation that negates the original intent that recognises our rights and freedoms. In short, with the constitution that was de-democratised by the enactment of the 20th Amendment in October 2020, the parliament and the people have allowed the antithesis of reconciliation and democratic reforms.
Activating the process of healing requires amending the policies and practices that contributed to causing the wrongs in the first place. Lankans need to widely accept this situation if we want to ensure that truth, justice and healing prevail. As a society we have forgotten the fact that even during the feudal days Lanka was a decentralised country, with powers either delegated or devolved to regions. The country’s administration was centralised and made unitary for the first time under the colonial rule. The constitutions we have developed since the days of the dominion are based on this centralised unitary concept, which is nothing but a colonial construct. Even the former colonial masters have discontinued that concept for some time now.
A Voice for Reconciliation
To have a united Lankan voice for reconciliation it requires us to value and recognise the cultures and heritage of all citizens as integral part of a shared Lankan identity. Creation of such an identity requires us looking at our past, truthfully and comprehensively, and explore what really took place in our history. We need to recognise, understand, and accept the wrongs of the past and the impact such wrongs have had on other peoples. This, if done with empathy and patience, will have a positive impact on the lives of future generations.
Communication is essential for overcoming misunderstandings and disagreements. Breakdown of communication between parties to a conflict discourages and prevents the process of reconciliation. During a conflict or a post-conflict situation, it is customary for the parties to withdraw to their own silos. The breakout of these enclaves requires us to come closer and shed those invisible barriers that keep us apart. The longer you hold a grudge against another, the harder it will be to clear the issue and move forward. Working together with empathy towards the other is essential to generate and bring clarity to a situation. Yet, to do so is difficult and painful. But once we take responsibility for the wrongs with guarantees of no repetition, we can start our journey of healing with trust and relationships will begin to grow again.
The process of reconciliation in the Lankan context will need us to look at the colonial dispossession imposed on our peoples, their strength and resilience, as well as the significance of their cultures. Such a process will open the space for all of us to understand and acknowledge our histories, cultures and rights. That will provide us the prospect to become valued and recognised constituents of a shared Lankan national identity. Only such a process can drive us towards healing and ultimately united as a nation with a Lankan identity.
As Lankans or of people of Lankan background, we need to raise our voices to ensure that the voice for reconciliation, equity and democracy is heard. Young people need to be at the forefront spearheading this message – supporting a constitutionally enshrined non-discriminatory regulatory framework in all spheres of life, not only for our sake, but also for our future generations.
For reconciliation to become a reality, it requires completing at least two major constructs. One is to create a new framework of human rights that ensures a clear break from our dark past. The second is to constitutionally recognise the economic, social and cultural rights of the citizens to have their essential needs cared for in order to ensure their survival as human beings.
If we can fulfill this as a society, then we will have the opportunity to thrive as a nation united and looking forward to a better future. Otherwise, we will continue to be helpless and disoriented having to deal with the same old issues we have failed to overcome for over seven decades. It is time we broke the impasse.