Amidst the deep hurt of civil war, many think it impossible to speak with, let alone work with, people from across divisions of conflict. A diverse group of young British Sri Lankans have directly experienced this. Here they examine reconciliation as not only a possibility, but a present undertaking.
See the debate: Is reconciliation possible in Sri Lanka?
What’s in a name?
We chose our name ‘Voices for Reconciliation’ after much deliberation, because we felt it went to the heart of our aims: the creation of a safe space for the sharing of different viewpoints, to encourage constructive and collaborative dialogue through which people could understand each other better. However, we soon began to realise that our view of what constitutes ‘reconciliation’ was just one in a host of interpretations being voiced in the discourse on post-war Sri Lanka. The dialogue workshops we run with Sri Lankans living in the UK have thrown up further proof that the word carries different meanings for different people, and we therefore think that it is vital to explore the concept further.
Since our philosophy is about sharing opinions, this article includes quotations that we have heard along the way from a diverse range of individuals. While we do not always agree with them, we do respect and value them, since they clearly illustrate that ‘reconciliation’ is not as simple a concept as people often assume.
One way to tackle this definitional dilemma is to look simply at the word itself. To re-concile seems to imply an act of healing after an injury, of mending a rupture, bridging a rift. In other words reconciliation can only occur after a trauma has been suffered. And this trauma, more often than not, seems to be relational; only opposing, antagonistic groups need ‘reconciling’. This highlights one aspect we have found key: reconciliation should be people-focused. It is about bringing together opposing groups and restoring amicable, or at least peaceful, relations between them. But what exactly does this entail?
Economic versus Political Reconciliation
“What’s the point of talking? We need to move forward. We just need time and space.”
No one can deny the trauma Sri Lanka has suffered after 30 years of civil war. The military conflict is over, but does building relations between Sri Lanka’s ethnicities need to be made a priority? Non-violence is clearly a basic requirement of peaceful relations, but surely peace should also incorporate a greater sense of cooperation and understanding?
Some suggest that placing a priority on economic recovery will pave a way for better relations between Sri Lanka’s communities. Their argument is that economic progress in Sri Lanka - as witnessed by expanding infrastructure and increasing tourism – will inevitably lead to greater societal cohesion. Certainly, economic prosperity, spread among all communities, may reduce ethnic tensions, and new infrastructure will physically connect and promote greater interaction between communities previously divided by a warzone. But is this enough?
“With this level of polarisation, moderates are simply labelled as terrorists or traitors, by both sides.”
The other major focus in the discourse on Sri Lankan reconciliation takes a political form. ‘Justice’ is a word that many participants raise in our dialogue workshops, often linked to issues of accountability for past wrongs. For some, justice is a prerequisite for peace, and ‘moving on’ without it implies a wholesale disregard for the suffering endured during the war. Yet for others, reconciliation, meaning the pursuit of justice, is viewed negatively as a quest for revenge that breeds further division, and is, in fact, an active barrier to the country ‘moving on’.
Just as reconciliation has become a dirty term on all sides, ‘diaspora’ is also highly problematic. To us, the term ‘diaspora’ simply means Sri Lankans of all ethnicities that live outside the island; for others it has very specific connotations meaning membership of, or sympathy with, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). What is indisputable, however, is that members of the diaspora hold the unique status of being both Sri Lankan and ‘foreign’. It is no coincidence that distrust of ‘outsiders’ has grown in the past twelve months, which have seen heated international debate about political issues in post-war Sri Lanka. As demonstrated by the response of some Sri Lankans to the UNHRC resolution and Channel 4’s documentaries, suspicion of outside interference now pervades sections of Sri Lankan society, and this suspicion often centres on members of the diaspora. As a group working on reconciliation within the Sri Lankan diaspora, we have certainly encountered – often to our surprise – a great amount of fear and animosity.
In discussions about Sri Lanka, words like ‘rebuilding’ and ‘redevelopment’, on the one hand, and ‘justice’ and ‘accountability’ on the other hand, are often used interchangeably with reconciliation. In our view, reconciliation is involved in each of these concepts, but also sits above them all. Just as the wounds of war are multiple, so the post-conflict healing processes must be multi-faceted. Economic growth is essential to helping Sri Lanka recover after three decades of war, and to healing the physical scars still present. The politics of post-war Sri Lanka is a highly contentious issue, and we are by no means able to speak authoritatively on this subject in all its complexity. But it is clear that political needs and concerns must not be ignored. But is this enough to ‘move on’? What about the emotional and psychological scars of the conflict?
Identity and division
“She told me I shouldn’t go to the other side. I didn’t know there was an ‘other’ side. It was only when I was older that I understood.”
It is clear that understanding the nature and effects of the divisions in Sri Lanka is central to the process of reconciliation.
“Are you Sinhalese or Tamil?” Although often asked out of simple curiosity, the frequency of this question is revealing of the particular way of defining identity among Sri Lankans. It tells us of the near-dichotomous perception of Sri Lankan identity; that we must be one or ‘the other’, and that this distinction is meaningful. It demonstrates the common disregard of the other major ethnicities that reside in the country. And importantly, it illustrates the strength of identity defined by ethnicity rather than nationality, region, religion or any other means.
One manifestation of ethnic identity is simply cultural; through, for example, customs, food, music, and language. But our identities have also been influenced by the conflict. The experiences of our communities – before, during and after the war – have shaped our sense of allegiance to ‘our’ people, and mistrust, if not hostility, towards others. This ‘us and them’ mentality is so deeply rooted that it endures in the global Sri Lankan diaspora. Several London-based university Sri Lankan societies were actively dissolved or renamed as Tamil societies during the final stages of the war. Young people who study at the same university, who often study the same subject, remain divided. This can also be seen in the world of sport; many Sri Lankans live for the success of the national cricket team, while many others actively support the opposing team or call for an apartheid-style boycott by the International Cricket Council on human rights grounds.
“My father lost an arm during the war and I hated the Tamils because of that reason. When I grew up I realised this hatred was useless but it remained in my heart. The society I live in harbours hatred toward other races and religions.”
The future of post-war Sri Lanka remains such a divisive subject because we continue to be driven by emotions left to us from the war; hatred, fear, and suspicion. These polarising feelings, pushing us into camps of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are now making us fight each other for peace. Deeply felt emotions are often collective; a sense of grief or anger over the loss and suffering of ‘our people’; fear of a resurgence of terrorism in ‘our land’; relief and elation that war and ‘our suffering’ are over. Particularly among smaller minority groups, there is also a sense that ‘our voices’ are unheard and unacknowledged. These kinds of emotions can, by extension, lead to anger or mistrust directed towards other ethnic groups as a whole. One example out of many inter-ethnic grievances arose from a meeting with Muslim IDPs, who expressed to us a sense of being forgotten by both their Tamil former neighbours in Jaffna and by Sinhalese politicians who they feel give resettlement priority to the more recently displaced.
“Can’t you see what we are doing to our children? We must stop this cycle we have created”
Interpretations can be based on our own experiences, those of other people or the legacy from generations past. The stories told by grandparents or parents to their children can perpetuate nostalgic memories or, conversely, instil painful warnings of cruelty and violence.
This brings us back to the necessity of viewing reconciliation through the lens of emotion. True reconciliation – identified earlier as inherently people-centric and relational – requires a deep understanding of how all Sri Lankans have been affected by the conflict, both in their own right and in relation to others. Glossing over this in favour of reconciliation defined purely in either economic or political terms would surely result in ongoing feelings of division and distrust, a vicious cycle handed down from one generation to the next, with the ever-lingering threat of a future resurgence of violence.
Understanding and dialogue
“But don’t you all hate us?”
One way to remedy past grievances is to commit to building a culture that prevents such grievances arising in the future. For this we need to create an environment in which we can raise awareness of a multitude of opinions, dispel prejudices and promote mutual understanding. For our knowledge is too often limited by our own experience; effectively, each of us knows only a part of the story, and this can have dangerous consequences. In the context of such misinformation and mistrust, anger can become not just a barrier but a weapon against others. But instead of reacting defensively, if we take a moment to try and understand the causes of each other's anger we might realise that we are all searching for the same underlying needs and values; security, freedom and belonging. This war was personal. Whether we were aware of it or not, whether we liked it or not, the war was fought in our name, which makes each of us a part of it. We may not be personally culpable for specific events during the conflict, or the way the war was conducted by all sides, but we are, however, responsible, as individuals and as communities, for how our attitudes and behaviours have impacted on others.
If understanding is the goal, dialogue is a tool; talking to others in a respectful manner is an important first step to rebuilding inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic relations. Personal justice can begin by having one’s grievances aired and understood by others, a reciprocal process of validation and forgiveness.
We often use a timeline exercise in our dialogue workshops which involves sharing key dates relating to Sri Lanka and how they personally affected participants and their families. This sharing of individual interpretations of the past often leads to unexpected but enlightening results. One shared date can evoke many different experiences and emotions, often based on ethnicity, opening people’s eyes to how historical events were ‘lived’ differently outside their own community. Conversely, many different events can inspire the same emotion, regardless of ethnicity, forging bonds that transcend cultural boundaries. The value of this exercise derives from acknowledging both the diversity and the similarity of our engagement with the conflict.
A complete process
“I feel hopeful that after years of upheaval we have been given an opportunity to put things right”
As we understand it, reconciliation is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. It should not, and cannot, be interpreted as simply a hurdle to be jumped in the race towards a better future; we don't believe that one can 'attain' reconciliation, simply because we don't see it as something that can come about and then be set aside. Nor can reconciliation simply be ‘given’ to us by higher or external powers; it is a process we must all engage in. Reconciliation must be a significant goal in and of itself; a coming together of diverse peoples who are united by far more than that which separates us, who hold a shared recognition of past sorrows and a shared set of aspirations for tomorrow. It is not about eliminating difference but embracing and celebrating diversity; about creating a mosaic in which discrete, distinct individual pieces form a coherent whole.
Reconciliation is an end-goal that should not, in fact, ever end. Yes, reconciliation is about the past; it is a healing process leading to mutual acceptance between previously conflicting groups, built on a foundation of equality, understanding and openness. But reconciliation is also about the future, something that should be integrated into Sri Lanka for every generation to come; it is about a way of life – one's relations with neighbours, the way one conducts business, the way one worships. Furthermore, reconciliation works across different levels and sites; it is an internal process for Sri Lankans and an external process for Sri Lanka within a wider context; it is a top-down process led by national figures and a bottom-up process led by local communities; it is for Sri Lankans living inside the country and for those outside, who care deeply for the island and its peoples.
This whole process, with its many facets, stages and emotions, this is reconciliation.