Mannar, Peace and Conflict, Reconciliation

Synthesis of Personal Reflections: Reconciliation, Sri Lanka Unites and Me

Ever since reading the article by E Pluribus Unum on Groundviews “A Critique of Sri Lanka Unites: Freedom has not made itself known”, I have felt compelled to respond to it,  but was unsure about how and when . At the back of the triumph of the “Future Leaders Conference, Season-2”, I think the time is now ripe. This reflection serves to share my personal insights into several arguments raised by Mr. E Pluribus Unum and other relevant issues.

What does reconciliation mean for an 18 -year -old, middle class lad from Mannar? What does absence of war mean to a person who has had firsthand experience of discrimination, shelling, killing, heavy checking  and pass systems? Is there a difference between War and No War?

My personal understanding of reconciliation is, at the core, a fundamental transformation which turns hatred into love. From an 18 year old perspective reconciliation bears little or no relevance to the prevailing political situation, to the existing holes in our constitution or to the level of commitment  to implement the 13th and 17th Amendments. Personally for me, if a fellow Sinhalese citizen can accept me as a “Sri Lankan Tamil human being” who is entitled to enjoy every right and privilege he/she enjoys, and most importantly forgives me for the role I’ve played directly or indirectly to the conflict, and asks for forgiveness for his/her role either direct or indirect, that is reconciliation. It is also my understanding that the process of reconciliation begins with me, not anyone else.

Even though a positive constitutional reform or the implementation of the 13th and 17th amendments would without doubt contribute to peace and reconciliation on a national scale my belief is that these short comings should not deter anyone from actively seeking reconciliation with others from  different ethnic backgrounds.

The importance of appreciating diversity, celebrating our differences, and valuing others

On the third day of “Future Leaders Conference-2010”, Colombo Chargers, the group I was part of, decided to fast as an expression of solidarity with our fellow Muslim team mates who are celebrating the Holy month of Ramadan. It is important to note that it was an entirely student initiative. It  proves that there is willingness and potential among the present generation of youth to embrace other cultures and celebrate their uniqueness.

Here are some questions addressed to different speakers  during the Q&A time of the conference , which would support my argument.

“How can Tamils claim to be citizens of Sri Lanka, when the general feeling/mindset is that constitution deprives Tamils from becoming head of state?”

“Durable political solution or economy and infrastructure development, which is the  priority?”

I was honestly surprised and also moved by the reality that these types of questions were coming from Sinhalese students, and I consider them to be reflections of the younger generation’s feelings toward Tamils. There were many other equally bold questions that were relevant to the country’s current state of affairs, which also shows that the youth of this country are aware of present political context.

During the art project time and sports time one positive characteristic which prevalent was willingness to listen, valuing others’ ideas. Throughout the two hours we spent on it, despite the language barrier, we were able to communicate effectively and incorporate everyone’s ideas and  together create a magnificent piece of art that spoke for itself.

When I got back home and shared some the above feelings with my father, he  was surprised. But, he also noted “our country’s system is so corrupt all this idealism will soon wane out”. I realized that there was an element of truth to what he said which led me to realize the significance of preserving, conserving, and cultivating these values and feelings.

The role of Sri Lanka Unites in my life

Sri Lanka Unites has added meaning to my life by inspiring me to work courageously in the present and also hope for the future.

The more I got involved, the more I became aware that reconciliation is indeed possible and Sri Lanka does have a future to hope for. The more I became involved the more I was aware of the role I can play with my capabilities in making reconciliation a possibility. The more I got involved the more I was able to discover my potential and also my weaknesses.

This April our school’s Sri Lanka Unites Club organized a three -day residential conference for 40 potential student leaders drawn from around Mannar. The conference helped us to raise awareness on wide ranging topics. Significantly it enabled us to take the message of reconciliation to the grassroots level. With perseverance we managed to convince the Danish Refugee Council to fund us. We also managed to rope in several key figures in Mannar to speak on topics like Leadership, Self management, Sexuality, Child Rights, Importance of Documentation etc. The whole exercise demanded a lot patience and hard work. The days that preceding the conference were learning curve to all of the team. The most valuable lesson of all was the value of Commitment.

The last day’s theme was peace and reconciliation. We contacted Prashan De Visser, President -Sri Lanka Unites (Prashan Anna) and asked him whether he could help us out with the last day’s sessions. Mind you, two days before the final day of the conference Prashan anna was doing Election coverage for the Presidential elections, for 24 hours nonstop, and was doing some other serious business the day before. Without any reluctance, he agreed to come. Commitment. A wrong turn at the Dambulla Junction by the driver with Prashan Anna asleep at the back took him and the two others to Valaichenai, even after that they drove back and made it for the noon session. Commitment. With nobody to run the morning session, we called Christyraja Kirubakaran, Assist- Vice President (Christy anna), who was at that time doing his Sarvodaya work. He dropped everything and immediately arrived (he lives and works in Mannar). Commitment.

Together Prashan & Christy Anna made the final day the best. The commitment they exhibited made all our efforts pale in comparison.

Because of Sri Lanka Unites I’ve learned to see not the differences but the similarities between me and a fellow citizen from a different ethnic background. The time I spent with the Sinhalese taught me that except the language and religion the Tamils and the Sinhalese have almost everything in common. The same type of interests, likes and dislikes. The more I became aware of this the more the fact that Sri Lanka is a divide nation became a mystery to me.

So why are we divided? What is that mysterious factor that is keeping us away?

To be honest I do not have exact answers to these questions. But I seriously intend to find them. This is the search for truth that Sri Lanka Unites has catalyzed within me. Sri Lanka Unites has indeed started the Truth and Reconciliation process within me.

But the beauty is, there are thousands of other students all over the country who are trying with courage to find answers to similar questions. The beauty is, there are thousands of other young boys and girls who have hope for a brighter future. The beauty is, every one of them is working in their own unique ways to make that Future a possibility. All because of Sri Lanka Unites.

The Sri Lanka Unites Attitude

Sri Lanka Unites is a celebration of democracy. One organization that seriously practices it. Every man gets his say, the students get a say on things ranging from picking speakers, games to play, the dates etc. Whenever we step up to do anything we know that we have the full backing of the executive committee. Sri Lanka Unites is a living example of democracy from which the whole country can learn.

Most of the students, if not all, realize that reconciliation is not achieved through holding hands or shouting “Sri Lanka Unites”; these are merely symbolic expressions of feelings hard to express. Everyone accepts that this is just the beginning of the whole process and that we have a long way to go. In fact, we are also aware of the steps we have to take to move forward. Throughout the conference every speaker emphasized the importance of building a dialogue, a dialogue that enables one to build relationships and ultimately help us to reconcile and resolve the conflict. Building such dialogue depends deeply on effective or efficient communication. Steps were taken to equip the students with tools like Facebook so that there is enough interaction between SLU members throughout the post-conference period.  Schools that had internet access but did not have Facebook groups got the opportunity to create Facebook groups, while efforts are in place to provide internet access to schools lacking internet.

If anyone has any doubts over the depth of the friendships that have been formed I hope this piece of experience would shed some light on the depth of the friendships that have been created, and that they continue to grow.

Last June I was in Colombo for a competition. It was a very brief stay, and I did not tell any of my SLU friends that I was in Colombo. A friend of mine got the wind of my arrival and was thoroughly disappointed with my actions. I’m in Colombo now and all of my friends are hosting me tomorrow.  Not a single day passes without someone from SLU contacting me via Facebook or whatever media.

It is noteworthy, that Sri Lanka Unites remains ever conscious of the diversity Sri Lanka has and takes every possible step to embrace all cultures. Let it be a student from Ladies College- Colombo, a student from Zahira College- Ampara, a student from St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna or Sangamitha Balika Vidyalaya Galle, it make no difference. Everyone is at home. For me it’s one of the most admirable achievements of Sri Lanka Unites.

But being humans, Sri Lanka Unites always remains open to accept the fact Sri Lanka Unites is vulnerable to making mistakes. We are also aware of the fact that the margin of error in this field is very thin indeed. We always welcome productive discussions, which ultimately lead us to the truth, with any genuinely concerned.

The saddest part about Sri Lanka is, and in my opinion the actual reason for the country’s state, only a very few make it beyond the stage of discussing things to doing things. Sri Lanka Unites is an exemplary organization to all armchair critics. Sri Lanka Unites is a results oriented, action based organization which does not believe in “sitting there and doing nothing”. The fact remains that Sri Lanka Unites has not survived an year but has thrived, adding meaning to many a soul.

The importance of the missing “justice” factor in Truth and Reconciliation process

History clearly shows that Justice is one of the most significant elements for reconciliation. South Africa and Northern Ireland took the bull by the horns. Both countries were sincere and brutally honest about all the injustices, and elements that fueled the conflict. For Sri Lanka, too, the fact remains true that unless we get real harsh and tackle the very foundations of the conflict with brutal honesty reconciliation on a national scale will remain a far away dream.

Even though my knowledge on these topics is very limited, I am very much aware that in Northern Ireland the people who catalyzed reconciliation went as far as bringing people concerned and facilitated discussions that were real harsh, such as “Why do I hate you?”.

With Sri Lanka Unites being a youth movement and vast majority of its members being school students (under 18), doubts remain whether we are mature enough to handle these questions with absolute honesty. But at some point in the future it will happen, as it should. But enough steps are taken to ensure the foundations are laid, and everyone is aware of it. Bringing down Simbarashe Mabasha, a South African who has loads of ground experience on issues related to peace and reconciliation, is an indicator and a step in the right direction.

Simba stressed that unless there is proper dialogue, reconciliation will never be a possibility. He said “Whites, with whom I was friends with for ten years, still became my enemies. They still became Whites, and I still became a Black”

Five days in comparison with ten years is nothing.

But it is highly encouraging to see that there is general willingness among the members to understand more about others, to put him/her inside the other ethnicities moccasins.

“We will not let the hatred of the past, control our present and destroy our future” is one of the fundamental principles on which Sri Lanka Unites is built. Every member makes it their conviction to remain true to it. Let us all remain true to it.

The search for the truth is more important than its possession, let us all begin that journey, the quest to find the truth, for truth alone is the way.

“If hatred can harm, love can heal. The time is now”

The author is a member of Sri Lanka Unites, St. Xavier’s Boys’ College, Mannar and a participant at the Future Leaders Conference 2009 and 2010