A Reality Check

Post-War reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda

Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda, photo courtesy Colombo Telegraph, June 15, 2016

by Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, published in ‘Groundviews,’ Colombo, July 15, 2016

Text of the presentation at the seminar on “Peace and Reconciliation & Nation-Building”, organized by the Association for Social Development and held at Organization of professional Associations Auditorium, Colombo, on July 10, 2016.

I share the basic premise on which the theme of this seminar seems to have been constructed, that is, “peace and reconciliation are a prerequisite for nation-building in Sri Lanka.” I am also aware that there is a strong argument in political theory that war, conflict and violence are more important in nation building than peace and reconciliation.  There is indeed no shortage of theorists in Sri Lanka who advocate this particular argument with passion and conviction. I don’t intend to debate with that approach in my presentation today.

Let me first elaborate a little bit some conceptual significations of the three thematic components of this seminar.

Peace building after an internal civil war requires consolidation of ‘negative peace’ and taking concrete steps towards positive peace. Negative peace the absence of war and violence. Consolidation of negative peace entails its institutionalization as foundation for positive peace, which calls for two programmes, namely, (a) addressing the root causes of the conflict, (b) preventing recurrence of the conflict. Both these objectives are interrelated, one supporting and nourishing the other.

Consolidation of negative peace and inauguration of a positive peace-building project define the larger conceptual framework for policy within which reconciliation and nation-building can also be understood and elaborated in concrete terms.

Reconciliation is about bringing the parties, communities and peoples involved in the conflict together. Its objective should be setting in motion the beginning of a new political life under conditions of the absence of war and violence. In societies of conflict, reconciliation is necessitated by the breakdown of community relations during the protracted civil war in which violence, mutual hatred, and suspicion had defined inter-community relations.

Reconciliation presupposes a number of rather difficult things to do. Key among them are (a) reconciling with the violent recent past through a shared imagination between parties to the conflict to ‘understand and forgive,’ in order to negate the need to recur such violence; (b) building the political will among direct parties to the conflict in order to work together for rebuilding the polity and society in a new framework of shared political life,  (c) building positively new relations among the people and among communities to be able for them to imagine collectively a new ‘nation’ and a new political order, and (d) bringing the victim of war, violence and destruction out of an inner world of loss, defeat and despair to a outer world in which they are agents of their own destinies.

Nation building is a shorthand concept that encapsulates the larger political objective of both peace building and reconciliation. It actually refers to a dual political task of (a) rebuilding the nation as a pluralistic political community of equal citizens and ethnic groups that call themselves ‘nations’ or ‘nationalities’, and (b) rebuilding the state as a union of free, equal nations and nationalities on a new foundation of pluralism and democracy. Here, our emphasis should be on ‘rebuilding’ because, Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war has been about some fundamental inadequacies of how both the nation and state have been conceptualized and given concrete expression in our constitutions, laws, state policies, and state ideologies. The conflict, war and violence have also torn asunder the fragile foundations of the Sri Lankan nation and the state.

Now, when we put together these three thematic objectives, the policy package it presupposes is quite comprehensive and extensive. Its points to a concrete policy agenda marked by being a radical departure from the post-war approach that was advanced from 2009 to 2014. The leadership of the new government was brave enough to embrace and advance such a vision for Sri Lanka’s transition from absence of war to long-term re-building for peace and democracy. One and half years into this new agenda of peace building, reconciliation and political reforms, there are now signs of the process having entered a phase of unanticipated complexities. Its pace has been slowed down. Doubts are being expressed about the government’s commitment. And the broad political consensus required for the success of that radical reform project seems to be quite elusive.

In other words, this is the time for a reality check.

Reality is different from promises and rhetoric. Reality, if we recall a cliché, tastes bitter too. Let me very briefly make the following few points that constitute my reality check list.

  • No general or shared understanding of what reconciliation and peace building should mean has emerged in Sri Lanka. This is despite the fact that the idea of reconciliation has been a subject of intense political debate since the war ended in May 2009. There are contending and adversarial understandings of peace and reconciliation. Government leaders are now openly expressing, hope fully unintentionally, how these bitter contentions about concept, processes, goals and policy as well as institutional mechanisms of reconciliation and peace buildings are interfering with the government’s own approach.  A lack of clarity and shared understanding among government leaders themselves can hardly promote the goals of Sri Lanka’s post-war reform agenda. It has the potential to bring the entire project to a standstill, or to a slow end.
  • As a concept, reconciliation has not been intellectually indigenized in Sri Lanka. Nor does it seem to be adequately understood by the majority of the populace that includes ordinary citizens, who are voters, professional politicians, government officials and those who shape the public opinion. The idea of reconciliation still remains strange and alien to the masses and professional politicians alike.
  • Sri Lanka’s civil war ended unilaterally and by military means alone. The state emerging as the victor. This fact alone has made the project of liberal peace building, advanced by the global actors, being viewed irrelevant by most of the Sinhalese citizens. Sri Lanka’s case in fact is a unique one, which poses a fundamental question: is reconciliation possible in a conflict that has not ended through a peace agreement between the main parties to the civil war? Sri Lanka does not have a mutually binding peace agreement between parties. It has created a particular psychology of victor and vanquished along ethno-nationalist terms. This government has made sincere efforts to break this mindset of adversarial duality. But more hard work still remains.
  • The political leadership of the government seems to be still struggling, perhaps with some results, to move away from the paradigm of victor’s peace. This is no easy task, given the fact that the war ended in a unilateral military victory to the state.  Taking the state machinery’s dominant mindset built on the glorification of victor’s peace is actually hard. President Sirisena seems to be quite sensitive to the enormity of the challenge, and he can’t be blamed for the slow progress in this front. However, it needs to be acknowledged that the government’s effort in this area of work remains inadequate.
  • The political leadership of the government has been rather reluctant, for inexplicable reasons, to provide political leadership and ideological guidance to a sustained campaign to win over the Sinhalese masses, in coalition with Tamil and Muslim masses, to its agenda of peace, reconciliation and pluralistic nation-state building. Such a sustained ideological campaign is necessary to shift the victor’s peace paradigm and re-establish the necessity, authenticity and legitimacy of the government’s earlier vision of ‘peace and reconciliation of all, by all and for all.’
  • Sri Lanka’s current project of reconciliation and peace building seems to be excessively internationalized. This stands in sharp contrast to the approach of the previous government, which emphasized de-internationalization of post-war transition. The re-internationalization of the post-war peace process has its pitfalls as well. While managing the politics of international involvement with some success, the government has also allowed it to appear to be a source of deep divisions among key decision-makers of the government. This is particularly evident by the expression these days of these conflicting views on the question of ‘transitional justice.’
  • The new phase of reconciliation and peace building, after the government change of early last year, too is mired in the conflict between three rival factions of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ruling elite, as represented in the UNP and the two SLFP/UPFA camps. Reconciliation among adversarial factions of the ruling elites does not seem to be in the realm of possibilities. Reconciliation among reconciliators is increasingly becoming a new political need. Who can reconcile the reconciliators? If the conflict that appears to be simmering at present between the two power centers of the government is not properly managed, this might even become the big question in the weeks and months to come.
  • Reconciliation in post-war or post-conflict societies has had a strong moral content.  Reconciliation in such societies need to be facilitated by a strong sense of building new relationships of co-existence with the former adversaries, a commitment to make peace with them, and a willingness to move forward, while not forgetting the past. The following textbook definition of reconciliation is useful for us to acknowledge this moral dimension of it: “Reconciliation is an overarching process which includes the search for truth, justice, forgiveness, healing and so on. At its simplest, it means finding a way to live alongside former enemies – not necessarily to love them, or forgive them, or forget the past in any way, but to coexist with them, to develop the degree of cooperation necessary to share our society with them, so that we all have better lives together than we have had separately.” This quote is from the IDEA Handbook on reconciliation published in 2003. Though somewhat old, it still is relevant to Sri Lanka too.  In both South Africa and Guatemala, religious communities provided the leadership to give social meaning to this moral essence of peace and reconciliation. In contrast, our religious leadership continues to show disinterest in the goals of peace and reconciliation. Lacking in a moral content, and shunned by the moral communities, the agenda of peace building and reconciliation has been made vulnerable to narrow politicization.
  • Finally, the government’s state rebuilding project through constitutional reform, which is centrally vital for post-war political rebuilding, seems be a project waiting for a champion to take it forward for success. Although the basic groundwork has been laid for reforming the constitutional framework of the state, it does not seem to be given a place of pride and priority in the government’s scheme of things. Constitutional reform is serious business, as we have learned from our own recent experiences. It can be utterly divisive. It has the potential to re-open the fault lines of the polity and reignite the conflict. The reason is quite simple. Constitutional reform is after all about sharing of state power in a society with an unresolved ethnic conflict. Without a determined champion, the nation and state rebuilding efforts through constitutional reform might run the risk of being stalled once again. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister at the moment appears to be ready to come forward to champion, head held high, the course of constitutional reform. No civil society group, or individuals outside the government, can play that role. Taking that responsibility head on is the task for which the people of this country have elected these two leaders. Voters or civil society activists don’t need to remind them repeatedly of that mandated duty.

What Next

Thus, my reality check does not offer any reason for those committed to the theme of this seminar to be jubilant. Nor is it a reason to be complacent. Their efforts need to be redoubled. Their short term efforts should be aimed at re-energizing the political leadership of this government to revisit their reform promises made early last year, to re-commit themselves to that reform agenda, to critically review the progress achieved and setbacks suffered so far, and begin a course correction initiative and then work hard to fulfill a promise that has a truly historical significance.

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