Sri Lanka is being ripped apart by the inability of its leaders to bring about ethnic harmony

Reconcilation & conflict resolution     by  Bishop Marius Peiris

– Auxiliary Bishop Archdiocese of Colombo

I wish to elaborate some of the crucial issues confronting Sri Lanka today. To undertake such a task there is a need to scrutinize the signs of the times in Sri Lanka, especially during the last decade, placing it in its historical context. I wish to state that our country is on the brink of a catastrophe. An analysis of the political, economic, religious and other factors stand testimony to this fact. Politically, we are a divided nation. The military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has not solved the ethnic problem.

We have failed to win the minds and hearts of our people. The preamble to the UNESCO Charter quite rightly says, ‘If wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be established.’ The need of the hour is to build a united Sri Lanka. A united Sri Lanka can only be built through a Sri Lankan identity, not a Sinhala Buddhist or Tamil Nationalist identity.

Sri Lanka is a plural society. There is a plurality of races, religions, regions and castes in Sri Lanka. Religion has become a divisive factor in our society. Religion has germinated an ideology among the Sinhalese, which is politically emotive and volatile. Concepts which are exclusivist like ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ and ‘Tamil Nationalist’ fanned by the DMK of Tamil Nadu are detrimental to the evolution of a unified State. There are the newest and crudest versions of Sinhala and Tamil Nationalism. These extremists and divisive forces cannot bring about a ‘United Sri Lanka.’

A Sri Lankan identity needs to be instilled in the minds and hearts of all our people from Point Pedro to Dondrahead. Some of the Diaspora, largely an asylum Diaspora since the military defeat of the LTTE, has adopted a stance counter-productive to the evolution of a pluralistic Sri Lankan identity. Today, almost one-fourth of the Sri Lankan Tamil population live overseas. Tamil Diaspora forms the economic backbone of the Tamils and contributed at least 60% to the LTTE procurement budget. Internationally, the long range objectives were to radicalize the Sri Lankan Tamils both in-country and overseas to oppose the Sri Lankan State and demonize the Sinhalese. Through sections of the Diaspora the LTTE enjoyed significant support from the international community and developed links with prominent individuals. The LTTE adopted these positions to earn respectability for the organization that had suffered internationally following the assassination of world leaders such as Rajiv Gandhi.

Diaspora-supported separatist and nationalists’ campaigns cannot be ended militarily, because the Diaspora lives beyond the territorial jurisdiction of a State. Until the international community develops mechanisms to respond to Diaspora support, the campaign will continue.

Both Sinhalese and Tamils speak of their glorious past and often hark back to the defeat of Elara by Dutugemunu, giving it an ethnic interpretation. Trying to find refuge in our historical past would not solve the ethnic issue. Some argue that the British policy of divide and rule (Divide et Impera) as the beginnings of the ethnic conflict. The present context needs to be seen in greater depth to achieve reconciliation between the two major races.

In 1833, the British Government appointed William Colebrook and Ted Cameron to present a reform proposal to Ceylon. Thus we see the establishment of a Legislative Council consisting of nine officials, all British and six unofficial, mostly Ceylonese, selected on a communal basis. Thus in the Legislative Council of 1833, there were three Sinhalese and three Tamils. Communal representation was advantageous to the Tamils. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Sinhalese and Tamil leaders formed the Ceylon National Congress (CNC). The first leader of the CNC was a Tamil. Within the CNC there were Sinhala and Tamil groups. The CNC was a local counterpart of the Indian National Congress. There were disagreements between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in the CNC in the 1920s. The high point of all this led the Ponnambalam Brothers – Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Ponnambalam Arunachalam –leaving the CNC, making the CNC an almost pan Sinhalese organization. Thus from the 1920s we can see the initial stages of the ethnic problem.

In 1930, the British appointed Earl of Donoughmore to present a reform proposal to Sri Lanka. Donoughmore commented adversely on the communal representations that had existed for almost hundred years. Donoughmore called it ‘a canker in the body politic’ and he abolished communal representation and introduced territorial representation and universal franchise.

Reconciliation between the two major races has to be achieved. Reconciliation is not totally a political concept; it is more spiritual in character. It is unfortunate that we who are living in a Dhamma Deepa and Dharmista society have failed to grasp the spiritual component of reconciliation.

Reconciliation expresses a central experience of the Christian faith. The term reconciliation comes from the Greek verb allassein, which means to change. It brings to mean, more than anything else, the change of enmity into friendship. Thucydides tells how in the Sicilian wars, Hermocrates pleaded with the warring section to set aside conflicting claims and become reconciled with each other. Xenophon tells of a man who has made war on Cyrus and who had then become his friend again (Thucydides 4.59). In all these anabasis cases, the verb is Katallassein (Xenophon, Anabasis 1.6.1). Thus in classical Greek, Katallassein becomes characteristically the word of the bringing together again of people who have been estranged.

In Christian thinking, God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. Through the work of reconciliation, the lost relationship between man and God is restored. Man was made for friendship and fellowship with God. By his disobedience and rebellion he ended up at enmity with God that which Jesus did take that enmity away and restored that relationship of friendship, which should always have existed, but which was broken by man’s sin. The very essence of Christianity is the restoration of a lost relationship. The summons of Christianity is to return to a God whose love people spurned, but whose love is ever waiting for people to come home. The perfect and definitive reconciliation has been accomplished by Jesus Christ. (The mediator between God and men) (1, Tim 2.5) from the fact that God is the first and principal author of reconciliation, it does not follow that people maintained an attitude that is passive. The divine action is efficacious only for those who will it and consent to it in faith.

The church teaches that true peace is possible only through forgiveness and reconciliation. It is not easy to forgive when faced with the consequences of war and conflict because violence especially when it leads to the very depths of inhumanity and suffering leaves behind a heavy burden of pain. This pain can only be eased by a deep, faithful and courageous reflection on the part of all parties, a reflection capable of facing present difficulties with an attitude that has been purified by repentance. The weight to the past, which cannot be forgotten, can be accepted only when mutual forgiveness is offered and received! This is a long and difficult process, but one that is not impossible. Mutual forgiveness must not eliminate the need for justice and still less does it block the path that leads to truth. On the contrary justice and truth represent the concrete requisites for reconciliation. However, in order to re-establish relationships of mutual acceptance between divided peoples in the name of reconciliation, it is necessary to go beyond the determination of criminal behaviour, both of commission and omission and the procedures for seeking reparation, it is necessary, moreover to promote respect for the right to peace.

Both Christianity and Buddhism hold morality in high esteem and contain strict codes based on their fundamental religious and philosophical principles. In the Dhammapada, it is clearly stated that ‘revenge is never avenged by revenge but by loving kindness.’ For a genuine and authentic solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, there is a strong need to understand in depth the religious dimension of reconciliation. A political solution alone cannot bring about reconciliation.

To promote a Sri Lankan identity the destructive impact of the fundamentalist assertions on either side, namely that Sri Lanka belongs only to the Sinhala Buddhists or that the North and East of Sri Lanka is exclusively the Tamil homeland must be nullified. We should be sensitive to avoid such perspectives and whether it is appropriate to celebrate victory in battle through a tamasha at Independence Square.

It is pertinent at this juncture to mention the name of Nelson Mandela who was serving a 27-year long prison term. Nelson Mandela is almost universally acclaimed, and by all South Africans of all ages and races for leading the country out of Apartheid and bringing the warring factions together, ahead of the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. When Mandela came out of prison, his first words were very inspiring, ‘Let bygones be bygones.’
Sri Lanka lacks statement of the calibre of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. We had two men of distinction with a vision for a united Sri Lanka namely Lakshman Kadirgamar and Lalith Athulathmudali who were both assassinated. The present day politicians are primarily concerned not about the country but about themselves and how to win the next General Election by hook or by crook.

The economy of Sri Lanka is at very low ebb. Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka had had several official plans of development. However, in contrast to the successive plans India gave a certain theoretical continuity through a planning process. Planning in Sri Lanka was in fact a series of disjointed and sporadic exercises with individual plans often failing to survive their formal life span. Further, there was the failure to evolve planning machinery armed with amplitude of administrative and even political powers and imbued with the will to set about the task of actually implementing the various planning proposals.

The three most important challenges facing the economy are the containment of fiscal deficit, lessening the trade deficit and reducing the public debt, especially its foreign debt component, unless there is significant progress in reducing these, the resultant economic instability would hamper sustained economic growth. The public debt has reached the magnitude when government revenue is inadequate to meet debt servicing costs. In 2012, debt servicing costs were 3% more than the government revenue. Our import payments are far higher than our export receipts, causing a severe balance of trade problem. Good governance is essential to achieve the three vital economic goals and to promote an environment that is conducive to a higher investment that is needed to spin economic growth. Prices of goods and services are skyrocketing. The poor are becoming poorer and the rich are becoming richer.

The custom common in democratic countries is the division of powers of government into three – Legislative, Executive and Judiciary. It implies that none of these three powers is able to control or interfere with the others (for example, the judges should be independent of the Executive) or that the same individuals should not hold posts in more than one of these three branches (for example, Civil-servants should not sit in Parliament), or that one branch of government should not exercise the functions of another (for example, ministers should not be allowed to make laws). The principle was outlined in the 18th century, by the French writer, Montesquieu, who stated that the stability of the English Government is due to the separation of powers. In its first sense, the powers should not control each other. It was rigidly applied in the Constitution of the USA, where Executive Power is vested in the President whose departmental heads are responsible to him and not to the Congress. In the UK however, the Executive gradually became directly responsible to the Legislature, the Judiciary is still independent of the Executive, but it must obey the laws passed by the Legislature, although there can be no interference by Parliament with its day-to-day activities.

There is a great crisis in the judiciary in Sri Lanka. This crisis has raised number of central issues, which are conceptually very important. The role of the judiciary is not merely to dispense justice in disputes between citizens but also to dispense justice in disputes that arise between the people on the one hand and the government elected by the people on the other. The political system in our country is not one achieved by the people but one received from the British as a gift – a carbon copy of the Westminster system. In 1978, there was a major breakthrough with a hybrid consultation having the French Gaullist Presidential System, the Westminster parliamentary system with the sprinkling of the US Presidency.

The fundamental separation of powers that should exist between the Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary in a democratic political system, exists only nominally in our country.

Harold Laski stated the manner in which justice is dispensed in any country and the organizational methods used for the purpose are a measure of civilization of that country. According to such criteria, Sri Lanka is at a low level of civilization. The Judicial Service Commission promoted and protected corrupt Magistrates. The approval given in 1983 to extend the life of Parliament by six years by a referendum may be considered as a black mark added to the history of the Judiciary by the Supreme Court. The interests shown by the Supreme Court in defending the governments, which were in power show the crisis faced by the judicial system of our country. There were questions raised regarding the appointment of Chief Justices who were not the best to hold such a prestigious and responsible position. The political role played by the judiciary created distress about the Chief Justice in the opposition movements. Prominent legal personalities namely President’s Counsels, H.L. De Silva, Deshamanya E.D. Wickramanayake and Deshamanya R.K.W. Gunasekera, made a great attempt to prevent the damage to the honour of the judiciary.

The recent removal of Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake by a select committee appointed by Parliament has led to many criticisms from the international authorities in law, as an illegal exercise. The Sri Lankan Government has chosen to ignore internationally accepted values and standards. It has chosen to violate the mandatory provisions of its own Constitution and laws. Indeed, there has been the unfortunate legacy of the Presidential system of government in our country. Whereas the Prime Minister under previous Constitutions sat in Parliament and was answerable for all his or her actions. The President is accountable to none. The President is the source of all patronage. There have been in the past, disagreements, and even conflicts between the Judiciary on the one hand and the Executive or the Legislature on the other. However, it is not without significance that the summoning of the Judges of the Supreme Court before select committees of Parliament with a view to disciplining or removing them is a phenomenon associated with the Presidential System. It had never happened before in independent Sri Lanka. The political culture then was quite different from what it is now.

Corruption is an insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on society. It undermines democracy and the rule of law, leads to violations of human rights, distorts markets, erodes the quality of life and allows organized crimes, terrorism and other threats to human security. This evil phenomenon is found in all countries – big and small, rich and poor – but it is in the developing world that its effects are most destructive. Corruption hurts the poor disproportionately by diverting funds intended for development, undermining the government’s ability to provide basic services, feeding inequality and injustice and discouraging foreign aid and investments. Corruption is a key element in economic under performance and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development.

Corruption has got so ingrained into public life across the world – trying to ferret it out is like finding a needle in a haystack. There are times that even those flag bearers of transparency and good governance are not transparent themselves – leave alone those in the political domain (the most corrupt of them all). There is an important citation from the Mahawansa – The Great Chronicle written in Pali recording the history and heritage of Sri Lanka from 543 BC. The ruler’s trusteeship of the resources of the State which belong to the people is the part of the legal heritage, of Sri Lanka dating back at least to the Third Century BC as pointed out by Justice Weeramantry in the International Court of Justice in the Danube Case, by quoting the sermon of Arahath Mahinda to King Devanampiyatissa as recorded in the Great Chronicle. All these point to the fact that the government and its leaders are trustees of the people and on whose behalf they are acting (and must act).

The implementation of the UN convention against corruption, on the part of State parties, require a commitment of political leadership and political will of such state parties to effectively combat corruption, with a policy of zero tolerance. Corruption has reached enormous levels. Added to this, the rule of law is steadily breaking down, and the country is on the verge of anarchy.

There is a major crisis in the educational sector. Education has always been considered a public good in this country and is one of the important pillars of public policy. Our educational system built over decades of social and State investment has helped Sri Lanka achieve impressive social indicators among other things in education, health, life expectancy and equal opportunities for women. There is a vital need for a collective responsibility to revitalize the education sector.

The recent Z Score fiasco, school admissions to Grade One, paucity of competent principals and teachers, politicization of appointments in the education system and so forth. have raised important issues in regard to reform in education. The University Grants Commission (UGC) was established to uphold the concept of academic autonomy incorporated in the Universities Act. The UGC today is nothing more than a political appendage, functioning almost as a government department within the Ministry of Higher Education. We recognize that there are serious issues of teacher under-performance in both universities and schools. There must be systems of enhanced teacher training and performance. In Sri Lanka today, unregulated private institutions are mushrooming, entrenching a private tuition education industry that prioritizes profit rather than academic standards. Recent attempts at militarization of education too have grave implications for academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The educational system should not be focused on producing regimented minds which do not question authority and who think that free thought and action amounts to mutiny.

Government efforts and development must recognize the importance of recreating the excellence of the past rather than destroy the existing public education system in the name of economic growth and efficiency.
Health is a primary requisite for a healthy nation. The general state of health of the country has come under close scrutiny.

“There are none so blind as those who will not see and none so deaf as those who will not hear” says a well-known idiom which is a reflection of governance today. Unfortunately Sri Lankan citizens barring a few are either afraid to speak out or simply indifferent and this reminds one of another phrase ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.’ Over the past few years, many issues have surfaced that have raised serious issues of governance, transparency and accountability. Some feel that these issues are just the tip of the iceberg as there are many more governance issues where the government has been found wanting.

Sri Lanka is being ripped apart by the inability of its leaders to bring about ethnic harmony. The LTTE has been militarily defeated but there is still no peace in the country. Thirty years of war has consumed thousands of lives, rendered tens of thousands homeless, widened the ethnic divide, and dragged the country towards economic disaster. Victory may be claimed by the government side, but the emotional scars will not disappear from the lives of those who have been directly or indirectly affected by the war. History has shown that even a generation may pass before the descendants of those affected by war will move to settle the score with the perpetrators of the ethnic war in Sri Lanka.


Let me sound a note of caution that the way the divisive forces are moving in the country, a similar situation could erupt that would be a repetition of the calamity which we experienced in the 30 years’ war.

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