Racing Tanks with Bicycles: A Parable of ‘Reconciliation’ in Sri Lanka

SLU

Photo via Facebook photo set by Akiy Photography, direct link here. Note that original photo does not blur the face of the child.

Some photographs of ‘aid’ being provided to Sri Lankan Tamils in Keppapilavu were recently posted online. The Keppapilavu community were the last to be released from the Menik Farm Camp, but were not allowed to return home, and instead were forcibly re-displaced into the wilderness. The aid was being provided by a youth group called ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ – whose objective is to promote reconciliation in Sri Lanka, in collaboration with the ‘Foundation of Goodness’ – a charity set up by a few Sri Lankan cricketers.

Four thoughts came to mind while browsing the pictures:

  1. The scenes depicted were reminiscent of aid campaigns that characterised Africa in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Benevolent philanthropists extending a charitable arm to needy and helpless victims. Affluence meeting impoverishment, with the brash arrogance of those who have – that those who do not – only (or first) need material support. In these images there was no place for equality or dignity (for the displaced), mutual learning or forgiveness (for the affluent).
  2. The military was central to the whole affair. They were handing out bicycles and school bags to little children of a community which recently had suffered immensely in a ruthless war between this same military and the LTTE. Despite the best efforts of the government, stories of the horrors of the end of the war have surfaced and will continue to do so, as will the demand for accountability, truth and justice.
  3. Despite the ostentatious display of money available to ‘Sri Lanka Unites’, the sheer tokenism of their charitable gifts was hard to ignore. School bags for those with no access to a decent education. Bicycles for those who cannot move freely. Chairs for those whose land has been stolen. Material support to a community denied the right to remember their dead, protect their youth, manage their lives. It all rang hollow and counter-intuitive.
  4. Finally, the ‘branding’ of the aid with the names, pictures and logos of the ‘donors’ – again reminiscent of the way many western and international agencies carry out their affairs – struck a distasteful and disrespectful chord; in other words, completely in keeping with both this series of photographs and the way many Sri Lankans have responded to the post-war situation.

The Parable

The military, party to a relentless and indiscriminate offensive in the last stages of the war leading to heavy civilian casualties, now appears to be the only vehicle through which ‘philanthropy’ can reach those very same civilians. Soldiers have reportedly been the recipients of land that belongs to these civilians. They are the police who arrest and detain civilians for the crime of remembering the dead. They are the administrators who manage civilian affairs. The military are also tour operators, stadium and theatre managers, vegetable vendors, city beautifiers and municipal workers. The list goes on.

The environment in which the state uses the military to pursue its post-war march in the North is one of shrinking democratic space, including the space to voice dissent. The state has made its position clear – there were no atrocities, there is no ethnic conflict, all is good and development will result in justice and prosperity for all. Those who contest this narrative are denounced as traitors, or even worse, liberals. The lucky ones are censored. The unlucky ones are silenced through more ruthless means. Those who abide by the narrative however, are rewarded with position, power, space to carry out their business, and even their philanthropy.

And so we come to ‘Sri Lanka Unites’, full of youthful enthusiasm, set on changing the world and achieving reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and going about their business by giving bicycles to those whose biggest problem is the cantonments in their backyard. A modern parable of ill-placed goodwill, failure to respond to the real issues and exploitation of enthusiastic youthfulness by the more experienced – be they corporates impatient to get their brand out there, a government seeking credibility or civil society veterans who’ve mastered the art of (unprincipled) survival. This parable raises many questions, of which three are addressed below:

  1. The big question – is true reconciliation really possible in Sri Lanka?
  2. The pragmatic question – should those with good intentions toe the government line in order to reach those in need of support?
  3. The aid culture question – how effective is the model of giving followed by ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ and other such groups?

The Big Question

I believe – I have to believe – that the short answer is yes. Reconciliation will always be a work in progress, but the attitude and willingness to reconcile and frameworks for reconciliation can and must be put in place. Reconciliation on a national scale involves the twin elements of addressing specific acts (by holding those responsible accountable and adequately compensating the victims) and addressing historical, structural and attitudinal causes of injustice through creating the space for honest discourse, amending power structures and ensuring that we can live together as a country of equals.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Sri Lanka has horribly failed on both counts. ‘Failed’ is a misnomer as it implies that we have ‘tried’. In fact, what has been ‘tried’, and successfully, has been anti-reconciliation. Denial of atrocities and past injustices, denial of any problem or conflict at all; exploiting this narrative for personal and political gain – be it through abusing structures of governance to entrench power, carrying out massive development projects to massage fragile egos and allegedly line deep pockets or turning a blind eye to all sorts of injustice in order to get by and prosper.

So reconciliation will not happen automatically or easily. It requires more people from all backgrounds to begin questioning and opposing impunity; a stronger commitment to equality for all; a movement that is motivated by integrity and not opportunism; the creation of space for us to deal with questions of justice, power, autonomy, equality and dignity.

There is no such space in Sri Lanka right now and this type of reconciliation will not happen. Not in the foreseeable future, and not unless the government changes it’s ‘might is right’ attitude. That does not mean that this is a pipe-dream, but rather that those committed to a reconciled and equal society must be in it for the long-haul, and must not resort to opportunistic quick fixes that compromise their integrity.

The Pragmatic Question

That brings us to the pragmatic question – if toeing the government line is necessary to reach those in the North, what should civil society do? There are two ways of looking at this; one is a balancing of the urgent with the important; and the other is a balancing of principles with pragmatism/ opportunism.

There are many variables at hand, so let’s look at the question from the perspective of a hypothetical well-intentioned group that has no agendas other than reconciliation and support for the victims of war. (Hypothetical because many civil society groups – perhaps including ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ – would have other motivations including self-preservation, self-promotion, propagating government mantras and opportunism.)

If you really are trying to promote reconciliation, but you know there is no space to do so, and the only space available is to engage in ‘humanitarian’ activities on government terms, do you engage or do you desist?

Perhaps there are some lessons to be learnt from the experience of the UN during the closing stages of the war and its aftermath. The recently released Petrie Report was scathing in its criticism of the UN’s consistent surrender of principled engagement with the Sri Lankan Government in the pursuit of humanitarian access. One such example was the UN participation in constructing semi-permanent structures for those held in the Menik Farm Camp – despite several warnings that it was colluding in the unlawful detention of IDPs. (The UN Panel Report characterised this incarceration as giving rise to credible allegations of the crime against humanity of imprisonment, which potentially implicates many aid agencies and personnel in international criminal activity.) The Petrie Report concluded that in trading principle for access, the UN ultimately achieved neither. It is no coincidence that they were shut out of the No Fire Zones when their presence was most needed.

This kind of ‘lose-lose’ situation is not new. It has been grappled with by international humanitarian agencies for decades. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) pulled out of the Goma refugee camp because it was in effect being run by Hutu genocidaires who were channelling aid into the hands of the Interahamwe militia. MSF took the position that humanitarian aid which actually enhances an unjust status quo does more harm than good – and if you do not have the power to prevent the abuse of such aid, you do less harm by pulling out, than you would by staying. MSF was heavily criticised for this move, particularly by other agencies which continued their presence in the camps (and raised tons of money on the back of it). The camp situation polarised the humanitarian world – a reflection of how difficult this question can be.

But there is one factor which clearly differentiates Sri Lanka today from Goma in the mid ‘90s. In Goma, the pulling out of international agencies was a matter of life and death. In Sri Lanka, the withholding of a few bicycles and school bags is not going to result in unnecessary and unwarranted civilian deaths. There is no ‘urgent’ need to step in and save lives, and therefore, it becomes a much less controversial decision to stick with the ‘important’ i.e. reconciliation in a manner which challenges the government narrative at the expense of ‘aid’ which only legitimises that very same narrative.

This then leads us to the second way of looking at it – pragmatist opportunism vs. principle. The principled response would be to challenge the government position and to engage with the Tamil population of the North to the extent that is possible, without aligning with State machinery or propaganda. There are some who are able to do this with relative success. Inevitably they are individuals and organisations that operate very differently to ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ – ones that have a presence in these communities, that engage with and listen to the people and take direction based on their experiences and real needs. This is the difficult, tedious, unseen way to do things – it involves fighting bureaucratic barriers and red tape every step of the way, negotiating with the military without giving them prominence and constantly challenging the State. It doesn’t produce the instant results or photo-ops of the ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ type action. And therefore, is less attractive to funders – and ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ has a long list of these – both corporate (Brandix, ESOFT, Dialog, HSBC, Virtusa) and non-corporate (Foundation of Goodness, Sarvodaya, National Peace Council, Neelan Trivichelvam Trust, Rotary Club).

The Aid Culture Question

The manner in which Sri Lanka Unites operates represents a particular approach to aid and reconciliation – which can be extremely harmful. There is a school of thought that charity is hypocrisy – it is a mechanism through which the status quo (which is the real problem) is preserved and the ‘giver’ receives gratification. The impact on the recipient is secondary or irrelevant. This take on charity may be a cynical one, but it certainly rings true of some of the types of charity we have seen in post-war – even post-tsunami Sri Lanka. (Many western charities – particularly of the Live Aid mould do the same – but this is not our concern.)

While working at the Human Rights Commission on post-tsunami rehabilitation, I witnessed first-hand, this type of ‘charity’ – where the needs of the giver (be it an opportunity to get rid of unwanted clothes, see a new part of the island, get some recognition, or simply feel good) were the primary consideration. The giving was done on their terms, regardless of whether they met the needs of the recipients. I saw jeep loads of people throwing food parcels at pedestrians (regardless of whether they were tsunami affected or not) while on the move – so they could get through their charity quota as fast as possible. Fast forward to 2009, and we had the children of Menik Farm being sent toy guns by the charitable minded.

‘Sri Lanka Unites’ may not have sunk to these depths, but they appear to be following the same formula. Tap into youthful enthusiasm, give people a sense of fulfilment and adventure, follow the path of least resistance by cooperating with the most powerful, and generate as much money and attention as possible for the organisation. This could be due to the naiveté of being a young organisation, but to make that argument would be akin to washing your hands off responsibility. Furthermore, the much more established organisations that support them cannot hide behind this defence – they are party to such actions in full awareness of the long-term damage they are contributing to.

The impact of it all and a Final Introspective Question

A familiar lament of philanthropists of the ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ mould is ‘why question the little good we are doing just because it is not capable of changing all that is evil?’ Differently put, ‘it is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.’ The problem – as MSF figured out and the UN did not – is that a single candle sometimes gives the impression of light, when the world is actually growing darker. By identifying with the military to provide a particular type of aid in a particular way, to victims of acute violence and discrimination whose needs are much deeper – is to accept as normal (and even desirable) the completely unacceptable and abnormal militarisation of society. It is to give credibility to the manner in which the State has handled the post-war situation and its approach to ‘reconciliation’ and it is to erode the dignity and increase the dependency of our own people.

So how can civil society operate in a manner that doesn’t further alienate or betray the victims of war? The leader of ‘Sri Lanka Unites’, in a TV interview commented that while the war is over, the conflict is not. This is an extremely basic and obvious remark, but in the Sri Lankan context, it is a strong statement that tells a truth the government repeatedly denies. This is an example of how even groups like ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ can contribute towards true reconciliation by acknowledging that a problem exists. Such words are compromised and undermined by actions which glorify and legitimise the increased military presence in the North, but they stand as a reminder of what civil society can and must do, more consistently and more forcefully. This must be backed up by a commitment to act in a principled manner, in full awareness that this will bring with it many difficulties – both personal and organisational. But it is only through these steps and through a commitment to fighting for and preserving the equality and dignity of the community in the North, that civil society will begin to make a real contribution towards reconciliation.

  • Sie.Kathieravealu

    Reconciliation cannot be achieved in the way it is being done today – just hand-outs. “The giving was done on their terms, regardless of whether they met the needs of the recipients.”

    The needs of the recipients is far more than what was given. Their need is peace and tranquility. They are capable of acquiring all these items within a short period IF THEY ARE ALLOWED TO EARN on their own with dignity and without interference. That is the real approach to begin to make a real contribution towards reconciliation. NOT MONEY BUT GOODWILL.
    “But it is only through these steps and through a commitment to fighting for and preserving the equality and dignity of the community in the North, that civil society will begin to make a real contribution towards reconciliation.”

    “The leader of ‘Sri Lanka Unites’, in a TV interview commented that while the war is over, the conflict is not. This is an extremely basic and obvious remark, but in the Sri Lankan context, it is a strong statement that tells a truth the government repeatedly denies. This is an example of how even groups like ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ can contribute towards true reconciliation by acknowledging that a problem exists.”

    A political solution with a system that would help to eradicate injustice, discrimination, corruption and oppression – the four pillars of an evil society – and help to establish the “Rule of Law” and “Rule by ALL” for sustainable peace, tranquility and prosperity and a pleasant harmonious living with dignity and respect for all the inhabitants in the country is needed.

    Since all political and other powers flow from the sovereignty of the people, it is proposed herein that these powers be not given to any ONE set of representatives but distributed among different sets of people’s representatives (groups) elected on different area basis (village and villages grouped) to perform the different, defined and distinct functions of one and the same institution – the Parliament – like the organs of our body – heart, lungs, kidneys, eyes, nose, ear etc. – performing different and distinct functions to enable us to sustain normal life.

    The present GoSL is obsessed with the idea that any solution must be on the foundation of majoritarianism and that it will not accede to the much-honoured concept of unity in diversity, equality and justice in a country that is essentially pluralistic in character.

    The above is the obstacle in finding a reasonable, acceptable, workable and durable political solution within a united, undivided Sri Lanka which is the need of the day.

    Will “Sri Lanka Unites” and “Freedom of Goodness” join hands to hand over a ‘just political solution’ to the people-at-large which would really pave the path for National Reconciliation?

  • j.j perea

    Following your logic you condone the UN should have pulled out of the war zone, because you didn’t agree with the military conduct of the war. The correct thing would have been to stay and protect the people, help the people in their hour of need. but you would have alienated them and left them to die once over again out of principle, i.e. the govt narrative didn’t guarantee protection to the UN staff.

    The UN prolongued the suffering of the people in Manik Farm by refusing to build semi permanent shelter, toilets etc, all the while knowing that it would take months if not years before the people could return to their own land.

  • eureka
  • policyminded

    This was aid provided to Sri Lankans or Sri Lankan Tamils?

    This aid was not provided by Sri Lanka Unites, it was by the Foundation of Goodness who is a partner of the Youth group

    I was not aware that ‘Sri Lanka Unites’ has an ostentatious amount of money available? unlike the Anglican Church

    School bags for those with no access to a decent education? might be tokenism to you but for a kid who has no school bag, shoes it might not be, but who are you to Judge?

    Bicycles for those who cannot move freely? Bicycles to students who attend Vattapalai Maha Vidyalaya so they can get to school easier, Freedom of movement might be a good theory for you to debate with your friends in Colombo

    Chairs for those whose land has been stolen. I don’t think that is the point, to compensate people who lost their land with chairs.

    Material support to a community denied the right to remember their dead, protect their youth, manage their lives? So should we protest and hold plackards till the dead are remembered, the Jaffna Students are released etc etc

    So reconciliation will not happen automatically or easily. There is no such space in Sri Lanka right now and this type of reconciliation will not happen. Not in the foreseeable future, and not unless the government changes it’s ‘might is right’ attitude.

    “So we should wait for the government to change its attitude?”

    In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) pulled out of the Goma refugee camp because it was in effect being run by Hutu genocidaires who were channelling aid into the hands of the Interahamwe militia? contrast this “channelling aid into the hands of the militia” with ‘justifying the government narrative’.

    Actually I remember one Secretary Defense had the exact argument about denying much needed nutrition supplements to the Children of the Vanni during the war, i.e. it would end up in the hands of the Terrorists.

    i.e. reconciliation in a manner which challenges the government narrative at the expense of ‘aid’ which only legitimises that very same narrative. Reconciliation is not the challenging of the government narrative but involves changing it.

    Negotiating with the military without giving them prominence and constantly challenging the State. Really? is it so necessary to challenge the state at every juncture

    There is a school of thought that charity is hypocrisy – it is a mechanism through which the status quo (which is the real problem) is preserved and the ‘giver’ receives gratification. Charity is obviously gratfying to the donor, but whether it improves the status quo or not depends on many factors.

    • Pacha Epa

      Amal de Chickera:
      Thank you for an insightful, honest and intelligent analysis of the “charitable impulses” akin to those of the “Anglican ladies afternoon teas” of colonial times!
      The self-righteous b.s. that is spouted by these people generating photo-ops from a whole community’s misery makes one sick to the stomach. Millionaire professional cricketers dropping by to do their annual good turn is provocation enough to regurgitate whatever one has recently eaten!
      The ugly reality is that there are always going to be “the more fortunate” around to capitalize on the misery of “the less fortunate” and we have, in the criticism of the author of this article, the horde of pandankarayas to whom the continuing “development” charade in the Tamil-majority areas of this country is yet another feather in the cap of the government before which they grovel and which makes life very much easier than it is for those who’ve been liberated!
      Lamborghinis anyone?

  • Veedhur

    A very thoughtful and thought provoking article. Hope Sri Lanka Unites engages in this discussion in a substantive manner. One justification could be that this is but one act in a system of actions which taken in their whole is aimed at contributing to reconciliation.

    Or, given the operational context probably this is the token and necessary subservience to the military on the first day, after which the real reconciliation work of Sri lanka unite begins in these villages. It is a tactical move not to save lives as in the past but to get initial access and then to establish to do good work. I don’t know, but may be Sri Lanka unites has a good reason.

    The impression I have is that Sri Lanka unites is not big on pursuing justice, but focusses on pursuing reconciliation (by assuming a model where reconciliation is possible without publicly standing up for justice and aggravating the sentiments of the perpetrators, power holders and majority community). May be this is only part of the story?

  • eureka

    ‘SriLanka Unites’ and a few other groups created at the instigation of the govt is a ploy to deflect the attention away from the continuing oppression.

  • Tigera

    Chickera, Its really easy for any one to crtiseze someone dong good and find faults with it. No one is perfect, hoever I do admire those kids for TRYING!. They are doing something while some arm chair experts critisize them. Its not there fault PRabakaran and LTTE help those people hostage, but they went all the way there to help while majority of Sri Lankans and diapora crying out loud.

    “To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing” – Elbert Hubbard

  • http://brainoil.wordpress.com sharanga

    This article is [edited out], and is written by a person who does not need any help from others to buy bicycles or school bags. For him the politics of it all is more important than a kid getting a bicycle. It’s all or nothing for him. Either you should give all that he thinks the victims of the war deserve, or you should stay out of it. Of course he can afford to do that since he doesn’t have to walk ten miles every day, unlike the kids who want bicycles and school bags (oh, by the way Amal, those kids really need those stuff. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there, in case you didn’t notice).

    I have my own criticisms of charities, and people who volunteer to just to get warm feelings. For example, if you’re a professional computer programmer, you can do more good by writing code for one hour and donating part of your income to a charity which pays professionals to build houses, instead of going there and volunteering one hour to build houses yourself. It’s really simple economics. You can do more good by doing what you are trained to do, and donating the income to an efficient charity. It’s what you’d do if you care about how much good you can do, instead of how good you look or how much war feelings you can get.

    But the writer’s complaints are nothing like the complaints I might have. My complaint would be that the charity isn’t efficient enough. His complaint is that this particular charity is detrimental to his political ambitions. Sri Lankan Unites are doing some good, according to him, but they shouldn’t do it because “ a single candle sometimes gives the impression of light”. Okay, let them starve, because giving them food would make the military look good.

    • Jayalath

      Amal’ has exposed what he felt that could happen , which isnt a good thought . I feel he has made such a judgment of thinking how our people are behaved , in other perspective what he says is , please people do not take our pains in simple manner ,as we are talking in a situation where we have robbed our lands and killed our love ones ,and do not think that distress can be minimised by offering or giving bicycles or bags or the money . as it needs to be addressed in deep sense . It is a very very good appeal , thank you Amal .

      Some idiots or I would say Called some humans but not yet developed into real human level could say Amal’ thought is wrong or not enough . He has well grasped how the bureaucracy or people behave. I’m not against of giving some thing to some one who needs it , but by doing that if you think it is done now all fine , it is wrong . If some one is starving we better give him some food first place and second place we should think what we can do him not to be starved again in the future , this is the best way to think , not like bloody idiotic and cynical people our country . (especially idiotic politicians )

      Also , one more thing I should say . The war or it related any thing did happen ,now the Amal’ artical is a side defect of war or an implication , therefore we all are responsible for what happened , I do not believe that Army went and killed minority Tamils in the north and east for nothing , but it happened for very serious reason , which is still haunting .

      • Jayalath

        It should be correct as which isn’t a bad thought .

  • Candidly

    Ah, yes, “civil society” again, sitting in judgement on the rest of us in “uncivilized society” who have to deal with practical, everyday issues because we are not above it all.

  • Orion

    A thought provoking article.

  • sabbe laban

    sharanga

    You have exposed this hypocrisy in no uncertain terms! Keep it up!

    • http://brainoil.wordpress.com sharanga

      Sabbe,

      I don’t think there’s any hypocrisy here. Amal de Chickera, I believe, truly believes what he’s saying. It would be hypocritical of him only if he went ahead and donated money to Sri Lanka Unites, or something like that. I’m pretty sure he didn’t donate anything.

  • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

    Interesting: a seemingly radical critique of Sri Lanka Unites, with no mention whatsoever of more politically aware efforts such as the Movement for Equal Rights and the Peoples’ Wall of Solidarity. In other words, a Colombo cosmopolitan critique of a Colombo cosmopolitan effort– thus largely in-house-with no knowledge of other, potentially more organic projects of engagement, reconciliation and transformation?

    • Green Lantern

      Dayan,

      This what-abouting of yours only serves to distract from the main point of the article and makes it look like you’re trying to hijack the conversation with some other pet topic of yours.

      If you do persist in this what-abouting however, I also have some what-abouts to add. What about your relationship with the government and your role as a professional white-washer? What about you being a cog in the machine that denies justice to the people of the North? What about this flooding each year? What about global warming? What about that awful Hobbit movie?

    • http://iSrilankan.com Gaya Fernando

      Spoilers live ok in Sri Lanka. Shame on you Mr Chickera shame on you and on your name. It is not a shame that you critique and raise valid points. It is a bloody shame in language you will relate to that you falsely paint a picture of Sri Lanka Unites and Foundation of Goodness that is misleading. You do not credit the Foundation of Goodness for their work in Mankulam. You do not credit the Foundation for being led by a visionary and a strong human force called Kushil Gunasekera and a relentless team of people Tamil Muslim and Sinhalese both local employees and Diasporan volunteers who are working in villages North and South. HAve you heard of Fazana Ibrahim? well the little villages where she has painted the toilets donated by big CMB corporates, certainly have. Are you jealous man? Do you believe that your audience are DENSE? That they are IGNORANT? Walk around your own country and give a slow clap to people who brave the heat in former Wanni, who actually WALK the TALK. But then this is characteristic of our nation. And those who are well-intentioned run out of steam.

      Access to education is pretty well-provided and those schools that are occupied will be freed I hope in time but as an involved sponsor of children up North I can tell you that a school bag is a school for those who may be tutored under a tree.

      How about the Life-Saver pack that Kushil designed for those families who had nothing? I asked him how did you know what to include in a lifesaver pack and he said simply ‘ you walk into their homes and speak to them and you will know’.

      Sri Lanka Unites is strapped for cash at many times and have had to postpone events as they did not receive adequate funding. Shame on you for your false accusations.

      Sri Lanka Unites and Foundation of Goodness are two organisations that are led by people who have a choice NOT to do anything in Sri Lanka and carry on with their own lives or INTERVENE in a sustainable way to heal the nation but also to empower the children for the future. SHAME ON YOU CHICKERA !

      • Keynes!

        ‘Kushil Gunasekera, a results-driven visionary, through pioneering initiatives effects sustainable development in rural Sri Lanka. His integrity, dependability and generosity create hope and trust in both individuals and teams alike. Financially transparent, he relies on his proven entrepreneurial instincts, is persistent, extremely organised and pays meticulous attention to detail in both planning and implementation; he is accommodating and remains flexible in complex situations, keeping the welfare of the humanitarian cause foremost.’

    • Missy

      I don’t doubt the author has any less patriotism and goodwill for his country in him than those who are involved in SLU and FOG, but the sad reality of this article, as with our general islander mentality is the failure to realize that one candle (even if it “perceived” by “some” as giving the “impression” of light) is indeed better than darkness. So Rome should be build in a day? boom!… Yeah let’s rub harder for the genie may escape from the bottle any minute now!…

      Perhaps it is time to think about how critiques actually become constructive? Ever heard of providing pragmatic alternatives that works better; those that could be replicated by anyone out there? How about some of that for a change? oh wait! Better yet, how about slipping in your comfy jeans and T an actually getting out there in the field and getting your hands dirty? At least then, one may realize what it takes to walk the talk!!!

      Here’s a better question for all of us to ponder on for the long run: Why is that we Sri Lankans have this incredible urgency to drag others down while they do something and we do nothing? I bet that “gratifies” too huh? and perhaps that kind of gratification is easier to achieve than collecting funds, empathizing, riding all the way to North and “volunteering” time and energy to add a smile to a stranger of whose name, age or life details you know very little of? A stranger whose, empty stomach or lack of school supplies or the tired legs doesn’t affect your life at all…

      The points that are raised and criticized are “discussion-worthy” BUT my question is, how much background research went in to this? how much life experience with days spent inside Manik Farm, how many SLU initiatives and how many FOG projects are you bringing in to this? The author talks about pragmatism yet proposes a top-down approach. Well, here’s news, society doesn’t work that way. (Refer systems theory, you’d know why!) Top-down Structuralism (or lack thereof) is core to a government…that is why grass-root involvement is necessarily in society. It would take one kind of fool to believe that these organizations are happy and proud to have a military presence reigning over them while they struggle in humanitarian efforts. If they had political agendas, trust me… they would now drive Lamborghini’s. I’m sure for what the author claims to have experienced in life, these trivial details have not come to pass in his mind. But sadly it appears that he has made a decision to ignore rationales.

      So here are my suggestions:

      If social service and grass-roots are not your cup of tea, how about advocating for policy change and what-nots, whatever that rocks your boat!?! If you wish to get involved, how about extending your support that may improve their efforts? That’s more dignifying than tarnishing genuine efforts made by youth and philanthropists, don’t you think? How about growing out of “us-them” mentality and bringing in our unique pieces to the puzzle to effect change? How about making an attempt to get rid of the pessimism that overtones every word that’s written here? (I don’t blame people – including the author – for the tone really…that is PTSD speaking!) and being a light that can shine upon the darkness no matter how small an area you’d cover? And finally, for the sake of those who fail to recognize the logical fallacies underlying in your article (that same group of people you prefer to label “dense”) how about acting responsibly with media usage and your blessed choice of words that can easily mislead the public? Plus, if its not too much to ask at this point, some neutrality and non-judgement with proper research to top it off… I’m sure you my dear author, and the likes of you and your entourage will do great SERVICE to our mother land.

  • Chrisantha Liyanamana

    “ a single candle sometimes gives the impression of light” – A nice analogy, but does it really correlate to reality? Does providing aid to the people of Mullaitivu really hinder the fight for justice?

    Sitting here in Colombo, it is very easy to talk about “larger” issues, “important” issues and define “urgent” needs. It’s very easy to say that bicycles and school packs do not address any life or death scenario like in Goma, and therefore can be ignored! But think about it from the perspective of a Sri Lankan living in Mullaitivu, whose life has been one of great peril before and even after the war ended. Shifting around, living in IDP camps, worrying about their next meal, their children’s education etc. They have been at the receiving end of the consequences resulting from the decisions made by various parties. They have been pushed to their limits, and to them more than the “larger” questions of a political solution for Tamils or real justice, what matters is their daily bread, children’s education etc., which in the Colombo vocabulary would probably be called “petty”.

    Right now, the only bodies that are even concerned about the plight of these people are the military and the government. Many have turned a blind eye, because they are too focused on the “larger” issues and principles! But what they fail to see is that when people are helpless, they are vulnerable. And when it is only the military that is building houses, feeding them, providing educational opportunities, vocational training etc., then the people will naturally have to submit to the decisions of the military. (For want of a better phrasing, let me call it the “monopoly of aid”.) This monopoly of aid which lies with the military (and government) should be broken for any progress to be made.

    So I would actually go so far to commend Sri Lanka Unites for taking the gutsy decision to get involved, despite many other aid organizations backing off to keep away from being criticized for their actions. In doing so they are showing the people that the military is not the only body that can help them and that there are people genuinely concerned about their well-being.

    From everything I’ve heard about Sri Lanka Unites, they are far from being an “aid organization”. Their main activities are related to youth engagement and youth-led action. So I believe one should do a thorough reading about an organization before branding them as one of misled “youthful passion” and one that’s trying to simply “gratify” themselves. In fact, Sri Lanka Unites is one of the few organizations that has student leaders from the Mullaitivu region working with them hand in hand on projects! That definitely doesn’t fit the category of the “aid culture”. In fact, I recently read that Sri Lanka Unites intends on starting a long-term project in Mullaitivu, where they will be providing academic opportunities to students who do not manage to gain entrance to local university, and to make them more employable. That definitely shows that they are in Mullaitivu for the long haul, and not for short-term goals such as using up their aid quota!

    So I stress again – get your facts straight before you criticise.

    However, I do find it hard to believe that Sri Lanka Unites worked with the military. The photographs of the distribution of school packs and bicycles does show a lot of military involvement. I assume there is a justification for this. In fact, it cannot be denied that when working in places such as Mullaitivu, the involvement by the military is unavoidable.

    But I do wish to hear someone from Sri Lanka Unites tell us about the justifications for their actions. I’m sure that would add more clarity.

  • Tazio Ratnayeke

    Read the article, saw the picture, read the comments.

    I am an armchair general (like most of us) and could argue both ways (like all of us) but here is what came to my mind. That little girl in the photograph is being given a school bag and a her fellows are being given bicycles. 5 years ago, that would have been an ammunition belt with grenades and some rifles…. I don’t remember the UN objecting to that.

    With the war a thing of the past, those children have a chance which they never had when they were born into a situation that you and I were lucky enough to be born away from. I don’t remember the UN hauling up the allied forces post-1945 for the atrocities they committed to rid the world of the fascist scourge. Or did they? I forget…

    Perhaps if the government did nothing at all and the military retired to their barracks, things would be better? Of course aid would flood in! Someone might even get the bright idea to unite these ‘miserables’ into a fight for freedom…… sounds familiar anyone?

    The organisation that gives the aid, be it local, foreign or even the military, is unimportant to the person who gets it. It is needed. It was denied when the terrorists bore sway over them.

    At least now, a 12 year-old can bicycle to school and only have to worry about a puncture…. not getting shot in the crossfire, kidnapped and sent to a front-line, blown up by a mine or just arrested for suspicion of being “on the other side”….

    Truth, reconciliation, justice…. good words… I wonder if it was the same rhetoric that sent so many children like that little girl as suicide bombers when they reached maturity.

    • Green Lantern

      Tazio,
      a)If you can’t remember the UN objecting to child soldiers you probably need to… I don’t know what.

      b)De Chickera is not saying anything about the UN like you believe. Maybe you need to read the whole thing properly again (or for the first time). Not the whole bloody world revolves around the UN. They’re not that important. We can demand justice and accountability without giving a toss about the UN. You can too. Try it. It feels liberating.

      c)Like I told Dayan, this what-abouting is annoying. We can what-about-the-bombing-of-Dresden and what-about-the-atom-bomb till the cows come home, but it won’t have any relevance to what the author is trying to raise here. So let’s try to stick to the topic without showing off our knowledge of irrelevant facts.

      d) Your hypothesis that the Tamils of the North will once again demand a separate state if left to their own devices is based on what? So what’s the end game here? Keeping them permanently under military control like some perpetual ghetto? One would need to be a bit fucked in the head to think of that as the end game.

      e)Kids still get raped, killed and vanished for no reason other than being Tamil. So your hypothesis that they are now doing better is also bollocks. Only now the perps are exclusively SLA as opposed to a mix. Giving them security is more important than giving them bicycles. Not being raped is more conducive to a better education than not having to walk to school.

  • Themis

    First of all I wonder on what basis and based on what facts Mr. De Chikera makes these blatant assumptions. Was he there to see that there was no ‘mutual learning’? Does he know the long term plans of Sri Lanka Unites with this community? To make assumptions based on a few photographs is insensible. If constructive criticism must be made then make it based on solid facts taken from first hand information and then present those information in your article. Most of what Mr. De Chikera is saying is vague assumptions based on these photographs.

    Yes these people deserve to have their original lands back but while the political deadlock continues are the rest to watch silently ignoring the needs of the students? As a youth movement that invests in the leadership of students Sri Lanka Unites has assisted the very group of people that are their target audience. These students are not sitting around in the village waiting for their land to be given to them. They are going to school, they are hoping and striving towards a better future and what is wrong in assisting them. Yes school packs and bicycles may seem trivial in comparison to land but it’s impractical to ignore the daily needs of these children for the reason that they do not possess their original land. While those who have not been even slightly affected by the war talk repeatedly of the injustices that prevail, these people in the community do go on with their normal lives. Giving these children a sense of normalcy isn’t a crime actually it’s exactly what they need. Remember they are children, they do not understand land issues but might have enjoyed and welcomed the time and gifts given by the students of Sri Lanka Unites.

    There is no doubt that injustices prevail and that this community must have their original land given to them but at the same time if an organization is making the effort to make some sort of difference in the life of these people then it must be encouraged. If criticism and advice must be given then I hope Mr. De Chikera who really seems to care for these people in Mullativu has spoken to Sri Lanka Unites and offered his advice. Remember we all want reconciliation we all want to see justice prevail but pointing fingers and making baseless criticism is not going to take this country anywhere. Those who have the power, such as lawyers and political representatives and those who write so often about these issues, I hope they have actually been to these places and worked on the ground with people and that when they criticize they do so with the right that they too have worked hard to make a difference in the lives of these people and continue to do so.

  • eureka

    1.Some people have no idea what has been happening in the last 43 months. Or rather what has NOT been happening. A systemic plan for resettlement and development would have improved the North and the East dramatically. It’s precisely because the govt doesn’t want it that it has put the North directly (and the East indirectly)
    a.under the boots of the army:
    Sri Lanka: A hidden displacement crisis, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 31 October 2012, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full%20Report_1116.pdf
    b.Presidential Task Force for Northern Development consists of representatives from the central government and armed forces(18 Sinhalese and 1 Muslim) – reports say just what the govt wants – block the systemic development of the North

    2.After nearly 65 yrs of oppression resulting in the exponential socio-economic-environmental decay, they must be raising voices to stop the rot. Then they may try to give urgent material help. Not before stopping the POLITICAL oppression that automatically creates economic/social/cultural/environmental oppression.
    This ”giving” is not simply pouring water into a pot with holes at the bottom, but deflecting the attention away from the rot that is going on all over the North and the East. That will need ”giving” forever. OOps, soon there won’t be anybody to ”give” anything.

    3. Where was anybody and what was done to this:
    ‘’Instead of being resettled, hundreds of families from the four villages of Keppaplavu, Sooriypuram, Pulakudirppu and Seeniyamottai have been re-displaced after being dumped to fend for themselves in what can only be called a most basic camp for internally displaced persons in the middle of a jungle’’ – Menik Farm: The tragic end of a bitter saga, from detention to forced relocation, 2 October 2012, http://groundviews.org/2012/10/02/menik-farm-the-tragic-end-of-a-bitter-saga-from-detention-to-forced-relocation/

    Restrictions and intimidation on journalists covering resettlement process in the Vanni, 31 October 2012, http://groundviews.org/2012/10/31/restrictions-and-intimidation-on-journalists-covering-resettlement-process-in-the-vanni/

    To be continued

  • eureka

    4. ”Unity” is an inevitable result of some goals like ”justice for all citizens”. If you only SAY ”unity” and trample them what does that mean? A lot of things have been happening since the formation of Federal Party in 1949 – all to have ”unity” while trampling the Tamils. A small fraction of conscientious Sinhala voices for ”justice for all citizens” has always been muffled in various ways to this day.

    5. People interested in ”unity” would ask the govt to implement LLRC recommendations as a minimum towards ”unity”. They can ask the govt so many questions: why is that only the North and the East have retired army/navy personnel as Governors? Why have they been restricting aid from the UN and the ICRC and other willing aid agents? Why have they been preventing journalists from the North for a long time? Why have they been refusing psycho-social help and capacity buildin among the war-ravaged while they gave access to businesses selling liquor? Why have the army been supplying drugs and blue film freely to the youth in the North? – LLRC submissions by conscientious Sinhalese:
    ”But that truth cannot excuse human rights violations that currently afflict the nation as a whole; or for that matter obscure the looming threat of the cultural and political colonisation of the north by the Sinhala Buddhist majority” – Biased and Prejudiced Collection on Sri Lanka, *Gananath Obeyesekere, Economic & Political Weekly, VOL 47 No. 04, 28 January-03 February 2012 (*a Sinhalese Buddhist and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Princeton University), http://www.scribd.com/doc/82525102/Biased-and-Prejudiced-Collection-on-Sri-Lanka

    Why are they transferring their duty to concrete statues of Buddha and not base it on Buddhist philosophy? (when natural building materians are scarce for basic dwellings of our citizens)

    6.This is internal colonialism of 20/21C:

    7.Is the rest of the country in a satisfactory condition?

  • Strike One

    If readers ignore the slightly ‘holier than thou’ tone of this article, they will see that the writer has in fact raised some very important points to ponder vis-à-vis reconciliation, charity and ethics.

    Unfortunately many have failed to do so and instead have latched onto the rather simplistic ‘doing a little is better than doing nothing’ argument – which in fact the writer has addressed.

    I suspect that had the article been only critical of the government and the military the response would have been different. But because the writer criticizes what Dr. Jayatilleka aptly defined as a ‘Colombo cosmopolitan effort’, and because many of the readers of GV belong to this same demographic, the reaction has been…well… reactionary!

    I guess regardless of whether you’re a liberal or not, criticism stings when it hits a little closer home.

    Another worrying fact is that many have seen the writer’s advocacy of basic democratic principles like dignity, equality and freedom of expression as ‘lofty’ or even unreal. This shows the levels to which the war and the current status quo have made people cynical about even basic human rights. Looks like we still have a long way to go…

  • Jayalath

    We have exchanged enough ideas and views of many ways of many people to discuss about this reconciliation issue of north & east in pearl of Indian ocean . as far as I remember when LTTE was of their best time of upper hand that we spent 30 bloody years to discuss the same issue and did not work it at all at the end ., it was a great thought of reconciliation as now .

    Dearest people , why can’t we get away for a moment with this set of word of reconciliation and grapple the hands of real peace and harmony as a minimum respect for the animal humanity. These human animals are not living only in this island called pearl of Indian ocean , they are filled up every where you go in this beauty full world,I suppose , .many people in the world do not know how beautiful this planet is ,so , they fill up with number of heads by giving birth of not knowing the value of humanity.

    My friend, none of the government in this world can help to human errors now , as it is gone far too much . It has become to look after ourselves ,not only in Sri Lanka , just have a look around the world , all messed , shambolic .
    What we have to do is , change ourselves . If you are srilankan , tries to be srilankan as much as you can , give up thinking about partitions or race , always control the number of heads in a family ,which will help you in economically to brings up healthy educated children , if you think you cant afford to maintain a family or kids ,please stay away from thinking of habit doing things for nothing , this world is very complex and cynical , if we failed to live accordingly that we should be blamed by ourselves ,not others .

    This is my appeal to all citizen in every corner of this world , be aware , be wise , and learn from the human history
    , the good days we had is gone , the quality of life and integrity , kindness ,peace , harmony , respect , these are only in words brother , just imagine our monks , whom do they bless in daily basis ? For the all hypocrites , thieves, murderers, is it the right way ? No , but this is the system , new trend , modern way , latest way , technological way .

    Therefore , think twice and if you still cant understand , stand from your head and think whether that way will work .

  • Jayalath

    To attach to my previous comment above .

    I have felt my comment above could be triggered to offend some Tamil community , as i tried to explain it in deepest sense .also I thought it will be worth to discuss with This matter a bit wider consideration .

    Firstly , I would wish to assert that all I said was on intuitive sense and judgement not to be offensive or biased to any one or any country as far as I concern as that we all are crooks and hypocrites of all levels to greater extent .this is my very personal view to know any level of animal living in Sri Lanka or else where .

    I have noticed over reading the articals and comments of some people’s in this side in last few months that some writers and commentators had remarkably biased to individuals.which I do not want to do really.my concern is to take the issue into its deepest level and mean .
    Honestly, our debate is to find a reasonable solution to the Tamil people in the country . Which has been discussing for few decades between the incoming and outgoing governments of Sri Lanka. And with relation to the same discussion we have fought 30 years and still we are moaning about .
    This is the truth and facts . Where has gone wrong or who has gone wrong ? Are the Tamils right or the sri lankan gov is right ?

    No, no one is right , I do not accept the theory of gov neither nor Tamil . The gov has to accept the Tamils as own citizens and Tamils have to agree as own country not only the North .how can we instigate this theory in the community . That is the task and right thing to do , which might take many years , but it is the rational approach we could ever succeed to resolve this matter. In this case , the gov ‘s role is very important . The gov has to take the lead regardless arrogance and demonstrate the respect to the humanity.

    The Tamils in the country should learn to say without a fear ,that Sri lanka is our country . If we can make it happen in this regard that we can live in peace .
    So, it is not impossible if we could strengthene the dignity of humanity, as we are belonged to human beings .
    Unless , all other efforts being made ,such as giving bicycle and food parcels and etc will not be much valuable .

    Our crisis is not much complicate as palastian or Afganistan , only we need to train to respect each other .
    That is why I pointed out the change of attitude and behaviour .
    We are in a small country and a population , therefore , we should learn to live as a nation of one mother , not to fall on foreign traps .

    If we carried the way we do now ,as tensions between us the benifits will go to India or China ,they will purchase us . There are enough sighs already have appeared around us .

    However, this is my sincer thought of regarding the way out of crisis , and if you look out very carefully you will see what is happening around the world at this moment . In general the whole world is heading for a disaster , which has been predicted by many intellectuals around the world . ( not including mytheologists or superstitious believers )
    Therefore , our duty is very vital today , which only can win over an understanding the truth and rational thoughts .
    We need to uproot all we hold back and impoverish , especially primitive ideas . We need to renounce primitive religious thoughts in first place as it deters our rational journey toward better future . Some are believed that we still use only 25% of brain , so we need to use it further to archive miraculous things , to do so , we need to unify and put all of us brains together . Winning the universe is the ultimate objective of all of us , not segregate and kill ourself .

  • Been there seen that

    At least these people do not ask the kids to pray to their ( the givers) God after giving the bicycles, bags etc.

  • SDP.Selvan

    Once again this article & comments assure the hope against hopelessness in the midst of chaos we forced to live due to the dictatorship of cosmic armaments.
    De-Militarization is the urgent need for the resurrection of humanness in SriLanka beyond North & East provinces.
    If we started to listen the lamentations of at least few then definitely we can understand our own laments in a new life giving perspective as WOUNDED HEALERS with self criticism & openness which pave the way to foretaste or read retrospectively our stance & past-present life as community. This exercise can me named as DOING FACILITATION / INCARNATION.

  • Jacob Peiris

    Reconciliation is a journey. One cannot simply sit back and define how reconciliation should be achieved. There are a many different requirements, and different ways of going about it.

    There is an important role that the government has to play. De-militarization, restitution of lands, systematic devolution of power, restoring true equality, protecting rights and the likes are some important steps the government HAS to take to achieve national reconciliation. Rebuilding alone does not bring about reconciliation, and government should focus attention of the larger issues.

    There is a role the civil society should play. Let me analyse it in two levels.

    One is what the likes of Sri Lanka Unites do. That is bridging the gaps between the different ethnic groups, through genuine interaction and engagement. In fact, starting with the youth is a good approach, as their thinking is not tainted with the stereotypes and prejudices of our generation.

    The second is that as a result of such genuine interaction, challenge mindsets and empower the next generation to think differently. An entire generation that has got it right, is what we need to change this country. A generation who would exercise the franchise more responsibily. A generation that would stand up against injustice wherever and however it may happen. That kind of change can be brought about only through consistent engagement and challenging of people’s ideas.

    Today marks the death of democracy in Sri Lanka, with the CJ being impeached through a completely flawed process, with no regard to the “rule of law”.

    We need a generation that can revive and restore democracy and the rule of law.

    So, without debating on whose ‘reconciliation’ is correct, let us look at how each of us can contribute to the process.

  • Keynes!

    Amal,

    The Dilmah tea company is also involved in reconciliation. Please see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Dfu-jYR6xo

    What is your opinion of their approach? Are they better than SL Unites?