Image courtesy of CTV News

Below is an excerpt from a presentation given by Shreen Saroor at the event Night of Ideas 2021 organized by the French Embassy on the topic “reconciliation in practice.”

Our country is ethnically, religiously and linguistically diverse and our survival depends on equal treatment. Discrimination and violence against Tamils led to civil war and displacement. After the 2019 terrorist attacks, the government detained hundreds of Muslims without charge and turned a blind eye when mobs attacked Muslim homes and businesses. Today, media outlets spread rumors blaming Muslims for Covid-19, while the government mandates a forced cremation policy that strips Muslims of dignity in death. History repeats itself because we refuse to learn. Reconciliation is about learning from the past.

Over the years, numerous commissions of inquiry have been launched in the name of reconciliation. All the while, very few perpetrators of atrocities are held to account, and the ground realities do not change. As a result, reconciliation is a term that has made many of us in civil society very uneasy, even if it is the only politically viable way to currently brand our work.

Given our context of impunity and systemic inequality, the term “reconciliation” seems to tell affected people to forgive, reconcile, and move on without knowing the truth or receiving justice. As a victim of the northern eviction who still cannot return home, I can forgive but not forget. Many others are the same – thousands of women who lost loved ones in the war are struggling to find their disappeared, others are trying to free those languishing in prison under the PTA without charge, or are fighting for the return of their lands. Muslims today are being forced to cremate their loved ones against deeply held customs and religious beliefs. It is not only impossible but deeply unjust to ask these women to forget and move on.

Sri Lanka’s policymakers often try to connect reconciliation to compensation and forgiveness. Here in Sri Lanka, they tie reconciliation to development dollars, promising new buildings and roads with little community input. Affected women reject these offers, arguing time and again that reconciliation is a long term mission and needs political will. They want the State to acknowledge their plight and guarantee changes so they can heal, gain confidence, and move forward. Only if there is truth, justice, reparation and non-recurrence is reconciliation ever possible.

Women’s Action Network had a front-row seat to demands for reconciliation in its work before the transitional justice consultations task force. The previous government set up a task force on reconciliation mechanisms to capture how people wanted to reconcile and move forward. I wonder how many of you have even seen the final report. The task force had over 60% female representation top to bottom and headed by a veteran human rights activist and a senior lawyer Manouri Muttetuwegama. Women from all communities came forward to tell their stories of conflict, and the final report captures their deep unhealed and multiple wounds. I will read out four examples of their testimonies:

A Sinhala woman from Puttalam:

“My brother disappeared in 1989 during the JVP problems. My mother was distraught and died sick from worrying. He was the only breadwinner and fed the family. They abducted one but destroyed our whole family. My father died of grief and poverty too and now I am going to die without knowing what happened to him. They killed all of us.”

A Tamil wife of a PTA detainee from Mullaitheevu:

“When you see us, you see people who are going about life, but we live with extreme pain in our hearts unable to cry even in front of our children. We cry when we walk on the street and when we are alone only. We have to even hide our grief.”

A mother who lost her family members in Vavuniatheevu murder:

“Those people who looked for bodies also became bodies.”

A mother talking about end of the war:

“The LTTE took two sons away from me. My only remaining daughter got injured in the war. I handed her over for treatment, but I do not know where she is. I have searched for her everywhere. I will die without knowing what happened to all my children.”

Women appeared before the consultations task force to both share stories and offer recommendations. As we now know, women from all walks of life in Sri Lanka want the truth to be established, even if there may be multiple truths. They want the state to admit the root causes of conflict, hold perpetrators of atrocities to account, achieve equal rights, reframe narratives of conflict, guarantee non-recurrence, and enable victims to seek redress for violations while memorialising their losses. It is worth remembering today that the demands for truth, justice, memory, and nonrecurrence come from our people, not from the international community. Without these components, reconciliation is impossible.

Where the state is the one dividing communities and perpetuating injustices, it must address the traumas head-on to bring minorities back into the fold. Reconciliation requires a structural transformation of the relationship between citizens and the state – we require a new system in which discrimination and violence no longer occur. In keeping with this spirit, Women’s Action Network recently made a submission to the constitutional expert committee describing how women visualize the nature of the state. To ensure a united and indivisible country, Sri Lanka must protect fundamental rights, uphold the rule of law, and ensure equal justice and peace. Keeping with its pluralist and inclusive nature, women must have over 50% representation in each post-war rebuilding structures, including electoral bodies.

Today Muslims are the target of state-sponsored injustice. In the midst of a pandemic, any rational government would want people to seek prompt medical care to control the virus. Our government turned a blind eye to the rumours blaming Muslims for the virus and to date implements a forced cremation policy against WHO guidelines and the practice of 190 states. For Muslims, cremation is desecration of the dead, and a tenth of our citizens are now terrified to seek medical care. Letters from WHO and UN officials have made no impact. The country’s eminent virologists and microbiologists have spoken loud and clear in support of safe burial.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court despite hearing submissions for two days refused to grant leave to proceed and hear more fully the challenge to the cremation only policy, leaving religious minorities with no remedy. Irrational policies that marginalize one ethnic group will create lasting divisions that cannot be easily forgotten.

I will leave all who want to seriously think about reconciliation in this country with a quote from Shafiya who is just 12 years old:

“We were told that my mum had Covid 19 and cremated on 5th May 2020. That day we were taken to Kanththakadu Quarantine centre without a PCR result. They gave a pot of my mum’s ash to my brother who lived away from our family. The next day the doctor said my mum’s PCR was negative and ours too and they brought us back to our home. We were under lockdown for two and a half months when the second wave struck. My father somehow brought something to eat everyday but now he and my elder brother are in quarantine. I am looking after my two brothers, quarantined in my house. Will they cremate my father and brother too? What will I do with ashes sister?”