Groundviews

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

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.