In July this year there was a clash between Tamil and Sinhala students at Jaffna University. The immediate cause of the conflict was whether a Sinhala cultural dance could be added to a welcome ceremony for incoming first year students. The student association decided against it and opted for the traditional Tamil cultural dance only. This led to a violent clash. One of the outcomes was the temporary closure of the university and departure of Sinhala students from Jaffna due to their fear of further incidents.
IMMEDIATE DETERRENT ACTION NEEDED TO ERADICATE INTER-COMMUNITY VIOLENCE
After a two year lull that followed replacement of the former government through the electoral process, public manifestations of inter community tension have increased in recent months. There are indications of political maneuvering behind these efforts to disturb the peace in the country and to bring ethno-religious nationalism to the fore. Video footages of religious clergy engaging in vitriolic attacks on those of other ethnic and religious groups have gone viral on the social media. Ethno nationalist organizations have been engaging in hate campaigns and intimidating those of other communities at the local level. Most notably in the North and East, there are clashes being reported on inter religious grounds. There are many incidents of religious clergy getting involved in expansionist projects, such as religious conversions, destruction of ancient sites or building places of worship in areas where they are less numerous
NPC has launched a new project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), focused on strengthening community networks mentored by religious leaders and engaging them in building consensus for transitional justice and a pluralistic identity.
NPC, in collaboration with the Centre for Communication Training, provided the peace building component at a sports event organised by the Foundation for Goodness in Jaffna, which included the participation of cricket star Muttiah Muralitharan. The event was supported by Netball Australia.
One hundred students drawn from the Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim communities attended an NPC workshop on Transitional Justice at the Eastern University in Batticaloa conducted under its project, Initiating Multi-level Partnership for Conflict Transformation (IMPACT).
Fifty faculty members and 60 students of the University of Jaffna attended two workshops on Transitional Justice conducted by NPC under its project, Initiating Multi-level Partnership for Conflict Transformation (IMPACT).
Transitional Justice has four pillars: truth, prosecution, reparations and institutional reform. The students were asked to work in groups to prioritise one of the four pillars. They discussed the question and reported back to the workshop.
Five of the nine student groups chose institutional reform as their first priority as it was the long term solution. They said that if this was achieved, the other three pillars could be accomplished over time. Four of the nine groups chose truth as their priority. They said that without truth it was difficult to find out what the problem was and what the best answer would be. It was necessary for the government to give detailed answers about what had happened during the war, as well as addressing suspicions that Sinhalese colonisation was still happening in the North and East.
The external resource persons were Lal Wijenayake, chairman of the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms and Raga Alphonsus, a member of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms for Mannar District.
The Eluga Thamil (Tamils arise) rally that took place in Jaffna in September gave a picture of resurgent Tamil nationalism. The demands put forward by the organisers included a call for federalism, return of land in the Army’s control, release of political prisoners, an international investigation into war crimes and addressing the issue of missing persons. Some of the academics at the workshop explained that they supported the Eluga Thamil event but not all its slogans.
Although there were critical questions and comments, the discussion was constructive and cooperative. The outcome of the student presentations showed that even the students, who are always more radical than their elders, were practical in their expectations.
Jaffna District Inter Religious Committee (DIRC) leaders took part in a protest against the killing of two university students by police, which had created a tense situation in the north. Victims' families, students, academic staff and human rights activists participated in the protest outside the Northern Province governor’s office.
The DIRC religious leaders later visited the victims' families and expressed their sympathy. They contributed funds to each of the families.
Under NPC’s two projects, Reconciling Inter Religious and Inter Ethnic Differences (RIID) and Initiating Multi-level Partnership for Conflict Transformation (IMPACT), monthly meetings were held in 16 districts across the country.
The 10-day Kandy Dalada Perahara is an event of religious and cultural significance to all Sri Lankans. The Perahara is viewed by thousands of people including foreigners who come to Sri Lanka for especially the event.
“Tell me anything but don’t tell me he’s dead,” were the words Kanmani muttered as she took out a letter from her bag, tears rolling from her eyes. “My son went missing in Mannar in 2007 and there is no place in this country I haven’t gone to find him, to see him one last time. I’ve been to every police station, army camp, government office and commission,” she says.
In 2014, Kanmani was informed about the Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints Regarding Missing Persons. She was one of the first people in her village to go before the Commission. “I will not lose hope, I know my son is alive somewhere,” she says.
She told the Commission everything she knew in her native tongue and the Commission contacted her twice via letters in Tamil. However on February 16, Kanmani received her final letter from the Commission in a language she did not understand; English. Living in a secluded village in Vavuniya, Kanmani knew no one who read or understood English. “I was helpless, I didn’t know where to go or whom to ask,” she recalls.
Kanmani is one of the many women NPC has been able to reach out to through its project Post Conflict Healing: A Women’s Manifesto supported by FOKUS Women. It was during an exchange visit to connect the North with the South that Kanmani told her story, only to find that many others had also received letters in English from the same Commission.
The women’s networks that NPC had established started a signature campaign to address this breach of the national language policy and to ensure that the government did not repeat the mistake.
The women’s groups collected over 1,400 signatures from across the country. On September 29, the first copy of the petition was submitted to Mr. Mano Tittawella, the Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Tittawella promised he would ensure that such errors would not be made in future Transitional Justice mechanisms. He noted that letters needed to show empathy when giving details about investigations or information found about the missing person. He recommended that victims should be informed personally with psychosocial support instead through an impersonal letter that they did not even understand.
After the meeting at the Foreign Ministry Kanmani says she feels more secure about Transitional Justice mechanisms in the country and hopes that they will help her to find her missing son.
The women’s networks will raise the issue with other government authorities such as the Ministry of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages, Office Of National Unity and Reconciliation and Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation.