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Nation-building in Sri Lanka: the potential and the promise

This week is the third anniversary of the end the Sri Lankan civil war. Yet there is hope: it lies within Sri Lanka's reach to move from 'post-war' to 'post-conflict', as Sri Lankans work towards a new era of equitable governance.

See the debate: Is reconciliation possible in Sri Lanka?

As Sri Lanka makes its way from a post-war phase to a post-conflict phase, the potential, the challenges and the successes are worthy of reflection. The aim of this article is to highlight the key progress and successes that have been made within the country, irrespective of the actors involved, to tell of the hope that has dawned for the future of both the nation and its peoples.

There are challenges that remain to be addressed, lacunae that beg to be filled: these are addressed constructively, with the objective of fostering both national and international discourse on Sri Lanka. The aim of such reflection is to inform processes of governance, provide direction and inspire action for rebuilding the country – a country yearning for a stable future with the full realization of potential for all its peoples.

Mechanisms to consolidate peace at the governmental level

The engagement of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil political party, in talks over a political solution to the root causes of conflict commenced with considerable interest on both sides, and awakened hope in the citizenry of a new era of peace to be beckoned. However, the talks have reached a stalemate. There is a need at present for political rivalries to be cast aside. Only the speedy resumption of talks can ensure that a framework of peace and understanding for both the majority Sinhalese community and the Tamil and Muslim minorities is guaranteed.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the Government of Sri Lanka issued its final report late last year, which called for a political solution, among other recommendations. The home grown mechanism to reflect upon and recommend action drew on solicited and unsolicited submissions from the public in all areas of the country and hence has been hailed for its credibility and transparency. The final report has been tabled in Parliament and remains to be implemented.

Pursuant to its pledges at the United Nations' Universal Periodic Review, the GoSL embarked on drafting a National Human Rights Action Plan in 2009. The Action Plan has sought to address the objective of improving human rights protection and promotion in all aspects, with targets to be achieved in five years. The Action Plan has subsequently been adopted by the Cabinet. The time for implementing the Action Plan has arrived, with repeated calls for the same by all concerned for the future of the country.

The Office of the Presidential Advisor on Reconciliation has prepared a draft National Reconciliation Policy, which addresses the issue of reconciliation comprehensively and convincingly. The Draft Policy has been circulated amongst all political parties and Members of Parliament following which consultation with civil society and the public is envisaged before being taken through the adoption process in Parliament. The three landmark initiatives discussed above, while being key to the nation building enterprise in terms of consolidating peace, have not been the only approaches made. The following sections discuss other aspects that have been engaged.

However, it is critical to mention that one of the key challenges to the successful realization of such national mechanisms has been the lack of subsequent implementation, both in terms of machinery and administrative and political will. The need to overcome such obstacles is not due to a lack of expertise or experience by nationals and interested parties. There remains a need to garner the required will for implementation of such measures, and strengthen the machinery of implementation, if these national mechanisms are going to reach fruition.

Economic development based on principles of equality and conflict-sensitivity

Since the end of the war much has been done in terms of infrastructure development, restoring commerce and re-establishing administrative structures. While progress has been remarkable, commitment to sustaining such initiatives in having a meaningful impact has not always been evident, what with a lack of proper planning and administrative efficiency. A national momentum has begun to gather in Sri Lanka to raise awareness of the need for the development of the social conscience of the private sector, following the conclusion of the three-decade war.

Professor Gunaratna has disaggregated the various aspects of ‘reconciliation’, to identify four key areas necessary in the national strategy of the business community in reconciliation and peace-building. First, livelihood and income generation activities; second, infrastructure development in the North and other conflict-affected areas; thirdly a need for the business community to engage directly with individuals and communities in war-affected regions of the country and finally, to ensure that all endeavours undertaken embrace the vision of preventing economic stagnation which has been at the root of most political conflicts.

Imelda Sukumar, the Government Agent in Jaffna, has pointed out the availability of rich natural resources in the region such as limestone, land, groundwater, sea salt, fisheries and agriculture that could be tapped into in order to create industries, income generation and livelihood opportunities. Additionally, the market demand for produce and jobs is increasing with the return of formerly displaced persons to their original habitats. Thirdly, there exists potential for the development of tourism-related infrastructure as Jaffna is gaining increasing currency as a tourist destination, both amongst locals and foreigners.

The conflict between the north and south of Sri Lanka was largely due to the lack of economic opportunities. Furthermore, there are considerations that need to be made when decision to invest in the north and the east are taken, namely, that income generation activities must be undertaken in a conflict-sensitive manner ensuring that all communities are given opportunities to participate in the planning of, and benefit from, the projects. The business community is well placed to develop  the capacity of potential entrepreneurs by playing a major role in skill building. The recognition of such a role for the private sector and business community is beginning to emerge in the country.

Individual and national healing and reconciliation

Since the end of the armed struggle in May 2009, both organized and natural processes of reconciliation have been taking place in Sri Lanka.  Experts have opined that the path of moderation, tolerance and coexistence must be paved as a prerequisite for any endeavour to usher in a new chapter for the country based on reconciliation amongst all communities.

In particular, Professor Rohan Gunaratna has emphasized the need for an organized process of reconciliation to ensure that there is not a resurgence of the animosities that led to hostilities. Accordingly, he has proposed a four pronged strategy: The first, second and third prongs have already been completed with the rehabilitation of 11,500 LTTE combatants, the reintegration of 280,000 displaced people, and the reconstruction of the north and east particularly the Wanni. It is now time to initiate programmes on the fourth aspect, namely, the building of relationships between and within communities.

Javid Yusuf, founder and Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat for Muslims, has described the nature of the conflict as a struggle through which the Tamil community sought to restructure the state, with a view to removing features which discriminated against minorities, rather than one between the Sinhala majority community and Tamil minority community per se. He has commended the GoSL’s efforts in the Northern and Eastern rehabilitation and resettlement processes and called on the GoSL to take the important next step of reaching out to the Tamil community to address their concerns and grievances. The Muslim community has often been caught in the crossfire between the GoSL and LTTE, and hence needs to be taken seriously as a stakeholder in any endeavour to move the country forward to lasting peace and stability. Therefore, Mr Yusuf urged the minority communities to reposition themselves – by not only demanding equality but also conducting themselves as equals. One way of doing this, according to Mr. Yusuf, is for minorities not to speak only on issues affecting their respective communities but rather to also participate on debates and discussions on national issues and to lead national campaigns.

The key purpose of reconciliation is to address the underlying suspicion, mistrust and discrimination that has been a manifestation and symptom of the three-decade conflict. It has been highlighted that creating a sense of inter-dependence between all communities is crucial if minority communities are to feel a part of the fabric of the nation. Member of Parliament, Eran Wickramaratne, has noted two positive developments in the current political context – increasing acceptance that the conflict requires a political settlement as opposed to the view that it is only a terrorist problem; and a recognition of the need to engage elected representatives of the Tamil community, rather than operating through a top-down approach of political patronage and proxies.

Recognition of the need for reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka is reflected in the appointment of a Presidential Advisor on Reconciliation. Professor Rajiva Wijesinha assumed duties last year and, inter alia, has been involved in setting up District Reconciliation Committees in the former conflict regions of the country while leading the formulation of a Draft National Policy on Reconciliation. The Draft was released in March 2012, and is set to be taken through a process of consultation with political parties and civil society, with the aim of leading to a formal national adoption process.

Acknowledgement of the need for a collaborative effort has been reflected in the inauguration of a series of national conferences on reconciliation convened by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Centre for International and Strategic Studies, Sri Lanka's national think tank. The series of specialist seminars on the various aspects of reconciliation engages the various stakeholders in the process, creating awareness, sensitization and space for networking and future collaborative efforts on reconciliation.

Furthermore, there has been a range of civil society initiatives and dialogue forums on reconciliation engaging with various dimensions, including accountability, justice and peace. Forums have included spiritual perspectives as well as military political and economic perspectives, and have approached the devising of shared national historical narratives of the conflict as a tool for conflict resolution.

The Way Forward

Sri Lanka has undoubtedly been through a difficult and devastating period in its history. That said, the need to cultivate and capitalize on the crucial aspect that unites all its peoples – the common identity of being Sri Lankan – is imperative in the ultimate analysis of moving the nation forward to a durable and prosperous peace. It is time to celebrate similarities and preserve the differences that in turn strengthen the national identity of being Sri Lankan. It makes one wonder how the different cultures, religions and ethnicities converge into a ‘melting pot’ and become what in fact makes for a Sri Lankan.

The notion of ‘Sri Lankan’ is then not an identity separate from each of the differences. Rather, it is an identity that has resulted from the combination and cohabitation of the various identities. If each citizen sees that being Sri Lankan does not necessitate the need to give up their own identity or multiple identities but rather that the notion of being Sri Lankan subsumes all such identities, we will then reconcile our differences more easily. For what affects the individual and separate identities will in turn affect the common identity of all.

Martha Minow asserts that to approach healing and reconciliation involves adopting a path of moderation, a path that is ‘Between Vengeance and Forgiveness…’. Any model for healing and reconciliation with revenge at its base would only foster more evil and hatred, descending into a spiral of further divisiveness. However any model purely based on a blank check of forgiveness is believed to promote further impunity coupled with invalidating feelings of loss and suffering, and so having the reverse of restoring dignity to victims. While justice, accountability, and political solutions are imperative for the nation building strategy, they must be Sri Lankan-led to ensure local ownership and buy-in to the process, which will determine to a significant extent the sustainability of outcomes.

Any country recovering from decades of conflict must put a strategy in place to prevent the relapse into violence. No country should take peace and security for granted. The stabilization strategy should seek to influence the general population where the very conflict emerged.

Ultimately, a home gown political process which addresses the economic social and political grievances and expectations and is acceptable to all sections of society, is necessary to facilitate nation building, and the metamorphosis Sri Lanka yearns for: into a country that sees its strength in multiculturalism and diversity.

Return to the debate: Is reconciliation possible in Sri Lanka?


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