The Flawed Western Approach To Reconciliation In Sri Lanka – OpEd


Reconciliation is a process where former adversaries in a conflict or war come together and forge new relations after the conflict has been ended. Sri Lanka’s ethnic war was terminated by military means in 2009. The Western world, including the United States of America, was involved in the conflict as well as the peace process.

However, when the government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to mount an all-out attack on the LTTE to finish it off, most of the Western states either tacitly supported the war efforts or remained silent. They preferred termination of the rebels. Such an attitude, they believed, would facilitate resolution of the ethnic conflict and also would help them to remain relevant in Sri Lanka. Both did not happen as Rajapaksa government refused to address political concerns of the Tamils and leaned drastically towards a block consisting of China, Russia and Iran.


Consequently, sponsored by some of the leading Western states, a series of resolutions were adopted in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) since 2012. The resolutions essentially, demanded a credible investigation, preferably an international one, into allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws. The Western states that supported these resolutions maintain that a mechanism to investigate alleged violations was recommended, only to promote “reconciliation and accountability” in Sri Lanka. These states are fervently focused on the investigative mechanism and believe that a credible investigation will bring reconciliation to this divided society. Since, they do not have other proposals or projects for reconciliation, one has to assume that these states believe that an investigation leading to prosecution alone would facilitate reconciliation. This is exactly why the push for an investigation as a sole means to reconciliation could be illustrated as a flawed approach.

The West has been investing on an impossible or a highly unlikely project. There is absolutely no possibility for an international investigation in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala majority community, which has the capacity to make and unmake governments believes that suggestions for an international investigation are conspiracies of the West, undertaken on behalf of the Tamil Diaspora or the “Eelamists” against the people of Sri Lanka. Therefore, they would resist an international investigation at any cost and there has been a general consensus about this within the community. The previous government headed by Rajapaksa, obviously, was openly opposed to this idea. Even the present government would not dare entertain this proposal. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was unseated in 2004 primarily because the peace process he spearheaded was seen as anti-national.

With the coming to power of the present government this year, the U.S and its allies in the UNHRC have watered down their demand and now talk about a domestic mechanism with international assistance. At this point in time, a domestic mechanism seems feasible if the West can persist beyond November 2016. However, a domestic mechanism that would lead to prosecution of perpetrators of human rights violations seems remote. The Sinhala community would not allow the prosecution of their heroes including political figures who provided leadership to the war efforts. Therefore, the proposed mechanism is unlikely to deliver justice.

The investigative mechanism has also been conceived as an instrument of truth. The proposed investigative mechanism is expected to serve as a South African style truth commission. Theoretically, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that truth would lead to reconciliation. The South African experience indicates mixed results. Not every victim was ready to forgive after listening to narratives of violence perpetrated. In Sri Lanka, knowing the “truth” most probably would exacerbate ethnic divisions because some of the worst atrocities have been committed against all ethnic communities. Therefore, if properly implemented the proposed mechanism could serve as a tool for justice, but not as a mechanism for reconciliation. The Tamil attitude towards the proposed investigation could reinforce this argument.

Tamil Attitude

Despite the overwhelming resistance from the Sinhala community, the Sri Lankan Tamils have been pushing for the (international) investigation. Meanwhile, the Tamils, in the last six years have demonstrated almost zero interest in reconciliation. Their political leadership has not undertaken any serious actions to promote reconciliation. Then, why are they backing the idea of an international investigation? Obviously, they view it as an opportunity to punish members of the armed forces and policy makers who were involved in the last phase of the war. They would not be keen on the investigation if they believe that the proposed mechanism will promote reconciliation.

Conflict Resolution

The fundamental reason why the present Western approach to reconciliation in Sri Lanka is flawed is that it treats the present situation in the country as post-conflict; not as post-war. However, the reality is that the problem of violence has been terminated while the socio-political issues that have paved the way for the conflict remain the same. For example, the Tamils started to fight demanding regional autonomy. The problem of devolution of power always remained the cornerstone of the conflict. This issue has not been adequately addressed so far. The Sinhala fear and suspicions of the Tamils also remain intact. The question is, can ethnic groups reconcile and forge new relations when their basic problems remain unresolved? The answer is a firm no. Therefore, any meaningful project for reconciliation in Sri Lanka should primarily deal with socio-political problems that led to the conflict. Truth commissions and investigations should be introduced as supplementary mechanisms, because they alone will not promote reconciliation; not only in Sri Lanka, but anywhere else in the world.

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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