Sri Lanka is at a crossroads. After the end of a long civil war, the country has an historic opportunity to draw on its strengths and riches to create a unified, prosperous and just society.
But it is also faced with complex problems, mostly arising from its recent history. In Australia, we only see the influx of Sri Lankan refugees. But this is merely a symptom, hinting at the larger problem of post-war reconciliation at home.
Sri Lanka is beginning to exorcise its ghosts, but Australia and the international community need to help it on its path to peace.
What is needed now
Reconstruction and reconciliation in post-conflict settings have to occur together. The top-down provision of resources by governments or international agencies needs to be combined with the process of bringing communities together to heal old wounds and where appropriate, to find ways to resume communication with old enemies.
This process of reconciliation is painstaking and can be difficult. Without reconciliation, facts can take on lives of their own, acquiring perverse meanings. The building of roads can be seen as an act of colonisation. The construction of schools and the provision of learning materials can be seen as brainwashing. Even the provision of food and medical care can be interpreted as tools for enforcing and entrenching dependence.
In Sri Lanka, reconciliation and healing has to be undertaken at the level of civil society and encompass all ethnicities, religions and communities. The role of the government is not unimportant but should not be overestimated: in fact, there are things here that governments simply cannot do.
Much of the work can only be undertaken by non-government actors working within communities at the face-to-face, village-to-village level, building relationships and overcoming old hatreds. Ultimately renewal can only be accomplished within and by the communities themselves.
Although commonly not acknowledged in the West, there are signs that real progress towards reconciliation is occurring. Anecdotal reports suggest that the mood of demoralisation and despair among communities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces might be changing. There also seems to be a growing confidence among some civil society actors to express their views, including sometimes criticisms of government.
A few examples, recently highlighted at a conference in Colombo, shows some inspiring work being done. They include a cricket competition for a “Harmony Cup”, a journey down the Kalani River by young people committed to preserving the environment, a camp for future leaders to work together in community projects to learn the value of co-operative work, and the establishment of community houses where former child victims of the war come together to play sport or music to facilitate their reintegration into society. In other projects people from different faith communities are actively engaging with each other in an atmosphere of respect and forgiveness.
Alongside the ferment in civil society there are signs from the government itself that previously hard-line stances are being softened. Actual policy pronouncements are difficult to come by, but in Sri Lanka it is sometimes the more subtle indications that count most.
A prominent member of the government, Rajiva Wijisinha, has gone on record stating that the amnesty for former Tamil Tigers will be extended to include all former combatants and associates, with only the top leadership of the LTTE exempt. This is an important gesture towards reconciliation with the Tamil community, among whom support for the Tigers remained strong until the end, despite its repressive and sometimes brutal tactics.
There is also an ongoing discussion involving civil society groups and government in search of a formula — the so-called “one text initiative” - that will recognise and acknowledge the depth and intensity of the mutual loss and pain.
Most importantly, there is acknowledgement on the part of some advisers and members of the government — still mostly in private, behind closed doors — that economic recovery is not sufficient to restore hope. They are beginning to recognise that community action is needed.
The international response
The international community is also at a cross-roads. Those looking in from the outside are faced with an opportunity to recognise and nurture the signs of progress – as tentative as they may be.
There may only be a narrow time-frame within which to accomplish this task of reconstructing not just the physical infrastructure but also the structures of meaning and value that were dissipated by the terrible years of war.
For Australia, there is also an urgent need to shift the focus to the reasons why people are taking flight, to address the asylum seeker problem at its source. This is not only a practical possibility: it is also likely to be relatively inexpensive.
For a modest investment — a tiny fraction of that currently being spent on border protection — support could be provided to the many groups and individuals committed to the tasks of rebuilding their communities, providing education and healthcare, and overcoming the despair that is presently pushing people into leaky boats. In fact, as mentioned above, there are numerous projects already underway in urgent need of support.
A good place to start would be the work being undertaken to address the psychological trauma that is one of the grim legacies of the conflict, especially as it affects child victims.
Just as Australia did after the 2004 tsunami, we should respond to the needs of those who have suffered and assist them in overcoming the challenges themselves. The role of the Australian government, and of other concerned governments, should be concentrated on supporting civil society activity rather than on direct governmental action.
Sri Lanka’s next steps
It’s time for Sri Lanka to shed the burden of bitterness and division and to take on the complex but optimistic process of reconciliation. This process has to occur at the level of ordinary people and cannot be controlled by government. The government itself must be encouraged to recognise this and to allow the civil society groups to complete the work they have already initiated.
The Australian community can and should believe that its actions towards a reconciliation process in Sri Lanka will help. It is only through a multi-layered engagement, political at one end and - maybe more importantly - community at the other, that a real, lasting peace for Sri Lanka will emerge.
Part one of this article looks at the specific reasons why Australia is seeing an influx of Sri Lankan refugees.