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Missed opportunities for reconciliation and healing

By Jehan Perera

(February 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The end of the three decade old war that pitted the government against the Tamil militant movements,and divided the population created a reasonable expectation that Sri Lanka would be able to reach reconciliation and healing that would pave the way for rapid economic progress. But unexpectedly the country appears to be getting more divided and polarized than ever before. The lines of ethnic division that existed are now being supplemented by lines of political division even as political conflict escalates. A situation that is reminiscent of the decade of the 1980s and early 1990s is now threatening to re-emerge. The crisis may not leave any institution unscarred, with not even the Buddhist clergy being untouched.

Conflicts are inevitable in any society. This is because people have varied interests and requirements that often clash with one another. One important method of conflict resolution in a functioning democracy is elections. Well established democracies, such as the United States, have conventions of their own to deal with divisive political issues, and to heal the wounds of the election campaign thereafter. The victorious side at the elections is generally entitled to have their views prevail. Those who lose accept the verdict of the polls. One of the most bitterly divisive elections in recent US history was the one that saw President Barrack Obama win. Both his victory speech and the concession speech of his defeated opponent Senator John McCain were designed to heal the wounds of the election campaign.

The second inaugural address of President Abraham Lincoln after being re-elected President of the United States in 1865 is widely viewed as a classic in reconciliation and healing. Throughout history it has been great efforts such as this that have made the world a better place for its people and contributed to make governance more humane. When President Lincoln made this speech, the American civil war was drawing to a close and victory for the government forces was in sight. But even before the war ended, the President had given thought to the post-war situation and the need to induce a compassionate attitude in the victorious Northern states and confidence in the defeated Southern states. It is said by historians that Lincoln did not speak of happiness, but of sadness and that he sought to avoid harsh treatment of the defeated Southern states.

President Lincoln’s speech is in contrast to those of other victorious leaders who have preferred to describe their opponents as terrorist supporters or traitors. He said, "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphanto do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." President Lincoln focused on the sorrow of his country’s citizens regardless of whether they had fought against or for his side. He set the stage for the reconstruction of the South that not even his assassination could stop.

Gandhi’s example

This speech by Abraham Lincoln was referred to by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, during a visit last week to Sri Lanka at the invitation of the local branch of Moral Re-Armament, now renamed as Initiatives of Change, an internationally respected movement for peace and reconciliation with its headquarters in Switzerland. Professor Gandhi also referred to the resolution of 1919 of the Indian independence movement that his grandfather came to head in the decades that followed. This resolution of the Indian National Congress was in response to the massacre of between 400 to 1000 unarmed Indians, including women and children, by the British army who fired on them while they were at a peaceful pro-independence public rally in Jallianwala Bagh.

After the massacre the Indian National Congress debated a resolution that condemned the massacre of the 1000 Indians by the British. There was no controversy about that part of the resolution. However, a controversy erupted on a second part of the resolution that also regretted the killing of 5 British people by a pro-independence mob a few days prior to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. As popular anger towards the British was so high the majority at that meeting was in favour of dropping the reference to the killing of the five. One speaker even went so far as to say that no son of an Indian mother would dilute their resolution condemning the British by talking also of the faults of the Indians. The resolution was passed after dropping all reference to the killing of the 5 Britishers.

In 1919, Mahatma Gandhi was not yet the undisputed leader of the Indian independence movement. He was still only one leader among many giants. However, as the meeting commenced the next day he stood up to dissent. He asked that the resolution be reconsidered. He said he had thought deeply about what had been said, that no son of an Indian mother would have drafted a resolution that regretted the killing of the 5 British people. He said he disagreed, for he now realized that only a son of an Indian mother would indeed draft such a resolution. He said it was he who had drafted that resolution. After listening to him, and the argument he made for being self critical, and for holding to higher moral standards than those they fought against, the majority in the Indian National Congress changed their minds. They passed the resolution as it had originally been drafted.

The message that Rajmohan Gandhi conveyed during his short stay in Sri Lanka was that the most powerful way to bridge divided societies is through the power of being self critical and seeing the problems of others as well as of one’s own side. It is important for all parties to acknowledge their own faults as a part of the reconciliation process, and for all to work towards building bridges to overcome past divides. His reflections on the life of Mahatma Gandhi emphasized the power of empathy that surpasses boundaries of race, class or caste to overcome oppression and revolutionize social and political institutions. While difficult times present difficult decisions, the greatest of leaders are those who maintain a sense of morality and who see those around them through the lens of a common humanity.


Unfortunately, the political crisis after the Presidential election in Sri Lanka continues to grow with no sign of subsiding. The opposition led by the defeated presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka has fielded a legal challenge to the verdict of the Presidential election by means of a petition to the Supreme Court. Although President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been able to claim a handsome 58 percent majority at the election, neither he nor his government appear interested in being magnanimous to their defeated opponent. This may be due to the campaign amongst the opposition parties to cast doubt upon the integrity of those elections, which no independent election monitoring organization called free and fair. Magnanimity requires confidence in one’s victory.

It is not only political activists at the national level who are feeling threatened by the latent violence in the political environment. The government’s apparent unwillingness to soften its approach to General Fonseka who continues to be incarcerated in solitary confinement is a frightening example to other dissenters, including those far from the national scene and living amongst grassroots communities. Not even the protests of religious leaders, including the highest ranking Buddhist and other prelates, has persuaded the government to relent with regard to the prosecution of the retired General. The fact that the Buddhist prelates felt constrained to summon a meeting of Buddhist monks that they later postponed on the grounds of security is an indication of the growth in the crisis.

Sri Lanka has now lost the second opportunity it had for healing the wounds of conflict, both ethnic and party political. The first opportunity came more than 8 months ago, in May of 2009, with the defeat of the LTTE. This was an opportunity for the government to have swiftly reduced its security measures which had mainly been targeted on Tamils and to show concern for those who had been the worst victims of the war in the battle zones. However, what happened was the incarceration of 300,000 displaced persons in government welfare centres from which they were not permitted to move out of, even though families had been broken up and some were in different camps without the knowledge of the others. The bitterness amongst the larger Tamil community was seen in the result of the Presidential election that saw the ethnic minority areas of the North and East vote against President Rajapaksa.

The arrest of General Fonseka’s daughter’s mother-in-law and the abortive police raid on the JVP head office, is indicative of the determination of the government to build its case against its party political foes, whom it has made the focus of a vast conspiracy against the government. The charge of attempted coup against the government appears to be shifting to other areas, including those of nepotism and corruption. The government might succeed in convincing the majority of people on the basis of these allegations to vote for it at the forthcoming General elections. But the problems that divide the country will not be solved. The whisperings and misgivings amongst dissenting sections of the general population about the actions of the government will continue to grow although they are not publicly voiced at this time due to fear of those who are above the law. The government’s moral stature will also continuously be diminished when, on the contrary, it needs to be increased to solve the problems of the people.

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