Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sri Lanka Unites Responds to Important Questions

First and foremost we want to thank everyone for taking the time to engage with us in a conversation. In the past we have been dismayed at how our nation is plagued by a tendency among people to make judgements about each others efforts and discredit them based on various assumptions. We thank Dinudu for taking the higher ground and giving us an opportunity to address certain perceptions and clarify our approach. We have been working tirelessly for seven years. At times it feels much easier to write an article or a blog on our frustrations on the current state of affairs than actually attempting to do something about them, considering how daunting they seem.. In fact, the former often seems to gain more of fan base and receive more applause from segments of the urban elite than actual action and demonstrable progress. Yet, since such recognition and applause are not what motivates us, we strive to work harder to see sustainable change. Sri Lanka deserves better, we are better that what we have become and therefore we focus on investing in a new generation. In the following weeks we will take time away from work to engage in such Q and A with anyone who is willing to engage. We believe many actors have to play their role in reconciliation. In that journey we are determined to play our part. Here are our responses to the questions raised by Mr. Dinidu de Alwis.

Question 1) Does Sri Lanka Unites accept that civilian deaths occurred during the final phases of the war, that both the LTTE and the GoSL are responsible for these deaths, and hence an impartial - be it local or international - investigation should be carried out to find answers, identify those responsible in the entire command structure, and punish where necessary?

Sri Lanka Unites believes that authentic and sustainable reconciliation is not possible without justice and equality. This is a fundamental requirement for reconciliation. Our understanding of reconciliation is based on the Hebrew root word ‘Tikuum Olam’ which means a triune process of HEAL - REPAIR AND TRANSFORM. In order to HEAL the impact of ethnic division, the civil war, and the lost lives, we must first acknowledge the evils that have committed by all stakeholders. This cannot be swept under the rug. History has proven that grievances ignored will eventually destroy the potential for a sustainable peace. Therefore having independent local or international investigations to bring major perpetrators to justice along with the exercise of restorative justice mechanisms to bring the common man to a place of healing is of paramount importance. As a youth movement, and as part of Sri Lankan civil society, SLU understands that it has no authority or influence to set up independent inquires. Expecting such from a civil society organization, especially a movement of essentially youth volunteers, is inconceivable. However, we are in the process of setting up communal restorative justice mechanisms connecting our reconciliation centre in Matara , Mullaitivu and the upcoming one in the East.

REPAIRing the structures involves ensuring that those wounds do not reoccur in today's society and ensuring a resistance towards structural violence. TRANSFORMATION lies in the process of creating a national identity and a sense of belonging and ownership of all our people. A environment where no one is placed in a situation where they feel they are ‘second class citizens’ because of their ethnicity , religion, gender, or socio-economic standing. A dream that is far from the current scenario, but an ideal certainly worth working towards.

In regard to civilian deaths during the final stages of the war, we are convinced that many innocent civilians died during the war. Not just because we read it in the news but because we have been actively involved in the North and East for over seven years. We have over 200 students in our reconciliation centre in Mullaitivu and thousands of members in the region, many of whom have lost at least one family member or friend during the war. We are constantly engaged in helping them rebuild their lives by investing in their education and now working on trauma counselling programs for those who seek it. We don't believe in making statements from Colombo. We have been part of these communities for over 5 years and established ourselves in the community as trusted partners for over two years.

Question 2) Does Sri Lanka Unites understand that true reconciliation can not be achieved until and unless the loved ones of those who've been killed and made to disappear, both at the hands of the LTTE and the GoSL, have answers, found through a process such as mentioned above? We believe that reconciliation is not possible in a society where prejudices and misconceptions across ethnic lines thrive. This is as important as pursuing the component of justice. Administering justice does not guarantee reconciliation. Punitive justice measures at times leave communities further apart. Therefore we believe in creating an environment where a new generation of Sri Lankan leaders have an opportunity to interact, understand and grow with communities that were once viewed as enemies. Over the past 5 years our research has shown us that over 70% of Sri Lankan youth don't have a friend outside their community. Many in Sinhala-only communities still believe “Tamil = terrorist”, many believe that this is a “Sinhala Buddhist land” and everyone else is a second-class citizen. There are many Tamils who believe that all Sinhalese are racists and nationalists. This is the reality of the grassroots and this creates a dangerous climate for any attempts of pursuing justice and reconciliation. The longer we keep these communities apart, the deeper the hate and higher the chance for animosity to rise. Therefore we believe in the importance of investing in the next generation - expanding their worldview to challenge the flawed notions and broad assumptions such as Tamil = Terrorist , Sinhala = Racist and Muslim = Radical. These interactions help students change their mindsets and have a broader worldview and be willing to judge people by the content of their character and not by the community they belong to. Every 18 years since independence Sri Lanka has seen massive blood shed. This has been along ethnic lines, socio-economic lines or religious lines. Young people have been manipulated by extremist factions to demonize an entire group of people and choose violence as their only option. It is the young who have been brainwashed, used as tools of violence, and left with futures ruined. We at Sri Lanka Unites believe that investing in the youth to resist extremist notions, make wiser non-violent choices, and invest their energy in peace and reconciliation, is vital for change. If we don't help them direct their attention to positive ends they too will end up being prey to the next group of extremists that require them to pursue violence.
Reconciliation takes a generation and we are investing in a generation to lead us there. It doesn't happen over night and it doesn't happen just because justice is administered. It will most certainly help but it will not promise result. We invest in a generation that might be the future leaders of the this country who would break the current political deadlock, ethno-centric, triumphalist bickering politics and lead our nation to true justice and reconciliation. A generation that will have the political will to not ignore grievances and administer justice. A new generation of Sri Lankans who will build a nation of meritocracy and equality.

Question 3) Does Sri Lanka Unite accept and admit that the roots of the ethnic conflict and the call for a separate state did not stem from mere misunderstandings, but from a systematic treatment of Tamil people in the North as second class citizens by the Sri Lankan State, and that some of these root issues are yet to be addressed?

We believe that war is an outward manifestation of deeper problems. The Tamil community and other minority groups have been suppressed and many of these grievances go unheard even unto this day. While violent uprising was never justified, which at the end of the day left these groups on a worse footing, we see these grievances as the root causes of the war. For the Sinhalese community who experienced much hardship in the colonial era, while not justified, used colonial hurt and discrimination as an excuse to set themselves as the ‘superior’ citizens of our country.

We address these issues through the conference, through our all island tours, and our mentoring and leadership sessions. There is not one Sri Lanka Unites member who believes the end of war = the end of conflict. The issues of legitimate grievances, understanding another perspective and working together for each others rights has been a fundamental message of the movement. We are engaging grassroots communities and youth that never hear such perspectives and have never known facts beyond what was given to them by extremist political factions from their own community.

One of our key young leaders from Hambantota recently made a speech where he declared that he aspires to be a parliamentarian. He went on to state that before SLU, his passion was to serve “his Sinhala Buddhist people” from his village in Belliatta. Yet, his passion now is to serve all Sri Lankan people, he wants to fight for the rights of communities in Kepa, in Mullaituvu - a community that lost their lands after the war, and a community that he has visited on numerous occasions through SLU. Our students don't just acknowledge grievances and write an article about it, they seek to find ways they can do something about it. They walk the talk and that is what gives us hope for the future.

Question 4) Does Sri Lanka Unites accept and admit that civilian administration has not yet been set up in the North, that there is continued militarisation in the region, that the Northern Provincial Council has not been given the legal, financial and administrative space to govern its own people, that there is continued large scale harassment and violation of personal liberties of the people of the North, that the involvement of the State and the military in the affairs of the people of the North is incomparable to any other province in the country, and that these continue to be serious hindrances for the healing that is needed for a people after dealing with three decades of civil war?

We believe that civilian rule in all of Sri Lanka is essential for sustainable peace and equality.
We have made our position clear to many military personnel , but also admit that we do not fully know, nor do we have access to intelligence information on, justifiable threats for military presence.
Regardless, we believe five years after war is ample time to begin a process of demilitarisation in the North and East. We also believe in the importance of a meaningful decentralization of decision-making powers, so that the people in local areas have much more say in determining and shaping their own future, in electing the people that govern them, and deliver development, rather than settle for solutions that are determined, designed and implemented from far away. This is a crucial step towards building trust among communities and also to build a better foundation for reconciliation.

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