Understanding Reconciliation and its Realizations
It is impossible to change the things that happened in the past. However, we still remember the cruel and bitter experiences of the past. It is impossible to assess the massive loss of life and property during the time of war. When the heart is sick with physical, mental and emotional stress, it again being overloaded with suspicion fear, distrust and hate, can pave to its way to another conflict. It need not be repeated. It is our responsibility to analyse our past experiences to understand better on how to avoid the recurrence of such a condition in our country. If the society is placed on such a background it can be considered as the beginning of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is a new concept based on commitment and participation to generate truth, justice, compassion and peace. At present reconciliation considers conflict resolution from a new perspective. Primarily, reconciliation is centred on an individual and hopes to expand it to group reconciliation and finaly to the whole community and the country.
Reconciliation is needed to a society that thinks of a possible conflict. We who are fed up with horrors and bitter experiences of war should move further than finding solutions to the causes of the war. Therefore, creating an environment to all the communities where they can live with peace and reconciliation is imperative. To achieve this we have to build cooperation, friendship and better relations with each other. This cannot be achieved by the efforts of the government only. It is the responsibility of the government, the grassroot level civil society activists and all the citizens of the country to be involved in building reconciliation and peace. It is also the duty of the private sector and the NGOs alike. National Peace Council has clearly recognized the need for reconciliation in the country.
Strengthened with adequate knowledge on reconciliation at the workshops NPC has conducted, it has applied this knowledge at various instances to bring about reconciliation among various communities in the society. This booklet brings into light some attempts it has undertaken to build reconciliation; this kind of attempts should be highly appreciated.
Wijayawantha Ukwatta; Lecturer, (B.A. Jayawardanapura, M.A. Beijing), Sri Lanka Foundation Institute
National Peace Council of Sri Lanka functions with the main objective of creating a peaceful and a prosperous Sri Lanka with a society that respects Freedom, Human rights and Democratic rights of all it citizens. NPC’s mobilization units started workshops with the theme of building reconciliation and peace through non-violent means under postwar conditions.
With the ending at the three decade long war, we are now in a post war phase. If we are to avoid future conflicts and disputes it is imperative that we understand what reconciliation is and practice it among all individuals of the society. They should be encouraged to use reconciliation among each other in the society.
The national conflict of Sri Lanka escalated and reached its disaster phase because of the neglect of the real causes and tried to remedy visible causes only. Generally such measures are tried by a society that has failed to identify, analyze and understand the real issues and take appropriate decisions. Failure to think critically, and act accordingly, inability to take decisions and act at the proper time, and failure to understand who we are also leads to such grave pitfalls. People should understand that things do not occur in the way they think and there exist various life patterns in the society. Failing to build relationships with these diverse patterns will also lead to various conflicts and disputes. We must realize that disputes in the society range from domestic level to national level.
All of us believe of a prosperous Sri Lanka where all ethnic communities could live peacefully and of a society where another ethnic conflict will never occur in the future. It is vital that suspicion, distrust and disputes that prevail among Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities are wiped out completely and the society should be strengthened with peace and reconciliation. As civil society activists, our role is to create awareness in the society on peace and reconciliation and strengthen the society in these areas. This workshop was organized for this purpose and is conducted with the participation of some social activists who were with us for a long time in peace processes and along with a group of thirty youths who are interested in this field.
The objective of the workshop is to create an understanding among the participants on the concept of reconciliation, development of peace. Reconciliation in the post war society and the manner in which reconciliation can be built at the grassroot levels under the guidance received at the workshop. The contents of this booklet include the presentations of some of the activists who participated at the workshop. It explains experiences of individual, and group activities on their studies on reconciliation. In a context, where the full impact of the work done by NGOs cannot be assessed, this kind of experience provides clear instances where social activists were able to bring effective results in creating proper background at various levels to build peace and reconciliation.
Dr: Jehan Perera, Executive Director, National Peace Council
Building Reconciliation through Shramadana and Cooperation
When we travel along Ella – Namunukula road and turn at Newberg junction the first settlement we came across is the lower portion of the Newberg Estate. When we traveled another 100 meters to the interior, we reach Yahalewela village. This road is the only approach to both these settlements. In Yahalewela village majority belongs to the Sinhala community. Vegetable cultivation is their main livelihood. Apart from them there are several Tamil families who work as coolies in tea estates.
At the Newberg junction there is a three wheeler stand. There are 10-15 hiring three wheelers here though buses ply up and down the Ella – Namunukula road, there were no public transport facilities to these two villages and they had to depend on three wheelers to reach their villages.
One day when a young girl was walking to her village after getting down from the bus, a three wheeler driver mocked at her. She went home and complained this matter to her parents. Later, two of her brothers went to the three wheeler stand and questioned about it from the relevant three wheeler driver. The brothers got annoyed on how the three wheeler driver responded, and there was an exchange of hard words among them. This occurred in mid December; after this, Tamil youths were waiting for an opportunity to take revenge. In January the same driver mocked at the girl when she got down from the bus again and later she complained the matter to her brothers. This time the two brothers collected some of their friends and relations and came to the three wheeler stand to give a mob attack. The driver also contacted his friends into the scene. This ended with the exchange of blows between the two groups. Some got wounded and 4 three wheelers were damaged. When people informed the incident to the police they came to the spot and settled the dissipute. Several youths who were arrested as suspects were later released on bail.
Later, there were several incidents between the two parties for various reasons. The local people, community leaders and various officers serving in the area believed that this rift will develop into a major incident. They thought of various measures to settle this dispute. Meantime, the problem of developing the road to the village under Gama Neguma program came up.
They wanted to get the support of the villagers for the road construction program. At the initial discussion held by the Divisional Secretary, Grama Sevaka, other government officers of the area and community leaders participated this meeting. Some raised the above issue at this meeting and it was decided to implement the road construction program as the best way to settle this dispute between the two parties.
It was planned to complete the road in 12 days and villagers were expected to contribute their labor througout the 12 days. For this 10 people from the village and 10 people from the estate had to work daily in the road Construction program. The leadership in the construction program was entrusted to Grama Sewaka of the area. Daily Sinhala and Tamil officers of the area too participated in this activity. After a few days both Sinhala and Tamil villagers became very friendly and cracked jokes in their languages and enjoyed in their work and achievement. When the 12 days ended they had develop more coordial and friendly relationships with all in the area.
The date of opening the road was decided on the collective agreement of the officers, the people of the village and the estate. For this occasion, the priests of the Buddhist temple and Hindu temple participated and the road was opened according to both Buddhist and Hindu religious rites and ceremonies; People of the area, government officers and politicians participated in this ceremony. For this occasion, both Sinhala and Tamil villagers moved up and down the road in a very happy mood. In the evening, both Sinhala and Tamil people enjoyed together with the estate orchestra providing necessary music. This event facilitated to settle their disputes by realizing their weaknesses. Thereafter, no disputes have arisen among them.
Building friendship with Tamil people through a mobile service
Estate Tamil population who live isolated from the Sinhala speaking majority of the rural population needs to be recognized as a significant section of the Sri Lankan society. However, the gap between Sinhala and Estate Tamil communities has not yet minimized. At the present, the post war phase, there is a need for a program to bring them into a united alliance.
However, the Estate Tamils have been confined to their estates in the past, under the present complex social conditions; they have to make contacts with the wider society to fulfill their needs. Is this arena, the rights that are enjoyed by the rural citizens should also be given to the estate population. The Estate Tamils who are the citizens of this country are also entitled to all the civil rights enjoyed by other people. There should be adequate opportunities for them to approach the government officers to acquire necessary government services that are available. Estate populations, who sell their labor for livelihood needs, have no idea or understanding about their civil needs. The issue of citizenship rights of these people began with the neglect of the citizenship of up country Tamils by the unitary constitutional provisions of 1947 and the Sri Lanka Citizenship Act of 1948. Though the majority of Estate Tamils have got there citizenship by 1990’s, there are many unsolved problems of their citizenship rights.
Although, awareness about their rights was created through the support of the Grama Sewaka’s, yet the distance between the Superintendent and the Estate population provided no space for such services. Even though they have made aware of their civil needs, still they need to travel a long way to the divisional secretariat office. If they go for such services there is always the risk of losing their daily wages. Since there work cannot be completed in one day they need re-visit these offices several time. By doing so, these daily wage earners are at a risk of loosing their day’s pay and most of their work is hindered due to language barriers.
Considering the above factors a mobile a program was organized to provide National Identity cards and Birth certificates to the Edurapola Estate population of Bulathkohupitiya D.S area of Kegalla district. Those who have failed to get them for various reasons. The problem was coordinated by Bulathkohupitiya social activists in collaboration with the Bulathkohupitiya D.S office.
The first task of this program was to focus the attention of the people on important documents and services such as Birth Certificates, National Identity cards, voting rights WPF and WTUF. By this program their approach to other services and other civil rights was enhanced. The program provided them the necessary documents to face security checks without any fear. The Estate workers also became aware of their voting rights, which they were longing for a while; they were relieved from the problem of getting their rights. Minimizing the gap between the government officers and the Estate workers along with other communities paved way to build trust and friendship among them.
Views of some beneficiaries of the program:
R. Thawamain :
For 15 years I could not use my National Identity card because it was illegible. When I went D.S office to get a new Identity card, I was advised to go to the D.S office to of my place of birth. When I went there, they asked me to get it from Bulathkohupitiya D.S office. When I came here I could not do anything because I don’t know Sinhala. As my daughter is living in another area, I had to face various problems at security points during the war. Unfortunately, I could not get an opportunity like this before. Today, I could fill my application without any problem. I was able to get my daughters birth certificate as well. I am very thankful to all for realising the problems faced by people like us and coming to support us.
C. Kittamma :
Wherever I went, they asked for my Identity card. Even then I took no interest on it as nobody informed me about these things. I am happy now. I came because I was asked to come. I never expected that I will get an Identity card and my senior citizens card both.
I have lost my identity card; I was scared to inform anyone. When I went to the police station, I was told that the person who found it will send it to me by post. When I checked from the post office, it has not there. Today, I was able to get my identity card easily. Hereafter, it will be very easy for me to deal with people who ask for my identity.
C. Pakkiyam :
My name has not been entered correctly in my birth certificate. In 1992 I went to Kegalla and filled the necessary forms. I handed them to an officer. However, I did not get my birth certificate; today officers here supported me to get my birth certificate.
Building Reconciliation and Peace though Co-Existence Committee
About three years ago, there had been disputes between Sinhala and Muslim groups of Weligama area. This started with the harassment of a young girl of the Sinhala community by a Muslim youth. This clash started with scolding and fighting between the two families. Later in the war days this escalated into a communal hatred which led to incidents like damaging vehicles. Till recently there had been rifts between the two communities.
Under the leadership of the Matara district action committee, and in collaboration with Galle and Hambanthota District action committees, a coexistence committee was formed to remedy this state of affairs. As the initial step, religious leaders of the area, relevant government officers and civil society representatives of the village level had a discussion on the importance of the concept of coexistence. A committee was formed from some selected members of the gathering. Next with the leadership of Buddhist, monks and Maulavis, a series of discussions were held with the participation of Muslim and Sinhala family members.
They tried hard to show the importance of improving friendship among communities and to bring peace between the two parties. This gradually paved way to build a strong base for the newly appointed committee of religious leaders to provide guidance on reconciliation and good will.
The Sinhala person of the area joining to celebrate the Ramazan festival is a significant event in the peace building process. Recently the coexistence committee intervened through religious leaders of both communities to settle a political dispute that arose during in the 2011 election campaign for local governments.
Religious festival that paved way to Reconciliation
All the people living in Sasayam Estate of Kithulawa G.S division are Tamil plantation workers. With the defeat of the LTTE, these people lived in fear of any harm from the Sinhala people living around the estate. These Sinhala families were resettled around the estate after they were displaced by the tsunami disaster. The conditions of the tsunami affected people, who lived as fisherman in the past was not satisfactory. Both these groups lived in frustration, one devastated by the tsunami, and the other by the defeat of the LTTE. Moreover, they led a life of isolation, separated from each other in every aspect of life.
Kovil premises located in the estate provided a common place of worship for both Tamils in the estate and the Sinhala people in the surroundings. There is an old Nuga tree and a large Bo tree on the premises. The plantation workers of the nearby estates used the kovil as well. With the commencement of war, the Tamil of the nearby estates avoided coming to this place of worship. At one point, the Kovil premises became a completely neglected site. With the resettlement of tsunami victims, they cleaned the place, resurrected a Buddha statue, and conducted their religious rites. Gradually Tamils of the estate too started visiting the place for their religious activities. Though both parties came to the same place and conducted their religious rites, they never trusted each other, as they had no understanding each other’s religious beliefs and values.
Having fixed the pooja ceremony of the Kovil for October 29th, 2010, a Shramadana program was arranged for October 25th, with the aim of clearing the premises and making necessary preparations. This also aimed to improve the relations between the estate workers and the tsunami settlers. This program was co-ordinated bythe Kalutara District committee members in collaboration with the Grama Sewaka of the area. The cooperation and contribution of G.S should be appreciated. This provided an opportunity to Sinhala villagers and Tamil estate workers to engage in Shramadana work together and get an experience on values of each others religion and inter communal harmony and friendship. Both Sinhala and Tamil people provided financial support to the best of their abilities. Organization activities were done by the cooperation of both Sinhala and Tamil members. The food for the participants were prepared in a Sinhala house and Tamil people helped them. This developed a trust between the two groups and now they visit the Kovil premises with greater respect to each other and their religions. The lack of water facilities had been a problem in the time of the pooja ceremonies, but now neighboring Sinhala families have volunteered to supply water.
The path of reconciliation to lead from ignorance to understanding.
Tamil children of Hanthana Estate and the Sinhala children of Bahirawakanda Madduma Bandara Vidyalaya are two groups of children, who have confined their educational and social activities to their community only. The behavior patterns of Tamil children are limited to their Tamil culture. The children of the children’s homes and urban slums are confined to their own way of life. These children are economically backward and are neglected by politicians and other influential people. In such a situation, they are more likely to develop detestation towards other communities and social groups and are more likely to get involved in communal conflicts. These two groups, one from estates and the other from slums are completely deprived of exhibiting their skills and chances of sharing their experiences. For a long, time the estate community was considered as a separate entity of the general society for a long time. Today, the attention of the urban communities on estate communities are gradually decreasing after the war. In such a context in order to avoid communal conflicts in the future, it is a timely needed to train these children to believe in mutual friendship and inter cultural understanding. If this is accomplished we can hope of a sustainable peace.
Therefore, “reconciliation” workshops were conducted to these two groups of children at the factory premises of Hanthana Estate to make them understand the value of making friendships. The event provided an opportunity to the children to share their experiences with those from other communities. The children of Bahirawakanda Vidyalaya came in the early morning of 2nd October 2010, with their elders to participate in this workshop. After going though the details of various cultural items, they were able to get a general understanding on the cultural practices of each other. Two main languages, Sinhala and Tamil were used to explain their views. In the art competition on “the importance of unity”, children showed their talents and ideas both through art.
The workshop helped them to develop a positive attitude and exhibit their skills. As both groups have poor social recognition and are deprived of their rights, unity among them was highlighted as a mean to win their rights. The formation of a readers club on this occasion can also be regarded as a step forward.
Though the children sat separately at the start of the workshop, at the end, they had developed friendly relations with those of the other community. At the end these children were hard to separate from one another due to the new bond they built. A reconciliation “money pot” was given to children to collect money to give a present to their best friend at the next “Reconciliation Bridge” program.
New Year festival that brings peace and enjoyment
Majority of the people in Bindunuwewa village are employed in the government or private sector occupations in Bandarawela town and nearby urban areas. Most of them leave their houses early in the morning and return home in the night. There are businesspersons and vegetable cultivators. Majority of the population belongs to the Sinhala community. They have grouped together according to their diverse livelihoods. The government servants, who meet each other regularly, have developed better relationships than the others have. Businesspersons normally associates only with those who are involved in allied occupations. Though others in the village are interested in having relationship with other groups, the opportunities are scarce for them.
Even then most children and youths get together in the evening and engage in sports and play. They get together in common activities. They have established children’s societies and youth clubs and involve in games affectivity. They also participate in various other training and cultural programs. Once the youths of the village decided to organize the New Year festival, most of the people agreed to support it. When propaganda work started, a group of government servants stood against it and tried to prevent the New Year festival. They threatened the youths who were organizing the festival. They argued that such events should be organised only under the leadership of the respectable people of the village. During this period, the two parties reproached and acted against each other and the whole village divided into two conflicting parties. Elders who pledged support to the youth were with them and the rest took the other side.
Youths declared that they will conduct the festival and others said that they would organize their festival as well. When the youths decided on a date, the other party also decided on a nearby date. In the meantime scolding, challenging and passing of hints became common occurrences. However, a neutral group of adults and the president of the youth club became active to bring a peaceful settlement. After informing the incident to the Divisional Secretary through the youth services officer, they decided to have an initial discussion with the officers and the O.I.C of the police station to settle this issue. They decided to convene some representatives of both parties in a place away from the village and discuss the problem in the presence of Divisional Secretary, O.I.C police station, Chairman of the Pradesheya Sabaha and some selected officers.
The meeting was conducted as decided with all the officers expected and the representatives of the conflicting parties. At the commencement of the meeting, District Secretary explained the importance of the New Year festival and pointed out the things needed and the responsibility of the people to make it a success. He conducted the meeting indicating that he was unaware of the two New Year festivals and handed over the responsibilities to those present. O.I.C police station and the Chairman of the Pradesheya Sabaha promised their support and cooperation; Chairman of the Pradesheya Sabaha agreed to even provide a vehicle and give some prizes. Next, a prominent member of the adult group promised to give all the prizes needed for the running events of the festival. Thereafter, D.S arranged various responsibilities to others who were present. After the meeting ended the people of both parties walked to nearby Bandarawela town to collect money and prizes for the festival.
On 19th April, all came early morning to the place, where the festival was organized and properly fulfilled their responsibilities. They have forgotten all their earlier grievances and were able to conduct the festival very effectively. In the evening, both parties enjoyed a “musical evening”. At the end, all parties dispersed happily and all who intervened in this dispute were happy because they were able to solve it without delay.