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Sri Lanka: The potential and promise, three years after the end of war : op-Ed by Salma Yusuf

The third anniversary celebrations since the end of a three-decade war that ravaged Sri Lanka was held on 19 May 2012. The following op-Ed assesses the prospects for Transitional Justice as the nation moves on from a phase of post-war to a phase of post-conflict.

The potential and promise,

three years after the end of war

By Salma Yusuf

Source: The Sunday Times

Available at :


As Sri Lanka makes its way from a phase of post-war to post-conflict, the potential, the challenges and the successes are worthy of reflection. The time is fitting not only because it is exactly three years since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) but also because considerable events and circumstances of significance have transpired for this nation in transition.


The engagement of the Government and the Tamil National Alliance in talks aimed at a political settlement began with considerable interest following the end of the war in 2009, thereby awakening hope in the nation for a new era of peace. However, as it now stands, the talks have reached a stalemate. There is a need for the casting aside of political rivalries on both sides, to ensure that a framework of peace and understanding for both the majority Sinhalese community and the Tamil and Muslim minorities are arrived at and guaranteed, through the early resumption of talks.

Three national processes are worthy of consideration in this context. First, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report calls upon the Government, among others, to work towards a political solution acceptable to all communities. The home-grown mechanism, independent in nature though commissioned by the Government, was developed to reflect upon and recommend action, and drew on solicited and unsolicited submissions from the public in all areas of the country and hence has been hailed for its credibility and transparency.

In light of the dissenting views expressed by some on which aspects of the report should be implemented or not, whether it is deemed acceptable for complete implementation or not, what becomes necessary is further awareness raising on issues and recommendations made in the final report, together with substantial engagement and discussion between all stakeholders, the government and the public at large, to arrive at a consensus as to what needs be implemented. This will ensure that charges of deliberate non-implementation are avoided. Further, the lack of a uniform voice from official quarters as to the national position on the implementation of the LLRC recommendations has resulted in much speculation and confusion in the minds of the citizenry. Thus, internal consensus reflected by uniform official public statements will serve the public well.

Second, and pursuant to its pledges at the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review, the Government embarked on drafting a National Human Rights Action Plan in 2009. The Action Plan has sought to address the objective of improving the human rights protection and promotion in all aspects, with targets to be achieved in five years. The Action Plan has subsequently been adopted by the Cabinet.
The efforts that have been invested in formulating the Action Plan will sadly be lost if subsequent action is not taken in an expedient manner.

Furthermore, there is the risk, as is being seen, of such measures being labelled as mere rhetoric, if not translated into concrete and concerted follow-up action. The role of human rights protection and promotion in both peace-building and nation-building cannot be overstated. While upholding civil and political rights help to create in the citizenry a sense of security and belonging to the nation, the fulfilment of economic, social and cultural rights ensures that opportunities are generated through which a connection is felt towards the newly rebuilt state. Such an endeavour is not only beneficial for the citizenry but also for the state as it improves the relationship between the two, strengthening the social contract, and hence contributes to a new culture, structure and system of governance.

Third, a draft National Reconciliation Policy has been prepared by the Office of the Presidential Advisor on Reconciliation which clearly addresses the aspect of consolidating peace in the interests of genuine healing and reconciliation, both comprehensively and convincingly. The Draft Policy has currently been circulated amongst political parties and Members of Parliament following which consultation with civil society and the public is envisaged before being taken through the adoption process in Parliament.


Since the end of the armed struggle in May 2009, both organized and natural processes of reconciliation are taking place in Sri Lanka. While the path to moderation, tolerance and coexistence must be paved as prerequisites for genuine peace and reconciliation, so must an organized process of reconciliation be put in place so as to prevent a relapse or resurgence of past animosities that initially led to hostilities.
Accordingly, a four-pronged strategy can be proposed: The first, second and third have already been completed with the rehabilitation of 11,500 LTTE cadres, the reintegration of 280,000 displaced and the process of reconstruction of the north and east particularly the Wanni.

It is now time for the active initiation of programmes on reconciliation highlighting its role in realizing the fourth aspect — the building of relationships between and within communities. This must, however, be state-led to have any meaningful value and outcome. While not discounting the need and value of all actors and stakeholders joining hands to contribute towards reconciliation, the need for the state-led process is critical given the nature of the conflict in the first place, namely – one where the Tamil community sought to restructure the State with a view to removing features discriminatory of the minorities as opposed to what has been usually described as a struggle between the Sinhala majority community and Tamil minority community per se.

While the Government’s efforts in the rehabilitation and resettlement processes in the North-East have been commendable, it is imperative that the important next step is taken — reaching out to the Tamil community to address their concerns and grievances.

The Muslim community has oft been caught in the crossfire and hence need to be taken seriously and made stakeholders in any endeavour aimed at peace and stability. Accordingly, the minority communities too must be urged to reposition themselves – by not only demanding equality but also conducting themselves as equals. One way of doing this is for the minority communities not to speak on issues affecting their respective communities only but also to participate in national issues and lead national campaigns.

The key purpose of reconciliation is to address the underlying suspicion, mistrust and discrimination that have been manifest and symptomatic of the three-decade conflict. Creating a sense of inter-dependence between all communities is crucial if minority communities are to feel a connection to the newly-rebuilt nation. In this connection, two positive developments in the current political context are worthy of note – increasing acceptance that the conflict requires a political settlement as opposed to the view that it is only a terrorist problem; and rather than operating through a top-down approach of political patronage and proxies there is now a recognition of the need to engage elected representatives of the Tamil community in the nation building endeavour.

That said, it must be remembered that reconciliation is both a process and a goal. Hence, it will necessarily require time and space to bear fruit. Reconciliation cannot be imposed or forced on a nation as an event. It requires both a strategy and a systematized response mechanism by the state and other stakeholders to deal with the likely obstacles that will emerge along the way.


Another aspect of nation-building that requires immediate attention in Sri Lanka is the promotion and protection of the rule of law. The Rule of Law should be considered as the bedrock for achieving a democratic and economically developed society. The political and administrative will has to be garnered, or else nation building efforts will be hindered.

Sri Lanka has undoubtedly been through a difficult and devastating period in its history. That said, the need to cultivate and capitalize on the crucial aspect that unites all its peoples — the common identity of being Sri Lankan — is imperative in the ultimate analysis of moving the nation forward to a sustainable and durable peace and prosperity.

The notion of Sri Lankan is then not an identity separate from each of the differences. Rather, it is an identity that has resulted from the combination and cohabitation of the various identities. If each citizen sees that being Sri Lankan does not necessitate the need to give up his or her own identity or multiple identities but rather that the notion of being Sri Lankan subsumes all such identities, we will then reconcile our differences more easily. For what affects the individual and separate identities will in turn affect the common identity of all.

It has been heartening in recent weeks to note three instances where the TNA has demonstrated the importance of the Sri Lankan identity for moving forward. The TNA leader last month remarked in Parliament that any framework for a settlement ought to be Lankan-led. Secondly, at last week’s May Day rally in Jaffna, members of the Tamil National Alliance were seen carrying the national flag. Thirdly, the TNA leader was reported to have declared to the visiting Indian delegation last month that he was proud to be Sri Lankan: all three instances kindle a sense of genuine hope in the possibility of reaching a settlement that is truly Sri Lankan and acceptable to all communities and peoples.


Four aspects which remain critical to Sri Lanka’s nation-building enterprise are first, the need for internal consensus within government of positions related to issues of national importance: such will augur well not only for keeping citizens and stakeholders informed of national decisions and plans but also for the country’s international relations ; Second and closely related, is the need for an improvement in the state’s visibility strategy which will not only serve as a barometer for measuring progress but also identify gaps to be filled by providing direction for taking the nation-building and peace-building agenda forward; thirdly, there remains a need for greater and active involvement of citizens and relevant groups in national processes of consultation particularly in decisions that have an impact on those particular groups and persons.

Additionally, such involvement will reap the invaluable benefits of fostering increased buy-in for the processes and programmes, while improving implementation and ensuring sustainability of dividends. Fourthly, any state action ought to be as a result of deliberation and a conscious decision making process, as opposed to being perceived as knee-jerk and ad hoc sporadicism.

Ultimately, it is a home-grown political process addressing the economic, social and political grievances and aspirations, acceptable to all sections of society that will address the critical aspects of nation building — a nation that yearns to metamorphose into one that finds its strength in multiculturalism and diversity.

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