Groundviews

On the path of reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Featured image courtesy Afriel Youth Network

“Knowledge is power vs. power is knowledge”

Politics has played a significant role in the Sri Lankan conflict which some consider to be an “ethnic” conflict, some as a “civil” war while others as a “state versus terrorist” war. Moving aside from the semantics and syntax, the conflict itself caused significant pain and turmoil in the hearts and minds of people across the island and even among communities abroad.

In this article I hope to focus on a key issue that runs through our country – division. I argue that the current negative “attitude” towards dialogue and exchanges in inter-ethnic communities are fueling existing divisions among them, i.e. that conversations with supposed/alleged “extremists” (often grouped as a set of individuals not entirely in the same frame of mind as most, belonging mainly to the minority ethnic communities) is not conducive to peace. Reconciling this ‘two-sided’ division and coming to a consensus is key to solving the issues that has plagued our country since the time of independence.

To look back at the quote I wrote above, many reiterate that knowledge is power; but this relationship can be inverted. For example if one has “power”, say in terms of legislative power or executive power, then that individual has power over the knowledge of the other. Thereby the person who possesses “power” has the ability to regulate and decide what sort of knowledge becomes disseminated among the people of the country.

One of the key issues in the discourse between the varied communities of the country during the last few years has been reinterpreting versus revisiting the past. The historical analogies as against the historic differences between the communities have been a topic that many learned intellectuals have commented on in the past and present. The fact that, each “ethnic” side promulgates its own unique and ‘independent existence’ in relation to the other, is by nature divisive and is not conducive in leading to societal assimilation and/or political accommodation among the different communities of the country. This sometimes violent contention that has divided society in the past and continues to do so at present must be stopped and increased dialogue through a holistic framework must be promoted.

While our diplomats-since independence-led the way in the diplomatic problem solving of contentious issues, Sri Lanka has not been effective in diplomatically solving its “ethnic” grievances and its power sharing methods. Both in 1972 and 1977, the constitution(s) were hailed as “great” from one side and vehemently condemned by the other. More often than not, the media (mainly newspapers) played into the hands of the side in power resulting in the diminishing of criticism regarding the frailties and weaknesses of the constitution(s). Moreover when such news items were relayed to the people they, more often than not, showed the ‘Sinhalese’ (often the opposition party to the government) condemning the actions of the ruling party; principally due to party politics. The ideas of the minorities were rarely expressed in many media outlets and unfortunately that seems to be the case even at present.

Most often causes for interstate conflict (which is a rising trend in the Asian and African region) are political exclusion, communal and economic grievances. I believe that Sri Lanka is a case in point. Many scholars have repeatedly stated that ‘Sinhalese’ Sri Lankans are a majority with a minority complex. What does this lead to? What are the implications of this attitude? Well to put it simply, this makes the path to reconciliation and consensus that much more difficult. This may have even resulted in many Sinhalese being averse to the concept of devolving increased power and to the firm holding by some, of the need for the “unitary” clause in the new constitution; despite the fact that many probably do not know exactly what this entails.

Likewise, the exclusivist nationalistic direction of political parties since the time of independence bears claims to the divisive society which Sri Lanka has transformed into over the years. Fears of losing the independent identity bears quite strongly in the minds of certain minority leaders. Another issue is that many in the Sinhalese community believe they know what is best for their Tamil “breathen”. When the Tamil politicians, elected by the majority Tamils in certain areas of the north, claim certain requirements and rights for the benefit of the minority Tamils of the country such politicians are challenged and accused as “extremist” and “hate spreaders” who only want to see the country divide into two.

Political representatives tend to voice issues that appeal to the people; and if devolution appeals to the people of the north should not we at best listen and construct a space in which constructive dialogue is possible so that a consensus of power sharing can be reached? Accusing any and every proposition brought forward by minorities as “extremist views” will hardly help towards the process of reconciliation and transitional justice.

Regardless of whether that is the best alternative (and devolution in itself has many nuances) to solve the power sharing issues of our country, isn’t it important to bear in mind that they have been “elected” by the Tamils for voicing out what the Tamil people believe in? So then how could a Sinhalese section of the country decide what is best for the Tamils and what the Tamils ‘really’ want? This “hurting stalemate” will only continue to exacerbate and fester. As Amjad Saleem notes:

“We have to acknowledge each other’s narrative and hear the other’s stories. This intellectual empathy ensures that people who are in conflict with each other will have to acknowledge that everyone has justified grievances and will also allow the disagreement of someone’s view, analysis or policy without doubting their sincerity and loyalty.” [i]

Some Sinhalese believe that since the war has ravaged the area in the north, the north should only be awash with development and reconstruction activities. Yes, that too is important but what about the Tamil leaders who have been elected from the overwhelmingly Tamil constituencies in the north? Should not they be consulted? The ‘Ancelor Mittal’ housing project [ii] is a clear example of why consultations with representatives [iii] are vital; especially in the case of economic infrastructure. Should not they be given the authority to decide in tangent with the people who elected them, what they want first? Should not their voices be heard? Because they are the legitimate representatives of the Tamils who voted for them regardless of how some may feel towards them. As Rajiva Wijesinha points out: “it would have been more advisable to devolve administrative matters to smaller units.” [iv] I believe increased devolution of powers beyond purely administrative powers, if managed properly, would be conducive to healing the tensions and mistrust among the communities of the country.

If Tamil politicians were to advocate notions and ideas that the Tamils do not want they would lose out in the elections. So how can a certain section of population decide on the future of the entirety of the country? Where is the concept of inclusive democracy in that? The trust deficit that exists today has to be overcome; not just in the case of politicians of either side but also in terms of people to people dialogue. If separatist opinions is being expressed and if extremist ideologies that would detract the existing consensus is being voiced then that individual(s) should be branded as such by all ethnic communities; not just one.

To make Sri Lanka truly inclusive much more needs to be done in reforming the minds of the people. Not just the Sinhalese but also the Tamils. Minorities must feel that the government in power is not a ‘Sinhalese’ government but a ‘Sri Lankan government’ that feels and understands the heartbeat of all communities of the island. Actions need to be taken to fulfill that belief.

Sinhalese on the other hand, must understand that they cannot impose their will on the minorities and that the needs and voices of the minorities must be heard. The best way to do so is to have; on one hand more people-to-people engagement through grassroots movements linking all communities; as well as listening to and addressing the grievances of the Tamils as voiced by the representatives of the Tamils and arriving at a consensus regarding their needs and requirements through a holistic framework and all-inclusive democratic compromise.

Sri Lanka, with the ending of the war, needs more empathy and less emotional thinking and emotionally-subjective rationalizing. Through violent contentions, narrow viewpoints and by driving nationalistic agendas (that may be divisive in nature) we can only continue the never ending argument of why the war started and what the Tamils of the country really need.

To quote Mahendran Thiruvarangan:

“To imagine the Other in us empathetically and through our reflections on our own commissions and omissions towards it is an act of translation that helps us see our connectedness with and responsibility towards the Other and our involvements in the actions that affect it. This process of translation gives birth to a politics that helps us become conscious of the idea that our togetherness should also represent a form of political solidarity.” [v]

I believe that more needs to be done in empathizing and lending an ear to their grievances instead of emphasizing what certain sections of the population believe is what all of the people of the country wants.

If differences persist consensus needs to be obtained from dialogue; not debate. Remembering that this is not an argument and that the stakes involve the entire country’s future should guide our actions. The expected results must lead to the success of the entire country and not just one “side”. The country wins when all “sides” feel that their legitimate grievances has been looked into and when they feel incorporated into the decision making process of the country.

Many Sinhalese believe that reassurances of the ‘actual’ intentions of the Tamils should be clearly defined and contextualized to start such a process. Those willing to listen to Tamil representatives (voicing out the needs of the Tamils in the north) would listen, provided that a space is created for the Tamil politicians to voice the grievances of the Tamil people. The Sinhalese feel that concessions and the ‘willingness to compromise’ from the Tamils are also essential in order to reach to an acceptable conclusion to existing problems.

Some shun the Tamil representatives and instead believe that they know what is best for the Tamil people and wish to legislate on behalf of them. This is the same mentality that brought about the much hated Sinhala Only Act of 1956, Ceylon citizenship Act of 1947 and other legislation including the standardization of university admission that alienated much of the Tamils of the country. Continuing in that blind belief that Sinhalese know what is best for the Tamils will only cause more tensions and more problems because with little or no interaction between Sinhalese politicians and people with the Tamil people of the north the chances that they know or understand the actual problems of the Tamil people is highly unlikely.

To move forward, Sri Lanka must become a pluralistic society and this should be enshrined in the new constitution and in the hearts and minds of the people. As Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy articulates: “Pluralism- or the respect for diversity- along with caste, class and gender remains a major fault line of South Asia- the politics of which threatens to tear apart South Asian societies.” [vi]

This must be the foundation upon which the future Sri Lanka should develop. And I believe that:

“The first stage could be one of creating a new Sri Lankan society, consciousness and citizenry, based on the equality of citizenship, integration and pluralism, multiculturalism and meritocracy, and the elimination of racism and racial discrimination in all its forms.” [vii]

Knowledge is power, just as power leads to knowledge in certain situations. At present the politicians who have this “power” must focus on the empowerment and education of citizens regarding the need for empathy and motivate them towards the creation of a political solution instead of driving communities further apart through divisive ethno-nationalistic exclusivism. The future betterment of the country depends on the healing process undertaken by the government and the people. Steps towards justice, accountability and the development of a consensus oriented framework, in which all Sri Lankans can participate and engage, are essential prerequisites for an inclusive democracy to thrive and grow.


i Saleem, Amjad Mohamed. “3 Years On, a Hurting Stalemate in Sri Lanka.” Groundviews. 06 Dec. 2012. Web.

ii Samarakoon, Justin. “Despite Protests, Arcelor Mittal Seems Set to Secure a $1 Billion Housing Contract in Sri Lanka.” Scroll.in. 28 Mar. 2016. Web.

iii “How Was Arcelor Mittal Awarded 65,000 Housing Project?” Sumanthiran Demands Answers.” Colombo Telegraph. 7 Apr. 2016. Web.

iv Wijesinha, R. (2005). Political principles and their practice in Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Foundation Books Pvt. Ltd.

v THIRUVARANGAN, MAHENDRAN. “Seven Years After the End of Sri Lanka’s Civil War: Mahendran Thiruvarangan.” Kafila. 19 May 2016. Web.

viCoomaraswamy, Radhika. “Religion and Politics in South Asia.” Groundviews. 25 Jan. 2014. Web.

Vii Jayatilleka, Dayan. “INCREMENTAL SECESSIONISM: WHY DEVOLUTION MUSTN’T BE OPEN-ENDED.” Groundviews. 25 June 2012. Web.