By Jehan Perera –
There is a likelihood that constitutional reform will be on the political table again. The enactment of a new constitution in which a permanent solution to the ethnic conflict would be found is one of the unmet promises of the government. At its inception in 2015, there was much optimism on this score because the government held both a 2/3 majority in parliament and was also composed of the two main political parties that had hitherto opposed each other whenever one of them had sought a solution to the problem. In the early part of the government’s tenure in office during 2015-16 there appeared to be substantial progress but this slowed down thereafter and even seemed to have fallen off the political table.
One major problem with the government’s approach towards constitutional reform is that it has become distant from the people and rather secretive too with its content being known only by a small group of experts. This has provided the opposition political parties with the opportunity to play upon the fears of the general public which they are doing with leaps of the imagination. For instance, one opposition member of standing has written an article claiming that the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee against the US dollar is part of a conspiracy to divide the country.
The constant use of the ethnic conflict by the opposition points to the continuing importance it plays in the everyday politics of the country, but especially as election time approaches. Opposition members make statements that are intended to bring up the bogey of Tamil separatism even ten years after the military defeat of the LTTE. The latest is to assert that the government is planning to have two legal systems in the country, one for the North and another for the South. As there is only one legal system in the country at present, the only possible explanation is that opposition politicians are targeting the forthcoming constitutional reform proposals in advance.
Unfortunately at present there are crude attempts being made to rouse nationalism, fear and hatred of the other communities, and on different sides of the ethnic and religious divides. In this context, the participation of leading members of the joint opposition in a recent reconciliation event came as a possible signal that a middle path may be possible. The event was the launching of a book titled “Voices of Peace” by Sarah Kabir which provides detailed accounts from the lives of ten former Sri Lankan soldiers and ten members of the LTTE who once fought each other as central actors in the three decade long war. But today they are marginalized and rendered voiceless. The book aims to give these silenced members of the Sri Lankan family who played a critical role in shaping the destiny of the country, a constructive role in the present time.
The content of the book is important because it educates the heart as well as the mind. The ancient Greek sage Aristotle is recorded as saying that “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” Every chapter of this book contains the stories of individuals, and not those of a collective. The book captures the life stories of former combatants, on both the government and LTTE sides, in considerable detail. Each account of the twenty protagonists selected for this study has been carefully researched, sometimes by the author going back to interview them as many as five or more times. This is because there are multiple ways to remember the past. People remember in parts, and it is said that stories, like experiences, are never finished.
The significance of the book is that it highlights the importance of individual stories. It is an attempt to prevent them from getting lost in the collective histories of the conflict, by the use of terms such as “ex-combatants” or “missing persons.” The government has set up the Office of Missing Persons and a Ranaviru Seva Authority for the families of war-affected soldiers. These statutory authorities have been established to cater to the needs of those categories of persons and their families. But sometimes by aggregating individuals into a collective, it becomes easier to negate the entire group as by saying that the “missing persons” are no longer amongst the living as government leaders have done publicly and to the distress and anger of the families of those who are missing.
The value of Sarah Kabir’s work is that she has made the individual the centre of her efforts, and because their stories are real, they impel the readers to want to do something positive rather than be passive. This spirit contributed to the success of the book launch. But of equal or even greater significance as the book launch was the presence at that event of several high ranking members of the joint opposition, including former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, MP Namal Rajapaksa as well as the leader of the SLPP, Prof GL Peiris and former minister of reconciliation and MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara. Their presence contributed to the sense of an inclusive event, and an indication of the value they may be seeing in re-engaging with civil society and those who stand for the rights of minorities and those who are marginalized.
This period of the government of national unity, and the support given to the government by the ethnic and religious minorities, has given space to civil society to play a more active role in the national reconciliation process. Another recent example was the beach cleanup organized by Caritas SEDEC, the social arm of the Catholic Church which covered a coastal stretch of over 30 kilometers from Wattala to Negombo. In addition to contributing to environmental protection, the purpose of this event was to make it a community owned participatory activity that would bring together the members of the civil society and other like-minded organizations with an interreligious dimension to give added value to this action. Some participants in this voluntary action came from as far away as Kurunegala in a demonstration of the goodwill that exists within the people that awaits positive use by leadership at the governmental level.
During the beach cleanup it was pointed out that despite the efforts undertaken, the following day the beach would start getting polluted again due to debris coming in from the sea at high tide, and from residents who were not conscientised about keeping the environment clean. Symbolic actions are important but are not enough to make for sustainable change. This applies not only to the beach cleanup but also to the joint opposition presence at the reconciliation event. Civil society can initiate and show what is possible at the micro level and what can be replicated at a larger level at the macro level. Despite its weakness, the mainframe of government policy is that of accepting the diversity and pluralism of society and permitting government systems to run their course. Symbolic actions need to be followed up by government action that comes through its administrative systems, regulatory frameworks and the enactment and implementation of the law.