The National Peace Council (NPC)

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Let Us Stop Pointing Fingers and Move Forward Together

Without question, 2009 will be a watershed year for the history of Sri Lanka.  A year later, the government is concerned with a successful annual celebration parade, while the international community is focused on a war crimes investigation.  Perhaps both interested parties are missing the larger point of reconciliation and reconstruction.  The absence of war does not ensure peace.  Such an environment is achieved through dialogue and cooperation between conflicting parties.  Recently, the National Peace Council (NPC) invited me to join a conference that had been arranged to inform community members of Puttalam and surrounding areas of the situation of IDPs as it is being played out inside the camps. 

As a graduate student, I researched the history and conflict of Sri Lanka to familiarize myself with the situation before setting foot in the country.  However, after a year of formal classroom studies, I was eager to leave the books behind and witness the reality of the situation.  This conference was a wonderful opportunity to gauge the interest of the general population and try, if even at a very basic level, to conceptualize how this country might heal the wounds of 26 years of civil war.  Twenty-six years.  I am 30.  Had I been born in this country, my entire cognitive memory would fall under this time period.  Putting the past behind and moving forward in a meaningful manner is no easy task.  I imagine it requires a coordinated effort on many fronts: reconstruction of homes and public goods, rehabilitation of war-torn economies, education of the youth, integration of IDPs, as well as adequate concessions to minorities that began the war in the first place.  Similarly, it requires effort and commitment at all levels of society, from the individual to communities to the national government.  The meeting I attended was a brief introduction to the work being done within Puttalam to disseminate knowledge and build a strong, diverse community committed to a more prosperous future for the country.  NPC’s role is interesting in that rather than lead the community, it seeks to empower and support local developments.  This is crucial to ensure programs are developed in such a manner to meet the needs of a particular community.  Many NGOs fail to recognize this point and the program’s effectiveness suffers as a result.  

My journey to Puttalam allowed me to familiarize myself with the acute challenges facing individuals, the media, civil society, and non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) undertaking the daunting task of reconstruction and reconciliation.  For example, a free and confident media is required to ensure objectivity and freedom of expression.  This is severely limited when journalists are forced to engage in self-censorship.  As a result, civil society fails to mature due to a lack of or manipulated information.  NGOs often find their motives called into question by parties that have failed to inquire seriously about the projects and programs of a particular organization.  Reconstruction and reconciliation is difficult under the best of circumstances.  When the tools used to maximize effectiveness and transparency are removed the task becomes overwhelming.  It is my personal belief that any central government should lead the efforts of reconstruction and nation building following an internal struggle.  However, to remove the agents that assist in creating legitimacy and efficacy will surely create suspicion, over-stretch and misallocate scarce resources, and hamper the government’s ability to create stability in a timely manner.  Furthermore, despite the conclusion of the war, the Appropriation Bill of 2010 presented to Parliament allocates Rs. 201 billion to the ministry of defense, up from Rs. 177 billion in 2009.[1]  A mere Rs. 2 billion is directed toward rehabilitation, down from Rs. 4 billion the previous year.[2]  If the government wishes to fall back on the argument that time is needed to achieve sustainable development, then certainly the Appropriation Bill should follow in a consistent manner.  This does not appear to be the case. 

The conference began with an introduction from the President of the organization.  Glancing around the room, my first observation focused on the diversity of individuals gathered to take part in the conference.  At the head of the rooms at a Buddhist Monk, Hindu Priest, a Muslim Moulavi, and two men dressed in western clothing.  The audience was similarly diverse: educators, businessmen, a nun, a Harvard graduate, students, and myself, among others.  A panel of five individuals gave testimony of their recent experiences within the IDP camps.  My inability to speak Sinhala limited me from understanding the smaller details, but with the help of my translator I was given the overall messages of their statements.  Upon the conclusion of the panel, an open discussion began in which others could contribute similar experiences and thoughts.  Throughout the conference, my mind continued to reflect back on the question put to me on the ride north, “what is the way forward?”  Of course there is no simple solution.  No textbook exists that can address the idiosyncrasies of Sri Lanka and offer pragmatic solutions to rebuild damaged infrastructure, integrate the broken economies of the North and East, and appease the bereaved.  At best the country should study the history, successes and failures, of those countries that experienced similar challenges (Guatemala, Rwanda, and Uganda) to serve as a model for reconstruction.  The international community can be a significant help in providing desperately needed resources.  However, it should remember its role and stick to it.  International agencies should commit to reconstruction, not investigation.  This is a role for the United Nations alone.  The UN has a right to investigate all alleged violations of its members (including the current situation in Israel and two wars instigated by the US).  Moving forward, not placing blame, is in the interest of all parties, domestic and international. 

The current government claims the solution to Sri Lanka’s problems will be found within its borders.  I believe this to be true.  However, if the talent of the populace is to be utilized, the government must generate an environment that will bolster independent thought, foster the development of its youth, develop economic opportunities in the North and East, and promote the integration of Tamil concerns into national legislation.  Further, shunning international assistance under the above conditions will limit access to needed resources.  This is the challenge that faces the country as I see it today. 

 

Michael Paul Sauder is a graduate student of International Development at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.A.



[1] Kelum Bandara and Yohan Perera, Rs.201 billion for defence this year, 9 June 2010, 9 June 2010 <http://www.dailymirror.lk/print/index.php/news/front-page-news/12635.html>.

[2] Kelum Bandara and Yohan Perera, Rs.201 billion for defence this year, 9 June 2010, 9 June 2010 <http://www.dailymirror.lk/print/index.php/news/front-page-news/12635.html>.

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