COLOMBO: Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, during his recent visit to Jaffna, reiterated a statement he made at a media conference in Colombo that the government would deal with issues of the past through a truth and reconciliation process. He said that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga would lead the process and that it would be supported by South Africa whose advice was being sought. The Prime Minister’s announcement in the capital of the Northern Province, which was the main battleground of the three decade long internal war, demonstrated his decisiveness on a controversial issue, even in the run up to anticipated general elections. The pressure from the international community with regard to human rights and war crimes issues has continued despite the change of government, which is why the new government is focusing on a truth and reconciliation process at the outset.

The selection of the former president to lead the reconciliation process brings to it a champion who, in the 11 year period of her presidency, showed her ability to take on any political challenge without backing down. She did not give up on publicly upholding the importance of Tamil and minority rights even after her peace initiative with the LTTE was rejected. Although she was forced to wage a high cost war which yielded mixed results in terms of regaining territorial control, she will be remembered for her valiant effort to build the political foundations for peace through political reform. She was also able to win elections while holding to her position that a political solution was necessary.

Former President Kumaratunge’s great contribution to the unification of the Sri Lankan polity came through her two-pronged strategy of meeting the LTTE’s challenge. While waging war, she gave political leadership to the “Sudu Nelum” (white lotus) movement which was a mass-based educational campaign that was intended to enable each ethnic community to understand each other’s political aspirations and engaged in mutual accommodation. This educational campaign was politically led by the present foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera, and took place through seminars, workshops and street drama, among other methods in which top university academics wholeheartedly participated.

The Sudu Nelum educational campaign was complemented by the “Devolution Package” which was co-designed by two leading scholars, Prof G L Peiris representing the government and Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam on behalf of the Tamil polity. President Kumaratunga gave her full political backing to the devolution arrangements which were also supported by the founder leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress M H M Ashraff. These leading members of government took the biggest political educational movement in the country’s history to the people in the face of the deadly opposition of the LTTE, which assassinated Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam, and also of Sinhala nationalists.

The success of the Sudu Nelum movement came from the involvement of the top political leaders who provided a political vision and also actively sought the involvement of civil society to take the message to the general population. The mass educational campaign that reached down to the community-level through small groups meetings and roadside skits also reached national audiences through the mass media and enabled more and more people to recognize that the root causes that had led to the war needed to be politically resolved. Even as the war continued to rage public opinion polls began to show that upwards of 70 percent of the people supported the devolution of power as the foundation on which a peaceful and sustainable solution could be built.

The truth and reconciliation process that the prime minister has committed the government to is meant to look at the unaddressed issues of the war’s end phase, the loss of life, the destruction of property, and the fate of those who went missing, and whose absence is preventing large numbers of families to find closure even five years after the end of the war. The government’s choice of South Africa to assist in this process is a judicious one. South Africa is a non-western country and one that is an acknowledged leader in the world on the issue of truth and reconciliation, having itself overcome great challenges and achieving a success that hardly anyone thought possible. In addition, South Africa has shown a commitment to assist Sri Lanka, continuing to offer their assistance although the previous government blew hot and cold on their offer.

The experience of South Africa is important as its truth and reconciliation process was a holistic one and not simply one of ticking boxes in a plan put on paper to score a pass mark with the international community. It was a genuine effort to reach reconciliation at all levels of society. It was intended that all the people should get to know the truth, to repent and to forgive so that the future could be a shared one even while the past was acknowledged. There was no attempt in South Africa to say that accountability and reconciliation were on different tracks. They were both on one track as acknowledging what happened in the past and taking responsibility for it is necessary to build trust for the future that the violations of the past will not happen again.

The truth and reconciliation process needs to be a well-engaged one in which all the parties participate and cooperate. The process can neither be forced upon nor opposed by any major party if it is to be successful. One potential problem with a truth and reconciliation process, and one that is domestic as the Sri Lankan government insists, is that the Tamil polity suspects that it is a way for the government to evade accountability for what happened in the past. Statements by some government leaders that accountability and reconciliation are two separate concepts add to their concerns. The present is built on what occurred in the past, and therefore accountability for what happened in the past cannot be separated from achieving reconciliation in the present.

Sustaining reconciliation in the longer term, and ensuring it for the future, calls for a political solution that addresses the roots of the conflict. In South Africa, the truth and reconciliation process followed the achievement of a political solution. Therefore in Sri Lanka, the truth and reconciliation process, which is a transitional one, needs to be tied up with the development of a just and mutually acceptable political solution, which is what will give stability to society. The Tamil polity’s willingness to cooperate in the truth and reconciliation process will be increased to the extent that they feel it is tied to a just and sustainable political solution. It will be important for the government to show how a domestic truth and reconciliation process is linked to the pursuit of a just political solution, in a manner that resembles what the Sudu Nelum movement once sought to do.