Post-War Reconciliation in Sri Lanka – A Reality Check

The Veddahs are the indigenous people of Sri Lanka. Inhabiting the island long before the Sinhalese and Tamils. They have been marginalised through out Sri Lanka. Originally jungle dwelling peoples, this Veddah community in Batticalao were chased out of the forest by Indian Peacekeeping Forces, they were then hit by the tsunami and recruited to fight for the LTTE during the war. They now live in a resetllement camp north of Batticaloa. Sri Lanka, February 2012.

Photo courtesy James Morgan

Text of the presentation at the seminar on “Peace and Reconciliation & Nation-Building”, organized by the Association for Social Development and held at Organization of professional Associations Auditorium, Colombo, on July 10, 2016.

I share the basic premise on which the theme of this seminar seems to have been constructed, that is, “peace and reconciliation are a prerequisite for nation-building in Sri Lanka.” I am also aware that there is a strong argument in political theory that war, conflict and violence are more important in nation building than peace and reconciliation.  There is indeed no shortage of theorists in Sri Lanka who advocate this particular argument with passion and conviction. I don’t intend to debate with that approach in my presentation today.

Let me first elaborate a little bit some conceptual significations of the three thematic components of this seminar.

Peace building after an internal civil war requires consolidation of ‘negative peace’ and taking concrete steps towards positive peace. Negative peace the absence of war and violence. Consolidation of negative peace entails its institutionalization as foundation for positive peace, which calls for two programmes, namely, (a) addressing the root causes of the conflict, (b) preventing recurrence of the conflict. Both these objectives are interrelated, one supporting and nourishing the other.

Consolidation of negative peace and inauguration of a positive peace-building project define the larger conceptual framework for policy within which reconciliation and nation-building can also be understood and elaborated in concrete terms.

Reconciliation is about bringing the parties, communities and peoples involved in the conflict together. Its objective should be setting in motion the beginning of a new political life under conditions of the absence of war and violence. In societies of conflict, reconciliation is necessitated by the breakdown of community relations during the protracted civil war in which violence, mutual hatred, and suspicion had defined inter-community relations.

Reconciliation presupposes a number of rather difficult things to do. Key among them are (a) reconciling with the violent recent past through a shared imagination between parties to the conflict to ‘understand and forgive,’ in order to negate the need to recur such violence; (b) building the political will among direct parties to the conflict in order to work together for rebuilding the polity and society in a new framework of shared political life,  (c) building positively new relations among the people and among communities to be able for them to imagine collectively a new ‘nation’ and a new political order, and (d) bringing the victim of war, violence and destruction out of an inner world of loss, defeat and despair to a outer world in which they are agents of their own destinies.

Nation building is a shorthand concept that encapsulates the larger political objective of both peace building and reconciliation. It actually refers to a dual political task of (a) rebuilding the nation as a pluralistic political community of equal citizens and ethnic groups that call themselves ‘nations’ or ‘nationalities’, and (b) rebuilding the state as a union of free, equal nations and nationalities on a new foundation of pluralism and democracy. Here, our emphasis should be on ‘rebuilding’ because, Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war has been about some fundamental inadequacies of how both the nation and state have been conceptualized and given concrete expression in our constitutions, laws, state policies, and state ideologies. The conflict, war and violence have also torn asunder the fragile foundations of the Sri Lankan nation and the state.

Now, when we put together these three thematic objectives, the policy package it presupposes is quite comprehensive and extensive. Its points to a concrete policy agenda marked by being a radical departure from the post-war approach that was advanced from 2009 to 2014. The leadership of the new government was brave enough to embrace and advance such a vision for Sri Lanka’s transition from absence of war to long-term re-building for peace and democracy. One and half years into this new agenda of peace building, reconciliation and political reforms, there are now signs of the process having entered a phase of unanticipated complexities. Its pace has been slowed down. Doubts are being expressed about the government’s commitment. And the broad political consensus required for the success of that radical reform project seems to be quite elusive.

In other words, this is the time for a reality check.

Reality is different from promises and rhetoric. Reality, if we recall a cliché, tastes bitter too. Let me very briefly make the following few points that constitute my reality check list.

What Next

Thus, my reality check does not offer any reason for those committed to the theme of this seminar to be jubilant. Nor is it a reason to be complacent. Their efforts need to be redoubled. Their short term efforts should be aimed at re-energizing the political leadership of this government to revisit their reform promises made early last year, to re-commit themselves to that reform agenda, to critically review the progress achieved and setbacks suffered so far, and begin a course correction initiative and then work hard to fulfill a promise that has a truly historical significance.