The Reconciliation Mechanism:
Memorial Parks as a Peacebuilding Platform
“Focus on small but profound efforts to bring about change will help people understand the tension between the ethnic groups” says Prof. Chandraleka Mownaguru
“It will not make any sense if the reconciliation mechanism becomes only an NGO-oriented plan. Yet, no multi-religious group has brought about any changes. Focus on small but profound efforts to bring about change will help people understand the tension between the ethnic groups” says Prof. Chandraleka Mownaguru, a member of the consultative group on reconciliation. She is also a human rights activist who worked in the University of Jaffna and Eastern University of Sri Lanka previously where her work focused particularly around feminism. Following are some excerpts of The Catamaran’s interview with her.
THE CATAMARAN: In a time where people lack trust in commissions, how did you join the government reconciliation commission as a people’s activist?
I was hesitant to take part in this process at the beginning. However, I noticed that the mechanism was not only designed to listen to the challenges of victims, but also to take their opinions into account. The views of the victims were based on their own experience and quality of life. Therefore, it was not a mere top-level commission.
Moreover, there was a regional level process set up in the North and Eastern provinces and elsewhere that facilitated dialogue with the victims. The regional centres were set up based on the fact that North and East are the areas most affected by war. The discussions brought up issues concerning torture, disability, land disputes, women’s issues and IDPs. In addition, there was a requirement to have six members in each regional level committee. Half of them needed to be women. Since some districts have no equal proportions of ethnic populations – for example, Sinhalese in Vavuniya district – additionally one person was appointed to Vavuniya district. So many good practices attracted me to work with them.
THE CATAMARAN: Can you share your experience regarding women’s opinions during public meetings?
Since women are the most vulnerable group, we have requested the committee to consist of 50% women. Women’s participation was higher than half of the total participants in all public discussions. In public discussions, women were able to share painful experiences and talk about their suffering and loss.
A women’s group requested the facilitation of road construction in a meeting held in Chavakacheri. They said that they needed to have a community hall to talk to each other. We now realize that women are thinking beyond their personal needs.
Some appeals were about providing facilities for the families of the disappeared persons while the legal process was underway. The recommendation submitted by the commission was also suggested by the women’s group. But when the Office on Missing Person was established, many of the recommendations were not considered by the government.
THE CATAMARAN: Since the government didn’t consider the commissions suggestions, do you think it is a failure to the reconciliation effort?
I do not think so, but I see this is an indication of the government’s reluctance. We have communicated the requirements of establishing a hybrid court to investigate the war crimes due to the people’s lack of confidence in the government’s investigation mechanism. In addition, people have urged the state to invite foreign judges into the court proceedings which we have also recommended. This can be due to the fact of delaying in providing justice to those who have been victimized. And we don’t have expertise in some areas, therefore we urge to have at least one foreign judge on the bench. The issue was severely blown by the media, and this is also one of the reasons for the government to back down on this matter.
There are many things that can be easily implemented, for instance, the language issue has not been solved by the government yet. The negligence of the government officials is also another continuing factor in such situations. Although the government is committed, there are a lot of push factors related to realizing these rights and they must be addressed properly.
THE CATAMARAN: How do you think victims who are in a prolonged wait for justice can move towards reconciliation?
While working here, I reviewed the Transitional Justice mechanism that has succeeded in other countries under similar circumstances. A popular international activist Harvard Vani was present there. He explained how other countries have dealt with the Transitional Justice process. Further, he explained how progressive efforts keep changing over time when governments change. Transitional Justice or reconciliation cannot be accomplished overnight. There are some times in which we may not be able to find answers to the questions. And some answers are not easy to accept. In the Philippines, it ended with prayers and with the conclusion that there is no solution for some problems, he said. I think the acceptance of death and paying homage to the dead is very important. Living with questions is a great misery. Internal feelings of the communities are not visible to others. However, these feelings will have a severe impact on those victimized and others. The so-called ‘closure’ of cases doesn’t mean an act of terminating or forgetting but it rather means being silent. Memorialization or memorial parks are an important alternate in this context. They have been effective in many countries.
THE CATAMARAN: What are the possible efforts that can be taken to bring about social harmony?
Much effort is needed in this regard, including changes to our national education system. I don’t know how long it will take to achieve this. But we cannot abandon our efforts. No matter whether the regime changes, the Office on Missing Persons and the Reparation Office must run. The media is also very important in terms of reconciliation. They must act progressively to bring about positive changes.
Advocacy groups have not been successful in bringing about major changes yet. We must understand the probability of violence prevailing among our communities. We need to move beyond minor efforts and bring about big changes in the minds of people. There are small volunteer organizations of Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese women that work hard to promote social harmony. We can say that their efforts will definitely contribute to greater outcomes.
Recently, we noticed that professionals like educationists, academics and science teachers were talking about the possibility of contraceptive pills used by the eateries mixed with Kottu. If it is the situation among the educated, what is the outcome of reconciliation so far? I have seen religious institutions promoting hate. It also happens on social media regularly. The government must act regarding these things. Particularly, if someone lodges a complaint about racial discrimination, a swift response is necessary. They should take legal action after investigating these complaints.