About 360 religious leaders, civil society activists and government officials attended a National Inter Religious Symposium organised by the National Peace Council under its project Reconciling Inter Religious and Inter Ethnic Differences (RIID). The project was supported by USAID/SPICE and CAFOD.
Addressing the symposium, Ministry of National Co-existence Dialogue and Official Languages Mano Ganesan said coexistence meant different communities should keep their identities while understanding their differences. He stressed the need to take dialogue and discussions to the grass roots so that people could participate in the reconciliation process.
Former President and Chairperson of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation Chandrika Kumaratunge said that reconciliation would not be successful without relationships between the religions in the country.
She commended NPC for working to bring together religious leaders to work together. “All organisation for reconciliation must get together and work on a long term basis,” she said, pointing out that most politicians were opportunists who had forgotten the importance of solving problems.
She urged the government to carry out its promise to formulate a new Constitution, adding that it should go beyond the 13th amendment, which “wasn’t sufficient.”
Another important issue, Mrs Kumaratunge said, was missing persons. Relatives of those who had disappeared must be given answers by the security forces. If not, they would always go on searching.
Mission Director of USAID Dr Andrew Sisson thanked NPC for its valuable work to advance peace and reconciliation and added that USAID was glad to support a project that had created an impressive network for communities to build bridges.
“Bringing peace is still work in progress and it is challenging…We applaud steps taken by the government and civil society to engage the public in reforms,” he said, adding that every community had an important role to play in bringing peace, reconciliation and national identity.
He urged the participants to keep sharing lessons learnt and experiences and to keep pressuring national leaders to promote peace and reconciliation.
Norway’s Charge d’Affairs Knut Nyflot pointed out that religious leaders could solve problems before they escalated and spread. They could influence thinking and attitudes of people.
“The Norwegian government values people’s participation in government and supports NPC’s work in bringing people together,” he added.
A total of 18 District Inter Religious Committees (DIRCs) comprising religious, civil organizations and community leaders have been established in the districts of Kalutara, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Puttalam, Kilinochchi, Kurunegala, Jaffna, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampara, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Ratnapura and Badulla.
The major task of the DIRCs is to strengthen reconciliation building action among the various religious and ethnic communities based on the transitional justice process. Other donors contributing to the inter religious activities of the DIRCs are Misereor, the Asia Foundation and the British High Commission, with Norway providing core support to NPC. They also support civil society in the reconciliation building process at grass root level through intervening to reduce inter ethnic and inter religious unrest and conflicts.
NPC’s Religions to Reconcile project supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) completed project orientation meetings for eight District Inter Religious Committees (DIRCs). Two-day Transitional Justice (TJ) training programmes for new members of the DIRCs were also completed.
The 26-month project, which began implementation in October 2016, targets the districts of Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar, Puttalam, Nuwara Eliya, Galle, Matara and Ampara.
The Initiating Multi Level Partnership Action for Conflict Transformation (IMPACT) project commenced in Galle district and was introduced to the Galle District Inter Religious Committee (DIRC). Nine inter religious leaders including Buddhist monks, Christian priests and a Moulavi attended the meeting along with 39 Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim members.
A meeting of National Inter Religious Committee (NIRC) was held in Colombo under the project Reconciling Inter ethnic and Inter religious Differences (RIID), which is funded by USAID through the SPICE project. Sixteen religious leaders and 15 district coordinators representing 15 DIRCs participated.
NPC staff members met several Buddhist monks in the Polonnaruwa district to get their support for the reorganization of the Polonnaruwa District Inter Religious Committee (DIRC). They first visited the Talpotha temple in the Lankapura Divisional Secretariat division and spoke to the chief incumbent of the temple Ven. Mahadivulweva Pangnarama, Deputy Principal of Sri Perakumbha Maha Pirivena, who is an active DIRC member.
NPC’s project, Post Conflict Healing: A Women’s Manifesto, was implemented with the support of FOKUS from April 2014 to December 2016 in nine districts across the country that were both directly and indirectly affected by the war: Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee, Ampara, Galle, Hambantota, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, and Puttalam.
Most people living in the Polonnaruwa District are Sinhalese Buddhists. It contains border villages that were attacked during the war. Extremists have been able to promote their ideology and mislead people, damaging the relationship between Sinhalese and other communities by using “Sinha Le” stickers and other means.
To counter these efforts, the Polonnaruwa District Inter Religious Committee (DIRC) organised a campaign to distribute leaflets and put stickers on vehicles to promote importance of inter religious and inter ethnic harmony by emphasising on equality irrespective of ethnicity, religion, caste, or political party.
DIRC members and youth, together with religious leaders, carried out the campaign in the Kaduruwela and Polonnaruwa town areas. The police, Ceylon Transport Board and other government authorities supported the campaign. Their participation strengthened the civil society organisers of the event.
Many people who read the leaflet and wanted to display the sticker on their vehicles pointed out that this was an important effort to counter extremist movements.
Kurunegala district is a strongly nationalist area where most people are Buddhists. It is home to many servicemen and it is the district chosen by former president Mahinda Rajapakse to contest the last general election. Many politicians from the district are opposed to the present government and mislead the people by saying that the government is going to betray the Sinhala people and Buddhism.
In an effort to counteract such views, Kurunegala DIRC organised a protest and march in Kurunegala town, attended by about 200 civil society activists carrying placards with messages condemning racism and extremism. The protest ended with a seminar about protecting human rights. About 250 people participated. Speakers included Chairperson of Human Rights Commission Deepika Udugama and Executive Director of People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Rohana Hettiarachchi who spoke about the importance of protecting human rights and national reconciliation.
As part of its ongoing peace building effort, NPC conducted four Truth Forums in Jaffna, Batticaloa, Kandy and Matara. In each of these districts, inter religious committees that had been set up several years earlier were tasked with identifying those who had been victims in the past and persuading them to share their stories with the larger community. This was to generate empathy for the other within the larger community. It was also to convey the message that civil society itself needs to take on responsibility for assisting the victims, rather than leaving it all to the government. When people share their stories of enforced victimhood and what happened to them and to their loved ones it generates empathy in the listeners who get to know at first hand the sufferings that others have gone through.
Another reason for organising the Truth Forums was to prepare the general population for the anticipated government appointed Truth Commission. In responding to the international demand for accountability of past violations of human rights and war crimes, the government has said it will establish a Truth Commission to be a part of the reconciliation mechanisms. Over 40 countries that have suffered war and mass violations of human rights have appointed Truth Commissions over the past four decades to deal with post-war issues of justice and accountability. The purpose of these mechanisms is not only to placate the international community’s sense of justice and accountability. It is also to involve the people in the process of transformation that accompanies an attitudinal shift from a divided past to a shared future.
What was significant about the Truth Forums was that they were taken seriously by all who participated in them. Between 80 to 100 persons drawn from different walks of life, including public servants, members of community based organizations and media attended the events in each of the places where they were conducted, which were presided over by retired judges or public servants. The time frame of the story telling by victims was not limited to the last phase of the war. It also included the suicide bombing incident that took place in Matara in 2009, the eviction of Muslims from the North in 1990 and the JVP insurrection of 1988. Over and over again those who spoke, either as victims or as observers said this must never happen again. The victims who testified will be expecting some remedial measures to be taken to address their urgent needs.
Apart from saying never again, those who participated in the Truth Forums said that something had to be done to address the needs of the victims. Government servants who attended, though not in their official capacities, pledged that they would do what was in their power to help the victims from within the structures of government. Community leaders said they would see what they could do to follow up on the disclosures made. However, along with these positive indications of the willingness of the community to take on the task of reconciliation, there were also intrusions of harsher realities. The ability of civil society organisations to solve people’s problems cannot be compared to that of the government. In one location, the manager of the conference hall was visited by the security forces. They questioned and intimidated him so much that he said he would no longer provide facilities for such a programme.
The positive outcome of the civil society led Truth Forums points to the promise of the government’s Truth Commission which is about to be established. It also suggests that instead of a single and centralised Truth Commission, a decentralised process of truth seeking could also be envisaged. Alongside the main Truth Commission there could be local level Truth Commissions that are entrusted to local community and religious leaders and which feed into the government-led truth seeking process. The conviction that the violence and human rights violations of the past must never again happen can capture the mass imagination to facilitate constitutional reform that unlocks the door to a lasting political solution to the decades long ethnic conflict.