At the 67th Independence Day celebrations, the newly elected President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, delivered the state speech centered on reconciliation and progress. As it stands a few wheels are turning in the international arena vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. Firstly, a United Nations inquiry, into the alleged war crimes that occurred in the final phases of the war, is set to be released in March. Secondly, US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Nisha Biswal, met with Sri Lankan foreign minister Mangala Smaraweera this past week. In a few days’ time, Minister Samaraweera is scheduled to meet Secretary Kerry in Washington DC.
How does all this connect? How can Sri Lanka be prevented from sliding down an irreversible path of foreign intervention in internal affairs? In preventing such, how can we, the people of Sri Lanka, strive to attain sustainable peace from within Sri Lanka? The answer lies in understanding the US State Department’s mindset and in building a framework for true reconciliation.
Understanding Kerry and the US’s take on Sri Lanka
In December 2009, as Chairman of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then Senator Kerry endorsed a report titled “Sri Lanka: Recharting US Strategy after the War”. Three points made in the report should be highlighted. Firstly, then Senator Kerry along with Senator Lugar stated that “the [Sri Lankan Government] faces many challenges in transitioning to peace, and the international community can help”. The report goes on to say that “real peace will not come over night to Sri Lanka and cannot be imposed from the outside”. Finally, as a recommendation, the report insists that steps should be taken by the US government to “promote people-to-people reconciliation programs to build bridges between the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities.”
In essence, the above facts portray that the United States believes that achieving true sustainable peace in Sri Lanka (i) will take time, (ii) cannot be imposed from the outside through international mechanisms and (iii) will need the assistance from donor countries in order to conduct productive reconciliation programs. With the new change of government in Sri Lanka, Secretary Kerry could be thinking back to strategies mapped out in that Foreign Relations Committee Report. For the United States, regaining strategic leverage in Sri Lanka vis-à-vis Chinese interests is important. Further, the US Department of State has enough clout to postpone, or stop, the publishing of the United Nations report. The UN resolution which recommended an inquiry into Sri Lanka was backed by the United States because the US believed that Sri Lanka, under President Rajapaksa, wasn’t taking enough effort to achieve a sustainable peace. It is wrong to believe that the US, or any other nation for that matter, is trying to persecute Sri Lanka, or Sri Lankan officials, at an international level. As it stands, President Maithripala Sirisena’s government offers an opening for Sri Lanka to take a step back and implement a just and robust reconciliatory mechanism. The US State Department knows this. Sri Lanka needs to capitalize on it. Simply put- plan a revitalized reconciliation effort; put it into action. If Sri Lanka can show a credible reconciliation plan to Secretary Kerry then we can lobby the US government to postpone or stop the inquiry from materializing into anything beyond a report.
Sri Lanka has engaged in reconciliatory efforts since the war’s end in 2009. Significant work was done and those involved need to be praised. However, there were loopholes, inefficiencies and strategic mishaps in the previous approach which has left room for international criticism. By virtue the previous failure offers the opportunity for restructuring. The key is to implement a comprehensive and revitalized reconciliation framework that addresses the key issues of people-to-people reconciliation, truth and justice. The framework should address international concerns without compromising the national integrity of Sri Lanka or that of its citizens. Sri Lanka needs to revamp its reconciliation efforts and take genuine, credible steps to achieve true reconciliation. Time is of the essence.
Below, in brief, is the idea for such a framework. The focus of the framework is at the grass root level of society. It does not seek to address constitutional level actions that need to be implemented. If the grass root level reconciliation is achieved then structuring constitutional level policy for a sustainable peace would be child’s play. The framework is built based on a personal understanding of the post-conflict scenario in Sri Lanka. This understanding was gained while working and living alongside soldiers and ex- militants at a rehabilitation camp in Vavuniya.
Truth is the most important aspect of reconciliation. In essence the people involved in the war need to be given the opportunity to voice their narratives. A mechanism for genuine truth-telling like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa should be established. An environment in which people feel safe should be created. Soldiers, military officers, ex-militants, government officials, aid workers and normal citizens from all across Sri Lanka should be given an opportunity to present their truths. They should be given opportunities to voice their feelings of grief and despair. Irrespective of side, people lost loved ones and their stories need to be heard. In return, all such narratives and those that narrate, should be guaranteed security and their views need to be respected. To encourage people to come forward and tell their story, the truth seeking mechanism should be aligned with that of reparations. All hearings and such, in the case that people agree to make their views public, should be made available for the general citizenry of the country. It is the right of every citizen to know, to be a part of the healing process and to grow hand in hand with each other. The media needs to play a critical role is churning out the information being released by such a truth mechanism. It could learn from the South African case in which those processes were telecast on national television for a few hours every week. The internet provides many other innovative ways such as social media to communicate such narratives too. Youth volunteers who have capacities in engaging with such material could be recruited. The youth of Sri Lanka is quite enthusiastic of a peaceful future for the country and they could be engaged en masse for such efforts. Media units should be respectful and release material in a manner that fosters reconciliation and builds camaraderie between communities.
The flow of truth will cascade onto justice. Justice has numerous fronts. Care should be taken to select one (or more as necessary) aspect of justice that fits the Sri Lankan scenario best. The form of justice that would be most productive in the context of Sri Lanka would be restorative justice. Restorative justice is important because it emphasizes reconciliation and the restoration of social harmony between the communities. It is a form of justice that is born at the communal level and hence would also foster people- to-people reconciliatory efforts. Restorative justice begins with truth. The work done by the truth mechanisms above would pave way to put restorative justice in place. Since restorative justice functions best at the grass roots levels it could be initiated through the local governmental institutions in Sri Lanka. For instance, a structure that incorporates inter “Grama Niladhari Division” (GND) interaction of peoples, with Divisional Secretariat (DS) oversight, would be ideal. Such programs could first be piloted in former border areas of the conflict. For instance, Grama Niladhari Divisions belonging to the Divisional Secretariats of Vavuniya South and Vengalacheddikulam could setup restorative justice committees with GNDs belonging to DSs of Medawachchiya and Kebithigollewa. This formula could then be extrapolated to encompass most regions of the country where inter-communal restorative justice is most needed. The combinations of the setup would have to be constructed by academics, community workers and government officials as seen best-fit in achieving the goal of reconciliation. The committees that would form from such interaction would also need the support of the justice department and those associated with the legal framework of Sri Lanka to offer guidance. Men and women participating in such committees would then have the opportunity to return to their communities and spread reconciliatory efforts with the assistance of the respective Grama Niladhari personnel. The inclusion of local religious figures, representative of the communities involved, would also assist in restorative justice efforts. Further, any suggestions and recommendations that arise from the committee hearings that have national level ramifications needs to be forwarded to district, provincial and national level authorities through the Divisional Secretaries. These efforts for restorative justice needs to be carried out in tandem with the truth telling mechanisms (detailed above).
Any push for retributive justice should be cautioned. However, if deemed to be the suitable method, such processes should be conducted within the realms of the legal framework of Sri Lanka. For instance, when it came to the My Lai massacre that concerned the US Army in the Vietnam War, 26 persons were charged, 14 went through a proper court partial procedure, but only one, Lt. Calley was convicted to life in prison. Eventually, Calley would only serve three and a half years under house arrest and was granted parole by the then US Secretary of the Army Howard Callaway in 1974. The fact remains that proper processes were conducted in accordance to the US military law. In South Africa, based on the TRC hearings and his own testimony, Eugene de Kock, the former head of the South African counter-insurgency unit C1, was sentenced in 1996 to 212 years in prison for the illegal killings he conducted which were deemed to be crimes against humanity. On January 30th 2015, 19 years after the conviction, current justice minister of South Africa, Michael Masutha announced that de Kock had been granted parole in the interest of nation building and reconciliation. Further, the TRC was given a mandate to grant amnesty to those it sought fit, given that those individuals confessed truthfully. In 2007 former President Mbeki instituted a process, to grant special pardons in addition to the amnesties granted by the TRC Amnesty Committee, which has been continued by his successors Presidents Motlanthe and Zuma. The positivity of forgiveness was given prominence. Further, retributive justice can be too risky and also, at times, be counterproductive to the goal of reconciliation. In the case of Sri Lanka retributive justice could instigate ultra nationalist forces to provoke the masses which would then enable rent-seeking political leaders to manipulate such sentiment. This could push Sri Lanka back by several decades to the very situation it saw itself in the 1950’s which eventually led to the civil war. The crux of the argument is that retributive justice isn’t the most efficient method of justice that should be implemented with regard to the Sri Lankan case but, if implemented, would need to go hand in hand with forgiveness for sustainable reconciliation to be achieved.
C) People-to-people Reconciliation
In the long run, people-to-people reconciliation would be the most important aspect of the reconciliatory framework in Sri Lanka. This would mean altering the mindset of nearly the entire population of the nation. Three decades of warfare has left a sense of distrust and enmity towards communities outside of the ones people belong to. This is especially true in the “deep-North” and “deep-South” of the country. There are certain important conditions upon which the national people-to-people bonding framework should be built. First, national reconciliation should be built from the ground up. No matter how many dialogues we have at the higher echelons of civic society, if the effects of reconciliation aren’t felt by the general populace, then we would have failed. From Padaviya to Thissamaharama sons and daughters of innocent, loving families joined the armed forces and were killed in the battlefields of the Vanni. From Valvettithurai to Omantha sons and daughters of sincerely caring families were recruited by the LTTE and sent onto the front lines to be cannon fodder. The general populace of Sri Lanka bled deep and bled long due to the war. Tears and wails of anguish were heard for many nights on both sides. Of paramount importance is shaping the mindsets of the common man- those that walk the streets of the country and bear the burdens of our nation. Hence, all reconciliation efforts should start with the general populace.
Secondly, the approach should be multi-dimensional. It can’t only focus on one demographic, be it youth, women, middle-aged men or rural communities. The approach needs to simultaneously target all sub divisions of society. For instance, if it’s only the youth who are engaged then they’ll face friction from their elders upon returning to their own communities. However, a multi-dimensional approach will, hopefully, create a cohesive mindset between sub-groups and expedite reconciliation efforts. Further, it would also be helpful if organizations specializing in handling a certain demographic of people are involved and hence can contribute with their expertise. It should be a national plan that would be implemented in stages, considering geographies and demographics of society.
For the purpose of discussion, and to roughly map out the reconciliation plan, I will broadly categorize the population of Sri Lanka into two main categories (In the real case scenario the breakdown of efforts would have to be much more intricate and finely mapped out). On one side would be the “mature” category consisting of people belonging to the Baby Boomer generation and Generation X – roughly, those born from the end of World War II until the late 70’s. On the flip side would be the “young” category consisting of people belonging to Generation Y and Generation Z- roughly those born from the late 70’s till present day (Of course I’ll leave the tiny toddlers, in their pampers, out of the equation since they’re too busy sleeping and being cute! But more importantly because if we can change the mindsets of the guardians then we won’t have to be worried about the toddlers being indoctrinated by negative mindsets)
The mature category of people would be those that are hardest to engage in reconciliatory efforts, since they are those that would have faced the brunt of the war. They key is to achieve maximum levels of engagement at the grass root levels. Once again the framework of Grama Niladhari Divisions and Divisional Secretariats detailed in the “Truth” section above can be put in place. Each Grama Niladhari Division would have social groups associated to various causes like ‘village development’, ‘women’s issues’ and ‘funeral assistance’. They key is to create linkages between such groups in communities that see themselves in animus with each other. The Grama Niladhari himself, as a peace bearing official, would play a critical role in creating and sustaining such linkages. The linkages could involve, but are not limited to, participating in inter-community social welfare programs, assisting village level development programs of other villages and inter-communal festivals (Sinhala-Tamil New Year and Eid would be a good start). Inter-community trade could also be developed based on regional agriculture and the respective needs of the communities.
Next would be people-to-people interactions targeted at state and private sector employees. They need to be engaged with their counterparts from various regions of the country. For instance, personnel from the Kandy Municipality Council could build interactions with their counterparts from Jaffna. Employees attached to a private sector bank in Matara could build sustainable linkages with such employees in the banks’ Kilinochchi branch. These interactions could be at the level of, but not limited to, leisure exchanges, workshops oriented at communal reconciliation, and social work done in favor of development work conducted in rural communities both in the North and the South. When compared to the state sector many private sector companies and organizations have progressed in this aspect and have engaged in intermittent activities of this nature. However, what should take place is a nationally coordinated effort to engage the Sri Lankan populace.
When it comes to the “young” category of people-to-people reconciliation the main focus should be on schools and educational institutions. What is encouraging is that vast majority of Sri Lanka’s youth is optimistic about reconciliation and a sustainable peace. As a part of the technological and information revolutions they are aware that the benefits of peace far outweigh the costs of civil turmoil.
Sri Lanka has an educational network structure that is quite robust. These include public and private secondary (i.e schools) and tertiary (i.e universities and institutes) entities of learning. A policy should be structured as following. Secondary and tertiary entities should initiate inter-school and inter- university/institute dialogues and programs catered for students, and student unions with the over sight of the academic staff. For instance, schools belonging to the department of education in the Southern Province could be matched with schools belonging to the Northern Province. The University of Jaffna could build a connection with the Universities of Colombo & Kelaniya. The Eastern University of Sri Lanka could build relationships with the University of Ruhuna. The combinations in which the schools and universities could be connected are numerous. This network structure would create inter-school and inter-university/institute relationships between students of the main ethnicities. Caution must be taken to include logical and fair representation of students of all ethnicities. These students would have common grievances which would be helpful in establishing cordial relations between each other. This aspect needs to be constructively capitalized upon.
In essence, what needs to be accomplished is the linkage between students, as many as possible, who are representative of the student bodies, in each of these institutions. Once the linkages have been created, leading students should be brought together for discussion panels, seminars and workshops. The dialogue in all of the above activities should be centered on creating implementable reconciliatory mechanisms within the realms of each of the respective schools, institutes and universities. The students can contribute and collaborate in creative ways such as through art, theatre and film to spread the messages of reconciliation. In turn, the students can also influence the local communities from which they hail. As educated youth, they would have significant leverage in molding the mindsets of those in their individual communities. For this exercise to succeed, the efforts of school level, provincial level, university level and national level educational administrative bodies would need to be at their utmost. In addition, other governmental bodies that are engaged in youth led activities, need to be involved and be able to contribute towards this exercise. The selection of students could be based on voluntary self- recommendations while all students could have a mandatory participatory requirement through written ideas for discussion in terms of questions and essays. There are many non-governmental organizations that also have expertise dealing with youth led initiatives and their expertise would also be helpful.
A significant portion of Sri Lanka’s youth would have already gone beyond the realms of education. Yet, engaging this sub-category of youth is also important. The best method of capturing this group in reconciliation efforts would be through youth groups, clubs and organizations that they are part of. Alumni associations, entrepreneurial societies, welfare societies, leadership and community service organizations are a few of the many groups that these youth belong to. If the government can incorporate the efforts of such individual youth organizations and streamline them into the cohesive national reconciliation effort then it would be a feat that would set a model for the entire world to follow. All that is needed is the will-power to put in the effort and an inexorable determination to make it a success.
Two large problematic issues could crop up with regard to the implementation of a mammoth national policy framework for reconciliation. First would be the funding for such a large scale reconciliation effort. If Sri Lanka is to achieve true, sustainable reconciliation then the government would have to play a major part in allocating the necessary budgetary requirements. However, the responsibility shouldn’t fall completely on the government. There is room for the private sector to be involved through Public Private Partnerships. If corporations can be involved with development efforts and policy lobbying then why can’t national reconciliation efforts be privatized to a certain degree? After all, a reconciled Sri Lanka would reap far more benefits in the long run than the cost of reconciliation. Further, private sector expertise would also assist in making such processes of reconciliation highly effective. Sri Lanka could also be strategic with requesting foreign funding for such a reconciliation drive. If Sri Lanka can map-out a pragmatic plan for implementation, take definitive steps in that regard and portray the capacity to execute sustainable reconciliation then non-intrusive foreign funding would also be attainable.
Secondly, and unfortunately, the truth is that most of the populace is indifferent to the concept of reconciliation. For them, they do not see a direct correlation between national reconciliation and personal progress. Reconciliation is a fancy word that lies in the intellectual realms beyond getting their daily or monthly allowances, sustaining their families and putting food on the table. Hence, what needs to be done is create a utilitarian correlation between true national reconciliation and personal benefit, in which, if reconciliation is achieved, all Sri Lankans stand to gain something tangible. This issue with this, however, is that such a tangible benefit cannot be quantified. For instance, what is the true monetary gain of reconciliation? We know that it would be good for the country but we cannot put a rupee amount on it. Hence, what we are left with is to play a qualitative game- a game based on patriotism, emotional allegiance and the heart to make all of Sri Lanka and its people better.
Revisiting Kerry and the International Stage
Secretary Kerry is a man who believes in integrity. It’s a trait he got from his parents. As a statesman involved in diplomacy, Secretary Kerry also believes in empathy- listening to the story of the other side. That is why Sri Lanka can appeal to him with a righteous plan for reconciliation. Sri Lanka needs to show him, and the world, that Sri Lanka is genuinely interested in reconciliation. This, in turn, needs to be corroborated by bona fide action. If so, it paves way for Sri Lankan diplomats to persuade countries, the likes of the US and India, to allow room for the country to heal under its own terms. This is the most effective way through which we can stop external intervention in Sri Lankan affairs. If not, those with malicious intent towards a unified Sri Lanka would keep lobbying for an international intervention.
Mother Lanka shouldn’t compromise on the victory of a unified Sri Lanka. No, sir! We are at our strongest when we are united. Sri Lanka has on its palm an opportunity to prosper. It is the duty of all Sri Lankans, irrespective of ethnicity, to reconcile with each other and show the global community the enduring passion of our unity. Let us rise to realize the true potential of the wonderful country we proudly call home! After all, that’s why we ended the war didn’t we?
*Heshika Deegahawathura is an Old Trinitian and graduated with honors and distinction in Political Science and Government from Yale University. He currently works on business strategy in Mumbai, India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org