Putting the record straight on ‘reconciliation’

Sunday Times Feature on the Book Launch – “Reconciliation in Sri Lanka”
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This is a timely book which everyone concerned with ‘reconciliation’ in Sri Lanka ought to read with great interest. In a way, it is all about development, although one of its primary and overt aims is to understand and assess what has passed off as ‘reconciliation’ in this country since May 2009. Defining ‘development’ has proved as exacting a task as understanding the concept of ‘reconciliation’ in the Sri Lankan context, but if polities and publics are in agreement that economic and social equity amounts, essentially, to ‘development’, then, this publication ‘Reconciliation in Sri Lanka’ is a stark reminder that the current, state-initiated reconstruction and connected projects in the once war-ravaged regions of Sri Lanka, are not very conducive to development, correctly understood. Nor are the demands of ‘reconciliation’ being addressed in full.

Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Ironically, the Lankan state conceives of infrastructure development and linked projects aimed at advancing the material well being of Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern Provinces as basically amounting to ‘reconciliation’. However, on carefully reading this research publication one begins to realize that even by these standards, ‘reconciliation’ is yet to be achieved in this country. This is primarily on account of the fact that although roads, bridges, power pylons, common physical amenities and the like have come-up steadily in the North-East, upward social mobility has not occurred to the desired degree among the war-affected communities, thereby proving that not much is being achieved in terms of socio-economic equity. This is regrettable because the latter is at the heart of national integration and social peace.

Ananthan, a young farmer from Killinochchi, recently re-settled in a plot of land, away from his former homestead, is quoted by our researchers as saying thus:

‘None of us has a house to call our own. We don’t even have this basic facility as we don’t have even the means to build a hut. In some areas funds for housing have been given through the DS officers. But, we don’t have the financial support and we have approached the DS office through the GS. The AGA has also been notified. Our access to higher level of authorities is limited.’

This observation is an eye-opener for all concerned with the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the North-East and the general development of those regions outside them. Development being a multi-faceted process, it is not only physical infrastructure development and material advancement that matters but the people’s access to decision-makers of their areas of habitation too is of the first importance. Accordingly, the ‘people’s voices’ are not heard in the decision-making processes affecting them and this is a considerable drawback that needs to be addressed.

This significant piece of research which was conducted in five former war-affected districts, Mannar, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Trincomalee, with the express intention of ascertaining the people’s impressions of the ‘reconciliation’ process, needs to be approached positively by those concerned because of the vital importance of finding out how effective or otherwise ‘reconciliation’ has proved thus far. To be sure, the study does not by any means projects a hopelessly gloomy outlook as regards reconstruction and rehabilitation of the once war-affected areas because the persons and groups interviewed by the researchers readily admit that there is palpable infrastructure and material advancement in their areas. However, there are numerous developmental bottlenecks which need to be resolved before personal and collective empowerment could materialize in full, and the authorities would do well to take cognizance of these limitations and resolve them to the extent possible.

People’s participation in the development process, apparently, is an issue which needs to be addressed very urgently. Surveys revealed, for instance, that the level of people’s participation in designing and planning of local-level development projects, on the basis of community was, Sinhala 2.5 percent, Tamil 2.4 percent and Muslim 7.5 percent. Some 60 percent of Muslim respondents, 40 percent of Tamil respondents and 33 percent of Sinhala respondents in the survey said that they did not participate in the major infrastructure development projects of their villages. There were allegations by some Tamil respondents that members of their community were completely ignored when selections were made for use of labour in large-scale development projects. Instead, workers and contractors from outside the North were engaged for work in the relevant projects, they charged.

A recurring issue in the study is the absence of effective and smooth communication between the military and civilian authorities, on the one hand, and the general public, on the other hand, of the districts concerned. The inability of these parties to communicate in a common language emerges as a prime factor in the people’s concerns not being addressed effectively. Thus, it is very important that the military and the people learn each others’ languages for the purpose of achieving clarity of mutual understanding. While, the high military presence in the North is a cause for public concern, the impression seems to be gaining ground that at present there is ‘reduced military intrusion and intervention into civil life when compared with the situation about a year before.’

That said, the authorities would do well to pay heed to the researchers’ observation to the effect that,’…due to the sheer size of the military forces and the absence of proper communication between community leaders and the security establishment, the villagers often feel helpless and threatened.’ Accordingly, the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, along with all state institutions concerned with development, have a huge role to play in the North-East and one could proffer the opinion that the provinces’ foremost challenges are remaining unaddressed.

As mentioned, we are obliged to approach ‘Reconciliation in Sri Lanka’ and its findings in a constructive spirit. These disclosures should not be treated as ‘off-putting’ but be seen as opportunities to rectify and put right the limitations and setbacks affecting the ‘normalization’ process in the North and East of Sri Lanka.

[frame bgcolor=”#909090″ version=”dark”]Title: Reconciliation in Sri Lanka Voices from former war zones
Authors: Minna Thaheer, Pradeep Peiris and Kasun Pathiraja
Publisher: International Centre for Ethnic Studies
Reviewed by Lynn Ockersz
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