Groundviews

The Clash of Identities in Post-War Sri Lanka

My perspective is the one of a 25 year old who was born in Sri Lanka during the war and who came to France at the age of 1; one who is considered or seen as a French in her country of birth but who is expected to behave as a Sri Lankan; one who also happens to “belong” to both the ethnic and religious majority of the island.

In a country comprising mainly of Buddhists, one would think that Sri Lanka would be more tolerant, more understanding and open to other people’s beliefs and cultures -yet, though I may not know much about the ground reality, when I hear about anti-Muslim demonstrations, when I hear about discriminatory behavior and attitude towards Tamils, or when I do not hear at all about Burghers, I do not see much effort towards understanding and certainly not much tolerance in my country. Though this is not to be generalized, what I sometimes notice are various forms of marginalization, frustration, and sometimes even extremism from all sides. It seems to me that one of the main challenges in post-war Sri Lanka is therefore to resolve the current clash of identities.

While the recent post-war efforts of GoSL have been commendable –though it may not quite be “in every sense” as John Ging said- to build a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka, much effort remains to be done in terms of ethnic reconciliation, in conjunction with both political and socio-economic reconciliation.

Ultra-nationalism, within both the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities led to frustrations on both sides; especially within the Diaspora(s). For minorities, this frustration was mainly built on ethno-religious stigmatization, social discrimination or sometimes even rejection; feelings that often exclude and marginalize communities even further. This led minorities to perceive, sometimes wrongly, the slightest change as a potential form of discrimination. Paradoxically, it gave a sense of somewhat auto-proclaimed superiority to the majority.

Maybe because I grew up away from the conflict, maybe because I was educated in France, maybe because I am naïve enough to believe in a better Sri Lanka, I never really made any ethnic distinction between Sri Lankans. On the contrary, I always considered myself, first and foremost, as a Sri Lankan. And yet, how many times was I asked –especially in France- whether I was a Sinhalese, a Muslim or a Tamil? Though I never really understood why, I realized that people gave a tremendous importance to this ONE question and I kept on wondering “…but aren’t we all Sri Lankans? Or does my Sinhalese and Buddhist legacy gives me a legitimacy that my Tamil, Muslim or Burgher friends do not seem to have? ” If so, I still wonder how.

Of course, we all have our own identity(ies). The very notion of identity itself will be defined differently depending on each individual/group, making its interpretation subjective to each individual/group. We are different from each other and at the same time we carry diversity within ourselves. Each of us is indeed a unique combination of various identifications that are not equally significant to us. Far from been static, this notion transforms itself throughout the different stages of our life. But can we build a collective identity based on what intrinsically defines us as an individual? How comes that in such a small island, people do not feel as if they belonged to one nation, to one Sri Lanka? How come that members of the Diaspora, especially the second and third generation are most of the time considered as non-Sri Lankan in their country of origin?

The LLRC Report itself, in its Section III on “Reconciliation”, says that “The development of a vision of a shared future requires the involvement of the whole of society. […] A culture of respect for human rights and human diversity needs to be developed creating an environment where each citizen becomes an active participants in society and feels a sense of belonging, of being Sri Lankan.” Yet, in post-war Sri Lanka, the very concept of Sri Lankan-ness, or of Sri Lankan consciousness, a concept which is yet to materialize, is often seen as an idealistic vision. Few are those who actually believe in it. I for one believe that future generations, both in Sri Lanka and within the Diaspora, have the ability to build a more united country, one that will incorporate socio-economic disparities but also our religious beliefs, political affiliations, cultural similarities and differences; one that will give us a broader, therefore stronger sense of belonging –including national belonging- through solidarity and appreciation of cultural diversity; one that will ultimately include both our individual and collective identities. Mutual respect and understanding should therefore be our common denominators as Sri Lankans.

An idealistic yet feasible tentative approach to build a Sri Lankan identity would be to create and maintain an inclusive society. What I mean by that is that we should adopt a multi-dimensional approach that will ultimately promote both social integration and social cohesion. This means further participation in public affairs by all communities, including perhaps the Diaspora(s). This also means engaging in a process of reconciliation by maintaining the security of all individuals, but also respecting the Rule of Law, equality of rights, justice and equity in the distribution of wealth and resources; thereby achieving the realization of the legitimate rights of all citizens.

The role of education –not only in its broader sense but mainly the education received at school, the one that should place all children on an equal stage- is here predominant, not to say crucial. I believe that it is the instrument that can provide the opportunity to learn values of respect and appreciation of diversity through the promotion of multiculturalism, pluralism, and ultimately respect for all forms of identities.

In a post-war situation, the restoration of trust among and within communities is also a prerequisite for reconciliation. But can there be a restoration of trust without forgiveness from both sides? Any discussion of accountability must recognize the need for mutual accountability. Yes, there was a war, and an extremely violent war which lasted for over three decades and which scars are still to be healed, but we have to go forward, we must go forward and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Sri Lanka did win the war but it still did not win the peace and the harmony that goes with it. With the end of the war, we now have a second chance to build a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. This can only be done through mutual or common understanding, through dialogue and eventually trust between all communities. This requires forging a sense of belonging, a national unity amidst diversity and ultimately a culture of peace (to use the phrase of the former head of UNESCO, Frederico Mayor). Post-war Sri Lanka is the chance for the younger generation –both within Sri Lanka and among the Diasporas- to build a better Sri Lanka.

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Kamaya Jayatissa, President of What’s Next!, is a PhD student in International Law at the Sorbonne University, Paris.  She holds a Master Degree in International Law from the Sorbonne and a Diploma in International Governance and Sustainable Development from Sciences Po, Paris.

She participated at the French-Sri Lankan Diaspora Youth Workshop “Post-War Reconciliation Dialogue for a Sustainable Peace”, which took place in Paris, on October 27th, 2012. She intervened as a panelist on the theme “Individual and collective identity(ies): between search and struggle”.

The event was organized by What’s Next!, an independent forum comprising of post-graduates and young professionals of Sri Lankan origin residing in France. What’s Next! seeks to promote a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka through intellectual exchange and multicultural dialogue.