After 26 years of war which cost thousands of innocent lives and the displacement of an equal number, with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka is at a cross roads.
Yet despite the victory, there has been widespread international criticism about how the war was handled coming from many Western governments and institutions, largely pressurised by a vocal and influential Tamil Diaspora as the success has come with a price concerning the amount of destruction, death and displacement of the civilians. The number of actual deaths during the conflict and in particular in its last days will never be known despite many international attempts to hold the Government to task.
A lot of these attempts have been encouraged by pro LTTE elements within the Tamil Diaspora in the West who have their own vested interests in ensuring that the struggle of the LTTE was and remains alive. Make no mistake that despite the LTTE being widely praised by large sections of these Diaspora as a ‘freedom fighting’ outfit, it was one of the worst and most bloodiest terrorist groups in the world, having perfected the art of suicide bombing and assassinating two world leaders, countless politicians, the massacre of civilians from all communities including Sinhalese and Tamils and the ethnic cleansing of Muslim civilians from the North in 1990.
Reconstruction, resettlement and rehabilitation will be the immediate challenge and will have to be expertly handled to avoid a repeat of secessionist proclivity and mistakes from post tsunami reconstruction.
Reconstruction of infra structure will be the most easiest and attractive as it involves developing war-damaged economies and hence the search for donors will become the major focus for the country in the immediate to long term.
Consequently, creating a secure environment of equity and social justice might be relegated to the bottom of the list on the assumption that such an environment is the likely spill over effect from massive infrastructural development projects.
However there will need to be a separate if not parallel effort to ensure reconciliation between people. A lot of barriers have been erected between the various communities of the country since the post 1983-pogrom generation, thus special programmes of social engineering to build bridges, facilitate cross faith interactions and regain inter community trust are urgently required to bring back all communities to the main stream of nation building.
This is the role that the Diaspora will need to play in order to bring out about reconciliation that entails infusing human values with an understanding of the need to move away from apportioning blame for deceit and destruction. Rebuilding trust will mean honouring unity and celebrating diversity, working towards equity and justice and ensuring the eradication of social prejudices in building a collective identity.
As in any conflict worldwide, the Diaspora without getting any direct benefit have been active in ensuring and sustaining the continuity of the conflict, without realising the negative impacts that it is having in the country. Post conflict, people understandably hurting and shocked from the demise of an idea that have sustained their existence, are still trying to keep the ‘cause’ alive by exerting pressure on the international community to instigate war crimes proceedings or to cut back on trade subsidies like the EU’s generous tariff preference, the GSP+. However they fail to realise that this will not harm the government one bit and will in fact be detrimental to the overall development of the country. Cutting tariff preferences for example will affect those in industry which will ultimately affect the livelihoods of all communities. Ultimately holding a government to task should be done through a normal democratic and political process which can only be feasible if all elements within the country work towards that goal. The focus now has to be on the resettlement and future development of the country.
How Sri Lanka handles the current displacement crisis is likely to determine the confidence of its minorities and the Diaspora. Pressure is mounting for quick resettlement and to give Tamils a share of power. To this end the government will have to work to ensure that “Sri Lanka has to be a place where all people feel that they are equal citizens…” which implies that all people in the country must feel that they have equal rights. Thus, the Diaspora will have to work towards pressurising and working with the government in this line of thinking.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s address at the opening of the fourth session of Parliament on May 19th 2009 – “We have removed the word minorities from our vocabulary”…comes as a sign of some conviction that unless the majority-minority factionalism is eschewed the people will not be ready “to direct our motherland to that new era of national revival”. By expunging ‘minorities’ President Rajapaksa has now created that space and pre-empted a new course with a central rallying point for reconciliation and communal amity to leap into the next era.
Sadly, no one seems to be picking it up as the cornerstone for constitutional reforms envisaged for moving into a new era of peace and prosperity. People seemed to have brushed aside the President’s statement as a ‘gimmick’ claiming that ‘he’ himself does not believe in it without any clear plans for the future.
Without negating past grievances, there should now be a move to hold the government to task in terms of building confidence amongst the various communities and giving ownership to the minorities in rebuilding the country. The Tamils believed that they were fighting for an identity and to control their own affairs. Such feelings cannot be blotted out by eliminating the LTTE but, they can be made irrelevant by the treatment Tamils (and other minorities) receive in the new Sri Lanka. There should now be an active and systematic campaign for celebrating coexistence among the diverse communities that builds an environment that ensures equality and justice towards freedom of thought and expression, upholds and protects individual and collective human rights and dignity in pursuit of life’s goals without fear and suspicion contributing to national development. This is a big role that the Diaspora, can play.
Sri Lanka is now at the cross roads of moving forward, cleansed of the past and with a chance to develop a common vision shared by all towards collective nation building and prosperity or to plunge back into another unknown era of bitter interethnic rivalries fanned by divisive politics.
Originally published here in the Guardian Comment is Free