Sri Lanka’s long road to reconciliation

Nov 10, 2012

Militarization of north deepens distrust, problems of impunity.

De Visser said every year his organization takes 25 youth leaders from around the country on a month-long national tour. During this experience, he said, Sinhalese youths “finally” realize the enormousness of the destruction in the Vanni. “The three representatives from Hambantota, [the country’s southern-most district] in fact, pledged to raise Rs 300,000 [about US$2,300] for our work in the [northern] region. There is a lot of misinformation out there.”

Sivchandran, the women’s advocate, welcomed these initiatives. But she warned that without government support, such efforts will have limited results. “Agencies and activists who work on advocacy issues still sometimes find it hard to work effectively in the region.”

Where to start?

Bedevilling both activists and authorities is just where to begin to restore the community ties that existed before LTTE rebels killed 13 government soldiers in 1983, triggering widespread anti-Tamil riots in other parts of the country.

After 18 months of investigation, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, set up by the government in May 2010, concluded “human rights issues are critically relevant to the process of reconciliation.”

Between January and May 2009, the government reported 2,635 missing persons were “untraceable” in Northern Province. Between December 2009 and mid-2012, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) office in Sri Lanka reported 747 cases of missing children.

“You have to answer the questions on the missing, deaths and alleged abuse truthfully, once and for all,” said human rights activist Fernando.

He also criticized the country’s main Tamil political party, Tamil National Alliance, for making power devolution a prerequisite for reconciliation. Tamil political leaders have pushed for power decentralization to address the discrimination that they say led to the conflict. But an influential group within the government is campaigning to scrap a constitutional amendment that, in 1987, set up power-sharing provincial councils, which are now widely regarded as ineffective.

“It is all good if effective power devolution takes place, but by focusing exclusively on that, we take away the importance of other underlying issues,” Fernando said.

Though a complicated issue, ethnic reconciliation is possible, said Sri Lanka Unites president de Visser. “We have inherited a mess, but this is also an opportunity for us to build strength among youth and foster unity."