The last Presidential election was relatively peaceful and calm on the day of the election itself, which has led the government to declare it free and fair. However, there were several aspects to that election that could do lasting damage to the country. One was the government’s propaganda campaign that claimed a conspiracy to divide the country. The support that the TNA publicly pledged to Opposition Presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka was said to hide a secret agreement to that effect. In the last two weeks of the election campaign the government controlled media saturated the air waves and print with this propaganda. This had the effect of increasing the ethnic polarization already inherent in society, as manifested in the election results.
After winning those elections handsomely in most parts of the country except for the north and east, the government needs to heal the wounds and divisions its own actions have caused in society. However, the sequel to the Presidential elections that saw General Fonseka being unceremoniously arrested and a large number of high ranking army officers compulsorily retired or sent on transfer has further divided society. Not only has division rent the army, the much respected Buddhist clergy too appears divided on the post-election issue of General Fonseka’s arrest. It increasingly appears that division is multiplying in society which only the spirit of magnanimity, self-critical thinking and mutual understanding can bridge.
The reality of a continuing ethnic division manifested itself to me when I attended a workshop for provincial correspondents of national media organization in Gampaha a fortnight ago. Gampaha is a district that is one of the strongholds of the ruling party and most of the participants were sympathetic to the government’s point of view. The objective of this workshop was to remind these journalists of the continuing importance of a just political solution to the problems of the ethnic minorities. During the discussion a question raised by a participant was how to deal with an ethnic minority that might be wishing the destruction of the country. Underlying this question was the sense that the Tamil ethnic minority was not loyal to Sri Lanka and constituted a threat to it.
Now with another important election on the horizon there are enough and more leaders of the government who are going on public platforms projecting themselves as the saviours of the Sinhalese ethnic majority and of the country. They are fomenting divisive thinking that leads people, who believe they are less informed than their leaders, to come to extreme conclusions, such as the one put forward as a question at the workshop for provincial journalists in Gampaha. Unfortunately, the politics of trying to compete with the government for the votes of the majority would probably dissuade the opposition from challenging the falsehoods that are being propagated. The opposition would not wish to inflict upon themselves the fate of General Fonseka who found himself accused of being party to a conspiracy with Tamil separatists.
There is a need today to redefine what patriotism means. Leaders of government affirm that they are patriotic by fighting against conspiracies by Tamils, the international community and Sinhalese traitors who oppose them. But patriotism is also about positive values, like working for all citizens and alleviating the sufferings of the victims of past conflicts. Patriotism is also about justice that goes beyond one’s own side, as Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated when challenging British rule. He dissented from his colleagues when they sought to cover up the wrongs done by their own side. Today, when the government claims a monopoly of patriotism and the people and polity is divided within, there is a role for those who dissent without trying to destablise.
In the current situation where nationalist propaganda is rampant, and politically unchallengeable, an important task of being a countervailing force devolves upon civil society and non governmental organizations. Those opinion-forming sections of society that are politically non-partisan, and do not seek to be direct beneficiaries of the political process, are best positioned to be agents of healing and reconciliation at this time. There are at least two important attributes of civil society groups and NGOs that need to be appreciated. One is that they are not necessarily dependent on government or political patronage, and so can be politically non partisan. Their main sources of support are the spirit of voluntarism amongst the local population and the financial support they receive from international donors.
Hopefully the role of civil society and NGOs as the main, or sole, representatives of the values of healing and reconciliation will only be a temporary phenomenon. The end of the General Elections may permit the government to take the lead role in creating a more just and ethnically balanced policy environment. Notwithstanding a greater governmental commitment to addressing issues of reconciliation and healing, there is also a second role for NGOs. This is to address micro level issues, including the problems faced by individuals who are left out of the massive macro-level government programmes of relief, rehabilitation and development.
One of the government’s claims is that it is launching large-scale infrastructure development projects in all parts of the country, including the war-ravaged north and east. Roads, bridges and buildings are being put up newly in some places and repaired in others and could be of great benefit to the people in the future. However, while this great development activity takes place, sometimes with foreign labour as in the case of some foreign-funded projects, there may be many individuals who are left out of the process, and who need to be looked after. This is another area where NGOs , with their small scale, personalised and grassroots approach can come in to play a useful and supportive role to the government.
After the workshop for provincial media persons in Gampaha in the Western Province, which is by far the most prosperous and urbanized part of the country, I went right across the country to Trincomalee in the war-ravaged Eastern Province. The event in Trincomalee was the prize giving for school children who had taken part in a human rights quiz competition. As the country has become free from guerilla and war-related violence after the end of the war, and has become safe for travelers, I took my three children along with me. Through the NGO and religious networks that my organization has, I was able to visit a school and also a transit centre for displaced persons, of whom there are still a number even in Trincomalee.
At the time we entered the school, just before the mid-day interval, the classes were in progress. But when the little children in the school saw my children, they started waving at them and calling them into their classrooms. Their school was a poor one, and so were most of the children, but they showed an abundance of loving attention. The attitude of these Tamil children towards Sinhalese children who were strangers to them did not indicate the hostility of a community that sought the destruction of the country. It meant that those Tamil children had not been taught by their parents or teachers to hate or be suspicious of those who were Sinhalese. This people-to-people contact is the best answer to the question posed by the journalist in Gampaha.
At the school some of the children we met were from the Wanni. We met a little girl of 9 years who had seen her mother die in the shell fire during the crossing from the LTTE controlled area into the government controlled area. The family of five, father, mother, two daughters aged 11 and 9 and son aged 1 had been fleeing for safety. The little girl had insisted that her father carry their mother’s body with them, and not leave it in the water. So the father had given the little boy to the big sister and carried his wife’s body to a place where they could bury it. They now live with relatives. But as they are not in the welfare camp they do not get the resettlement allowance and other welfare benefits they might be entitled to. There are many such stories, one of a child with shrapnel that remains in her head and who does not look quite normal, and a boy who lost his father. These are all stories of people who fall between the cracks that the government alone cannot close.
On our return to Colombo, my elder daughter, aged 6, informed us that she had written an article in her notebook. The spellings were a little off, but this is what she wrote. "February 25-02-2010. Trincomalee. I saw a children’s school, home and a monkey on a tree and a peacock running and I saw an elephant eating and another elephant working and I saw camps and a mother and a child and I made friends with a lot of children and may God bless them and keep them in his care always.