Any conflict has a beginning or roots. In Sri Lanka, the marginalisation of youth led to two rebellions in the South and the denial of certain rights to the Tamil-speaking people in the North led to a protracted conflict. All three turned into armed uprisings that the State had to contain by military means when peace overtures fell through.
But this does not mean that the State has completely addressed the fundamental issues that led to these insurrections. Far from it, the scars still remain. This is why it is essential to go back to the past and see where we have gone wrong. There is no shame in doing so. We must come to terms with the past to ensure a brighter future.
Other countries have travelled on this path before Sri Lanka. South Africa, whose White minority Government suppressed the majority Black community through Apartheid, gave up that horrendous practice in the early 1990s and appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to probe how this historical injustice was perpetrated. It was not aimed at punishing anyone, but rather at ensuring that such horrors would not be repeated.
In fact, the first post-Apartheid South African President Nelson Mandela, gave priority to reconciliation with the White community. Without any hint of revenge, he sang parts of the National Anthem in Afrikaans with his hand on his heart. He made sure that the White community, which some in his party thought of as the “enemy”, was involved in every aspect of governance. Similarly, the Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland and Ireland through a similar emphasis on reconciliation among former adversaries.
Having won the war in 2009, Sri Lanka failed to win the peace due to the myopic and communalist attitudes of the then administration which hurt the sentiments of the Tamil community with its majoritarian rhetoric. No attempt was made to heal the wounds of war. In fact, the Government celebrated the war victory as if the Security Forces had conquered another country.
However, under pressure from the international community, that Government established the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Yet, only a very few of its recommendations were implemented and even then, in a half-hearted manner.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has always stood for resolving the National Question, has now filled this lacuna by deciding to establish an independent Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation (CTUR). This proposed Commission will be established through an Act of Parliament. It is currently in the drafting process as a concept paper in consultation with relevant stakeholders.
The concept paper, used to prepare the final draft of the Bill for Parliament, will soon be available for comments to ensure an inclusive process in developing legislation that strengthens and safeguards national unity through Truth, Transitional Justice, Reconciliation, Reparation and Social Cohesion.
A key objective of this process is to establish the truth regarding post-conflict grievances of Sri Lankan citizens, facilitating reconciliation, reparation and sustainable peace. The Commission aims to ensure and strengthen national unity, peace, the rule of law, coexistence, equality, tolerance, respect for diversity and reconciliation among Sri Lankans. This commitment extends to preventing any recurrence of disharmony and future conflict between the diverse communities.
In another related and significant move towards reconciliation, prominent bhikkhus and the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), the leading Tamil Diaspora group, jointly presented the “Himalayan Declaration” to President Wickremesinghe. The Declaration advocates for a pluralistic Sri Lanka that promotes the well-being of all communities. Emphasizing the importance of learning from the nation’s historical missteps, the Declaration underscores the necessity for implementing measures that ensure accountability.
This historic step would have been unthinkable even five years ago, with some prominent bhikkhus taking a hardline Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic stance that explicitly ruled out any concessions for the Tamil and Muslim communities. They saw the ghosts of the Tigers in the Tamil Diaspora at every turn. The Diaspora, in turn, did not want to settle for anything less than a separate State, though this was to be achieved through diplomatic moves.
Time heals many wounds and opens new perspectives. It seems that both sides have mellowed over the years and understood the futility of still clinging on to a war mentality.
As both sides have pointed out in the Himalayan Declaration, the time has come for a new beginning for Sri Lanka which has undergone many trials and tribulations over the past few decades due to our inability to make peace with ourselves. This ultimately led to a devastating war that pitted brother against brother, sister against sister.
Other countries such as Singapore which managed to retain ethnic harmony grew by leaps and bounds whereas Sri Lanka fell into a chasm from which it was extremely hard to emerge unscathed. Unfortunately, our politicians on both sides of the ethnic divide, helped no doubt by some sections of the clergy and the so-called intelligentsia, added fuel to the ethnic conflagration to meet their own political ends. But now, their time is up, as evidenced by the historic accord between leading bhikkhus and the Tamil Diaspora.