Groundviews

Bridging the gap: Understanding the needs and aspirations of post-conflict Sri Lanka

Featured image courtesy Tamil Guardian

There have been numerous debates along the lines of Sri Lanka’s ability to deliver Transitional Justice (TJ), how the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) should approach the TJ process and the people’s right to know, yet little is known about Sri Lankans’ attitude towards restorative justice. The way Sri Lankans evaluate TJ measures is clearly determined by their ability to understand not only the recent past in general and key historical events, but also the root-causes of the ethnic conflict.

Unsurprisingly, in various forums it has been emphasized that figuring out what actually happened, is in fact crucial. However, there are several issues that need to be critically scrutinized before we finalise and implement the truth seeking mechanism which is extremely important for an effective TJ strategy which would hopefully address the root causes of the civil war.

Firstly, we need to decide whether we are going to focus on key incidents or incidents occurred in certain period(s) of time or the entire post-independence period, if we are going to focus either on certain periods or major (incidents) how we are going to decide which period or which incident. Secondly, if we are going to focus on certain period(s) or times, how we are going to ensure that the history of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict can be described through these isolated narratives. Thirdly, whether Sri Lanka as a whole and different interest groups have the ability to sustain the pressure and tension of exposing difficult truths without jeopardising the reconciliation process. And finally, what Sri Lanka as a deeply divided country intends to do with the truth it seeks.

It is undisputable that figuring out what actually happened is vital for the implementation of the other three pillars namely, reparation, justice and accountability and institutional reforms or guarantees of non-recurrence. It is also equally undisputable that, although the truth sought through various truth-seeking mechanisms can be used for criminal prosecutions, it may potentially set back the process of reconciliation when all parties concerned view themselves as victims. Thus, the question remains – Does truth-seeking contribute to sustainable peace and reconciliation?

It is noteworthy that what occurred in the past thirty years or so was just one symptom of an underlying disease which is the institutionalised discrimination against minorities (ethnic, race, political ideology, gender, language, religious belief). But there are other elements that fanned the flames of hatred amongst different groups, including fear of extinction, ethnic politics, fear of loss of identity and increasing competition over vital resources. There have been several incidents which occurred over a period of 100 years – Sinhalese-Muslims riots in 1915, 1956 Gal Oya riots, Sinhalese-Tamil riots in 1958, Tamil-Muslim riot in April 1985, JVP insurgency in 1989 and forced expulsion of Muslims by LTTE in 1990 to name a few. A majority of Sri Lankans, especially the ones that get to elect top leaders need to understand that the minorities are only waging protests against inequalities and not against the majority community, whilst the minorities need to understand that the Sinhalese community has it is own reasons to feel threatened as they are a minority in the region. Nevertheless, majority of Sri Lankans believe in equality and respect for everyone, irrespective of religion, race, language, ethnicity and admire and respect the diversity of Sri Lanka which makes our country a unique and interesting place to live; recognizing our differences as plus, not minus; believing in co-existence and social harmony. Although, we cannot ignore the fact the radicals who are small in numbers, from time to time come up with fascinatingly creative ideas to sow hatred amongst different groups and it is our responsibility to prevent them from poisoning the rest of the country.

The GoSL has expressed its commitment towards achieving sustainable peace and providing a political solution to the ethnic conflict. However, the minority groups, especially the Tamils are sceptical as the GoSL has done little to nothing to win the hearts of the people or in building trust amongst different groups and in the government. Without attempting to address this trust deficit and find a common ground to create an attitudinal change for social justice and promote social harmony and to counter stereotypes, the initiatives taken by the government with or without the support of the international community isn’t going to reap anything fruitful. The obstacles faced by the Yahapalanaya government with regard to presenting of the 19th amendment to Parliament, challenges faced by the government in returning the lands back to Tamils and demilitarizing the North and East, and difficulties encountered in finding a common ground on constitutional reforms and solution for the national issue are but a few examples of conflicting understandings and ideologies amongst various groups. The Joint Opposition led by Parliamentarian Mahinda Rajapakse, who greatly benefitted from the political economy of hatred, which turned out to be short-lived, is waiting for an opportunity to make a comeback, has been a continuous threat to the current coalition government and the advisors to top leaders of the country as well as the leader of the opposition.

We have given ourselves, with the support of international community, a historic opportunity to address our differences. But the fact that a majority of the Sri Lankans lack sufficient knowledge of transitional justice, and the proposed transitional justice measures to be designed and implemented by the GoSL is an alarming state of affairs which will exclude them from this historic process. Although it is quite understandable and normal for the top leaders of the coalition government mostly, if not completely, made of self-serving politicians to maintain certain levels of secrecy to prevent extremist elements from manipulating the facts and dividing the parliamentarians in the Yahapalanaya government and the country, it is important to identify a strategy to educate the general public without jeopardising the reconciliation process to make this process inclusive and meaningful.

It is time for Sri Lankans to decide whether they want to continue to live in a system that favours certain people because they belong to one particular identity or follow a particular ideology or unite to build up a new system that protects anyone and everyone irrespective of that individual’s identity or ideology. It is undisputable that Sri Lanka is a diverse country and we need to learn to accept each other for who they are. For a country with a literacy rate of 92%, arguing who came first and who came last sounds highly preposterous.

Thus, it is critical for Sri Lankans to plan their strategy to bring a change from within to address the underlying root causes of the ethnic conflict in the most amicable way. Meanwhile it is the duty of top political leaders to introduce political reforms to counter the culture of ethnic politics and to send the message of reconciliation across their respective constituencies as well as the Island.