Reconciling Divided Societies, Building Democracy and Good Governance: Lessons from Sri Lanka

Speech by Chandrika Kumaratunga,

Delivered to the Bangladesh Institute of International & Strategic Studies, Dhaka, 23 May 2017


Ambassador Munshi Faiz Ahmed, Chairman of BIISS
Gen. Abdur Rahman, Director-General, BIISS
Professor Dr. Gowher Rizvi, Adviser to the Prime Minister
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great pleasure to be with you this morning. I am grateful to BIISS for the invitation to address you today. I have had the pleasure of speaking from this platform before, but it is nice to be back here again more than 20 years later.

It is always a pleasure to be in Bangladesh and to experience the warmth, friendship and generous hospitality of this beautiful country. It is also a country that deserves to be congratulated for the impressive and sustained economic growth it has experienced in recent years.

I am called upon to speak today about Reconciling Divided Societies, Building Democracy and Good Governance: Lessons from Sri Lanka.

But before I speak to you about the recent Sri Lankan experience, I think it would be useful to dwell upon the reasons for the existence of divisions in society more generally, and especially in our South Asian region, and on the actions we need to take to build democratic governments practising good governance.

South Asia is one of the most conflict-ridden regions in the world today. We know that to end conflict we need to understand the root causes of the conflict and then engage in resolving it. For this we need to build democratic governments, practising human rights, the rule of law and transparent governance. We also need to engage in short and long term programmes to reconcile divided societies.

I speak to you today at a momentous period of human history, when humankind has traversed two millennia AD and arrived at the third, hopefully moving forward. The last century of the second millennium has seen many radical changes.

First, politically - the process of decolonisation and the end of colonial domination of one nation by another, led to the subsequent emergence of independent nation-states.

Second, economically - for the first time in human history, the 20th century experienced the spread of a single economic system throughout the globe, spreading into nations with diverse socio-political organisations and even more diverse cultural practices.

Thirdly, we have seen the continuous rise of movements of various political, ethnic and religious groups within nations, demanding expression of their own specific identities, together with equal political and economic opportunities, often with the use of violent means and at times with the demand for separate states.

Fourthly, we have seen a quasi-total breakdown of accepted traditional, spiritual and moral value-systems with their connected social and cultural practices. The increasing isolation of the individual from his collective group, consequent to the spread of the value-systems specific to the free market economy, has given rise to a situation where the individual seeks solace, not in spiritual or human relationships, but in the spiral of blind consumerism and in excessive indulgence in drugs, alcohol, tobacco and, alas, the unrestrained expression of violence.

With the birth of new, independent nation-states, diverse hopes and aspirations were generated in the various communities and groups of people inhabiting these states. Different communities, even though living within one state, had experienced differing types of social and cultural practices and even different sub-economic systems. It is natural that the expectations and aspirations of each of these groups would differ somewhat from each other.

An effective vision was required to weld together the separate sets of aspirations into one collective, national dream, taking on board the multi-faceted aspirations of each community living freely and proudly with its own separate identity, which could co-exist symbiotically with the other communities, to compose a harmonious, united and stable entirety - the nation state.

The lack of such a vision and the failure to build such nations has caused the majority community in many countries to attempt to establish hegemonistic and exclusivist regimes, in order to arrogate to itself a disproportionate share of political and economic power. This in turn has given rise to movements of minority groups demanding, often by violent means, the recognition of their specific identities.

The challenge of the 21st century for many countries and quite certainly for South Asia, will remain the enterprise of building pluralist, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nation-states. For this we would certainly have to manage the existing diversity within our nations and direct the richness of this diversity towards positive change, whilst controlling and finally eliminating the conflicts generated by it. Recognising and celebrating diversity has proved to be the best recipe for reconciling divided societies and to resolve conflict.

The failure to have achieved this during the course of the 20th century has resulted in conflicts of the most horrifying violence, on a scale hitherto unknown in human history. Here I speak of the post World War II era, which is our period of history, the period in which most of us here have grown up. During this period, insurrection in its ultimate form - terrorism - has come to establish itself as a political strategy, commonly used by groups challenging the authority of the state.

In the dying years of the 20th century, the Cold War and military conflicts between States ended, giving way to intra-national conflicts, within nations. These first took the form of revolutionary or insurrectionary movements and have now been transformed into guerrilla type terrorist organisations. Today terrorism has become the most dehumanising and politically destabilising phenomenon of our times. Our region presently faces a major challenge from terrorist organisations

My country has suffered terrorism for thirty years. You are no stranger to terrorism here in Bangladesh. And last night we saw the latest manifestation in Manchester, in the UK, after earlier attacks in Western Europe and the USA.

The goals of terrorism differ from those of revolutionary movements. Revolution seeks to effect radical changes in the social and economic structures of the country and also in its power structures. It enunciates a new vision and programmes of action. Terrorist movements are not revolutionary; they are destructive and stem usually from conservatism and the desire for revenge. Terrorism has become endemic to modem society. It continues to be generated by recurrent social crises, arising from the increasing marginalisation of some sections of society caused by the indiscriminate spread of the so-called free market economy, through the much vaunted process of globalisation.

It is said that this modern phenomenon of terrorist movements is born out of frustration and despair, caused by social marginalisation, economic deprivation and political defeat. Someone once said, "Young hope betrayed, transforms itself into bombs". Perceived injustice, if allowed to continue unresolved, will also transform itself into despair and then violence. Leon Trotsky once described the two emotions central to terrorism as being despair and vengeance.

We must adopt a holistic view of conflict, its genesis and causes. In recent times, scholars hold that the main cause of dissent and violent conflict is the existence of inequalities among different groups and communities living in a country. Inequality, deprivation and discrimination should be looked at not only in economic terms but also in social, cultural and political terms.

Prof. Frances Stewart of Oxford University, writing on Horizontal Inequalities, based on her study of several African and Asian states, affirms that the exclusion of some communities from an equitable share of the benefits of prosperity, causing cultural, economic and political inequalities, has resulted in violent conflict.

Studies hold that violence in multi-religious and multi-ethnic nations is not caused by the presence of diversity or by the "clash of civilisations" as stated by Huntington, but is due to the exclusion of the less powerful groups. The marginalised groups then mobilise around their group identity – be it religious, ethnic, linguistic or ideological.

Your own Prof. Rehman Sobhan has affirmed that poverty, injustice and inequality and their relationship to conflict may be measured by the difference in opportunities for the excluded. The denial of rights to those of the excluded who have a common identity becomes the bedrock of dissent and violent struggles.

"Identity" has become the most potent source of violent conflict. People feel that discrimination occurs due to their specific identity, which is different from that of the ruling majority. Perceptions of discrimination have led to conflict all over the world.

I strongly believe that the solution to conflict lies in ascertaining the root causes and employing the "weapons" of reconciliation and peace-building, rather than military arms.

Sustainable development, prosperity and peace necessarily require that the "other" be brought in and included fully and honestly in the processes of economic development, and as full and equal partners in the process of government and power sharing. To end conflict we must end the violence of poverty, hunger, unequal access to infrastructure, education and health facilities. All citizens must be accorded equal development opportunities as well as political power-sharing within an inclusive society. In an inclusive society, all citizens are aware that they have equal opportunities and will contribute fully to nation-building. Political and social stresses in such a society will be minimal.

We must understand that governments have often actively engaged in discriminatory policies against minority groups. History is replete with examples of them employing the concept of the "other", conjured up as the "enemy" of peoples who belong to different ethnic, religious, caste or political groups. For a large part of human history the "enemy" has helped entrench weak rulers and governments in power. Governments whip up hatred by maintaining the myth of the dichotomy between "us" and "them", which requires the oppression of the other and the denial of their rights. Such exclusion takes place not only through outright hostility but also through simple neglect of minority groups. Differences among diverse communities living within a country have been exacerbated by rulers, to their advantage.

Violence - social, political or physical, whether perpetrated by the State or the agents of the state against other states or its own peoples – is said to be the womb of terrorism, humiliation is its cradle and continued revenge by the State its mother's milk and nourishment.

At this point it would be useful to remind ourselves that it was not terrorism or terrorists that divided Ireland, nor caused the Israel/Palestine problem one hundred years ago.

They did not impose white rule in South Africa, nor overthrow the duly elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. The terrorists did not separate India and Pakistan. To come closer to home, nor did the armed Tamil militants create the circumstances for the marginalisation of the minority communities of Sri Lanka.

It is perceived injustice that has engendered violent or terroristic responses from those who feel victims of that injustice.

May I venture to say that the two major factors that have bedevilled South Asia are:

  •  Firstly, the failure to build a strong and stable, pluralist society, where due recognition and power would be accorded to the specific needs of the diverse communities and groups which comprise our Nation-States; and
  •  Secondly, the failure of the state to adopt policies and create conditions to uplift all their citizens from economic poverty and lead them towards the dream of a fully developed society. I need hardly mention that the first is intrinsically linked to the second.

The resolution of the problem requires, first, the political will and, thereafter, scientific and objective vision and programmes of action. This would, of course, require visionary leaders, with the ability to manage both these operations efficiently. This is not to say that successive governments of our region have not attempted to achieve these goals. Yet, for various reasons we have not been able to complete the process.

Our governments need to guarantee democracy and good governance, including credible elections, the rule of law, respect for human rights, accountability and transparency. Oppositions need to hold governments constructively to account and parliaments need to play their important role.

South Asia is presently witnessing a frightening rise in radicalism and extremism. This is alien to the ethos of most of us and we cannot afford this. I am sure you will all agree that we must have zero tolerance of terrorism. There can be no justification for terrorism and for the destruction of innocent lives and valuable national assets.

However, as I have reiterated today, I strongly believe that the solution to the scourge of terrorism is to understand and deal with the root causes of dissension, exclusion and marginalisation in our societies. Rather than deal with just the symptoms, we must build inclusive societies where every one of our citizens enjoys equal rights and opportunities. We must respect and celebrate diversity.

The governments and peoples of South Asia need to engage urgently in this exercise. South Asia has failed to emerge, even after more than half a century of independence, from cataclysmic intra-national divisions and conflicts. The persistent assertion of emotional attachment to traditional beliefs may prove unhelpful in the present context. We may have to shed some of our traditional sectarian attitudes to acquire a freshness of mind and spirit, in order to manage the transformations that have propelled us at extraordinary velocity into the modem world: new value systems, accompanied by new attitudes and new systems of managing change, would have to be formulated and adopted if we are to cope with and benefit positively from the marvels of modern science and technology.

However great and precious our heritage may be, the time has come when the old world must give way to the new. This process will not be without pain -- that must be endured if our nations are to achieve the renewed greatness they deserve.

The 20th century has rightly been called "the age of extremes". That century, the century of our generation, has rapidly propelled the world into new situations which at other periods of human history took several centuries to unfold. We South Asians, who can boast of a history and civilisation that go back several millennia and into the mists of time, now find ourselves in Alice's cave, in a modern wonderland, entirely alien to the one we have known. What do we do? Do we run away from it? Or should we take proper stock of the situation and adopt what is good in it, for the benefit of our peoples, whilst rejecting whatever appears to be disadvantageous?

Today there is a pressing need to study and understand the deep-rooted causes that divide groups of people who inhabit the same land and form one nation. The causes of this conflict and the form they take, whether it be terrorism or otherwise, must be studies and understood in a scientific and objective manner.

Sri Lanka

Let me now turn to my own country – and a lot of what I have said so far can be applied to our island – with its 2,500 year old civilisation and an equally old Buddhist culture, known for its doctrine of Peace.

I would now like to talk of the strategies Sri Lanka has employed in the past few years to reconcile our divided society, strengthen democracy and build good governance.

I shall spare you the painful details of the trajectory of conflict in my country since independence, as most of you probably know our recent history. The constant economic, social, cultural deprivation of the Northern and Eastern regions is clearly related to the violent conflict we have witnessed. Low levels of development of infrastructure, relatively little opportunity to access quality education and employment, political marginalisation with minimal opportunity to participate in decision-making processes in the political and administrative superstructure, and the consistent rejection by the state of the demand of the Tamil movements for language parity and for power sharing through federalism, are undoubtedly the root causes that gave rise to the terribly violent conflict and the demand for a separate state.

Whilst the country faced terrific challenges caused by the ethnic, and more recently the religious conflicts, the country’s political leaders only exacerbated the divisions among

the people by adding political conflict to the existing ones. They were totally incapable of placing country before individual and party political interests, in order to attempt to construct a united front to fight extremism, the destruction of democratic governance and human freedoms, with its attendant consequences of rampant corruption and breakdown of law and order.

The arrival in power of an authoritarian government, led by leaders practising extreme corruption, nepotism and political assassination as a tool of governance, gave cause to the people – the civil society -- to organise themselves, independently of political parties, to demand regime change. And I speak of regime change not in the sense of coups d’etat but by democratic and constitutional means. We were fortunate that the political parties, or most of them, recognised the importance of this movement, and the main opposition party decided to give leadership to it by bringing together a coalition of all opposition parties, groups and civil society in a massive anti-regime movement. It is noteworthy that an important section of the governing party, which was opposed to the destructive policies of the government, also played an essential role in this process.

May I venture to state that in South Asia this may be a unique instance where the two major opposition parties joined together on a common platform to achieve a Common Vision and then form a government of consensus. The exercise was certainly facilitated by:

  •  First, a very evident common adversary in the form of a totally unacceptable Government, indulging in every aspect of bad governance. All the participants in the opposition movement, including the political parties, big and small, successfully managed to set aside their diverse views, policies and ambitions to give of their best to the struggle against a strong and dangerous common adversary.
  •  Secondly, the fact that we were able to agree on a Common Vision, as well as a Common Candidate for the Presidential Election.

The Common Candidate was a relatively unknown Government Minister of the ruling Party, who broke away with a small group of second-level leaders of his Party, without a single Cabinet or Provincial Minister, to achieve a near impossible victory over the Leader of his own Party – the incumbent, all powerful President.

The second surprising and unique achievement was the formation of a coalition government between the two main political parties, with the President from one Party and the Prime Minister from the other.

The two main parties, that were in terrible conflict with each other for nearly seven decades, managed to come together in an extremely short time of six weeks and effectively cobble together a wide coalition of 50 political parties – big and small – as well as other groups and civil society organisations.

They launched a massive campaign for the Presidential election that ensued for only five weeks – and won that election.

Political leaders, friends and associates from the academic world have told me this was "a miracle". I dare not think what part the Almighty played in this unique achievement! However, I would like to enumerate the main reasons for this, as I see it and as one who was involved in this "operation" from its inception, lived with it and engaged in it day and night.

All the leaders know that we had undertaken a "do or die battle" against a ruthless, murderous and very powerful leader and his regime.

Let me assess the reasons for the success of the ‘January 8th Movement’

Firstly, the majority of the people had decided that they had had enough of the incumbent regime and:

  •  Its violations of human rights and basic freedoms with impunity, leading to assassinations by the government of its democratic opponents – elected MPs/journalists;
  •  Its extreme corruption, at all levels of government, right from the top to the bottom;
  •  Its unbridled nepotism;
  •  All this leading to a total lack of national vision, resulting in misgovernance on a scale hitherto unknown in Sri Lanka.

Secondly, the two main minority groups were completely alienated from the government:

  •  The Tamils, due to inhumane and illegal treatment of civilians during the last phase of the war, as well as assassinations and harassment of Tamil civilians outside the war zones; and
  •  The Muslims, because of a pogrom carried out against them by an extremist group working closely with the government.
  •  Also both minority groups were frustrated and angry with the inaction of the government to commence reconciliation even six years after the end of the armed conflict,

Thirdly, the democratic opposition forces were decimated by assassinations, grave intimidation or with pecuniary advantages. They also lacked strong leadership. Apart from weak criticism, the opposition parties seemed incapable of opposing effectively the

dangerous slide towards a severe economic downfall, destruction of the rule of law and all democratic institutions.

Finally, faced with these challenges, the people began gradually to organise themselves with movements and to adopt actions opposing specific harmful policies of the government. The government, true to form, responded with violence – the military shot and killed several young students who were engaged in ‘satyagraha’, demanding clean drinking water for their village, fatally wounded peacefully protesting fishermen, and assassinated dozens of journalists.

This was the context in which the coalition of opposition forces was born. The existence of a dangerous common adversary largely facilitated the formation of the coalition. We kept the widely diverse groups together, successfully working towards a common goal by agreeing to a common National Vision – which was greater than the interests of each partner of the Coalition. That Vision, as you may by now imagine, comprised of re-establishing democracy, human rights, fundamental freedoms, good governance including mainly the fight against corruption, and inefficiency in government.

The formation of a Coalition Government and the adoption of procedures to promote consensual government was also a critical part of the strategy.

The present government came into power in January 2015, through a democratic revolution defeating an authoritarian government steeped in corruption, nepotism and mis-management of the country, at a Presidential as well as a Parliamentary election. The vision statement of the common candidate, supported by an alliance of opposition forces, was comprised of the following main elements.

Firstly, strengthening of democracy and establishing democratic institutions and practices. The new government has successfully achieved this by strengthening existing institutions of government and by setting up several commissions to guarantee the independent and transparent functioning of the pivotal institutions of democratic governance.

  •  The Fundamental Rights Commission
  •  Police Commission
  •  Judicial Services Commission
  •  Public Services Commission
  •  Procurement Commission
  •  Bribery & Corruption Commission
  •  Audit Commission
  •  Elections Commission.
  •  Media Freedom has been completely established

All these Commissions were first created by my government in 2001 but were abolished by the subsequent government after 2005.

Secondly, the new government is taking action to curb corruption. It has set up special units to investigate and take legal action against corrupt politicians and officials of the past regime and also created institutions, systems and procedures to minimise corruption in government, especially at the point of award of tenders for government procurement.

Thirdly, the Government has a comprehensive National Policy on Reconciliation in place, involving a multi-pronged strategy with several Ministries and Institutions dealing with the subject.

(i) There is a Ministry of Resettlement responsible for giving back lands to their rightful owners who were displaced during the civil war and assisting them to build their houses.

(ii) The Ministry of National Languages and Dialogue focuses on language as a means of building national unity.

The issue of Transitional Justice is handled by the Secretariat for Co-ordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM), which deals with the implementation of mechanisms for transitional justice including aspects of truth seeking, protecting the rights of interests of families of missing persons, reparations, as well as war crimes. The issue of war crimes has become a thorny one, with fierce opposition being drummed up by the former President who managed war operations during the final stages of the conflict.

Despite this, the work of the SCRM is progressing slowly in the required direction. The government is in discussion with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, which has agreed to a two-year extension of the period to resolve the problems of transitional justice.

The Office for National Unity & Reconciliation (ONUR) is a semi-independent institution, under the President of Sri Lanka, which is responsible for ensuring non-recurrence. ONUR is engaged in the implementation of a wide range of programmes, with the objective of building unity between all the ethnic and religious communities living in the country. We work with school children, and separately with adults, to change hearts, minds and attitudes. About 250,000 older school children have actively participated in our programmes and will continue to do so. With each year a larger number of participants will be brought into our programmes.

We also use the Performing Arts extensively to take the message of reconciliation and peace to the people.

We have identified that low levels of infrastructure development in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, where the majority of the two main minorities communities live, has been the major contributing factor to the conflict that prevailed for several decades. We have hence formulated five-year District Development Plans for all eight Districts in the

North and East. This covers almost all the infrastructure essential for the lives of the people, such as education, health, roads, power, drinking water, irrigation for agriculture, fisheries, livelihoods and employment, and so on. We plan that the essential infrastructure requirements of the people of these areas would be met at the end of the stipulated period of five years. ONUR leads and co-ordinates the implementation of these development projects by the Central Government, the Provincial Councils as well as other agencies of government.

The National Policy of Reconciliation has been prepared and is now the state policy in this regard. Priority is being given to provide livelihood support to women and young people who have lost families and are affected in various ways by the conflict.

ONUR implements most of these programmes either with national or provincial government agencies or with non-governmental organizations (NGO’s). We also support independent programmes of NGOs that are considered worthwhile. We work closely with the international community on these projects. Funding is provided by governmental and international funding agencies and individual countries. I must specifically mention here that the large majority of the Sri Lankan people are supportive of our programmes.

Finally, the government is in the process of formulating constitutional provisions, either in the form of a new Constitution, or the amendment of the present one, for the purpose of guaranteeing minorities’ rights extensively and for power sharing through devolution of political power. This is proving to be a slow and tortuous process, especially when it comes to obtaining approval by both the major parties in government. If the policies I briefly enumerated above are successfully implemented within the next few years, together with the full guarantee of rights to the minorities through the Constitution, I believe that Sri Lanka will progress as a democratic, pluralist society in which all communities of its peoples could live in harmony, enjoying a durable peace.

Thank you.

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