Colombo, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Post-War, Reconciliation, Vavuniya

A critique of Sri Lanka Unites: Freedom has NOT made itself known

“After 25 years, terror, war, and violence have lost their grip, and freedom has finally made itself known” ~ Prashan De Visser, President, Sri Lanka Unites

While acknowledging the meritorious work of Sri Lanka Unites and the passion being exhibited by such young people in contrast to the general apathy of most of their peers, as a Sri Lankan I feel it is my duty to bring to note certain issues that must be brought to light.

Firstly, I am astounded and dismayed by Prashan De Visser’s message to the participants of the  “Future Leader’s Conference” organized by Sri Lanka Unites. It requires a level of supreme audacity or ignorance to proclaim that “freedom has finally made itself known” when we are currently under the aegis of a tyrannical terror state. Over 300,000 of my fellow citizens are living in sub-human conditions, 18 journalists have been killed under the current regime and Tamil’s are still  treated as second class citizens and Prashan De Visser proudly proclaims (to kids who are likely to have relatives in the IDP camps) that they are now free. Moreover, no mention appears to be mentioned of the fact that ‘Young Leaders’ from the Killinochchi and Mullaithivu districts could not attend. As a Sri Lankan, I demand an apology from Prashan De Visser and Sri Lanka Unites and call upon the Trustees of Sri Lanka Unites to conduct an investigation into the Sri Lanka Unites Team’s conduct.

Secondly, Sri Lanka Unites has consistently appears to be biased and seemingly intolerant of diversity. A quick glance through the “Future Leader’s Conference” handbook reveals a majoritarian psyche. Although the LTTE and its abuses are repeatedly ostracized there is no mention of the numerous abuses committed by present and past Sri Lankan governments. Unlike many white South Africans, who live with deep anguish about their collective responsibility for apartheid no remorse was exhibited by the leaders of Sri Lanka Unites for either the LTTE’s or GOSL’s atrocities. Furthermore, there is no mention of the indismissable structural issues that have been the issue of so much contention of the past 50 years eg the language issue. Anushka Wijesinha, Assistant Vice President, uses the phrase “separatist LTTE”, this conjoinment of words in an atmosphere where the LTTE is disparaged makes separatism ie the desire for a separate state evil; without any sort of qualification as to why its so.

Thirdly, following on from above, the conference in its sessions failed to answer pertinent questions such as “Why should Sri Lanka be united?”, “Is there such a entity as a Tamil/Sinhala nation?”, “Should Sri Lanka have devolution of power and sovereignty?”. Never was the question brought up “What can we do to change society so that Tamil being an official language is implemented?” or “What can we do against discrimination against Tamils?”. Also, issues related to vital constitutional reform were utterly neglected: I am very curious as to what Sri Lanka Unites’ response will be to the issue of Buddhism being virtually the State religion. How can members of all faiths be united when one faith has is “fostered” by the Constitution (which is supposed to represent all people). Sri Lanka Unites exhibited gross insensitivity to one of the primary causes of division when, in its handbook, it permitted the publishing of two advertisements: one was entirely in Sinhalese, the other entirely in English.

Fourthly, but what can one expect. It was extremely disappointing to look at the speaker line up for the conference. Of the 8 speakers none of the minorities were represented, with the exception of Kumar Rupesinghe and perhaps Jayantha Dhanapala there were no people who have seriously worked toward reconciliation. Although Sri Lanka hosts a respected think tank on ethnic studies in the form of ICES, no one appears to have been invited from there, nor was anyone there from the CPA. If one perhaps wanted to be a bit less controversial someone like Jehan Perera or even Vasudeva Nanayakkara could have been invited. Generally speakers appeared to justify or at least did not seriously challenge the existing discriminatory structure in Sri Lanka or present methods to reform it.

Fifthly, Sri Lanka Unites has entirely ignored the issue of class and regional unity. While being careful to present an ethnically diverse Committee and to some extent Trustee Board Sri Lanka Unites does not have representation from the majority socio-economic groups or regions. In fact, all the trustees are from Colombo and 7 of the 16 are captains in the private sector. Similarly, none of the Sri Lanka Unites Team reside outside Colombo with only one hailing from the ‘districts’. Moreover, there appears to be no initiative or desire to bridge the immense class/social gaps that plague Sri Lanka.

Sixthly, Sri Lanka Unites appears to continue the venerable Sri Lankan tradition immortalized by the ‘Uncle Nephew Party” and of between the Trustees and the Committee there are three parent-child links. Not only is such an arrangement unprofessional but is a moral hazard in a country where corruption and nepotism are rife. It appears that Anushka Wijesinha’s “stringent checks and balances” may appear to be in vain.

Seventhly, Dhishan Wickramaratne jubilantly celebrates his self-defined Sri Lankan identity by writing “We are Sri Lankan!” in the conference handbook. If I were a child in an IDP camp (to use a caricatured yet legitimate example) I would think:

  1. I cannot conduct significant amounts of business with the Sri Lankan State in my language
  2. The Sri Lankan State consciously killed members of my family via artillery fire
  3. I am a prisoner who has committed no crime
  4. I am subjected to endless discrimination

Therefore, it appears that Sri Lanka doesn’t accept me. Hence, such a child cannot and will not feel that he/she is Sri Lankan and we cannot expect that to be. Dhishan Wickramaratne perhaps might be more careful to say “Let us work to creating a Sri Lanka for all”.

Eighthly and finally, Sri Lanka Unites, as may be expected from an organization of this nature whose board lacks serious peace activists, has fundamental philosophical weaknesses that must be rectified before it is able to reunite Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka as a unitary state is arguably not taken for granted by a majority of the minority Tamil community and must be convinced of its viability. Ignoring discriminatory policies and expecting unity is naïve. Sri Lanka Unites must work for unity based not on forgetting the past but by dealing with the basic issues that cause disunity, which appear to be utterly disregarded. I must ask why wasn’t the possibility of a peaceful two-state solution even discussed? The basis of achieving unity appears to be that of a victor’s peace. You have to unite regardless of whether you desire to do so. Sri Lanka Unites should focus on making people desire to unite for their common good. The prerequisites for unity and reconciliation are equal rights, opportunity and freedom for all (including minorities) – reconciliation cannot be achieved without rights.

[Editors note: For a comprehensive response by Sri Lanka Unites to this critique, please read Sri Lanka Unites: Our vision and work]