Colombo, End of war special edition, Identity, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

WINNING THE INVISIBLE CONFLICT: Is Sri Lanka headed for sustainable peace?

On Tuesday 19th May 2009 – the day after the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka, declared victory over the Tamil Tigers, bringing to a close 26 years of conflict. With the routing of the LTTE, and the reclamation of all occupied territory, it was announced that the conflict in Sri Lanka had come to an end.

The cost of this declared victory was immense. At least 90,000 people were estimated to have been killed, the majority of those innocent civilians; hundreds of thousands were internally displaced, and interned, having lost everything they owned; tens of thousands of families were left without an adult who could earn a livelihood; and over 10 percent of the population were estimated to be suffering from trauma – many of them orphans, widows, and ex-combatants. The cost of conflict was not merely human. For decades Government spending has been ploughed into the military machine rather than servicing economic and social growth; 60% of homes in the north have been seriously damaged by fighting, whilst infrastructure has been devastated; uncertainty and lack of opportunity have led to Sri Lankan ‘brain drain’, with many highly educated and skilled people of every ethnicity leaving these shores; and investment potential has not been realized.

Creating Order from Chaos
In the chaotic immediate aftermath of the conflict, over 250,000 people were detained in holding centres; the army grew, the defense budget increased, and the newly liberated Northern Province became a security zone, raising international concern. Since then, however – though it has taken its time – a degree of order has been restored. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 216,000 IDPs have returned home, with 73,000 remaining in camps; the land is being demined; investment is returning to the North; and a number of government and INGO schemes have been launched to create sustainable livelihoods and develop much needed infrastructure.

Despite world recession, the economy has picked up; share prices have risen; and Sri Lanka has been touted as one of the most favourable investment opportunities in South Asia. Significant trade deals have been secured with China and other Asian neighbours; tourism is up 50% on last year; and an IMF loan has been secured to support the country’s restoration.

The recently concluded Presidential elections reelected president Mahinda Rajapaksa, achieving just shy of a two-thirds majority; emergency powers have been partially relaxed; and the President has declared his commitment to national unity through the appointment of an eight member ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’.

In Search of the Truth
In constituting the Commission on 15th May 2010, the President stated that ‘having regard to the common aspirations of all we have collectively resolved that our people are assured an era of peace, harmony and prosperity’. The Commission is charged with conducting enquiries and producing a report which will – amongst other objectives – propose measures ‘to promote further national unity and reconciliation among all communities’.

This is a bold statement of intent, and one which has been viewed with some skepticism within, and particularly beyond, Sri Lanka. Critics point to a general absence of concrete measures of restitution and reconciliation over the preceding 12 months. Stability and security have undoubtedly been reestablished, but at the expense of human rights, and the Convention to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. Concern has been repeatedly expressed about the detention and treatment of civilians, the harassment of the media, the lack of an independent judicial system, and the opaqueness of the democratic system which saw the leading presidential opponent to Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka, forcibly incarcerated and awaiting trial. International concern has resulted in punitive measures, including the loss of the GSP+ trade preferential status, valued at an estimated $135million, and arguably contributing to a drought in international aid – with the UN reporting that the country is only receiving 24% of the donor monies it requires to support the necessary development activity.

The Commission is a late but welcome initiative to counter international accusation. Yet some suggest that the Commission itself has only been established in an attempt to deflect interest from the findings of the UN ‘Panel of Experts’ tasked with looking into human rights issues in Sri Lanka, announced by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in March 2010, and that its report will be valueless. The proof of its worth will be in the recommendations that the Commission makes, and in the degree to which those recommendations are implemented.

Origins of the Conflict
Before looking towards the future, it is necessary to look to the past. The root causes of the Sri Lankan conflict pre-date the country’s independence. In 1948, at the handover of power, the position and influence of Tamils over many institutions within the country was disproportionate to the size of the Tamil community itself. Moreover, the Sinhala – though a sizeable majority within Sri Lanka – recognised a potential threat in the greater Tamil majority across the shallow waters in India. Ethnic differences were exacerbated by different religious, social and cultural practices, and though these were partially integrated, both ethnicities were proud of their identity, and perceived it to be at threat from the other. Almost the only constant through time from any ethnic group in Sri Lanka – for the Muslim community should not be overlooked – has been a reluctance to concede sufficient ground to forge a truly plural society. Discontent has always threatened to flare up into conflict on a local, regional or national level, as the desire to assert identity and self-hood overwhelmed a desire for coexistence.

The formation of the LTTE was initially an embodiment of Tamil disillusionment and loss of identity (to counter the strong identity of state, which assumed a predominantly Sinhala guise), though it went on to assume a grotesque identity of its own which bore little resemblance to the aspirations of most Tamils. Few people, of any allegiance, would argue against the need to break the LTTE because of what it was (though not for what it purported to represent ideologically.) Through time, the LTTE demonstrated that it harmed all communities and represented none. It was arguably more interested in its own struggle and survival than in the creation of a state of Eelam, instinctively recognizing that a peaceful solution of any kind would not have suited it, since neither Prabhakaran nor the organisation itself would have had a place within a united state. The LTTE was led by a despot, with no real intention to deliver anything other than instability; and its means was a corps of exploited individuals, indoctrinated within a fanatical culture, too young to have known anything other than war. The continuance of the LTTE lay in the continuance of the conflict, and the LTTE’s behaviour demonstrated such – proving more extreme the more their powerbase was eroded.

On the 18th of May 2009 I was up early to join the walking meditation conducted by my professor John Paul Lederach before his ‘Moral Imagination’ class began. It was at this moment I heard about the historical victory. I have never wished that I was home as much as I did that day! But all I could do was to send a message from the ‘Father of Conflict Transformation’ to my people back home:

As he states, the mistake to be made is in supposing that eliminating the LTTE equates to eliminating the conflict. Though the conflict with the LTTE is over, the root causes which in part were responsible for giving that entity its birth have yet to be addressed. Underlying ethnic divisions remain, fuelled by a sense of inequality and discrimination, and manifested by lingering suspicion and fear. The purely military solution that the Government of Sri Lanka both promised and delivered on has merely eradicated extremist opposition. It has not – in itself – reunited the people of Sri Lanka. Necessary as it may have been, a military solution alone can never do more than contain or prevent the appearance of discontent. It cannot address the root causes of conflict. Nor can it convert a culture of suspicion and fear into one of mutual trust and respect, which is needed to forge national unity.

A Process for Reconciliation
In scope, the Commission’s mandate encompasses a broad range of investigation – from ‘whether any person, group, or institution directly or indirectly bears responsibility’ for the failure of the 2002 ceasefire and the sequence of subsequent events, to lessons learnt, restitution and reconciliation. The wording implies a desire to seek both accountability and justice. These are both virtuous aspirations. However, if the Commission is truly to support the process of national unity, these terms require some definition. Accountability needs to range across all stakeholders who were engaged in the conflict – not merely the defeated party – and should embrace the accountability of the commissioning agent to act upon the recommendations received. Justice may follow judicial system, particularly in relation to criminal law, but it should also be restorative.

Almost exactly three years ago, an article in the Daily Mirror, entitled A Need for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Sri Lanka, argued strongly that ‘a wrong committed against a person or against a collection of persons is tantamount to a wrong against an entire nation’, and that ‘a consensus of the whole of society that… justice must be rendered to the nation as a whole’ – enabled by a determined leadership – was needed to bring about unity. All people are equal in a democracy; and people need to participate for democracy to survive. These are fundamental truths which need to be asserted most when the state needs healing and making whole. Under such circumstances, the most appropriate form of justice is restorative not criminal.

So what exactly is restorative justice? According to Dr Howard Zehr, my Professor of Restorative Justice at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding at the Eastern Mennonite University, restorative justice ‘involves those who have a stake in a specific offence collectively identifying and addressing harms, needs and obligations, in order to heal and put things right’. It requires recognition of the people who have been hurt, and what they need (in order to alleviate that hurt). Similarly, it recognizes who has an obligation for causing that hurt, and what process can be put in place to make things right. It brings two parties together in the understanding that unless and until the truth has been told, however unpalatable it might be, in the open and forgiveness sought, there can never be any reconciliation. This is true whether it be two individuals, two factions, two communities, two ethnicities/cultures or two countries. Restorative justice is about healing, not judgment; about recognizing the uniqueness of a situation and individuals, not blindly following the rule-based system of law; it is about compassion not control; about dialogue not advocacy; about recognition of the harm, and not apportionment of guilt. Restorative justice empowers people who are typically silenced or marginalized; it deals with people, not process and system; it builds rather than fragments communities; and it is cathartic – a legitimate end in itself.

Restorative, participative and transparent justice is not new to Sri Lanka. The Gamsabhawa (or village council) had a mandate to maintain local peace and harmony by facilitating the amicable settlement of disputes, which dates back to 425BC. Similarly, the head priest of the village temple took an active role in dispute resolution. Both processes were traditionally conducted in the open air – in a shed without walls, or under a tree – where any member of the village could come and observe, or give testimony that would be taken into account in the matter heard. Both offender and victim were given a chance to relate their side of the story, to explain what had happened and how they felt. When all had been heard, the community as a whole decided what recompense was due the victim, what justice should befall the offender, and what action was needed to ensure that the incident would not ever happen again. There, in the open, before so many witnesses, there could be no deception or manipulation – either in the telling, or in the process that followed – and the strength of the community was such that all were keen to keep it together, rather than fragmenting, punishing and bringing shame.

What We Should be Mindful of for the Future
With the passing of the first anniversary of the end of the conflict, the government and the civil society must be mindful of the dangers of suppressing the needs of victims to express themselves and find their own individual and collective peace, whether through excessive security, undue force or exploitation of their vulnerability. We should take care not to create space for further discontent or the potential uprising, destroying yet more innocent lives and valuable infrastructure as has been witnessed in Angola, Bosnia and former Yugoslavia. Instead, we should draw on the examples of building sustainable peace, as has been achieved in Mosambique, Northern Ireland and Nepal, as articulated by Dr Brubaker in my interview with him:

Victory breeds hatred in the conquered. The defeated live in sorrow.
Giving up both victory and defeat, the appeased live in peace.
Dhammapada, 201.

End of War Special Edition