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Paper presented by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Adviser on Reconciliation to HE the President of Sri Lanka
At an international conference on
India’s North-east and Asiatic South-east: Beyond Borders
Organized by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development
At the North East University, Shillong, on June 6th and 7th 2014

A major problem former colonies faced when gaining independence was that of identity. When composed of populations that differed from each other in various particulars, the question arose as to whether constituting a single country was justified. The problem was exacerbated by the two Western impositions after the Second World War that had done much to shape attitudes subsequently in an immensely destructive fashion. The first was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine which institutionalized nationalisms based on identity rather than geography. Even more destructive as far as South Asia was concerned was the partition of British India, which popularized the idea that a country had to be based on homogeneity. This contributed to the othering of what was not homogeneous.

Obviously I do not mean to say that all was sweetness and light before that, for we are only too aware of conflicts based on identity through the centuries. But the idea that a country belonged to those of a particular identity, ethnic or religious or linguistic, was I believe damagingly entrenched by the Western redrawing of boundaries in areas that had not gone through the contortions that Europe had in developing the concept of the nation state. And, even more worryingly, the dominant force in the world at the time these divisive concepts became entrenched was the United States, which prided itself on being a melting pot, where different identities were subsumed in the great American dream.

This, combined with British notions of democracy, which gave supremacy to an elected Parliament, contributed I believe to the majoritarianism that has bedeviled South Asia since independence. So in both India and Sri Lanka we had efforts to impose the language of the majority on everyone else, though fortunately for you in India, this was resisted and, as far as the major languages of the country were concerned, you developed a more sensible policy.

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Text of a Lecture given to the Masters Course at the Kotelawala Defence University

June 15th 2013

Ethnicity and Religion are perhaps the most obvious elements through which people distinguish themselves from each other. They are not the only ones, and sometimes elements such as caste and class become even more important in the emergence of reasons to limit association with others.

Fortunately we in Sri Lanka do not have too much experience of this, though we should constantly be aware that the phenomenon exists, and needs to be guarded against. What we do have, which keeps people apart even where there is the utmost goodwill, is barriers created by language. Sri Lanka is perhaps the only country in the world where those who have school leaving qualifications are not required to know a second language. The result is that many of our people are trapped in a monolingualism that stops them communicating, and hence associating, with others.

It was language that first led to the ethnic tensions that later erupted in terrorist activities. At the same time we should not forget that the only major crisis government faced between the communal violence of 1958 and its re-emergence 19 years later was because of caste and class resentments. The JVP insurrection of 1971 was about many youngsters who shared religion and ethnicity and language with those in power feeling that only violent revolution would resolve their problems. And though the JVP violence of the late eighties had wider political reasons, the areas in which the movement was strongest suggest continuing perceptions of caste and class discrimination.

To return to the language problems, they arose because Tamils felt that they had been reduced to second class status when Sinhala was made the only official language, through an Act that simply asserted this, without making clear how it was to be implemented in practice. That would have required explaining how those who did not know Sinhala would function, and clearly those who drafted the Act did not expect that it meant that those who did not know Sinhala would be rendered dysfunctional. But their carelessness and their callousness meant that nothing was spelled out, and the result was that an obviously unfair measure led to – and was used for the purpose of exacerbating – ethnic tensions.

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1. You are the presidential advisor on reconciliation. Can you tell me, the importance of reconciliation in post war Sri Lanka?

It is extremely important because, unless we live together in goodwill and with sympathy and understanding, tensions can develop and be exploited so that the mutual suspicions and violence of the last few decades will recur.

2. What are the programs you have launched to achieve the objective of reconciliation?

I have no executive role so cannot launch programs as required. However we have set up several committees to exchange information and make recommendations, and the commitment we have received, from local and international NGOs, leading schools, foreign diplomatic missions, government institutions with particular responsibilities for children or former combatants, has been very heartening.

We have also set up or developed several websites. The old Peace Secretariat website, www.peaceinsrilanka.org, has been revitalized, with a home page devoted to reconciliation efforts, a ‘Development‘ section which records progress in the North, and a ‘For the Record‘ section which refutes allegations that may derail the Reconciliation process. This includes a detailed refutation of the Darusman Report as well as ‘The Road to Reconciliation‘ which deals with Channel 4 and other allegations. Both are available as books at International Book House, 151 A Dharmapala Mawata.

Other sites are www.reconciliationyouthforum.org which has short accounts of particular initiatives with particular reference to youth, and www.youtube.com/reconcilesrilanka which highlights positive attitudes and efforts amongst those who were victims of the conflict, whilst dealing also with disinformation abroad. My own sites, www.rajivawijesinha.wordpress.com and www.youtube.com/rajivawijesinha both continue with some relevant material.

3. Other than the government efforts, what is the role of the civil society towards achieving reconciliation?

Civil Society should develop and implement programmes within a coherent framework. This requires close liaison with government, and sometimes the absence of this is because government does not communicated effectively nor plan inclusively. On the other hand some organizations set themselves up in opposition to government and governmental initiatives, which was a destructive approach. I hope my office will be able to bring people together and make it clear that, while there may be differences of opinion, what we all have in common is much more important.

I am also trying to set up committees in the various districts to bring people together. The Governor, who is extremely efficient, along with his staff – the Northern Province website is the best provincial website in the country – has been very positive about this, and the District Secretaries, who have heaps of experience, will be able to provide ideas that can be taken forward, allowing for civil society initiatives that will contribute to the whole picture rather than happening in isolation. The work of organizations such as Diaspora Sri Lanka can provide models in this regard, but we need to monitor and produce schedules of achievements as well as of needs.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2019
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