Reconciliation – What is the Big Deal?

It looks like the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) took their job far more seriously than expected. Some stake holders in the Government who insisted that it is fully worth spending time to bring about reconciliation through the LLRC came out on TV to say that LLRC has over-stepped the bounds of its mandate. For the first time, they articulated to the citizens that the mandate of LLRC was mainly limited to study why the 2001 ceasefire failed, and to find out the parties responsible for the damage caused thereafter. The report also triggered a shower of letters from local patriotic organizations to the president urging him to neglect the recommendations. Facebook and email forums were in full swing exchanging views that ranged from the argument that there is no need for reconciliation at all because the war was with a terrorist organization, to those ridiculing the LLRC report as an eye-wash. However, it is interesting to observe that human rights watchdogs that originally expressed concerns about the limited scope of investigation and jurisdiction of the committee seem to be the group that encourages the Government to implement at least some of the recommendations of the LLRC. Meanwhile the Indian Government re-iterated that the Sri Lankan Government, while taking speedy measures to implement the recommendations of the LLRC could readily implement the 13th amendment to the constitution with broad power devolution.

Talking to friends of both ethnicities, I wanted to find out views about a frequently surfaced question as to why we need reconciliation when the war was with a terrorist organization. The argument posed by those who ask this question was that discrimination is everywhere. Even Sinhalese in remote areas face the same economic hardships the Tamils face in the North. It is a question of Colombo-centric development model than one of ethnic discrimination. They agree that these economic digital divide is magnified by inefficient and corrupt centralized Government system. However, most of then did not see power devolution like in the 13th amendment as a solution because it may open the path to separate states especially when there is a separatist movement in place. Their concerns were based on a sense of suspicion and insecurity too. Questions like “what if they become powerful and demand for separation? Can a small country like Sri Lanka afford to fight another war?” were underscored in their concerns. They also argued that the whole notion of North and East being identified as a Tamil region is problematic, citing historical and archeological evidence.

However, others who argued for devolution of power had reasons transcending mere economic disparities between the Western province and the North and East. It was often argued that Sinhalese in the South or even Tamils in the South may choose to live with the status quo. They may choose of live with sustained economic development largely confined to Colombo now seen also in Hambantota mainly due to President Rajapaksa’s personal interest than a National policy of balanced regional development; they may choose to live with the fact that the higher education prospects of their children should be limited to a quota system limited to about 3% of the population no matter how hard they study in the school; they may choose to tolerate deterioration of rule of law and corrupt law enforcement; they may even choose to live with a cultural recognition given predominantly to Sinhala-Buddhists. However, it was questioned if they have the right to impose that choice on others who have stronger aspirations of their own. They argued that broader devolution of power will allow people in the North and the East to come up with drastically different economic, justice, and law enforcement models to stimulate a faster growth with dignity for their cultural identity, wider access to university education, research and innovation, more efficient trans-National trade through better usage of ports like Trincomalee for trade, etc. The differences in identity claims and gulf of aspirations between two groups of people in the small Island of Sri Lanka could be more complex if other layers of the society are also brought within the discussion. People I knew were by far academics and professionals. How about business communities, farmers, laborers, fishermen, etc? I won’t dare to investigate with the limited time I have to do my citizen politics.

It seems to me that a major need of the reconciliation process is to more accurately understand the differences of aspirations between the groups who contributed to the conflict that can not co-exist in a centralized administrative structure. The mere fact that LTTE was a terrorist outfit does not rule out the possibility that Tamils who sympathized LTTE at least in its early stages of development (ex. formation of Ealam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS)) do not have reasonable aspirations different from the South that is best realized in a devolved administrative structure. The mere fact that Sinhalese in the South feel insecure about power devolution amidst a separatist movement on the move does not mean that they are not willing to settle for a viable political solution either. It is equally wrong to take only one cross section of the society to arrive at conclusions. For instance, it is wrong to take a Tamil or Sinhalese farmer who spends a simple life-style to argue that there is no gulf of aspirations between people in the North and the South. It maybe also be true that a businessman is only interested in the bottom line (profit or loss figure) than his/her cultural identity, opportunity to obtain a local university education, or to enjoy rule of law. Therefore, it may well be that this whole problem is limited to middle and upper middle class communities. I am not sure if LLRC or other efforts towards reconciliation addressed this dimension of people’s aspirations deeply enough, partly due to their inherent limitations of mandates.

Whatever the factors contributing to any gulf of aspirations may not be static too. Therefore, peace can not be frozen with an accord. It is a more dynamic phenomenon orchestrated by co-existence of continuously changing conflicting human aspirations. What are identified as Tamil aspirations today maybe different in twenty years from now. The Sinhalese who choose to accept Colombo-centric decision making and development may choose another model in twenty years. What is important therefore, is to have an administrative structure that recognizes and facilitates the co-existence of ideologically and culturally different people with well articulated aspirations within the small island of Sri Lanka at any given time. What is dangerous is to be dishonest in the process of reconciling any gulf of aspirations if at all. In this regard, the Government should avoid duplicity of engagement as much as possible. For instance, the Government held secret discussions with the Darusman committee while using its appointment by the UN secretary general to do Nationalistic local politics overlooking the danger that the credibility of LLRC would be eroded as a result. Moreover, the Government could be more sensitive to the sentiments of those who lost their loved ones in the last phase of the war.

Finally, any reconciliation process should address the legitimate concern of those who do not wish to see separation of Sri Lanka into two or more states. Just like gravity keeps locally chaotic water bouncing off rocks in a waterfall, co-existence of conflicting ideologies in any devolved administrative structure should have its own chaotic dynamics within a single national identity which can be more effectively sustained by fostering trade links among regions and by strengthening the notion of citizenship, rule of law, justice, and respect for human rights than by an enforced sense of stability in a centralized regimented system.