SRI LANKA : An overall framework for reconciliation discourse

An article , “An overall framework for reconciliation discourse” by Basil Fernando, Director of Policy and Programmes, Asian Human Rights Commission, published in the Daily News issue of 04 February 2016.

Basil Fernando

The author is sharing this writing, with a suggested overall framework for reconciliation discourse in Sri Lanka. It is meant to provoke thought and discussion. Responsibility for this view is the author’s alone.

I. The village where I was born, for all purposes, looked very quiet and peaceful. However, an internal structure of discrimination was inbuilt into the social ethos of this village. The structure of internal violence was built on the basis of caste discrimination.

A classification of people as lower and higher was built into the very structure of the social ethos and, I think that, over many centuries, it had also been transmitted into the deepest recesses of the psyche, into the very soul of the people. People were therefore deeply divided.

This deeply divided people, both socially and psychologically, lived in peace. The external acts of violence, such as murder or even quarrelsomeness, did not have an expressed presence and visibility in this village. People were not friends; at the same time, they were not overt enemies. It was just that they were divided; they were not one. That was the source of constant inner violence, which was inbuilt deep into this village ethos.

The rules of the inner division were well known and well accepted by everyone. The rules were underwritten into the inner structure of everyone living in the village. As these were so deeply internalized, there were hardly any breaches of these rules.

That was the source of the absence of external conflicts. It could be said that there was a certain harmony but that harmony did not mean friendship, love, or any kind of respect for each other.
The absence of respect of one person for the other in the system of hierarchy was taken for granted. It was thought and felt that they had to treat each other differently and there was no dispute about that matter.

The division did not mean hate. The rules were so deeply internalized and psychologically accepted that it did not leave any room for hate. Thus, there was no love or hate in the relationships among these people.

There was some kind of an etiquette that was entrenched so deep that the observance of that etiquette could be taken for granted. Each one behaved towards the others on the basis of that inbuilt etiquette. As there were hardly any occasions when the rules of etiquette were broken, it could be said that there were no externally expressed conflicts in this society.
On some rare occasion, some one or another, tried to undermine the age-old rules.

It was then that conflict became externalized and the retaliation very cruel. The division into lower and higher allowed those in higher positions to greater and disproportionate force. It was on those occasions that the cruelty of the internalized structure became visible.

Such moments of overt violence was the way the old order was restored, and then things returned to normal, “peaceful”.

This indicates that the order that prevailed, and still prevails, was produced by the use of extreme violence, whereby some accepted the idea of being lower and remained in that position. So long as the lower group accepted this position, there was no external conflict and there was “peace”. That shows that the inner foundation was built in fear; this cement still holds. Internalized fear, not love or hate, created this “peace”.

From a rational point of view, there may be nothing to legitimize this social arrangement.
But, it persists.
Habits live long.

II. A look into some of the more frequently asked questions will illustrate the impact of cast as the inner structure. Here are a few such questions:
Why do we not get outraged in the face of blatant acts of injustice and violence?
Why do we not speak out on behalf of each other?
Why do police beat up poorer people in routine and never the more powerful, despite the powerful committing even greater crimes?
Why aren’t State officers courteous to ordinary folk?
Why is there a practice of disproportionate violence, such as beating a man to death for stealing of a bunch of bananas or killing a person after arrest?
The culture of silence and culture of violence cannot be explained, save by reference to the inner structure of our social ethos, which is one based on caste.

III. A similar situation exists among the Tamils too. Their “bond” is also cemented by caste. There is no greater love or hate between the lower and the higher among the Tamils.

IV. Race relationships in Sri Lanka are conditioned on the same basis as caste. Race relationships in Sri Lanka are an extension of caste relationships.

V. The basic argument made above is that Sri Lankan society is created on the basis of the internalized structure of caste. The very silence about the caste-based inner structure is itself a product of caste.

VI. The talk about reconciliation has not made much impression on many people, because, the inner structure of violence which is caste-based has not been brought forward as an integral part of process of reconciliation. The more sensitive part of the wound has remained untouched.

VII. Presenting two races, Sinhalese and Tamils, as two integrated units engaged in conflict, is artificial. Both groups are deeply divided, by the very inner structure of each.

VIII. In racial conflicts as well as caste conflicts, persons who undergo the most painful events are, for the most part, the “lower” groups in the caste ladder. But, those who are engaged in reconciliation 
matters are the “upper” layer. Naturally, no real talk on reconciliation can begin that way. Those who have suffered direct pain must speak, if reconciliation is to begin. But, the very law of caste denies the lower group the right to speech. So, reconciliation talks never get to a start.

IX. Instead, under the pretext of reconciliation, upper” groups of both races are seeking greater power for themselves. As the “lower” groups of both races are not participants and by the very nature of the inner structure of each race, will never be allowed to participate till caste has its influence felt, “the Lower Groups” will see no benefit to themselves from the political games played by “the ÜPPER Groups”.

X. It is only with the eradication of the inner structure based on caste – amongst the Sinhalese as well as the Tamils – that the talk of reconciliation will become a living dialogue.

The way to break the inner structure based on caste is through the creation of modern institutions, the basic democratic institutions, with adequate resources to remain functional, and making them the inner structure of Sri Lanka, a structure that will serve both the Sinhalese and the Tamils and other communalities.

Replacement of a caste-based inner structure with modern democratic institutions as the inner structure can do the magic of reconciliation. Among the democratic institutions that can make practical equality possible, both within each race and among the races, are the law enforcement agencies and judicial institutions.

What is meant by law enforcement agencies is the police and the corruption control agency. Using the term judicial institutions implies the Supreme Court and the upper courts, which enjoy all judicial powers, inclusive of constructional powers, such as judicial review.

The most important consideration is that these institutions should have adequate funds to function efficiently.

Document Type : Forwarded Article
Document ID : AHRC-FAT-007-2016
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Administration of justice, Caste-based discrimination, Democracy,