National Reconciliation – The Need of the Hour


by Anne Abayasekara

"Reconciliation: A Noble Goal, But Where Do We Start?" was the heading given to thought-provoking article by Dr. M.A. Mohamed Saleem featured on page 13 of the Sunday Island of the 24th October. I turned the page, and it was as if Mr. Somapala Gunadheera had anticipated the question and provided a very well-considered answer – "A Standing Presidential Commission for National Reconciliation." That was the short answer, but Mr. Gunadheera elaborates fully on what he suggests should be the structure and the powers and objectives of such a commission. Most importantly, "The Commission should have the duty and the power to ensure the relentless implementation of policy accepted as mutually agreed". From there, Mr. G goes on to detail some of the measures for which he feels the Commission should take the initiative and the responsibility.

Dr. Saleem, in his article, lists some of the hindrances to the reconciliation process and also what he calls "Emerging Threats". One very valid point he makes is that people in the re-settlement areas need to be able to voice their felt needs and concerns and to have the right to choose the village programmes they consider would be most appropriate for them – not to have programmes thrust on them from above. He avers that at present they "feel helpless to express their aspirations for rebuilding their lives". Following on this perception, Dr. Saleem concludes his article by quoting the submission made to the LLRC by the Mahatma Gandhi Centre, that reconciliation can be achieved only when the people themselves are allowed to start the process. What is advocated is the formation of People’s Councils in every village, "based purely on development interests sans party affiliations, under the collective supervision of village elders and religious leaders, as a common platform for reconciliation to take root. It seems a bit cumbersome for duly elected members of such Village Councils to need "collective supervision from elders and religious leaders.’ Far better, it seems to me, if a few elders and religious leaders were incorporated into the Council.

Mr. Gunadheera’s thinking is more on a national level, and among the measures which he envisages as coming under the purview of a Standing Presidential Commission, is the "creation of forums at which community leaders could thrash out their problems and seek consensus." Both are good ideas to be implemented. It is vital that people at the grassroots should feel involved in the process of reconciliation, as well as all the rest of us, of course, whatever our creed or community. Mr. Gunadheera highlights what has always seemed to be an issue to which successive Governments have chosen to be indifferent – the implementation of the Official Languages Act. It’s as if most Government servants whose duty it is to serve the public, have never heard of it, although there have been letters in the press from disgruntled Tamil citizens who keep receiving official communications in Sinhala only. Tamil teachers in Colombo schools, have to take the directives they are sent from the Education Ministry or Dept. to their Sinhala colleagues for translation. Sign boards in Govt. offices and road signs warning of closed roads and detours are most often only in Sinhala. At police stations, it’s generally only Sinhala that is spoken and understood. Such an elementary thing that might have been remedied long ago. This is amply endorsed in detail in Mr. Kumar Rupesinghe’s testimony before the LLRC, published on P.21 of the same issue of the Sunday Island. It appears that in 2005 the `Foundation for Co-existence’ undertook a study of the implementation of the Tamil language. Mr. Rupesinghe puts it mildly when he reports that "The results are not very heartening"! He also recalled the words of Dr. Colvin R. de Silva when he addressed Parliament during the debate on the Sinhala Only Act in 1956 – words to the effect that this policy could lead to one language, two states, or two languages, one state. Ironically, J. R. Jayewardene also warned on that occasion that the one language policy could lead to a civil war and a blood bath – and did nothing to stem the tide when he came into power in 1977.

As an ordinary citizen, I applaud Mr. Gunadheera’s recommendation that the Commission should be empowered to take strict punitive action when violations of the national language policy are brought to their notice. Much more will be expected of the Commissioners, such as, for instance, "keeping a watchful eye on admissions to schools, universities, professional institutes and the state service, to ensure that there is no ethnic discrimination." This is precisely what Dr. Saleem claims the people in Jaffna feel – discrimination! "Even with the mega-projects that are underway to kick-start the economy in the Northen Province, the Tamils are disappointed and feel sidelined in local job recruitment, while it is alleged that foreign and Sinhala contractors are given preferential contractual terms."

Sadly, Dr. Saleem confirms something even more invidious, that other visitors to Jaffna too have alleged, namely that "In the recent past `many `victory monuments’ have come up at various locations in the northern and eastern provinces; placing of Buddha statues in places predominantly inhabited by other communities has become common . Such actions cannot create the space for reconciliation. Also, acts such as bulldozing cemeteries in the north do not augur well to heal wounds………" It is up to the Government to set an example to the nation by showing a much greater sensitivity to the feelings of the minorities than is evident at present. Dr. Saleem, I felt, seemed doubtful whether more enlightened policies would prevail. Mr. Gunadheera, on the other hand, presented something positive and constructive, of which a wise Government might take note and proceed to act on the lines suggested.

I can’t help wondering what both these gentleman thought of the poignant and eloquent appeal addressed directly to our President by an eminent lawyer, Mr. George Willy, at a `welcome ceremony’ held in Houston, to "return us to paradise." I believe Mr. Willy got a standing ovation from a predominantly Sri Lankan gathering. Mr. Gunadheera appears to have paradise in mind when he stipulates that the criteria for appointment to his proposed Presidential Commission for National Reconciliation should be "the best brains, the widest experience, the staunchest character and the highest dedication the country can muster", with no place for "hangers-on, time servers and political stooges." It would certainly then prove to be a model of what a genuine Commission should be.

It seems fitting to conclude with another quote, this time from "My Vision for Sri Lanka in 2048", written by the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke in 2008 - "I am optimistic that the land that has shown tremendous resilience over the centuries and practiced a rare type of tolerance, could still return to normality – although we should ensure that grounds for conflict are eliminated forever." Sir Arthur was looking ahead 50 years, to 2048. If we could summon up whole-hearted collective determination and goodwill, we should surely succeed in restoring our beloved land to "Paradise" (or at least a semblance thereof) well before Sir Arthur’s given date.

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