Reconciliation in Sri Lanka means the youth must lead the way

International calls for justice in Sri Lanka which are insensitive to domestic public opinion further alienate a youth population suspicious of Western intervention and determined to develop their country.

Sanka Chandima Abayawardena
5 March 2012

On a beach strip of Sri Lanka in the early morning of 18th May, a middle-aged man died in a short firefight alongside his last remaining loyal followers, in a final attempt to break through defences put in place by the government of Sri Lanka and fight another day for his dream. The man’s name was Prabakaran and what he fought for was a historically contested, mythically alluring, and ethnically pure state for the Tamil people: Elam. His actions during the long campaign went with him, unaccounted for, to the grave. Instead, his death has been followed by international pressure to investigate war crimes committed by the state armed forces in the course of events surrounding his death.

Prabakaran died in the midst of what the government of Sri Lanka named the largest humanitarian rescue operation the world has ever seen. The mission was to establish law and order by finishing off the Tamil Tigers once and for all, and was an outstanding success in terms of its military and political objectives. Yet, achieving it came at a huge military and economic cost to the country, and its process is a matter which needs to be investigated.

Thousands attended government backed protestsat a proposed UN Human Rights Council resolutionon investigating war crimes.Demotix/ Rohan Karunarathne

So far, influential remnants of the Tamil Tigers outside Sri Lanka have managed to concrete a global opinion that an international intervention should take place to investigate the military and government of Sri Lanka for war crimes. Their position is more about taking revenge upon the country than bringing about justice. The best possible understanding is that it would pave the way to resurrect their mono ethnic Elam state.

Unfortunately many human rights activists have fallen into this trap, blindly following the political line created by rich supporters of the Tamil Tigers placed in important political forums. This has obscured the local voices of a largely anti-interventionist population, who are calling for reconciliation founded in justice based on constitutional law.

Local justice; long term reconciliation

Bringing justice should not mean persecuting the Sri Lankan political and civil leadership out of anger. Any pressure groups working to make Sri Lanka more just, must understand the nature of the country – what Sri Lanka is – as well as the complex political dynamics underpinning the conflict and its end.

Holding the perpetrators of war crimes accountable must not be limited to a mere few weeks at the end of the conflict, or to one party in the war. It must cover the entire period and address the actions of all parties, including those who created the military balance in favour of the Tigers for so many years enabling them to carry out such an extensive terror campaign. Bringing justice to the whole population of Sri Lanka is vital to the sustainable reconciliation of the country.

Reconciliation based on the rule of law is the only way to have a lasting effect on post-war Sri Lanka. Thus, it is imperative that the work of reconciliation is based in local communities; justice must be available for victims at a local level. An international intervention driven by the western discourse of universality will always be directed by other political, economic and military needs and won’t cater to important ground level factors. Thus, it serves no real purpose in reconciliation, addressing political issues or post-war development.

For example, international actors have never talked of the close to 150,000 Muslims who have been living in camps in Puttalam for the last fifteen years, or of the many more Sinhalese families still unaccounted for, who were cleansed from north and east Sri Lanka. The real issue of Sri Lanka, the elite political actors among both Tamils and Sinhalese, remains unaddressed.

Since the end of the war, the elite Tamil leadership has been very active in working with their still strong international Tiger network in claiming that Tamil expats are a distinct Diaspora and constitutes a separate country. This effort has been very successful in the eyes of a largely misinformed international community, fed emotionally driven images that hide a large part of the big picture.
In this atmosphere, with grievances still fresh, achieving locally recognized justice that will lead to reconciliation could seem an impossible task. The most important factor beyond the political will of the government and population at large is the existence of strong local institutions, such as the judiciary and a national police service capable of restoring the rule of law. Reconciliation is the first step towards taking Sri Lanka from a developing democracy towards a vibrant and developed democracy.

Youth activism

So far, the perspective of young people living in the country has not been heard by anyone outside Sri Lanka. This is a country with a population boom, coming out of a long conflict: there is a strong youth community active in politics at all levels, and a feeling that we are currently sitting at the gates of economic development and great prosperity in the future. Sri Lankan youth are in the right place to steer the country away from the old political elite and into strong reconciliation measures based on local solutions. We can go beyond internationally manufactured slogans by building youth-led campaigns to bring wounded communities together.

Sri Lanka is home to a large network of well-structured and well-funded youth organizations. The general political sentiment in the country is against foreign intervention, and this affects youth activists too. They have taken a strong position against the international pressure on Sri Lanka, which in their eyes is an all-out attempt to take revenge for the defeat of a western military, political and economic agenda in Sri Lanka. This has given them very little time to lead the political, social and economic reforms Sri Lanka desperately needs. Addressing the needs of a country left divided by relentless terror campaigns and insurgent violence aimed at winning a fascist and ethnically pure state is one of the most important responsibilities of a youth population.

Young people have been taking a leading role in all major political and economic forums at the national level, placing them perfectly to create a strong momentum towards effective and sustainable reconciliation work. For example, the elected members of the Sri Lankan Youth Parliament and the ministers appointed in that body have been placed with different government ministries, where they are allowed to directly contribute to the work of a given ministry both at the level of policy as well as implementation. The National Youth Council, a statutory body funded largely by the Ministry of Youth, has changed its old bureaucratic system to accommodate the present-day needs of the country. It has started to act as a facilitator, uniting all youth organizations in the country. Each month the National Youth Council has managed to organize several youth exchange programs between Sinhalese-Muslim youth and Tamil youth, building strong understanding between youth actors from all cultural identities. However the big question remains of how to get young people away from the current entrenched political set up and inspire fresh thinking.

The role of youth in advocating local campaigns and processes as opposed to international interventions insensitive of ground level realities is vital to the work of breaking free. If the youth population of Sri Lanka can shed the influence of the old political elite, who readily follow their masters in the west, they would be perfectly placed to take the country forward in achieving what it formerly could not due to the long conflict.

Including the voice of young people in policy making platforms and addressing their real concerns without hidden elite agendas is an undeniable duty of a representative government. Sri Lanka has been very successful in achieving Millennium Development Goals, and could take a leading role in mainstreaming youth in the post 2015 development agenda at a global level. Thus, Sri Lanka and its political and civil service leadership should take immediate measures to mainstream youth in directing the country’s political and economic strategies.

Also read:

'What Sri Lanka is...': acknowledging the ethnic conflict in post-war reconciliation, Ambika Satkunanathan

'Reconciliation in Sri Lanka means the youth must lead the way': a sceptical response, Asanga Welikala

Reconciliation is not happening in Sri Lanka, and the problem isn't a question of time, Sivakami Rajamanoharan


An earlier version of this article was published on Forgotten Diaries, an  initiative empowering youth from neglected conflict zones to bring positive change to their communities, using online media.

Forgotten Diaries is a project of Youth Action for Change, a multi-award winning youth-run organization which equips young people with knowledge and skills that enable them to directly get involved in improving their communities’ livelihoods.

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