The Sunday Leader

Towards Building True Reconciliation In Sri Lanka

By Lionel Guruge

Vidhya Sivaloganathan’s death sent waves of agony and distress across Sri Lanka. The horrific brutality inflicted upon her broke all ethnic and religious boundaries and united all citizens of the country under one voice calling for justice.

Vidhya was considered Sri Lanka’s daughter; her death became the solitary incident that indiscriminately united all Sri Lankans under one cause. Unfortunately, it needed such a tragic event for such unification to occur.

When Muralitharan played for Sri Lanka at cricket tournaments, we Sri Lankans shared a similar sentiment; although the circumstances were in stark opposition, Sri Lankans readily embraced him as one of ours when he made us proud with his talent. The question that springs from this is, must we always rely on one particular incident or symbol to strengthen national unity?

Until the introduction of the Donoughmore parliamentary system, the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim elite in Sri Lanka enjoyed a far greater degree of unity and equality. However, with its implementation, social elitist notions became more prominent, and the stratification between the upper and lower classes within the same ethnicities increased.

Throughout the history of the world, it is an unfortunate yet inescapable reality that political systems have been designed to nurture the needs of the elitist upper class citizens and only later reach the common man. Since gaining independence, Sri Lankan politicians have repeatedly preyed on this disharmony to gain votes, leading to various ethnic and religious tensions. Issues such as language barriers and economic strife were all reframed to include the topic of ethnicity. The culmination of these tensions ultimately led to young Sri Lankan men taking up arms against their fellow brethren, the repercussions of which devastated this island for 30 years. It is a pity to think that in retrospect, if politicians of that era gave consensus and coalition governance greater prominence than they did, this travesty could have been avoided.

Dr B. R. Ambedkar, through his drafting of the Indian Constitution, made an outstanding contribution towards unifying India. To gain independence and drive away foreign invaders, all citizens of India partook in this battle. India’s neighbouring nation however has been unsuccessful in unifying its people in this fashion. In 1956, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was appointed on a Sinhala nationalist sentiment, and immediately drove a wedge between the Sinhala and Tamil population, feeding into the number of factors that led to the war.

Although based on discriminations, the war discriminated against no one; Tamil and Sinhala politicians, businessmen, and civilians were all equally victimised. Taking this point into consideration, the President responsible for concluding this civil war in 2009 received a historical opportunity to bring about meaningful reconciliation, but was instead too blinded by other factors to give reconciliation its due prominence.

Especially when the LLRC recommendations explicitly outlined in what manner reconciliation must and can occur, Mahinda Rajapaksa paid no heed to it. Thus, a leader that had all the potential to be a true national hero by building national unity and a collective national identity, instead made more enemies through his actions, and it is this animosity he fostered that ultimately led to his unpopularity on a national and international scale. His defeat at the elections was a symbolic gesture from the majority citizens of the nation to say that they rejected his notions.

If one were to look at the election results demographically, it was obvious to note that the districts that were dense in Tamil and Muslim populations voted heavily for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s opponent. This is another symbolic gesture from the disillusioned citizenry to signify that promises made to encourage and nurture national unity must not be made in vain. Therefore, it is evident that reconciliation and national identity are factors that must be considered a priority in Parliament and the President must be mindful of this when making any decision on behalf of Sri Lanka.

In a recent survey conducted on Sri Lankan perspectives on life post war by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), in 2014, 40.8% of Sri Lankans believed that the government has done little, but not enough to address the root causes of the conflict which resulted in the 30 year war. (Source: ‘Democracy in Post War Sri Lanka’ Survey). If nothing else, this must state how desperately people are calling for a different approach to reconciliation.

As a first step toward building this reconciliation, there must be a sound mechanism by which this may be managed appropriately. This mechanism should take the form of a Ministry for Reconciliation, Language and Culture, and this authority must be extended down to provincial and district levels as line ministries instead of being implemented only at the Central Government level.

 

Role of the Govt in promoting national unity

A savage war ensued in this country for 30 years. It resulted in many Sri Lankans losing their limbs, their loved ones, or their lives. Is it fair to make them suffer any more than they already have? Have they not already paid a fair price for this war? Then we must make it another priority to provide speedy relief to those victims in whatever manner we can; in the case of disabled persons, they must be provided prompt relief and compensation. In the case of those whose loved ones have disappeared, the commission responsible for providing any information on those individuals must not provide false promises and should instead make an honest effort to provide information to those that seek it.

And in the case of those that have lost their loved ones from both sides due to the war, it is only an act of humanity to allow them all to commemorate their loved ones deaths. Perhaps instead of viewing it as two camps that lost their loved ones, in future Sri Lanka can have a common event to commemorate all those who lost their loved ones during the war.

To truly feel the pain and devastation the war left behind and to take meaningful steps towards reconciliation, man must walk a mile in another man’s shoes. For this purpose the government should consider linking villages from the South with villages from the North. There should be a mixture of religions and ethnicities in this linkage. Schools must be combined from the North and the South, so that children may grow up appreciating the diversity that surrounds them. Temples should have associations with Kovils, Mosques, and Churches.

There should also be linkages between farmers from the North and South, to allow them to exchange ideas and suggestions on how best to increase crop productivity and promote environment friendly and organic agriculture.

School teachers must learn the difference between Sinhala and Tamil teaching traditions and must be educated of this fact during their training. Even at University level, between students and lectures, these linkages must occur. It should become a matter of course to work and live harmoniously with people of diverse religions and ethnicities and society must be brought to a position where they should feel ashamed for not associating persons from other religions or ethnicities; only then can real and lasting connections be made.

Non-Governmental Organizations work tirelessly for this cause, now the time has come for this to be a responsibility of the government.

The Official Languages Commission (OLC) must also be strengthened. Preserving language rights is imperative to reconciliation and national unity. The Language Commission is included in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution; however, of nearly 250 complaints this writer has personally filed in the past three years with the commission, not even 10% of these have been addressed. It is evident therefore that the need to strengthen the commission is imperative.

 

Religious diversity

Another precursor to true reconciliation is fostering religious harmony, especially taking into consideration the past events that have transpired in the name of religion. Be it Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam, all religions have underlined common teachings, teachings of goodwill and sensitivity towards fellow beings. These teachings should be, and are taught to all young school children via their syllabus for religious studies, on Ordinary and Advanced Level stages.

To learn ones’ own religion is important. However if one chapter within this syllabus could be dedicated to giving a brief introduction to the other three religions especially with regards to what commonalities they share, the next generation will grow to become truly united citizens of the nation. As this writer has mentioned before in his articles, a chapter on language rights must also be included into the syllabus of language studies. It is hoped that the educators of Sri Lanka will pay closer attention to this fact and seriously consider a revision of the education system.

 

Role of the media

Arguably one of the biggest contributors to national unity is the media. Certain nationalistic sentiments have been circulating in the past few weeks and the only reason this has appeared in the public mainstream is because it was broadcasted by media outlets. It is true that all citizens have a right to express themselves and therefore it is unethical to try to prevent this, but in broadcasting these statements, media personnel and media outlets must first consider the possibility that this may be harmful to other communities, be it religious or ethnic.

Therefore there must be regulation in the media to ensure that whatever is being broadcast is accurate and takes into account diverse sensitivities. New media is perhaps an even more dangerous tool in this regard and in these occasions the people must be mindful of the fact that freedom of speech does not equate to bigotry.

Our birth in this world is a selection of random events. We are born as a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Tamil, or a Christian arbitrarily. This writer would like to believe that the purpose of this randomness is not that we must learn to hate each other because we are different, but to unite and live in harmony with one another despite our differences. The generation before us lived in different social and economic times; and our children will live in different times to us. Despite these changing times, one constant theme that resonates through all these eras is humanity.

Humanity cannot be changed, it does not know of alternative methods of expression but the simple act of kindness and goodwill prevalent in all human beings. It is therefore the role of those that govern us to remind us of this fact, and strive to always highlight this. Factors such as the economy also contribute heavily to this fact; whilst strengthening our economy, politicians must not give any space for religious or ethnic discrimination with regards to economic factors. Social indicators now express the need for a new Constitution, and this time it must be one that is constructed from the bottom up. A truly Sri Lankan Constitution must be assembled, not one that favours privilege and social stratification. In this regard, the programs run by former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga with regards to national unity and reconciliation is noteworthy, but not enough. Programs for national reconciliation should not be a separate constituent of the government; rather it should be a cross cutting theme integrated into as many programs initiated by the government itself.

There should be a crackdown on unethical media broadcasting and publishing, for it is commonplace to see news headlines relating a story of how a ‘Tamil’ woman was involved in a robbery, or even how a ‘Muslim’ man was trampled by an elephant at a parade! Media outlets must do their duty and relate stories in an unbiased and unprejudiced manner.

It is the duty of the President, his government, the media, and all Sri Lankans to work together to foster true reconciliation, for this has been the one impediment to a truly resplendent isle.

9 Comments for “Towards Building True Reconciliation In Sri Lanka”

  1. raj

    Douglas Devenanda is accussed of carrying out anti-social activities during MR rules with the blessing of Sri Lankan forces stationed in North and East. If Douglas Devenanda is arrested and questioned about crimes that take place in North and East, there might an end to the crimes that takes place now.

  2. Bernie Wijesiriwardena

    This is an article written by a unbiased person looking into the future of Sri Lanka with humanity in focus and not with motives to promote the agendas of politicians. The difference with a statesman and a politician is that a statesman look to future while the politician looks to make a name for himself or herself making use of the situations for personal gain. It is very hard to find the former and the latter can be found by the bushel. The latter rides the wave of destruction while the former stand firm even at the cost of his life exposing the injustice. What Sri Lanka and the world needs is not politicians but statesman’s.

    Bernie

  3. Karthigesu M. Nirmalan-Nathan. AKA Noel. Nathan

    THINKING LOUD

    DIASPORAS DESPERATION

    ME AND MY THOUGHTS

    I am who I am, would anyone care to know?
    I know lot of folks back home, yet I don’t know any,
    No one I feel cares or know me or my feelings,
    My so called friends forsake me like a memory lost,
    I consume my joys and my sorrows alone by myself,
    They seem to come in waves of predictable regularity,
    All the same they vanish into the shores of oblivion,
    Yet, I must be ready hear more tales of tears tomorrow,

    Try as I may, optimism eludes me,
    Thoughts of homeland haunt me of late,
    Rapes murder and mayhem,
    Spells Sri Lanka, the holy land,
    So, claim the yellow cloaked monks,
    Sadhu sadhu says the murdering presidents thus far,
    I am on a mission I feel, to tell the truth,
    The whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God.

    A country haunted by shores filled with ghosts,
    The husbands send their wives on short term lease,
    Policemen are for hire for murder,
    Only country that welcome the werewolves,
    Proclaiming the full moon day a holiday,
    White elephants galore, down south,
    Baring Mahinda’s name,
    The all-conquering hero’s kingdom of misery.

    All the smiles and cheer have gone from the faces,
    Instead, palpable fear engulf their emotions,
    Want to be hugged and comforted,
    Yet, assume a fetal position when approached,
    Visions of strip searches and rapes of the camps,
    Barbaric stares and grins not to mention the torture,
    In and out of the camps and the stigma it brought,
    Mother Lanka got her legs crossed too.

    This a reflectional poem I wrote in the Facebook on my timeline.

    I agree with the author of the article on the factual matter from Vithiya’s murder being a unifying factor to how it all started. Which brings me to the issue of the person who is going to head the committee in charge of the rehabilitation process, Rt. Hon. Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga.

    It is only befitting that she be given the chance of redemption for the Bandaranaike family for dragging the country down into the quagmire it finds itself at the present time. I without any ambiguity hold them responsible for the collective loss of lives and the blood spilt of both Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka.

    “Chandrika Bandaranaike is probably the best of a bad bunch of people we got as leaders in our motherland to take on such a role. She is still far short of many of the traits to make a complete leader who can make the hard and tough decisions that are needed to lead such a committee. If I begin to elaborate further it may sound like finger pointing. I will accept her findings and recommendations only if she accept that her parents, through their bad governance, caused the civil war and the bloodshed in Sri Lanka.Acceptance is everything for complete and lasting peace and reconciliation. I have been having some productive and not so productive conversation with my Sinhalese Facebook friends. The younger generation do not know the true history of Sri Lanka. There too I point my finger at the collective Bandaranaike family for tinkering with the education system which brought about the blood bath. If they dig the graves a bit deeper they will find the skeletons left behind by her parents as you have pointed out so eloquently articulated in your article. She could change the name of the airport to COLOMBO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT from BANDARANAIKE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, until a worthy name can be found.” If anything it certainly will be in the right direction followed by removal of his statue from the Galle face to her private estate.

    Now we can sit down and talk some real reconciliation anything else will really only be very cosmetic in nature, pretty much like this bribery investigation to hoodwink the international community.

    • anpu

      Former President Chandrika is one of the most suitable person to bring about true reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

      Children should not be held responsible for the parents’ actions It was the karma that Ceylon had to endure for the last seven decades.

      She could have become a person with vengeance after loosing an eye, but she had gained a wisdom eye in the tradition of King Asoka.

      Besides, she is one of the key architect to bring about the new dawn in Sri Lanka in January 2015, converting the pariah state status of Sri Lanka within the international community.

      Best wishes to her in her new endeavours.

  4. anpu

    A great piece and trust it touches the people it ought to. I wonder if this piece would have found its way before January 8, 2015 though it manifested in the election. What a beautiful day it was for Sri Lanka.

    ” We are born as a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Tamil, or a Christian arbitrarily.” Well, no baby is born ‘as a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Tamil, or a Christian.’

    A baby is born into a family, and by that accident of birth, we nominate that baby with a label and gets struck thus commences a life long journey.

    For those who believes in Buddhist and Hindu teaching of rebirth, Prabhakaran would have been Mahinda and vice versa by accident of birth. What a meaningless waste of time. But there is a new dawn.

  5. Wasalaya

    What is the link with young woman’s rape and terrorism. This is an excuse for sympathisers of terrorism and boot polishers of white man to achieve their life long dream to stay in power by any cost.

  6. Tony of Sydney

    Living in Australia for the past 30 years and visiting Sri Lanka I have just returned from Sri Lankan a few days ago. If you really want to see truw reconciliation then you should visit the place I visited.

    At the time our Holy Father (Pope Francis) visited Madhu Church his only wish was to see Tamils and Sinhalese people reconscile in the Holy Grounds of Madhu church. On the 30th May 2015 I took part in the Madhu Church reconciliation programe between Sinhala and Tamil people. I being a Burgher, was astonished to see such a wonderful promise being fullfilled. A Catholic Prayer Group from Colombo worked very hard in organising this glorious event and was a very fruitful event. I spent my Birthday with these people and witnessing the true reconciliation between two nationalities it was very immotional and it took me years back in time when I was a little kid.
    Keeping in mind it was my Birthday and without spending my time with my Family I spent time to witness this glorious occation originated by our Holy Father and then carried out by CRL Colombo.

    However, It was sad that no news paper or radio gave any public acknowledgment to this glorious occation. Instead I believe it would have been criticized and made fun of this entire glorious occation.

    People Of Sri Lanka, Can I kindly ask that you call the Church Of Madhu and watch this utube clip and see what took place.

    Back in Sydney, I am wondering if all efforts made by the Holy Father and this Prayer Group have put sence into these two communituies.

  7. Srivan

    Are memories so poor in the land that has got lost with the passing of time? The underlying problem lies with tinkering and tinkering with every aspect of political, social and economic life of the country and its CITIZENS that it is hopelessly divided along lines of race, religion, caste and political persuasion, most of all by POLITICIANS from the time of independence until today!

    It is so easy to destroy but it is is so very difficult to build! The history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka is a classic example! At independence ushered in based on consensus among the different communities the glue based on the 1948 constitution was breached hopelessly after the very first democratic election because Tamils were elected in the hill districts and seriously dismayed the Sinhala people. Instead of perhaps having multi-member constituencies to also protect Sinhala interests what did the government do? It disenfranchised all the hill country Tamils and their MPS were literally thrown out of Parliament itself! On that occasion a leading and vocal Tamil MP, the late C.Suntheralingam and the Minister for Trade and Commerce resigned his cabinet post and said ” TODAY IT IS THE TAMILS OF recent INDIAN ORIGIN, TOMORROW WILL BE THE TURN OF THE CEYLON TAMILS”. In retrospect he was a clever seer and that time had well and truly dawned! The late Jawaharlal Nehru said “they are surely also citizens of the country!

    Th choice of former President CBK as interlocutor and peace maker in the present context is most surprising. The mass killings and aerial bombardments round the clock were accelerated in the entire N &E during her tenure and in retrospect that so-called “Peace Process” turned out to be a farce! Her successor did one better and went all out and carried out total war backed by 35 countries which sold the most letthal arms and ammunition including, WMDS like napalm and on contract for total kill ending in the MULLIYAWaIKKAL massacre under the “WAR ON TERROR”!

    The Tamil rebels led by the LTTE were created by the politics and outcomes going back to the Sinhala Only policy of 1956 and this combined with the Buddhism foremost constitution of 1972 and 1976 constitutions , policies and actions of governments combined with zero governance by mobs and race riots from that period onwards. Its only since 2015 Jan that at least some law and order seems to be maintained yet under the umbrella PTA in force.

    The article is timely but an honest total integrity is needed to end the past horrors and re-build from where it started in 1948! Government Departments are surely NOT the answer but greater honesty and intentions at the people to people interface through education, honest information and participation at various levels.
    Governments are the primary movers by their very nature but their calibre and intentions matter.

    Based on the past history the UN role is a sine qua non!

  8. Srivan

    Building true and lasting reconciliation can be achieved only at people to people level. It is not possible through government departments, a naive approach. MPs or people’s representatives have to take a leading part. That is why they are paid from the public purse. Unfortunately it is the MPs who have been the cause of the problems in the past and have therefore forfeited their public duty!

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