Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a once in a lifetime opportunity to turn from conflict, embrace reconciliation and establish a new order of peace said Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera at a packed event at Chatham House in London.

I was delighted to be at the event for the Anglican Peace and Justice Network and reported back to Jeanne Samuel who has been working tirelessly for Peace Justice and Reconciliation in her beautiful land. These are our reflections.

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera is charged with re-establishing relationships with the global community in order to restore Sri Lanka’s lost credibility. He is doing a great job.

During the height of the atrocities journalists, activists, and politicians were refused access and the previous governments were able to act with impunity. During that time horrific acts of barbarity were performed, many of them by the government agencies themselves. These have since come to light and were openly acknowledged by the Minister at the event.

The people of Sri Lanka need the global community to hold those in power to account. The experiences of the bloody civil war show us that isolation favours those who would violate the humanity of women and men. The lack of accountability allowed murder, rape and torture to go unpunished.

Reconciliation

Samaraweera said that ‘societies that avoid looking at the past fail to build sustainable peace.’ He did not minimize the trauma held by many Sri Lankans and recognised that if these are ignored peace will never come. He also said that the painful lesson of Sri Lanka is that ‘grievances that remain unaddressed can go on for generations becoming entrenched and hold the risk of descending into ever deepening cycles of violence.’

The key to reconciliation is in the hands of the Sri Lankan people who voted in a government of unity with the intention of breaking down the barriers, facing the past and building an integrated, multiethnic nation.

Foreign Minister Samaraweera is impressive in his delivery and exudes sincerity. He wants the peace to hold and the reconciliation to work.

Issues

There are already worrying signs that the ministers good words may not be matched by the deeds of his government. Strong forces have no interest in justice and have profited from the horror.

The Minister was questioned in detail on individuals known to have participated in some of the most heinous of crimes who are close to government. After two years of this new administration he acknowledged that the guilty go unpunished. In response he said the infrastructure of law and courts was being established and that by the end of this year results would be seen.

The first step has to be the repeal of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that gives impunity for security force abuse, including police use of torture. It needs to happen soon. Signs of a change will be disciplinary or criminal prosecutions against police officers and their superiors who participated in torture.

Over the last 20 years many people ‘disappeared’ and their family members received no information about where, or indeed if, their loved ones were detained. The Government promised to make the whereabouts of all detainees known to their relatives. They need to know or the past will not be faced and grievances will become even more entrenched.

When he was questioned on the government’s record in returning land seized from the Tamil minority the minister was able to assure the audience that progress had been made. He acknowledged more needed to be done and he asked for time. But the military have taken over swathes of land and built up holiday resorts and cantonments. They are unable to return the land without great loss. Alternate lands are on offer but it has become a painfully slow process and the people sense very little political will.

The Foreign Minister was pressed to allow investigative journalists to publish their findings in Sri Lanka, to let it be known just how vile the offences were and how deep the hurt. He was encouraging, but again suggested the time was still not quite right for the full truth to be seen. Once again the transitional justice process is moving slowly and there is no valid reason for this.

He was also pressed to allow journalistic freedom so reporters could return and ask difficult questions in places where it is dangerous to speak. He encouraged them to come. This offers hope, but we need to ensure their reporting is heard.

Hope

Anglicans in Sri Lanka have seen change. The land is more peaceful. Economic development is happening and there is hope. However, land has not been returned, people are not entirely free to speak and in the North and North East the vulnerable are still being raped and abused by government forces, even after the war and change in government.

Christians know all about the hope of peace being only partially realised in the present. We know that Jesus has won the victory, but that we still yearn for the fulfilment of his rule. But the Minister was offering a timeline and opening up that timeline to international scrutiny.

Our Part to Play

The Anglican Communion has a significant role to play in this future. On the ground Anglicans form a small percentage of the population, but because there are both Tamil and Sinhalese people in our churches, we can image truth and reconciliation others can follow. We can also hold power to account. International partners are able to bring the voice of ordinary people into the corridors of power.

Victims and civil society must play a proactive role in the future, persevering with reforms and the right to truth, justice and reparations and guarantee of non-recurrence.

Anglicans around the world need to ensure that no-one stops them.

The Anglican Peace and Justice Network will aim to give you the opportunity to follow if the government of Sri Lanka will make good the promises of Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

He is right: this is a once in a life time opportunity for Sri Lanka – everyone has to work together if this chance is taken.

Jeanne Samuel is a lay Anglican who dedicates her life to peace and reconciliation.

Phil Groves is the Chair of APJN and co-author of Living Reconciliation