President Ranil Wickremesinghe addressing a conference of over 300 members from inter-religious committees from across the country summed up his plan for national reconciliation in less than 20 minutes. The president was clear in his articulation. He spoke with no notes. There were no superfluities in his speech. He noted how racism and bigotry have become convenient tools for politicians to wield power and for religious leaders to maintain their authority. He pointed to lessons learned from prolonged use of these divisive tactics, which ultimately led the country into a devastating conflict. He took two questions from the audience and before the organisers of the conference could even thank him on stage he left the podium for his next meeting.

In his speech, the president stated that the country was close to reconciliation. Then proceeded to set out what needed to be done. There was the question of missing and disappeared persons, and long term prisoners suspected or convicted for engaging in LTTE violence. There was the question of land taken over during the war and land disputes of the present. There was also the question of the provincial councils and their powers. He said that police powers could not be devolved for the present, but that the powers on the concurrent list presently shared by the central government and provincial councils to the detriment of the latter could also be decided, but that might require passage by a two-thirds majority of parliament. None of these are easy tasks and have been promised in various ways by various government leaders but remain at a standstill, the president’s period being no exception.

In his short and succinct presentation, the president demonstrated that he had the entire plan for national reconciliation mapped out in his head. He also spoke of a truth and reconciliation mechanism to be set up; the passage of a land commission law which would be implemented to deal with land issues; and that some Buddhist monks and Tamil leaders [from the Diaspora] had presented the Himalaya Declaration, which outlines points of convergence on a mutually acceptable blueprint for a solution which would be taken forward. He also had the confidence to articulate his thoughts in public in front of a large and representative group of religious leaders and civic activists who had diverse political and ideological orientations.

Bleak Picture
Since taking over the presidency in the midst of an unprecedented crisis in the country, President Wickremesinghe has faced challenges in a decisive manner. Among these challenges have been addressing the crippling shortages of dollars and imports that brought the country to the brink of collapse, the restoration of order following the chaos of street protests and coping with geopolitical rivalries involving the most powerful countries in the world today. This has won him grudging admiration from even those who have been previously opposed to the policies he has stood for. But public opinion polls continue to show him lagging behind his rivals due to the harshness of the fallout of this restoration of stability.

The present stability has come at a high cost that cannot be sustained without a massive infusion of resources that cannot be sighted at the present time. Over the past two years, the poverty level has more than doubled from 13 to 27 percent and a recent study shows that girls in Sri Lanka count among the world’s most underweight, a form of malnutrition, a life-endangering condition that has remained unchanged in the country for more than three decades. This is a crime for which successive governments, including the present one, are guilty. Findings published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, covering 33 years from 1990-2022, released February 29, reveal that Sri Lanka, ranks second below India globally, for the highest prevalence of girls (5 to 19 years) who are dangerously underweight. The study was done by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Despite this tragic situation, by all accounts, corruption in high and low places continues unabated regardless of laws that have been put into place. This lack of implementation of the laws applies similarly to the reconciliation process. The office of reparations for instance which should be devoting its attention to those large numbers in the north and east who are victims of the war has been forced to deal with the government politicians who lost their mansions to the mobs who set fire to them during the period of the Aragalaya protests. The office of missing persons has done much work in cleaning up the list of missing persons of its duplicates, but the information about what has happened to those thousands on the list continues to be a secret.

Cannot Delay
There is the hardware of reconciliation and there is also the software. The hardware consists of the institutions and mechanisms, like the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) and the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) and laws like the constitutional provisions regarding equality and freedom of religious worship. The president’s speech at the symposium demonstrated his grasp of the hardware necessary for reconciliation. However, there is also a need for the software of reconciliation. These are the software programmes without which a computer is an empty shell. Where reconciliation is concerned, the most important software is trust. It can also be likened to the engine oil without which the engine will grind to a halt soon after it has started.

The first way of building trust is by delivering on promises made without delay. Over two months ago, the president on a visit to the east made a promise that the problem of grazing lands used by cattle herders would be resolved and the farmers from outside who had encroached on their lands with the support of the state machinery would be found alternatives lands by the state. But this problem persists, despite judicial rulings that the encroachers have no right to the land. The government needs to show that it respects the law and the institutions that function under the law, rather than flout them not only in the east, but at the very centre of governance where directives of the Supreme Court are ignored by the president and government.

Second, there is an inescapable need for a consensus on resolving the ethnic conflict and bringing about national reconciliation. The inter-religious symposium that brought together political leaders from a wide spectrum of the polity to share their thoughts with the religious and civil leaders present is an indication that this consensus can be obtained. There needs to be a consensus on protecting democratic values and human rights norms and civil society freedoms that create the enabling environment for state mechanisms to have credibility and to work effectively, in providing software to the system. Such a consensus alone can bring about the positive peace that the late Professor Johann Galtung posited, where all people feel that the state protects and nurtures them, in contrast to negative peace, which is merely the absence of war.

About us

The National Peace Council (NPC) was established as an independent and impartial national non-government organization