Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

Peace and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Is there a way forward?

Good Afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen and dear friends

I want to start my talk by bringing to the fore the experiences of another, which was seen as an intractable conflict – the apartheid struggle in South Africa.

In 1984, Mandela single handedly launched negotiations with the Afrikaner government. His reasons were simple and unambiguous.

There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence — against a government whose only reply is savage attacks on an unarmed and defenseless people. And I think the time has come for us to consider, in the light of our experiences at this day at home, whether the methods which we have applied so far are adequate.

He knew that for lasting peace he had to focus on what he had in common with those who were persecuting him.

Mandela said: We need to make peace with our enemies and not with our friends.

I strongly feel that this applies to all communities of people living in any country.

Are there any experiences that we can learn from this story of one of the world’s greatest moral leaders?

I think there is a lot to learn. Some of the major lessons that can be drawn out from the experiences of the South African struggle are:

Never let go of your dreams

Be courteous even to your enemies

Talk with those you are in strife with

You can negotiate with even the most intractable and difficult people

Don’t indulge in ‘them versus us’ thinking

I think this story also shows us the direction towards peace and national reconciliation in Sri Lanka.


It is in this political light I wish to address the material realties facing the inhabitants of the island.

At the outset can I state that I am not addressing you as a Sinhalese, but as a fellow human being regardless of whether you are Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher or member of any other community.

The Current Context

On 19 May 2009, President of Sri Lanka claimed military victory over the LTTE.

Given this victory was achieved through a brutal military onslaught; it seemed to have engendered immediate hopes of an era of reconciliation.

Many overseas countries including the United States commended the military defeat of separatism and went onto praise the Sri Lankan government for moving towards peace and making efforts to rebuild the country.

Though 240,000 internally displaced people have been allowed to resettle, many of them are still struggling to seek out a living.

More than 60,000 of them are still held in detention camps behind barbed wire.

In the north and the east, the government is said to have placed heavy emphasis on the development of infrastructure.

It is good to develop the economic sustainability of the people, living there under difficult intricate circumstances, yet we are aware that there may well be other agendas driving this infrastructural push.

Reports coming out of the country do not reflect a genuine desire or commitment for reconciliation by the government and their supporters.

The focus of the ordinary people living in war ravaged areas seems to be on the need to address the problems of the thousands who have lost their lives and limbs in the course of the war and to help their families to cope with the disaster of separation and loss.

Provision of employment opportunities and development of their livelihood have become major issues affecting their day to day survival.

Peace and reconciliation

Sri Lankan society is fractured along many fault lines.

It is not surprising to hear about various manifestations of racism within the Sri Lankan social fabric, which I consider as expressions of social exclusion.

A policy based on social inclusion has to fulsomely deal with not only such manifestations of racism, but also with poverty.

To my mind, any analysis of peace and reconciliation should commence with an analysis of economic injustice.

The government states that it aims to provide the benefits of peace in the form of a dividend to all its citizens with economic development spread throughout the island.

However, the economic picture seems much bleaker than the government admits.

The latest report I read was about the recommencement of blanket registration of Tamils by Police in many parts of Colombo where a sizeable Tamil community lives.

These harsh and arbitrary measures, 14 months after the end of the war, have created a sense of insecurity and injustice.

It is a move away from any serious effort towards peace and reconciliation.

Social exclusion and social inclusion

The measures the government has adopted do not seem to include a policy calculus with a genuine desire to address the issues that led to the ongoing conflict.

Over the years, a system of government has been built in Sri Lanka in which there is no accountability and transparency.

Security considerations and military operations are given the highest priority curtailing individual and group rights of all people in Sri Lanka.

Social exclusion in Sri Lanka can be partly defined as the living experience of the Tamil community because of the comprehensive policy calculus implemented for shutting them out of the socio-economic, political and cultural systems of the mainstream society.

Such measures caused and will continue to cause economic, social, political and cultural disadvantage.

The National question

The failure of successive governments to address social exclusion brought about alienation of communities and resulted in military conflicts both in the south and the north.

Both Sinhala and Tamil youth passionately contested these issues and sought alternative ‘other’ responses and failed miserably more than once.

If these tragedies are not to be repeated then the scope of formal equality defined in the laws, the constitution, and the human rights codes in Sri Lanka must proclaim the equality of all citizens living in Sri Lanka.

Citizens should be equally entitled to certain rights typically associated with a democracy.

The war between the government and the LTTE brought about a whole new set of tragic issues of helplessness, death and destruction to life and property.

Nevertheless, the desire for a fair and just political solution and peace with justice for those who are socially excluded has not come to an end.

The whole society including the political parties, their leaderships, communities of people and their leaders are divided on the issue of a political solution to the national question.

The standard prescription has been to find a structure of power sharing through devolution and regional autonomy.

Power sharing will weaken both the social forces that favour internal subjugation as well as those favouring separation.

This can only succeed in an environment of a strong leadership committed to power sharing arrangements.

Such an environment requires the building of a culture that treats the other with dignity, respect and fairness.

The three decades long separatist armed conflict and five decades long and ongoing political conflict were based on social exclusion and discriminatory measures adopted against the Tamil community.

The government does not seem to be pursuing a path to develop its long-promised political settlement to this issue.

The government seems not interested even in acknowledging or implementing what is already incorporated within the country’s Constitution.

Though such measures may not provide the Tamil community with what they have been asking for, the 13th amendment, if fully implemented may represent a certain measure of regional devolution.

Since the recently concluded Presidential and parliamentary elections, the government and President do not seem to have any urgency to provide a commitment or leadership to implementing at least a measure of regional autonomy.

Nationalist claims

The current political conflict cannot be oversimplified to a simple linear equation between development and peace.

While the effects of the war such as death, destruction, injury, displacement and underdevelopment were mainly borne by the Tamil and Muslim communities living in the north and east, the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in the south were also affected by the war and the resultant economic hardships.

As there is no memory of peaceful co-existence within the post-1983 Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim generations, it is not surprising that they look upon each other with hostility.

In my view, their thoughts are fathomed not by any rational analysis, but by the omnipresent rhetoric of historical and deep-rooted ethnic and religious differences.

This rhetoric has made these relationships more and more hostile towards reconciliation.

The political elite of the island who have made use of and are still making use of those historical, deep rooted ethno-linguistic and religious differences to consolidate their economic, social and family privileges and interests has done extremely well in ruining the harmonious relations the society enjoyed before.

The failure of the socio-economic and cultural systems in Sri Lanka needs to be understood in this context.

On the one hand, despite the political attempts to resolve the conflict through peace talks and cease-fires on more than one occasion, I believe that certain sections of the security forces assisted by certain ultra-nationalist forces ruthlessly undermined such efforts.

On the other hand, the LTTE never intended to abandon their goal of a separate independent state comprising the north and east of the island.

The Sinhala majority population wanted to annihilate such an attempt at any cost.

Muslims claim that they are entitled to their traditional land in the east.

They claim that they were subjected to targeted violence and ethnic cleansing by the LTTE.

Most of the rural Sinhalese only came to know the conflict through the loss of life and injury of their kith and kin enlisted in the armed forces or killed or maimed as a result of bombings.

The relationships among the ordinary Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala people have been seriously damaged by the armed conflict.

During and after the election of President Rajapaksa’s government, the alienation amongst the diverse communities of people has reached a crescendo.

So the opposition to achieving reconciliation through power sharing also has reached a climax.

Yet, the Sinhala people including Sinhala Diaspora also stands divided not only by their political affiliations but also by the issues related to their religion, caste, gender, language, class and individual and collective experiences.

The Tamil people including Tamil Diaspora also seem to have deep fractures.

However, I am not here to talk about those divisions; except to note that after the military defeat of the LTTE, these fissures seem to have become more apparent and overt.

It is also evident that the majority of Tamils living in the north and east and the majority of Tamil Diaspora still seem to insist on a rights based approach to a fair, just and equitable treatment.

Recent reports indicate that death squads are still operating in the island.

Incidentally, the subjects of these death squads do not extend to the family, friends and fellow travelers of the ruling elite.

What a coincidence?

The country’s highest court discarded the vital role international human rights law and international human rights bodies played and need to play in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.

The pledges the Sri Lanka government made to the United Nations are yet to be realized.

Yet, the UNHCR sees vast improvements in the island’s human rights situation.

Coincidently, the United Nation’s effort to investigate alleged war crimes by the parties to the conflict seems to have been sabotaged by the very government that the UN says, has improved its human rights record!

The international pressure exerted on the Sri Lankan political leadership through diplomatic and economic measures does not seem to have worked, mainly due to the military collaboration between the Sri Lankan government and a diversity of regimes ranging from capitalist to socialist and communist and also those in between.

The government’s economic partnership with regimes like China, Iran and Venezuela will reduce Sri Lanka’s economic dependence on Europe and the USA.

These are some of the features I can see in the local and global relationships relevant to Sri Lanka.

Is there a way forward?

The current socio-political and economic environment in the island does only provide an extremely narrow space to achieve peace and reconciliation among the communities of people, to develop a fair and just framework to address the national question.

This is because we have reached the lowest ebb in terms of relationship with each other.

Therefore, in the short term I cannot imagine achieving peace and reconciliation through the development of a framework based on fairness and justice.

This less than optimistic situation leads to certain pointers.

To achieve reconciliation, I strongly believe that we, the diaspora who are originally from Sri Lanka, may have a better chance and opportunity for mutual interaction; though even in that space, such interaction seems extremely limited.

Before the end of the military aspect of the conflict, the Diaspora was bogged down in extreme positions with no interaction or consultation with each other.

The Diaspora on its own need not try and impose a political agenda on the Tamil people living in Sri Lanka without genuinely consulting their wishes and expectations.

For decades, they have been kept down due to social exclusion practiced within and without, and also due to the armed conflict.

Nevertheless, as far as I am aware currently there is no such process afoot.

A principled human rights based approach could commence with arrangements to build a common movement to bring justice towards victims who have been subjected to a diversity of injustice and to redress the issues that led to three decades long armed conflict.

What I emphasize here is that trust building between the peoples need to start by making certain compromises that need to be worked out through political dialogue and negotiations with each other.

This raises the pertinent question: can such compromises be made under the current circumstances of human rights violations in the island?

As the short term objective of the ruling elite seems to be consolidation of their political power for safeguarding their economic, social and family interests and privileges, a principled or rights based approach to resolve the issues of Tamil people cannot be expected to materialize from the elite.

Furthermore, the current national and international political environment is not conducive for any armed opposition.

Yet, I believe that there is still space for non-violent political activities to build a strong and wide opposition movement.

For this to progress, engagement with diverse organizations that have been campaigning for protection of human and democratic rights of the people of Sri Lanka is necessary and essential.

Such organizations may include political parties and organizations, trade unions and non-governmental organizations.

If such political action does not materialize, rebuilding the fragmented social relationships in Sri Lanka will get much harder with each passing day.

For an agenda based on social inclusion to have an effect, we need to have space to discuss the many varieties of social oppression and exclusion prevalent in Sri Lanka and in the Diaspora.

There is no way we can move straight from a society based on social exclusion to a society based on social inclusion, because such a transition is not possible without a thorough social conversation and analysis.

Such a conversation and analysis require parallel efforts of critical examination of hierarchies of social oppression.

It also requires promotion of a program of transition to combine together the variety of unrelated and dissimilar movements that struggle against oppression, inequality and injustice.

Such social movements could be bound together by a kind of inclusion that would lead to the creation of a more just and equitable society.

For this to occur, consultative, participative, democratized, open consensus building is necessary.

Thus, a conversation on social inclusion can provide a coherent critical examination of the multiple forms of social and economic injustices and the concomitant institutional policy and program calculus.

So I believe the way forward for peace and reconciliation lies in exploring the potential for rebuilding inclusive relationships among the diversity of people through the existing and available dialogue and interaction mechanisms within communities both local and diasporic.

There should be attempts to expand such possibilities to create more space for dialogue and interaction.

However, such dialogue and interaction require a different and alternate understanding of socio-economic and cultural space, citizenship rights and necessary pre-conditions for social cohesion and inclusion.

This requires challenging the dominant Sinhala and Tamil discourse of social exclusion and stressing the politics of difference that needs to put issues of inequality and social and economic justice at the heart of the issue of social inclusion.

It is in this light I appeal to those who value democracy, freedom and liberty to actively show that they oppose the repressive political culture in Sri Lanka.

They need to exert pressure on the state to negotiate towards a meaningful and just power-sharing arrangement.

Sinhala and Tamil expatriates that helped perpetuate the conflict need to make a positive contribution to its resolution by engaging in dialogue within their community and with other communities.

They need to become drivers of this paradigm shift by creating a new reality through their interactions with each other.

This is not without historical precedent. It happened in South Africa and it can happen in Sri Lanka.

Thank you.

[Authors note: This was a speech delivered recently by me in Melbourne, Australia]