Contested reconciliation in Sri Lanka

By Oliver Walton

(This is an updated version of a blog that originally appeared on the Insight on Conflict website)

Last month, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling on the Sri Lankan government to fulfil its international obligations towards justice and accountability and to address issues of reconciliation. The resolution sent political shockwaves across South Asia, with the DMK (Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam), a political party from Tamil Nadu, pulling out of India’s ruling coalition in protest at India’s failure to push for stronger language. The Sri Lankan government has robustly rejected international pressure for reconciliation and accountability, arguing that intervention of this kind threatens to undermine a nationally-led process. In the aftermath of the resolution, President Mahinda Rajapaksa reasserted his government’s resolute stance against international interference: ‘[t]hese attacks would not subdue us…, nor would they defeat or intimidate us in any way’.

As well as provoking intense discussion in the international arena, issues of reconciliation and accountability have featured prominently in political debates within post-war Sri Lanka. Discussion has centred around two competing understandings of the term ‘reconciliation’:  First, a version that sees reconciliation as about addressing conflict between state and society and therefore something that is necessarily linked to political reform, justice and accountability for past crimes and wrong-doing. Second, a competing account that frames reconciliation largely in terms of societal relations – the return of friendly relations between opposing groups.

Government policy has been rooted firmly in the latter camp, not only denying the legitimacy of societal and political grievances of minority communities, but also questioning these groups’ right to exist as political communities.  In a widely publicised speech delivered in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan armed forces’ victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, the President declared:

We have removed the word minorities from our vocabulary three years ago. No longer are the Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and any others minorities. There are only two peoples in this country. One is the people that love this country. The other comprises the small groups that have no love for the land of their birth.

President Rajapaksa has framed the goals of reconciliation and development as mutually supportive, arguing in his recent budget speech that eliminating differences in the standard of living between different provinces is ‘the main weapon through which national reconciliation can be promoted’.  This stance is reflected in the vision statement of the youth movement, Tharunyata Hetak, which is led by the President’s eldest son, Namal Rajapaksa (a 26 year old MP). The movement ‘works towards creating bonds between the youth of Sri Lanka with mutual understanding, national patriotism and development highlighting significant qualities of goodwill, friendship and harmony’.

The post-war environment for civil society action has been highly constrained. Although civil society groups have largely been unable to challenge government discourse, the post-war period has seen the emergence of a number of new organisations and networks – including new international campaign groups (such as the Sri Lanka Campaign) and diaspora organisations (such as Sri Lankans without Borders). Youth have played an important role in civil society activism, both within Sri Lanka and in the diaspora, where young second generation activists helped to mobilise large crowds in support of international intervention during the final stages of the war in 2009.

One prominent new group working on reconciliation is Sri Lanka Unites, a network of young professionals that promotes reconciliation in schools and amongst community leaders. The organisation’s takes a ‘multi-pronged approach to promoting reconciliation’ that involves motivating young leaders ‘to understand the need for reconciliation’ and empowering them to undertake inter-community reconciliation activities in their home regions. SLU endorse a looser definition that focuses on breaking down barriers between ethnic communities by promoting mutual acceptance and interaction. SLU has distanced itself from past debates on reconciliation and peacebuilding in Sri Lanka, which have focused on questions of political and institutional reform. The organisation is unusual in that it adopts a liberal, cosmopolitan outlook, yet was not initially reliant on foreign funding. It has established active branches amongst the Sri Lankan diaspora in several western countries.

The group does not explicitly promote a particular version of reconciliation but instead adopts an exploratory stance where individual members can reach their own interpretation: as one member puts it: ‘the process of reconciliation begins with me, not anyone else’.  This approach represents a rational response to the restrictive political environment in which SLU operates. As my previous research has shown, maintaining a degree of congruence with the majoritarian discourse, and avoiding direct association with international agencies is tactically useful in a context where NGOs have been harassed by the state and attacked for their links to foreign donors.

Public discussion about SLU’s approach reflects broader debates about the meaning and function of reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka. The group’s approach to reconciliation has been criticised on the grounds that this approach neglects the task of repairing state-society relations by addressing issues of justice and accountability. Furthermore, promoting a ‘Sri Lankan’ identity may be perceived as problematic in a context where the dominant version of the Sri Lankan identity (promoted by the government) fails to recognise the needs of minority communities. Youth movements’ greatest strength often lies in their capacity to breathe new life into entrenched political debates. In contexts where the state has been culpable of crimes and abuses against a section of the population, however, the effectiveness of an approach to reconciliation that seeks to break with the past and focuses on promoting a ‘return to friendly relations’ is open to question.

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