Photo courtesy Deborah Philip

It was my sense after May 18, 2009 when the LTTE was defeated that Sri Lanka was missing an opportunity to redefine itself as part of a kinder, gentler, global community. Instead it heightened nationalist discourse, extended emergency rule, surveillance and militarization, and devised new forms of censorship. Sri Lanka missed the opportunity to become one of South Asia’s more enlightened nations by not reaching out to one of its more battered and war-scarred communities after 18/09.  The UN report has returned us to that moment, and if intelligently and constructively used may help us explore roads not taken, toward a better, brighter and kinder future for all its citizens.

Political philosopher Judith Butler wrote after 9/11 and the attacks on the twin towers in New York City in a book titled: Precarious Life: “that we can be injured, that others can be injured, that we are subject to death at the whim of the other, are all reasons for both fear and grief. What is less certain however is whether the experience of vulnerability and loss need to lead straight away to military violence and retribution. There are other passages. If we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask, what politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war?” (xii).

Now, two years after the end of war, it is clear that Sri Lanka as a multicultural country will not be able to “move on” and achieve lasting and substantive peace, until ALL its communities have put to rest the ghosts of violence. The release of the semi-official report of the experts panel set up by the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, to investigate events leading to the end of war in Sri Lanka has opened a space for discussion of what was repressed in the aftermath of the violence that ended almost three decades of war in the country in the rush to “move on” and leave behind the ugliest chapter of history in the country. But thus far there has been a lop-sided ‘moving on’; while the south is growing and flourishing, the post-war northeast has been heavily militarized and remains a space of death and mourning inhabited by ghosts of war in the absence of mourning.

An economic boom in the South it was hoped would help people forget and heal. For the minority communities however, the peace that dawned seemed to be a victor’s peace.  In Jaffna, the new military head quarters was built on a graveyard of LTTE carder that had been raised to the ground. The victorious state violating the dead, even if they were terrorists flies in the face of Buddhist and Hindu religious norms and practices of decency, tolerance, and respect for the dead. Preventing mourning disables closure and shows the lack of respect for the defeated that is counter-productive to reconciliation.

Clearly, the wounds of war in northeast Lanka have not yet been adequately cauterized so the healing process of the country as a whole has been delayed. This is one of the reasons for the straightforward language of the semi-official UN Report which has in the long run done the people of Lanka a great service in putting important information that had been repressed in the public domain, even as if it painfully opens wounds that were festering under the surface of things. In the short term the Report also gives ultra-nationalists on both sides another chance to demonstrate there strength that conceals deep moral anxiety.

Rather than addressing vulnerabilities after the war, taking limited responsibility for excesses in the context of the fact that all wars are ugly, and reaching out to heal the wounds of war, the victorious Sri Lanka state and its detractors have been locked into a blame game while subscribing to a dominant international myth prevalent after 9/11 that militarization constitutes a global public good and the best way to secure ourselves from vulnerability and life’s precariousness. Militarization on the ground has been the crude materialist response of the State to allegations of “war crimes” from powerful segments of the international community and the Sri Lanka diaspora.

‘Geopolitics of Emotion’

The end of war in Lanka amid allegations of “war crimes” by both parities to the conflict consolidated a local-global disjuncture that has configured the course of post-conflict peace and reconciliation in the country. Many Sri Lankans, indeed the majority of Sri Lankans who were mere by-standers in a thirty-year war not of their making or choosing, were and still are somewhere in between the grand standing on both sides of the divide between Sinhala and Tamil ultra-nationalists.

Those of us who are in this in-between position are rightly embarrassed and largely silent about the great violence that occurred over the past three decades in the island, the land of the peaceful one, the Buddha. Even “just war” arguments mobilized at the end of the war sit uneasily with the national imaginary of Lanka as an isle of peace, beauty, and tranquility. This embarrassment continues in a different register at the failure to address the root causes of war, at war’s end, and the official boasting that has accompanied the victory, most recently encapsulated in the plan to have three chapters of the Mahavamsa dedicated to the deeds of Rajapakse. Calling the semi-official UN Report “The Darusman Report” rather than constructively addressing the issues it raises misses another opportunity to build a genuine, sustainable peace.

The quality of peace is not strained. In the interest of “moving on” and leaving behind the ugliest chapter of the island’s post colonial history after 18/09 much was repressed, but t is increasingly clear that all communities must “move on” together in peace and security. Some have claimed rather disingenuously that the UN report would derail reconciliation, when in fact there has been little serious political and cultural reconciliation on the table or the horizon.

Peace has once again been differed in Lanka, and even though the war is over the culture of humiliation of the defeated, be they political or ideological, gendered or ethnic “others” has continued and indeed been exacerbated in the post-war context. The onus for any gesture of reconciliation would naturally lie with the government of Sri Lanka which won the war comprehensively, particularly since the LTTE is no more. Yet, since the war ended two years ago there has been very little sincere attempt at reconciliation. Indeed, at times it appears that there has been systematic and institutionalized humiliation of the minority community that bore the worst ravages of the three-decades long war in the island.  Thus, school children have been forced to sing the national anthem in Sinhala for the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka at the official Tsunami commemoration in Jaffna in December 2010 despite the fact that linguistic discrimination was one of the root causes of the war.

In a globalized world where the ‘geopolitics of emotion’ often contoured by post-colonial nationalism configure the actions of modern nation-states, magnanimity to the defeated ‘other’ and humility in victory are rare qualities that have been largely absent in Sri Lanka political landscape. The island’s common citizens have been far more refined.

Political Culture of Humiliation

The strategic use of humiliation in post/war contexts to compel obedience, establish and signify authority, and government has received considerable attention in the scholarly literature (Lindner: Margalit; Moisi).  Thirty years of war between the State and the LTTE in Sri Lanka generated a public political culture of humiliating the ideological, ethnic and gendered “other” which has been and is detrimental to conflict resolution and reconciliation, even as it limits the participation of women and minorities in the arena of formal electoral politics. An example of this politics of humiliation is the manner in which, ironically, at war’s end General Sarath Fonseka, the architect of the military victory strategy and defeated Presidential candidate who also faces allegations of grave human rights abuses was stripped of his honors, arrested by his junior officers, and thrown into prison after a Court Martial.

In contemporary Sri Lanka a dominant political culture of humiliation works on multiple registers and intersecting axes of identity and affect to limit the participation of socially and linguistically marginalized groups, including women in the sphere of formal politics. Electoral politics has been increasingly conceived of primarily as a ‘man’s world’ and an increasingly violent arena, perceived as unfit for even more intrepid women. Eveline Lindner has defined humiliation as “the enforced lowering of a person or group, a process of subjugation that damages or strips away their pride, honor or dignity”. It generates a deep psychological wound which may engender passivity and a sense of helplessness. At the same time humiliation and anticipation of humiliation is at the root of spirals of violence, militarization and conquest, while  collective humiliation in many Euro-American contexts have give rise to demands for multiculturalism and the “politics of recognition” (Kymllika;.Tailor).

The spectacle of public humiliation that serves to ‘discipline and punish’ populations also fuels the logic of retaliation. Much of the work on humiliation in the South Asian context derives from studies of caste marginalization and the denial of self-respect and stifling of agency of scheduled castes in the public spheres (Guru: 2009). Ashis Nandy has suggested that humiliation configures both, the self or person, (or state) that humiliates and the “other” who would be humiliated, the latter often being constructed as the gendered, ethnic, or ideological other. Humiliation is differently debilitating and costly to the self that humiliates / fears humiliation as to the “other” who would be humiliated as Nandy who has also theorized ‘the loss and recovery of self under colonialism’ noted in The Intimate Enemy. At the same time, narratives and discourses of humiliation have commodity value in the media and their evocative power may enable “humiliation entrepreneurs” and recruitment of post/colonial nationalist soldiers, fighters or terrorists. Some may get attached to humiliation, and narratives of victimhood may exempt one from responsibility for perpetrating violence.

During the years of war and cycles of peace in Sri Lanka, humiliation of the ‘other’ side was practiced by both warring factions. In the post-war period militarization, securitization, surveillance and occupation constitute the continuum between war and peace that perpetuates a ‘culture of humiliation’ that has deformed political-economic institutions and processes, as well as, public space with gendered implications. This is most clearly manifest in the scenario of the absence of women’s participation in the arena of formal politics in post-war Sri Lanka, the country that gave the world its first woman Prime Minister and should have many more women in Parliament. The Inter-Parliamentary Union which works on democracy has ranked the island at 122, below Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and close to Myanmar following its elections in April 2010 in statistics released for Women’s International Day in 2011. Lanka has only 12 female members, or 5.3 per cent, in its 225 seat National Assembly, despite having the best social indicators for South Asia with literacy for both men and women in the high nineties.

The marginalization of women in politics despite their prominence in other vocations and in the professions may be attributable to the culture of humiliation that configures formal politics in Sri Lanka which is refracted and reflected most obviously in the postwar militarization and surveillance in the north and east. Indeed, post-war militarization is a continuum between war and peace that both institutionalizes humiliation of peoples in the post-war northeast and disables reconciliation, thus leaving open the space for a return of conflict.

Ironically militarization is the ultimate materialist response and defense against humiliation that anticipates the humiliation of the Victor. This anticipation of humiliation reveals the psychological mindset, as well as, the political culture of humiliation that thirty years of armed conflict has generated in Sri Lanka’s political culture, also manifest in the desire of the political leaders of the two main political parties in the island to remain in power forever, rather than stepping down gracefully when their term limit has arrived, or their shelf-life expired.

Restorative Justice, Punitive Justice and the Decent Society

It is in hence that Margalit’s notion of the ‘decent society’ (rather than a just one) where “institutions do no humiliate people” seems relevant to closing a discussion on the space for post-war accommodation (rather than occupation). Since post-war or ‘transitional justice’ as it is termed by international organizations is in the best of time a fraught issue, as war is a messy business where ‘victims may become killers’ or vise versa (cf. Mamdani),

The notion of a ‘decent society’ may be more relevant to our discussion of the (dis)abling conditions for cycles of endemic conflict, in a context where peace with justice is differed. In post-war Lanka, the question of justice is doubly problematic in the context of the fact that the both the government and LTTE have been accused of “war crimes”. The GoSL termed its war against the LTTE a “humanitarian war” to “liberate” the people in the north east, but now mimics the LTTTE in militarizing and occupying the area, while denying its residents even a modicum of self-government and self-respect. Magalit’s critique of the dominant political philosophical emphasis on ‘Justice’, and suggestion that the more useful question is that of building a “decent society’ with institutions which do not humiliate people seems relevant to the discussion here because it addresses both the institutional and symbolic aspects of humiliation. Likewise, Lindner has noted “decency does not mean that everyone should like everybody, decency is a minimum that is necessary to keep a neighborhood functioning—co-existence without mayhem even when neighbors dislike each other”. Demilitarization and power-sharing at national and regional levels would be part of the post-war compromise for building a decent society that enables a more inclusive and less militarized political culture in a context where the question of justice and the problem of impunity remain suspended due to the manner of war’s ending in Sri Lanka at this time.

There has been much talk of devising a ‘home grown’ solution to the conflict in Lanka, but the process of arriving at this solution has been dominated by political forces that are largely part of the problem of playing the ethnic card to win votes in domestic politics. There has been little space for non-party political members of society in Sri Lanka to contribute to discussion of a lasting and disinterested solution to the problem. It is in the current context of continuing marginalization of constructive and moderate voices, censorship and anti-intellectualism after the war, that the documents below may provide some new, yet old ideas based on local knowledge and Sri Lanka’s multi-ethico-religious traditions that may point us in other directions towards building a decent society and a semblance of post-conflict reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

Finally, as Butler noted “One insight that injury offers is that there are others out there on whom my life depends, people I do not know and may never know. This fundamental dependency on anonymous others is not a condition that I can will away. No security measure will foreclose this dependency; no violent act of sovereignty will rid the world of this fact… To be injured means that one has the chance to reflect upon injury.. to find out who else suffers from permeable borders. If national sovereignty is challenged, that does not mean that it must be shored up at all costs, if that results in suspending civil liberties”.

There are other passages, alternative routes.

A  Multicultural National Vision for Sustainable Peace in Sri Lanka based on consultations in the regions of the country

The document was drafted by a group of social scientists, academics, professionals, and concerned citizens during July 2003-December 2003.  While the Drafting Committee for the National Vision was initially convened on the invitation of the Office of the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Reconciliation, Office of the Prime Minister, in March 2003, the current National Vision is a civil society undertaking that emerged after a year of voluntary discussions, consultations and meetings in various regions described above.

It is based on consultations held in Mannar, Jaffna, Kandy Colombo, Matara,  Kataragama, Batticaloa and Kalmunai. The meeting in Matara included members of  indigenous communities including the Veddha and Vanniatoo communities. A meeting with representatives of the hill country communities was held to review the Vision and incorporate the concerns of those communities in Colombo in December 2003. In each region the meetings were organized by local NGOs and/or community organizations in collaboration with members of the National Vision Drafting Committee. Meetings sough to include all local regional organizations and stakeholders.

At each meeting the document was read page by page and comments, corrections and inclusions from regional representatives discussed and incorporated. All consultations were documented. The vision is available in the Sinhala, Tamil and English languages. This Multicultural National Vision for Peace based on consultations in the various regions of the country in 2003 draws on long standing patterns of multiculturalism and co-existence in the island. It was drafted on the premise that a sustainable resolution of the to two decades of violent conflict in Sri Lanka requires a balanced and wholistic understanding of the island’s multiple post/colonial armed conflicts, as well as, recognition of the suffering experienced by various communities during the years of violence. A balanced understanding we hope would contribute towards reconciliation.

‘Peace making’ and ‘conflict resolution’ have become buzzwords recently, but the substance of sustainable peace in Sri Lanka, aside from the principle of power sharing between the main conflicting parties remains rather obscure. Increasingly intricate legal frameworks for federalism and power sharing are discussed, but little attention has been given to developing a culture of trust and valuing of diversity that is essential for successful power sharing.

This Multicultural Vision for post/conflict Sri Lanka draws on local knowledge and the ethico-religious traditions of pluralism and respect for diversity that have been long established. The island’s multicultural traditions have been increasingly forgotten and marginalized in the past two decades of violence.

During the regional consultations it was evident that each region is different and has unique concerns, issues and problems in addition to common issues that all face. Many groups felt that their experience of suffering and discrimination was unique and exceptional. In the context the vision tries to place the experience of diverse groups and communities in a balanced perspective and attempts to develop a multicultural vision for peace that is inclusive of the aspirations of the island’s diverse and hybrid ethnic, religious, regional, linguistic, and cultural, and socio-economic groups. In the aftermath of violence the Vision analyses the complexities and interconnections between multiple conflicts in post/colonial Sri Lanka, and envisages peace with social and economic justice for all. We also recognized that ethno-national and identity based conflicts are related to intra-group resource conflicts, poverty and inequality.

The Vision recognizes and affirms the need for devolution of powers and regional autonomy particularly in the north and east of the country. It stresses that devolution of powers must be accompanied by recognition of multiculturalism and protection of local minorities in all regions if peace is to be sustainable. The Vision envisages the institutionalization of multiculturalism and the protection of cultural diversity and minorities by setting up a Ministry for Multiculturalism that would also assist mainstreaming of multicultural approaches into the educational curriculum and government policy. This is necessary in the aftermath of a war that has consolidated ethno-national majoritarianism in all parts and political processes in the country, and given the fact that a younger generation has grown up with the perception of members of “other” communities as potential enemies. We hope that this document would address this lacuna in the current post/conflict approach.

Creating a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka entails transcending the “ethno-nationalist” and ethno religious majoritarianism that have been entrenched in all regions of the country during the war years in the political process. We believe that recognition of the fact that every citizen is a minority outside the region, city or neighbour hood in which s/he may be part of a majority group, and hence the need to respect and protect minorities in all parts of the island establishes a principle of parity between groups and communities.

The National Vision for Peace in Sri Lanka is not a legal or a constitutional document. Rather, it attempts to articulate the cultural philosophy of a truly social peace in the island that draws from our richly diverse ethico-religious traditions and recent history of collective suffering. It is hoped that the substance and spirit of this multicultural national vision will inform the post/conflict constitution drafting process and enable a new political culture for genuine reconciliation in the country

Signed Co-conveners of the Vision Drafting Committee: Dr. Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake, Dr. Fara Haniffa, Dr. Devenesan Nesiah. August 2004



A Citizens’ initiative based on consultations in the various regions of the country[1]1


Sri Lanka was long famous for its rich social diversity and the harmonious co-existence of various communities. Since independence, however, there has been a failure to define and realize an inclusive national vision from the perspective of this distinctive heritage.  Instead, divisive politics and policies have fostered deep social, cultural, political and economic schisms and engendered violent armed conflict. The two decades long armed struggle in the north (with primary focus on ethno-linguistic difference) and the uprising in the south (with primary focus on class disparity), reflect an inadequate post-colonial national vision and strategy, and an inequitable regional distribution of power and wealth.

Anticipating peace after decades of armed conflict, we propose a renewed and inclusive multicultural vision for the country based on the principles of security and dignity for all groups and persons, and respect for cultural and religious diversity. Our attempt here is to address the causes of the conflict while recognizing the deep scars that the violence of the last decades has rendered upon the island’s historically multicultural society.

Since independence cultural and political discrimination in governance, the lack of equitable development policies, and failure to preserve and respect local and cultural knowledge has become endemic.  Competitive ethnic politics become institutionalized in post-colonial Sri Lanka. Democracy came to represent the “tyranny of the majority”, while a political culture premised on the notion that “might is right” became entrenched in the various regions of the island. In the north and south politicians and others who claim to represent majority interests have frequently undermined the rights of local minorities. Sri Lanka no longer upholds the true sign of civilization and social democracy that consists of protecting the vulnerable; those with the least access to power; the poor, and the homeless.

The need of the hour is for power sharing to promote trust building and co-existence between the island’s diverse communities in order to forge a common future and preserve human life. Too many people have died and been displaced in this small island in the past decades. While the conflict in the north and east has a major ethnic component, it is not reducible to ethnicity. Poverty, inequality, and intra-group divisions within the major ethnic communities played a part in fuelling the armed conflicts. A just and sustainable peace will require understanding the complexity of Sri Lanka’s two post-colonial conflicts, as well as transcending competitive ethnic politics.

Our vision encompasses a post-conflict reconstruction and development program that recognizes the need for equity, democracy, respect for human rights and broad-based human development in a globalized economy that has enabled growth but also generated deep regional, economic, and social inequalities. We note that profound inequalities and poverty render societies vulnerable to cycles of violence. As such development trajectories and policies that exacerbate inequality and poverty are to be avoided.

The proposed vision for Sri Lanka is then based on and builds from an acknowledgement and appreciation of the island’s historic, largely pacific and multi-cultural past with due recognition of its more violent and divided present.

2. Recognition of Multiculturalism and Respect for All Identities

Sri Lanka is a plural and multicultural land. Multiculturalism refers to the island’s cultural diversity inclusive of three overlapping linguistic categories (speaking Sinhala, Tamil and English, and regional dialects including Veddha languages); four great world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, and their sects, as well as indigenous deities and spirit beliefs); more than six ethnic groups recognized in the National Census, and a number of overlapping and cross cutting castes and sub-castes. Various ethno-national groups based on linguistic, ethnic, regional and religious elements, such as the Burghers (Dutch and Portugese), Sinhalese (Kandyan and Low Country), Tamils (Sri Lankan and Malaiyaha), Muslims (Moor and Malay), Parsis, Colombo Chetties, Vannialatto (Veddah) and several others have emerged as significant identities; several of these categories are composed of distinct sub-categories. Additionally, the island’s population may be sub-divided according to gender, class, and regional cultures depending on the rational for classification.[2]

Sri Lanka’s cultural diversity and complex mix of identities is not unique. Most modern nations are plural, diverse and complex.  However, in the post/colonial period diversity has been perceived as a threat rather than a gift. The result has been marginalization and discrimination against smaller and less powerful groups on linguistic, ethnic, religious, caste and/or class basis, giving rise to various forms of violent political conflicts. In turn, many of these conflicts have resulted in riots, attacks, forced displacement and/or colonization of regions occupied by one community by another and the building of enclaves and territories dominated by one ethnic group or another.

Acknowledgement of Sri Lanka’s ancient multiculturalism and mixed cultural geography entails recognition that a majority group in a region is bound to respect and protect those who are in the minority in that particular region. Every group or individual is in a minority outside his/her own territory, region, or neighborhood and in a increasingly integrated and globalized region and world individuals and groups must be free to move with security and dignity.

A balance of power between regional/local majorities with regard to respect and protection for the persons and property of regional/local minorities is a sine qua non for sustainable peace. It is also necessary to reverse the pattern of ethnic ghettoization and ethnic cleansing of regional and local minorities that occurred during the twenty years of armed conflict and the riots prior to it in the north and south of the country.

Several multi-religious sites attest to a history of peaceful coexistence among the various religious communities in the island. These sites of multi-religious significance are especially to be celebrated in the aftermath of a polarizing conflict. We propose that sites such as Siripada, Kataragama, and Madhu shrine, with their diverse traditions be recognized and celebrated as multi-religious zones of peace and amity.

3. Acknowledging the Root Causes and Legacy of Violence and Division

  • Any vision for sustainable peace in Sri Lanka must first acknowledge fully the complexity of the conflicts and their historical roots. It must also acknowledge the human and material consequences of the two decades of armed conflict, and hence the multi-faceted multi-layered causes of the war.
  • While all communities suffered during the two decades of violence, the people of the North and East of the country bore the brunt of the violence, displacement, and destruction. Forced displacement and the bitterness it generated in turn fuelled the civil war. During the two decades of civil war the pre-dominantly Tamil speaking North and East emerged as a region with special concerns that need to be urgently addressed.
  • The consequent political reality is that, without prejudice to the integrity of Sri Lanka, the region in the North and East has acquired a special claim to a large measure of devolution. Only then will it be possible to adequately address other equally important concerns in order to build an inclusive, sustainable and peaceful future.
  • During this long conflict, a political culture premised on the manipulation of ethnic, caste, and class ties, including the practice of colonization for political ends, spread across all parts of the country, and entrenched a culture of violence. This in turn saw the emergence of para-military outfits and the settling of scores with opponents through force rather than dialogue. Targeted violence against civilian populations reduced many communities to a state of despair and destroyed the social fabric. In many regions there are marginalised communities currently living in a state of insecurity. In this process there have been victims and perpetrators among all the major communities.
  • The 1987 July uprising of the JVP and the manner of its suppression brought about one of the most violent periods in our recent history with thousands of deaths and disappearances still unaccounted for. While the underlying causes of the two arenas of violence – the North and East, and the South – and their consequences are different, it should nevertheless be remembered that there were many similarities that speak to a common malaise. The poverty and inequality that motivated the uprisings against the state and the role of the military and other armed groups in their suppression; the break down of due process and the rule of law, and the disappearances are factors in common. The still simmering consequences of the Southern violence – where sixty thousand persons are said to have lost their lives in the space of three years connect into one – are still to be adequately dealt with.
  • While some women were engaged in the conflict, larger numbers of women were also targeted for degrading and violent abuse. Women headed households have become a social reality due to conflict related death and displacement. Consequently women have had to face loss of income, psychological trauma, the insensitivity of the state apparatus, and sexual harassment. In addition women have had to take on the dual burden of motherhood and being the primary earner. During the conflict many women also actively agitated for peace, both in the North and East, and in the South.
  • Along with women, children from all communities can be considered to be those most affected by the violence and brutalization of the conflict. Both as combatants and as bystanders, children have been victimized and deprived of their rights as instituted in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. Over 270,000 children are internally displaced by war in Sri Lanka. Many have lost at least one parent in the fighting; a high proportion are orphans. Up to 50 per cent of displaced children have lost their birth certificates, causing problems with their schooling. One in five displaced children is malnourished.[3] Measures have to be taken to deal with children affected by armed conflict. Further measures should also be instituted to ensure that children’s rights are safeguarded in keeping with the CRC.
  • In the current political culture, there is rampant institutionalized corruption and a lack of accountability. Politicians of all hues use violence with impunity, instrumentalise the general public in their pursuit of power, and have contributed to the proliferation of small arms, to a decline in respect for the rule of law, and to a deterioration of faith in public institutions.
  • During and prior to the war years, in many localities, entire populations from one or more ethnic groups fled or were evicted from their ancestral lands and habitats, and are as yet unable to return and resettle there. Many fled due to riots, fear, and insecurity. Very large numbers of people were forcibly displaced as a result of riots and ethnic cleansing. In this context, commitment to preserve the county’s mixed social geography is needed to ensure the return of forcibly displaced persons with security and dignity.

4.  Identifying a Sound Basis for Constitutional and Institutional Design

  • A just and lasting solution to the conflict lies in recognizing the strength of ethno-national consciousness developed in the past twenty years of conflict, the need for power sharing under a federal system, and equally the need to balance the claims of diverse groups.
  • A lasting solution to the violence among ethno-religious and ethno-linguistic communities requires recognition that individual and group identities are historically complex and shifting and often politically constituted. Regional majority groups are by that very fact internally diverse, and each of the regions includes citizens of linguistic, religious, ethnic groups who constitute regional, local and non-territorial minorities.
  • Certain regions have no clear majority community, and majority/minority status often depends on the manner in which regional units are conceived.[4] For peace to be sustainable we must seek to transcend the tyranny of majoritarianism – nationally, regionally and locally. A Ministry to recognize, promote, institutionalis and mainstream Multiculturalism and multicultural thinking  towards accommodation of diversity and reconciliation at national and local levels is essential.
  • Power sharing should reflect the county’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual society and mixed cultural geography, and the center needs to better reflect this rich diversity. Therefore we need to evolve a political tradition of inter-ethnic consultation.  It may help to revert to a bicameral legislature, with the second chamber re-designed as a “chamber of communities”; in the context of devolution, we would need bicameral legislature at the regional level too, with regional chambers of communities.
  • A political culture and social acceptance of diversity and inclusiveness is needed at all levels – from the center to the periphery. Whereas there should be no politically motivated colonization, whether by the centre or by the region, no territory should be regarded as ethnically exclusive.  The concept of traditional habitations is legitimate (e.g. for cultural purposes), but there should be no concept of a mono-ethnic homeland.  Every citizen of Sri Lanka should be free to live and work in any part of the island.
  • The centre currently has virtually unfettered powers to override the periphery, and to even dissolve the elected regional or local assemblies and substitute its own officers to attend to the regional or local administration.  We need constitutional barriers to such abuse of central power together with the strengthening of administrative and financial autonomy of local bodies (e.g. through changes in the taxation system all over the country).
  • Capacities for local level planning should be promoted, combined with democratic and multicultural principles that ensures sufficient and constructive space for people’s participation.[5]
  • Since those most vulnerable to forced displacement are minorities (national and regional), the preservation of the island’s multicultural social fabric and its culturally diverse communities is both the prerequisite for and guarantor of secure and sustainable peace in the island. Recognizing, respecting and balancing the rights of majorities with those of minorities in all regions, and recognizing the need to formulate mechanisms to address community aspirations in regions without a clear majority is essential for the return of displaced regional, local and non-territorial minorities and to enable a durable peace.
  • Women may be seen as constituting a minority within every cultural group. This is particularly the case where strong patriarchal traditions, norms, and cultural practices prevail. As such, special measures are required to enable inter- and intra-cultural gender equality and equity.[6]
  • The post-conflict constitution and institutional design must contend with and overcome the legacy of a bureaucratic system and political culture that resisted meaningful devolution of power to regions and self-determination for communities throughout the country.  Such devolution need not be uniform – there is a good case for asymmetric devolution in the North and East, together with special institutional arrangements to meet the concerns of local minorities within multi-ethnic regions.
  • The Provincial Council model that was attempted to overcome these ills was a failure. It denied autonomy and self-determination for local communities and also contributed to the politicized construction of ethnic majority enclaves at regional and local levels through the capture of local governance institutions. Any federal model should be guided by the principles of internal self-determination and maximum devolution.  There is no right to unilateral secession, but each region, sub-region and local government area should enjoy maximum autonomy.

5. Identifying a Sound Basis for Post-conflict Reconstruction and Economic and Social Justice

  • The UN World Conference against Racism 2000 affirmed that intolerance and discrimination breed in economic and social conditions that are inequitable, and that genuine equality of opportunity for development for all individuals and groups is fundamental for sustainable peace. We recognize that, in Sri Lanka inequitable socio economic conditions and short sighted political decisions had much to do with the ethnic polarization that lead to the war and continue to perpetuate feelings of ethnic animosity between all communities in the North and in the South. We reaffirm, therefore, the need for an equitable social system to generate sustainable peace.
  • Post-conflict development must also go beyond ethnic discourses and recognize the role of intra-ethnic factors, such as poverty, unemployment, landlessness, and caste discrimination in fuelling the war. The civil war in the North and East is primarily rooted in ethnicity, but there are also other social and economic conflicts everywhere in the island, mostly localized but occasionally, as in the case of the JVP uprising, acquiring a national dimension. Sometimes, such socioeconomic conflicts acquire an ethnic dimension, as has been the case in the sporadic Sinhala – Muslim or Sinhala – Malaiyaha Tamil clashes that have occurred in the south in recent years. A recognition of the diverse aspects of poverty, social exclusion, psychosocial distress and other forms of marginalization (based on socio-economic, political, cultural or ecological determinants) is necessary.
  • While globalization in today’s context appears to be inevitable, it is likely to bring many social problems in its wake. Therefore corrective mechanisms need to be instituted to address such problems.  The emphasis on growth must be balanced by mechanisms to ensure fair distribution. Economic policies should focus more on the rural poor and on the plantation workers, and a consistent agricultural policy should be pursued. A social welfare system that includes free health and education must be instituted to counter the rampant economic inequality that is prevalent. Given the stark differences in lifestyles that are evident within the populace today it is essential that remedial measures are speedily instituted to avoid future conflict based on economic inequities.
  • Poverty eradication programs should be based on a holistic perception of poverty to avoid the exclusion of certain categories, such as plantation workers.  Although their per capita income is very low, since two or more members of the household may be employed, their household income may be above the cut-off point for relief.  Moreover, they are totally dependent on wages from a single source.  The failure to take a holistic view of poverty has led to its persistence in the plantation sector.
  • Steps should be taken to redress concerns specific to women. It is necessary to ensure equal participation of women in planning implementation and monitoring infrastructure development programs that facilitate access to safe drinking water, sanitation, roads, transport services, energy and thereby employment, markets, services and inclusive development. There should be bilateral agreements between the Sri Lankan government and countries that employ Sri Lankan migrant workers to safeguard their rights and welfare in their workplaces. The private sector must be sensitized to the need for gender equality in socio-economic development.
  • The elimination of gender role stereotypes in secondary and tertiary curriculum materials, and introducing materials that promote gender equality and the empowerment of women is necessary. Law reform that addresses discriminatory practices – particularly in the area of personal law – must be considered. Measures should also be in place to enhance the capacity of women candidates to secure election and to participate effectively under the proposed quota provision.  Legislation to deal with domestic violence must also be introduced.
  • Food security and preservation of bio-diversity should be priorities and development policy should be formulated and implemented based on conflict impact assessments and community participation. Access to information on development policies is a prerequisite for economic and social justice and equitable development.
  • One consequence of the conflict has been the devastation of the environment. Since 24% of the population live below the poverty line (as defined in the Household Income and Expenditure Survey –2002), environmental concerns have long been considered a luxury issue for the country. But such a view is shortsighted. For equitable and sustainable post/conflict development, natural resources must be creatively and equitably used, and the environment protected and held in trust for future generations. Policies have to be formulated to combat air pollution, deforestation, land degradation and unregulated exploitation of natural resources.  Eco tourism needs to be regulated in the light of analysis of its benefits and ill effects.
  • Bio-diversity conservation should be conducted not through a species protection based approach but through a holistic “eco-system” approach that recognizes the interconnection between species. Resources should be protected from the adverse effects of globalization; for instance, bio-piracy should be prevented through appropriate eco-friendly patenting laws.
  • There should be transparency in government and donor agreements and dealings on environmental issues. Local communities and knowledge should be utilized in eco- projects and conservation. Policy making on ecological considerations should be in keeping with a countrywide policy. People’s right to have access to natural resources like water should be recognized.
  • As indicated in the Youth Commission Report   youth have long felt that their needs and aspiration were not adequately considered in the making of policy. Given that Sri Lanka within the last twenty years experienced two youth uprisings in two regions of the island it is timely that the ongoing peace process makes certain that youth get adequate space to present their interests and perspectives. As a first measure policy makers and all stakeholders should make sure that universities and other tertiary institutions are part of the consultation around the peace process.
  • A major problem in the transition from war to peace is to find or create productive uses for the services of ex-combatants of all categories.  This needs to be done to ensure the welfare of the ex-combatants, to mobilize their skills for national development, and also to reduce the likelihood that they may revert to war or divert to violent criminal activities.  It is in everyone’s interest that ex-combatants on both sides are successfully integrated into civil society as quickly as possible.

6. Dealing with the Past

  • No community has a monopoly on suffering, and all communities have experienced violence.  However, there is a tendency for each community to dwell exclusively on its own sufferings.  This tunnel vision is of course a consequence of the trauma that has been suffered but which must be transcended for true healing and reconciliation.  It is therefore important to look beyond one’s own group and recognize the suffering of all communities.
  • There can be no enduring and comprehensive reconstruction, physical or social, economic or political, local or national, without reconciliation; and there can be no true reconciliation without all sections of the population collectively examining, diagnosing and working out remedies to eliminate the cancers that have eaten into our society.  The nature of these wounds is such that healing will not occur with the mere passage of time; rather, they will continue to fester if unattended.
  • The exercise in healing could be led by a post-conflict Truth and Reconciliation Commission established with an appropriate mandate.  Such a process would be time bound, but its prescription could include the institution of commemorative processes and memorials countrywide to help us to address the causes and consequences, and to prevent the recurrence of those ills.  These could cover an annual programme of Remembrance and Reconciliation of the pogrom of the last week of July 1983, as well as common memorials of collective mourning and reconciliation at the sites of the massacres, ethnic cleansing and other ethnic violence / attacks on major non-military institutions.[7]
  • There are also several battle sites, which mark the death of large numbers of combatants, from the Sri Lankan armed services and the LTTE.  There has also been much ethnic cleansing.  Irrespective of the ethnic affiliations of the perpetrators and the victims, each of these outrages diminishes us collectively. The manner in which these deaths and disasters should be commemorated can be decided after peace is established and the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission sets out its proposals.
  • The many tragedies of the conflict need to be addressed collectively on an all island basis with a view to healing and reconciliation. However, this should be done without prejudice to any steps that may be taken to secure justice.  There should be no blanket amnesty.  Rather, a balance needs to be struck between what Bishop Tutu, in his foreword to the report of the South African Truth Commission, referred to as ‘retributive and punitive justice’ and ‘restorative justice which is concerned not so much with punishment as with correcting imbalances, restoring broken relationships, healing, harmony and reconciliation’.
  • The decades of violence have not only left lasting social and psychological scars but also caused material destruction. While healing and memorializing must be emphasized, institutional mechanisms must also be provided for the victims of violence to be heard and for recompense and restitution.

7. Aspirations of the National Vision: Human Security, the Right to Development and Protection of all Sri Lankan Citizens and Residents

The proposed National Vision for Sri Lanka would be based on the following to enable all groups and citizens to achieve their full human potential.

(i)        Local, regional, indigenous and non-territorial minorities will have the right to internal self-determination within a commonly accepted and consensually determined federal institutional and constitutional structure based on a united Sri Lanka.  The appropriate degree of self-determination may vary according to the special needs, circumstances and aspirations of the various communities in their respective locations.

(ii)       All citizens will have the right to live without fear where they choose. The historically multicultural social fabric will be enshrined and protected via national legislation and the promotion of multilingualism.

(iv)            The customary rights of regional minorities, including those local minorities who have been displaced and/or discriminated against on the basis of caste, and aboriginal and landless peoples, will be protected and their security guaranteed.

(v)  Individual rights, dignity and freedoms will be protected. All citizens will have constitutionally guaranteed equal opportunities for education and self-realization and a level playing field irrespective of gender, sexuality, caste, class, ethnicity, language, religion or region.

(vi)     Local knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles will be respected, preserved and maintained, in accordance with international norms and conventions. Sanctuaries shall be set aside for the preservation of lifestyles and practices of indigenous peoples and traditional communities.

(vii)    The right to development of all citizens and communities will be recognized, enabling them to achieve a decent life, with social and economic justice.

(viii)  Through provision of adequate educational facilities in the national languages,  and the effective implementation of the Official Languages Act, the right of every Sinhala, Tamil & English speaking person to be educated and to transact official business in that language will be protected. Multilingualism will be encouraged. Given the power that facility in English language has in determining people’s access to information and employment it is necessary that measures are taken countrywide to ensure that all students have adequate access to English language instruction.

8.  Developing Policies and Practices to Engender the National Vision

It is necessary to develop further this vision of Sri Lanka as a plural multicultural, multiethnic and mixed society that recognizes diversity as a source of strength and richness, and the right of all groups to equitable development. The specific policy and practice changes required to engender this vision must be debated and framed through a process of inclusive dialogue and consensus building. Thereafter, these policy recommendations must be implemented through concrete actions, programmes and legislation in order to bring alive this vision across the country.

In the first instance, a combination of specialized seminars and open discussion fora that involve policy makers, journalists, professionals, academics, educators and community leaders and the concerned public at all levels, would be required to permit full open and inclusive debate of the key elements of the vision and the policies, legislation and programmes required to realize the vision.

Some of the specific policy and practice changes to enable the vision for peace and equitable development described above include:

  • A code of conduct for politicians, including a bill to render the incitement and instigation of ethnic, linguistic, and religious intolerance and hatred by politicians, religious leaders, opinion makers, and the media unlawful should be crafted.[8] An independent media culture needs to be fostered.
  • Constitutional provision to enable the return of displaced persons and local minorities and to guarantee protection of their persons and property. These regional minorities have been displaced forcibly or through fear of those claiming to act in the interest of national /regional majorities. Communities should be encouraged to work together in reconstruction and rehabilitation activities as a means of rebuilding local level ethnic and community relationships.
  • Peace and conflict impact assessments of macro-economic policy, sector development policies and all development projects to ensure equitable and sustainable development and post/conflict reconstruction. Full acknowledgement of existing expertise and use of the capacity that exists within the country (and in the diaspora) in planning development policy is necessary.
  • Setting up a Ministry for Multiculturalism which would also assist in mainstreaming multicutlturalism and respect for diversity into educational material and textbooks including history textbooks. Texts should be carefully screened to delete any ethnocentric propaganda or flavor. The government should recognize and work closely with national experts in multicultural policy formulation.
  • The Equal Opportunities Bill should be revised, updated and steered through Parliament.
  • Affirmative action programs should be undertaken as an interim measure within a time frame in order to right historical wrongs and enable marginalised and under- represented groups and those living in under-developed areas to secure adequate representation pending other steps to level the playing field for all groups to compete equally.
  • Good governance and accountable and transparent public institutions, leaders and politicians are necessary to ensure that the right to development and economic and social justice for all groups and citizens becomes a reality. As a first measure a code of conduct for politicians should be developed.
  • A feature of the system of majoritarian democracy practiced in Sri Lanka is that decision-making is based on debate and vote along party affiliation, and not on consultations and consensus.  This system has permitted the development of political fiefdoms. We need to move away from the “winner takes all” Westminster parliamentary model into a system in which political minorities are involved in government at all levels – national, regional and local.
  • The census needs to be recalibrated and pluralized in order to accommodate those with mixed ethnicities and multiple identities.
  • Material destruction from the recent decades of conflict includes the destruction of sites of historical and archeological significance that are a treasure not just of Sri Lanka but the world. Steps should be taken to ensure their renovation and preservation and respect for such sites should be fostered in future generations.
  • Sites of religious, historic, cultural or environmental importance that are of value to all citizens should be designated by law as Zones of Peace. Such Zones of Peace should not merely be  “Demilitarized Zones”, but sanctuaries protected and preserved by local communities free from weapons, acts of violence, injustice and environmental degradation. A Zone of Peace may be regarded as nurseries from which peaceful thoughts and acts may grow and spread into the surrounding social environment. As training grounds for new generations of responsible citizens, Zones of Peace have the potential to revitalize Sri Lanka’s traditional culture of peace.
  • The most sacred shrines of the four world religions operating in this country, World Heritage sites and other areas of Multi-Religious sanctity or of Environmental importance can be designated Zones of Peace.  Such Zones should be so designated by law, and codes of conduct. In determining such codes of conduct and in determining administrative mechanisms of such places, the local residents should be involved. Their traditions or techniques of non-violent conflict resolution should be preserved, promoted and taught to youth including people from other communities. Tree-felling and/or hunting (for Vannialatto / Adi vasi communities of ancestral hunters), when allowed, should be restricted and conducted according to agreed norms designed to protect the sanctuary’s bio-diversity, tree cover and sustainable carrying capacity. Provision should be made to recognize and protect indigenous intellectual property rights through legal channels as required.

8. Conclusion

There is a temptation after the end of bitter and long-drawn conflict to return to the familiar, to maintain the status quo ante. Yet the end of conflict and the transition to peace provides a great opportunity for societies to achieve greater justice while building peace.  ‘The insights and lessons learned from crisis provide opportunities for constructive change and future reform. They are new points of departure on the path of innovation and sustainable development. Emergencies are often springboards for progress’.[9

This is our challenge in Sri Lanka. We believe that it is possible to overcome the violence of conflict, and the divisiveness entrenched since colonial times, and to build together a vision of a country that is united in its cultural and religious diversity, and just and inclusive in its economy and polity. We believe that the Sri Lanka that once symbolised a land where all peoples and faiths were welcomed and prospered, is once again near at hand. This is the vision that we seek to regenerate from the ashes of war.

[1] Please refer the attached Multicultural Vision for Sri Lanka Processes Document that provides an account of the process of regional consultations through which the Vision was drafted.

[2] “Multiculturalism” as a term has been the cause of much debate. It is said to not adequately recognize the multiple identities that people occupy, as well as not adequately account for the unequal relationships and hierarchies that exist between communities that it defines. In the present context we self-consciously use the term as descriptive of the island’s cultural plurality that has to be recognized as a national asset, with awareness of the need to avoid the faults associated with multiculturalism as policy in some countries in the west.

[3] “War Brought Us Here: protecting children displaced within their own countries by conflict ” Save the    Children, 2000.

[4] For example, while the combined North and East is pre-dominantly a Tamil ethnic majority area, the East taken on its own is clearly multi-ethnic with Muslims constituting over two fifths of the population, the Tamils about a third, and the Sinhalese a fourth, and with other ethnic groups in smaller but significant numbers.

[5] The case of the South Indian state of Kerala’s “People’s Campaign for Decentralized Planning” would be worthwhile to study as a means of conflict transformation for Sri Lanka. Such reform ideas could be an important means to make constitutional reform ideas attractive for the Southern parts of Sri Lanka as well.

[6] Women constitute a minority not in terms of numbers but in relation to access to power and resources.

[7] Below are some of the major incidents of attacks on civilian targets and killings of noncombatants and events of ethnic cleansing.  Mawattegama, Anuradhapura Railway Station and many other places (August 1977), Jaffna (August 1979), Jaffna Public Library (31 May 1981), Jaffna (23 & 24 July 1983), Kent and Dollar Farms (November 1984), Murunkan (04 December 1984), Valvettithurai Public Library (09 March 1985), Akkaraipattu (May 1985), Anuradhapura Sri Maha Bodhiya (14 May 1985), Pullumalai (November 1986), Kituloothuwa (14 April 1987), Pettah (April 1987), Aranthalawa (February 1987), Aranthalawa (June 1987), Jaffna Hospital (21 October 1987), Valvettithurai (02 August 1989), Rufuskulam, Thirukkovil (11 June 1990), Veeramunai Pillaiyar Temple Refugee Camp (12 July 1990), Kurukkal Madam (12 July 1990), Kaththankudy Mosque (03 August 1990), Eravur  (12 August 1990), Eastern University (05 September 1990), Sathurukondan (09 September 1990), Mannar (28 October 1990), Jaffna (30 October 1990),  Mailanthanai (09 August 1992), St. James Church Refugee Camp, Jaffna (November 1993), Navali RC Church (09 July 1995), Nagarkovil (21 September 1995), Ampara (October 1995), Central Bank (January 1996), Kilivetti (11 February 1996), Jaffna (July & August 1996), Jaffna (January 1997), Dalada Maligawa (early 1998), Gonagala (September 1999), and Katunayake International Airport (July 2001).

[8] See British law on prevention of the incitement to racial hatred, and EU laws on political hate speech.

[9] UNDP, ‘Working for Solutions to Crisis: the Development Response’ (New York, UNDP, July 1998).


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