A time to heal | Sunday Observer

A time to heal

21 May, 2023

On Friday, the nation marked the 14th anniversary of the victory over terrorism at a solemn ceremony. While the war has ended for good, lasting peace and reconciliation still remain elusive. Although the conflict finally ended in 2009, the hearts of all Sri Lankans will take many more decades to heal.

While there is a massive development process under-way in the previously war-torn areas, what is more important is making those people partners in the nation’s journey to greatness. Physical progress alone cannot achieve this noble objective. Today, we have an enlightened leadership that has seen the dangers of ethnic division and vowed not to repeat the same mistakes.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was one of the most important initiatives undertaken in recent memory. The idea behind the LLRC is a simple one – we must learn lessons from the tragic 30-year conflict and ensure that we never go down the same path again.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has gone one step further and is contemplating the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which will have a broader mandate, South African style. In fact, we should study the models used in South Africa, Rwanda and Ireland (Good Friday Agreement) to gain insights to how reconciliation can be made a reality.

The Government has recognised ethnic reconciliation as the number one priority and President Wickremesinghe has already held a number of meetings with representatives of Tamil political parties towards this end.

All other initiatives will come to naught if we cannot achieve reconciliation among different communities. There is bound to be some level of mistrust between members of various communities after a three-decade-long conflict, but the time has come to move forward. Any attempt at inflaming ethnic and religious passions must be nipped in the bud. This is indeed why the Government should move swiftly with regard to an inflammatory statement made recently by a self-styled ‘prophet’.

It is sometimes easy to win the battle, but keeping the peace is much harder. Peace and reconciliation go hand in hand. We lost the peace that we gained in 1948 because some of our politicians lacked the foresight to maintain reconciliation. This mistake should not be allowed to happen again. There still are certain political, societal and other forces which see ethnic and religious conflict as their only salvation and path to political victory. They already seem to be exploiting the self-styled prophet’s statement with this aim in mind.

Today, we have a golden opportunity to move forward as a nation sans division and conflict. But the lack of a Sri Lankan identity is a great setback as we still identify ourselves on the basis of ethnicity. The Common thread among people in countries such as Singapore and South Africa is that they do not think of themselves as Black, White, Chinese, Malay, Hindu or Tamil.

Evolving a truly Sri Lankan identity should be one of the main priorities and tasks of an envisaged new Constitution. It is perhaps time for us to do away with questions such as, “What is your race and religion” in official documentation. If we call ourselves Sri Lankan instead of giving racial monikers, half our problems would be solved. This does not mean giving up traditions and beliefs unique to each community – it means that we think of ourselves as one Sri Lankan people.

This should perhaps start in the classroom. Children usually have no preconceived notions or prejudices and it is far easier to inculcate in them a sense of belonging to one Sri Lanka. Our Governments have already taken preliminary steps to end the language barrier by teaching Tamil to Sinhala students and vice versa, with English as a link language.

Indeed, 10 or 15 years down the road, all young people will be able to speak Sinhala, Tamil and English fluently, which will end all divisions based on language. After all, there will be no room for miscommunication or misunderstanding if everyone knows all three languages.

Devolution is often a controversial subject, though a necessary one. Devolution can take many forms and come through a variety of institutions, but it recognises the stark reality that every province, every district, every village has different needs or priorities in terms of development, social welfare, health and education. A new Constitution should address this issue to empower the people.

Devolution will not separate us at the end of the day. Rather, it will unite us all in the march towards progress. The term ‘Unity in Diversity’ describes this very well. Seemingly a contradiction of terms, it can work rather well in practice. There are many other countries where this works splendidly. During the Independence struggle, leaders from Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay and Burgher communities joined hands to achieve one goal – Independence.

Again, the concept of unity in diversity has a chance of succeeding only if we come together under one flag, one nation, proud of our identity as Sri Lankans

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