Nation Building Today? Intelligentsia Address the Issues

Edmond Jayasinghe,  from The Sunday Times, 24 July 2016, where the tile reads: “Much needs to be done to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation”

There should be a conscious and concerted effort to achieve reconciliation among ethnic groups to establish lasting peace in the country. This was emphasised at a seminar titled Peace and Reconciliation and Nation Building held at the auditorium of the Organization of Professional Associations on July 10, 2016. The seminar was organized by the Association for Social Development, a social service organization implementing projects and programmes aimed at enhancing social stability.

It was addressed by several eminent persons like Lal Wijenayake, Attorney at Law and Chairman of the Public Representation Committee on Constitutional Reforms (PRCCR), N. Selvakumaran, former Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Colombo, Member of PRCCR and Member of the Panel of Experts assisting the Parliament Steering Committee on the drafting of a new constitution, Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda, former Professor of Political Science and Public Policy of the University of Colombo, Professor Sarath Wijesooriya of the Department of Sinhala of the University of Colombo, Victor Ivan, Senior journalist, Editor of the Ravaya Newspaper and Ambassador Javid Yusuf, former Head of the Muslim Peace Secretariat. At the panel discussion that followed were Dr. Fahmy Ismail, former Chief Veterinary Surgeon and Deputy Commissioner of Colombo Municipal Council and Consultant UN-HABITAT, Ambassador Laksiri Mendis, Former UN and Commonwealth legal expert and Salma Yusuf, Deputy Director, Policy and Law and Human Rights Office for National Unity and Reconciliation functioning under the auspices of the Presidential Secretariat.

The seminar was well-attended and the audience consisted of a mixture of participants representing the security forces, Departments of Police and Prisons, ministries and other government agencies handling the subject of peace and reconciliation, international agencies like the World Bank and UNDP, civil society organizations and activists and other individuals interested in the promotion of peace and reconciliation. (This article is based on the views expressed by the above speakers and panelists, some members of the audience and the writer’s own findings in his capacity as the Chairman of Association for Social Development (ASD) which organized the event.)

Almost all the speakers who addressed the seminar identified the lack of a clear understanding of what exactly is meant by peace and reconciliation in the current effort to achieve ethnic reconciliation and lasting peace in the country at all levels, as a major drawback. In this respect educating all stake-holders and the public at large in particular on the importance of peace and reconciliation as a vital prerequisite in making the current effort a success and forging ahead was stressed. It was observed that no attempts are being made to provide such meaningful education through appropriate programmes, by promoting public discussions through media or other means. Further it was pointed out that no proper direction is provided by the political leadership and appropriate policies and strategies have not been formulated/designed to provide a proper direction and lead the nation towards lasting peace.

The observation was that there exists a severe division among the government ranks in relation to the overall policies and approach towards devolution of power and the extent of devolution, the structure and style of government to be adopted. This division has now come to the public domain. The difference of opinion on the proposed transitional justice mechanism in the Geneva Resolution on Sri Lanka was cited as an example. Added to this there exists a sizable opposition to the whole idea of devolution. Taking the cue from these developments and attitudes of the political leadership in the country, the public particularly the southern electorate, remains confused and divided. The North continues to agitate. All these developments at present have made the situation unclear, confusing and blurred.

In countries like South Africa and Guatemala the religious leaders took the forefront in forging closer relations among communities in similar situations. However the speakers observed that Sri Lankan religious dignitaries have not shown sufficient interest in the matter or some are acting in a counter-productive manner. At the political helm, although references are being made in general to peace and reconciliation there seems a serious lack of understanding of what exactly is meant by peace and reconciliation and what it entails in achieving lasting peace and reconciliation. The difficulties and implications that may be involved in working towards reaching agreement among various interest groups in achieving peace and reconciliation too are not properly studied or understood. This has resulted in the overall failure to provide much-needed direction to the process. Therefore it was suggested that much more cohesive, focused, determined and clear efforts are needed in providing leadership to the whole process.

It was mentioned that the attempts made at present and in the past like the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the constitution were externally driven but not done with much-needed internal will. The actions and reactions of the government pertaining to some of the adverse comments on Geneva Resolution were presented to the audience in this context.

Seminar on peace and reconciliation and nation building held on July 10, 2016.

Tracing the history of the issue, the lack of political leadership with a clear vision and commitment to the nation-building process in post-independent years in contrast with Indian leaders who fought for independence was cited as a major drawback Sri Lanka faced in the formative years of independent Sri Lanka. The political leadership at the helm were entrenched in narrow communal politics which led to the widening of the gulf between and among the ethnic groups overriding the short-lived unity that transcended the narrow ethnic and other divides which prevailed in the period prior to independence and for a short period after independence. Even with these short-lived positive developments there were certain interest groups which made representations against granting of independence claiming their particular interests would be subject to domination by the majority Sinhala group and others claiming the two supposedly upper castes in the social strata of Sinhalese and Tamils would continue to take the upper hand. The marked difference between the Indian and Sri Lankan independence movement was that the Indian movement as a whole transcended some deeply-entrenched religious and social sectoral interests and managed to galvanise the support of all sections of the population cutting across racial, ethnic, linguistic, caste and other divides whereas there was no similar cohesive front in Sri Lanka which was able to cut across ethnic, religious and other barriers and agitate for a common cause.

The involvement of the Sinhalese, particularly the Sinhala Buddhists, emanated from the Buddhist/Sinhala Revival Movement which was working resolutely for restoring the lost prestige and place of the Sinhala Buddhists particularly under colonial rule. The independence movement and support for it by Sinhala Buddhists came as an appendage of the Sinhala buddhist revival movement. Hence there was a huge difference in the ability to garner wide support and build a sustainable mass movement similar to that of India. The result was the disintegration of the fragile unity forged with the evaporation of the euphoria of independence within a short period of time which culminated in 1956 or even before that. Simultaneously the counter-forces in the North consolidated and fortified themselves under banners like separate state, fifty- fifty policy, federal state, independent homeland and extensive devolution, widening the gulf and making the bridge – building between and among the communities complicated and difficult. The two contending parties Sinhalese and Tamils continued to campaign by and large based on ethnicity and language in the ensuing decades resulting in long-drawn instability in the political, social, economic and other spheres of the country. The politicians of all divides and shades exploited the ethno-linguistic divides for their own political gains either to capture power or retain power. This was evident in the way the proposed Bandaranaike – Chelvanayagam and Dudley- Chelvanayagam Pacts were abandoned. Unfortunately we never had political leaders, of the calibre of “statesmen,” who would not engage in petty power politics and live in the past and the present but look beyond at the welfare and prosperity of the next generation and who had a vision as in the case of the Indian political leadership like Nehru and Ambedkar who led the independence movement. The situation has not changed much and the status quo continues.

The insensitivity to the concerns of the minorities in relation to their democratic and other just rights, indecision, lack of interest in the implementation of some of the remedial measures already in place, delays, wilful negligence and at times ignorance displayed were identified as principal reasons for the developments leading to the deterioration of ethnic relations in the post-independence years. It was emphasised that if the Sri Lankan government, the administrative apparatus and the public at large desire to witness positive movement towards peace and reconciliation the above failures/shortcomings have to be addressed and rectified without further delay. The non-implementation of provisions in the 13th Amendment in full, particularly in relation to the status of Tamil as a national language, the removal of prevailing district quota system to enter universities and providing enhanced opportunities for the minorities in the recruitment for employment in the public service were cited as areas in which much action is needed. Although people in the North and East have the constitutional rights to correspond in Tamil with government authorities it was mentioned that in practice the people in these areas still receive official communications in Sinhala and have to undergo severe inconveniences in transacting business with the state.

While removing many existing road blocks and related irritants which led to the hardening of positions of contending ethnic groups, Sinhalese and Tamils in particular, it was also pointed out that new initiatives to soften/remove some other impediments in building a united society should be initiated and implemented. It was suggested that segregated school education based on ethnicity, language and religion should be done away with as these divisions tend to compartmentalise the population on the basis of ethnic and religious divides and act counter to achieving unity among the communities.

The possibility of inclusion of studies which will stress the importance of promoting ethnic harmony and related matters to the school curriculum was seen as another positive step that could be taken. Using the school network involving teachers, students and others connected with imparting knowledge and understanding among the student population on ethnic relations was seen as an effective measure in motivating and training the younger generation in particular to strive towards achieving peace and reconciliation. Reference was also made to the need for taking appropriate measures to halt/discourage hate talks directed against minority communities as witnessed in recent years. In this respect targeting the Muslim community in the recent times was quoted as an example.

The clamour for constitutional guarantees to ensure equal rights to all citizens irrespective of their ethnic origin, language, religion and social status as witnessed during the survey of public views on proposed constitutional amendments was high-lighted at the seminar. However it was noted that the people in general were highly pessimistic of the proposed constitutional reforms and expressed concerns over the slow process of democratisation and the overall lack of enthusiasm in the realisation of ethnic reconciliation. It was said that people gave the impression that they have lost confidence in the system particularly due to over-politicisation.

While it is the prime responsibility of the government to work towards the achievement of reconciliation and lasting peace in the country, clear reference was made to the responsibility of civil society and civil organizations and the mass media in creating a conducive environment to achieve and consolidate peace and reconciliation in the country. In this respect it was observed that the media has failed to fulfil its expected responsibilities. The creation of a correct and appropriate public opinion on the process, educating the masses and keeping them continuously involved in the process, removal of mutual distrust between and among the ethnic communities, and assisting the political leadership to get the correct message across were seen as the responsibility, inter alia, of the media. It was mentioned that certain sections of the media are engaged in promoting racial hatred which has led to the deterioration of relations among different ethnic communities in recent years.

Therefore it was emphasized that the media as a whole should play a much more involved and responsible role promoting understanding among the ethnic groups on the need to establish peace and reconciliation as a matter of utmost urgency if the country is to go forward. The thinking was that the media should endeavor to play a leading role in promoting a mass movement which will act as a persuasive force in influencing the political leadership and other stake-holders particularly the parties holding negative views on the measures such as devolution of power needed to establishing peace and reconciliation in the country.
The role of civil society in achieving peace and reconciliation in the light of the recent developments and attitudes of people affecting the process of peace-building was considered by many speakers as extremely vital.

The nature of the issues connected with achieving peace and reconciliation is such that it cannot be expected that a fair proportion of parliamentarians mainly in the South will support any proposal for extensive devolution of power to the periphery. The two contending electorates in the South and North will engage themselves in the form of a market place bargaining with majority Sinhalese trying to restrict the limits of devolution while Tamils bargain for more power to the periphery. Politicians in general in the end will endorse the will of their own electorates without risking political survival. They will not lead the electorate on the principles of justice and equity, truthfulness and sensibility but be led by the desire to continue in power or capture power. In the past they have proved the capability of instilling herd instincts in an emotionally-driven electorate and using the misguided voters to their own advantage. In general they will exploit anything and every one coming in their way for political survival.

In this light as seen in relation to some recent developments civil society acting as a collective group could exert much pressure on the politicians and others working counter to the desired goal of achieving peace and reconciliation in the country. They could ensure that the process will not get derailed. To achieve this, civil society including its organizations, has to be prepared to take decisive action if required by pressurising the parties acting against the overall will of the people. Civil society also has the responsibility of creating an environment conducive to carrying out the necessary reforms as such reforms including the constitutional reforms in the last analysis should have the acceptance and endorsement of the people.

The sustainability of changes made will be determined by the degree of people’s support the whole process may be able to secure. Therefore action should be taken well in time to prepare the public for such eventuality. This may be in the form of a peace collective, a banner under which all genuinely committed parties may rally and create a mass movement to fulfill the responsibilities of civil society in achieving much-needed peace and reconciliation.

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